Gary Oldman on The Dark Knight Rises and Tinker, Tailor's Master Spy Smiley: He's 'Like Jazz'

tinker_oldmanhardy.jpgAt the center of Tomas Alfredson's marvelously taut espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (based on the John Le Carré novel previously adapted into a celebrated 1979 British miniseries) is an unusually understated turn by Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a recently retired career spy of few words quietly trying to uncover a mole within British intelligence. Oldman acknowledges a departure of sorts from the wild, often manic characters he built much of his career on -- Sid Vicious, Count Dracula, Beethoven, DEA agent Stansfield of Leon, to name a few. Some of Oldman's best-known roles are, as he described to Movieline this week in Los Angeles, more rock 'n' roll. "Smiley," he explained, "is jazz."

It's that precise quality that lends such an indelible reverberation to Oldman's Smiley, the hero of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Among a cast that includes excellent British stars and character thesps including Colin Firth, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, and Tom Hardy -- the deepest bench of the year, one could argue -- Oldman moves quietly and deliberately with the deceptively difficult task of conveying emotion, cognizance, and menace in a character who betrays nothing to those around him. Oldman's Smiley is, in effect, the most discreetly badass spy in the history of spy movies.

Movieline sat down with Oldman to talk Tinker, his instant adoration of director Alfredson, listening to raconteur/co-star John Hurt's great on-set stories, growing mellow with age, the joys of being part of The Dark Knight Rises, and the lure of returning to George Smiley in a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy sequel.

How much familiarity did you have with the book and the previous dramatic adaptations before Tomas Alfredson's film project came to you, and how much did that familiarity affect your decision to take on the part?

Well, I knew of the books, I'd read the books and watched the TV series back when in '79. I remembered them. It was a big thing, a big deal back then; it was the real beginnings of long form TV, which we're so used to now, but it was a unique thing back then. So I knew Smiley and thought, 'This is a great opportunity.' And then I met with Tomas very briefly for breakfast and he was describing one of the scenes that I think just speaks of the character of Smiley: When they're in the car and he lets the bee out of the car. It's a little vignette, a little silent scene, but it says a great deal about who he is.

What gave you confidence in Tomas's vision for the film?

Tomas's take on the material... he's an original piece, Tomas. He's unique; he talks about color in terms of smell.

How so?

He wanted to capture the smell of damp tweed in the color palette. He's an unusual guy, and I liked him instantly, really. As Tomas has said, it was kind of love at first sight. We met and we talked for an hour and then I got on the phone to my agent who'd set the meeting up and he said, 'How'd it go?' I said 'I adore him!' I could easily spend 12 weeks in this guy's company. Have you met him?


No, I haven't! But I loved Let the Right One In. There's a scene in Tinker that moves so exquisitely: Smiley is piecing the puzzle together in his mind, in his memory, and Tomas intercuts that with a visual of train tracks clicking into place.

Yes, where it all kind of connects. And even in the safe house at the end, when we're zeroing in on the mole, there's a scene where I'm listening. I'm eating the mint and just listening. I said to him, 'But you'll shoot the usual feet going up the steps, the hand ringing the door, the guy arriving, all of that...' And he said, 'No. I'm just going to shoot it on a close up of you, and I'll use sound effects.' I said, 'Surely you'll shoot some of that and cut back and forth...' and he said, 'No.' He was very clear in his vision.

Is that unusual, while you're shooting a scene, to have such a specific idea of what the finished, edited scene will look like?

Yeah, and it helps. I can't think of any other director that would have used "La Mer," by Julio Iglesias, a very rare recording of him singing. It was his idea of opening up a window, that we've been in this rather stuffy, claustrophobic world, and it was almost as if you opened a window at the end. But he played that for the actors so that Colin [Firth] and Mark [Strong] had the soundtrack when they were playing the scene.

I loved their storyline; the element of the love between those two characters was beautiful.

And we don't really know the nature of their relationship. It could have easily been sexual, it could have been just a crush. It's never really explained. Have you read the book?

I haven't, but I suppose it all goes back to Le Carré's original work. How much did you find the book helped you, or having seen the miniseries?

The book's fantastic. The miniseries is the book, seven hours, and it's line for line, word for word. Pretty much the entire book. But it's lovely, the way it's structured. At the end Smiley reminisces about [character name redacted] in the last third of the book, after he's gone and he's gone to see the girlfriend and gives her money. As he's walking away, you're with him in his head and he's thinking about him and there are beautiful passages in it. It's a beautifully-written book. I'd recommend reading the book, and then if you can be bothered then see the series which is very, very well done.

So you found Le Carré's book essential.

For everything. And even when scenes are reduced to a composition, and four lines and a look or something, you always came in with the book, your life. It was the subtext that you brought into the room. So if a scene started in the middle, the book always sort of supported you.

This is a very quiet film, in that there are so many scenes with very little dialogue or it's all in a look, a glance. And here you had such a great, deep cast. Could you feel that energy in the room, with each person bringing in their character's history, in the room while a scene is happening?

[Smiles] Yeah. You could feel that. It was a very present, very focused, quiet set in that respect. [Pauses] We had some laughs, though. The lovely John Hurt is a great storyteller.

What kinds of stories did he have?

He's just lived a life! He's lived such a sort of interesting life, and has worked with so many wonderful people, so he would just start to tell stories about other actors or people that he's met over the years. We were once hanging out and we had about an hour to kill so he came to my trailer and we had lunch, and he was telling me what it was like to work with Richard Burton. Just a great raconteur and a nice man, John.

Do you find you're like that yourself, on set with younger actors?

Well, the more life you've lived the more you have, I guess. The memories and experiences to share. Especially with younger actors who are coming up and it's all happening for them, in that respect. I look at Tom Hardy and I remember being there, in that moment.

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  • Claudell says:

    Hannibal may be bloated and altogether unnecessary but Oldman owned every scence he was in as Mason Verger.
    The man is a master.

  • Maya says:

    Great interview. I really hope he gets an Oscar nomination for this movie; he totally deserves one!