Want to hear something that’ll make you feel better about your insecurities? Even Gary Oldman gets nervous about his work! Yup, even after three decades of creating some of the most iconic characters cinema has to offer, having to revive the role of George Smiley still upped Oldman’s nerves.
After arriving via John le Carré’s 1974 British spy novel Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, George Smiley was brought to life by Alec Guinness in the BBC’s seven-part series aired back in 1979. Now, it’s Oldman’s turn and with help of the know-how his large body of work has instilled in him over the years as well as director Tomas Alfredson’s confidence behind the lens, Oldman brings Smiley back in the feature version of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy.
While promoting the film for its December 9th limited release, Movies.com spoke with the new Smiley himself and Oldman expounded upon his experience being offered the role, adhering to and veering from the previous mediums, the pressure of living up to the high expectations Guinness set and much more.
Movies.com: What was it that drew you to this one?
Gary Oldman: It materialized as an offer and it just came in through the letterbox. It wasn’t something I was even aware of, that they were making. But I knew the material. I knew the book and I had seen the television series in the 70s.
Movies.com: When they approached you, it was always for the role of George Smiley?
Oldman: Yeah, it was a rare occasion where one just was offered the part. Normally you’re one of five and you get a call and the agent who’s maybe chasing something says, “You’re on the list with some people and they’re considering you.” So that was kind of nice to just be wanted. [Laughs]
Movies.com: Does that change your approach at all when you actually go to work on a movie, to be wanted like that right off the bat?
Oldman: No, I’ve been in movies before where I wasn’t always the first choice, but it could work out brilliantly. You ever see a movie called The French Connection? Gene Hackman, the story is, like ten people turned that part down and I can’t think of anyone else, anyone better playing Popeye Doyle than Gene Hackman. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but you feel a sense of responsibility because they put so much faith in you. And then of course, once they cast me, they started to cast all the other people and then they assembled John [Hurt], Ciarán [Hinds], Colin [Firth], Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Tom [Hardy] and all these other people and then you kind of think, ‘Oh, my god, now I’m the one who can fuck this up now.’ [Laughs]
Movies.com: Far from it!
Oldman: You know, I always go to the insecure place. I didn’t quite walk around on air going, ‘Ah, I’m playing Smiley.’
Movies.com: Even after all these years?
Oldman: Even after all these years!
Movies.com: Is there anything specific you do to push the insecurities aside?
Oldman: No, it’s just part of my makeup. It’s just part of who I am. I’ve lived with it for so long. But this was doubly daunting because Alec Guinness had made the part so iconic and so famous, and was the face of Smiley for so many years and it was considered by many a definitive portrayal and very revered and loved by the people and the establishment and all of that, so you are walking in big shoes. The ghost of that is there and that made me a little nervous. You know, you hope you’re gonna be able to pull it out of the bag. You hope you’re gonna be able to come up with something, but you don’t always know that; you don’t know that going in. And the comparisons were inevitably going to be there, so I thought, this could be terrific and the people could accept this as a new interpretation or it could go horribly wrong and that they could give me a real kicking.
Movies.com: So what was your preparation process like? Did you look at his performance or stick to your own script breakdown and more personal things like that?
Oldman: Yeah, just the normal work. I didn’t revisit the series because I didn’t want to be contaminated by it, really. I just think you’d get too influenced by it. I remember it, but I probably think I remember it better than I do, but of course, I had the book. You have this great literature. Often someone will adapt a book that is so-so, maybe not a great book, and they get a script writer to sort of kick it up a notch, but you’re always working from poorer material to begin with. With this, it was such a class act, the book is sort of the holy grail of it. If you were ever in doubt, you could always go back to the book. So all the clue and everything of putting him together were all revealed to me in the material. All the subtext was there, so when you come to the set, you may have four lines in the scene, but you feel that you come to it with a life because you’ve absorbed the book.
Movies.com: You’re character is pretty soft spoken and there really isn’t that much dialogue for a piece that’s packed with so much information. How is it for you working with all the details? I image you didn’t shoot in order.
Oldman: No, we didn’t shoot in order.
Movies.com: Is it hard to keep track of everything?
Oldman: What I brought to it is – and despite the little insecure voices that still go on – I’m bringing 30 years of experience to it, so I’m bringing three decades of work to this and you are so used to working out of sequence that you now instinctively just put together a mental, it’s like a map of where you go and where you’re at at any one given time. It’s just something that you have to learn when you make movies. So there’s that experience and then there’s Tomas [Alfredson] who has the overview of the whole piece, so he could often be the barometer of that and say, ‘Well, you know, you’ve got to remember that actually in movie time, ten minutes later we’re here, so you can’t do that here because you have to save that for …’ And that’s where a director earns his money, you know?
Movies.com: Something else I find interesting about Tomas, he’s an editor. Did you notice that skill helping him on set as a director, planning his shots for post?
Oldman: Yeah, he was very confident about what he wanted and what he didn’t want. For instance, I’ll give you an example, towards the end when everybody is arriving, the meet, it’s the scene where I eat the mint and I’m just listening to them all arriving, he said to me, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna play this on you,’ and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘No, I’m just gonna have you, I’m gonna have a close-up of you and then I’m gonna have the sound effects of them all arriving and we’ll play it off of you listening.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ So we didn’t shoot that and then an alternate scene, if he wanted it later and another director would have shot the hand on the doorbell and the feet coming up and the close-up of the car coming in and then the other guy arriving and then the other guy arriving and then we cut back to me listening and then even going up the stairs and all, you know, another director would have done that. He had the confidence that it could play off me and never wavered from it. So that’s probably partly to do with his editing experience, what plays and what doesn’t and what he needed.