Gary Oldman watched Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when it aired as a BBC miniseries in 1979, but he purposely avoided a second viewing before signing up to play George Smiley in a new film adaptation of John le Carre's classic 1974 novel.
"I really thought that I would be contaminated by it," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "And I didn't want to do an impersonation."
In the original Tinker, Tailor, acclaimed British actor Alec Guinness played Smiley, a mild-mannered, middle-aged spy chief ousted from MI6 after a botched operation in Eastern Europe. But once it becomes clear that there's probably a mole within the intelligence agency, Smiley is brought back on board to catch the double agent.
In the new version, Oldman joins an ensemble cast of British actors including Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, David Dencik and John Hurt. But the story mainly revolves around the laconic Smiley — a man Oldman says leads from a passive position.
"He listens, he sees everything, and he hears everything, but there's action in the listening, in a way," says Oldman. "It's not just with the ears. It's a complete physical thing with Smiley. He's very, very restrained emotionally. He has been, over his career, a wonderful interrogator, and this is what makes him dangerous."
Oldman notes that his character has been described as the "anti-James Bond" because he rarely if ever loses his calm, collected manner.
"Here is a man who doesn't wear a tiepin. He doesn't wear cuff links," he says. "He wears a drab gray mackintosh. He disappears into the crowd. And, of course, that's what makes him dangerous. He is not the man who is wearing a white tuxedo, jumping out of an Aston Martin."
Playing such a subdued character, says Oldman, was good for his blood pressure, among other things.
"I was leading a quiet life, an anonymous life outside of the set," he says. "He's one of the few characters that I missed when the movie ended. I miss George. I liked being in his company."
A Character Actor Playing Many Characters
George Smiley is, of course, radically different from Oldman's other iconic roles. He has portrayed everyone from Sid Vicious to Harry Potter's godfather to Dracula, in the 1992 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. For that role, he wore heavy robes, an enormous wig and old-fashioned glass contact lenses that covered his entire eyeball.
"They're rather uncomfortable to wear, and after about a half-hour, the muscles around the eye socket start to reject it and they start to cramp," he says. "Now of course [lenses] are plastic; it's all soft. But it was quite a test."
Not that he was complaining, he says.
"It was quite something. It's so camp and so funny now," he says. "I tried to lower my voice almost an octave for that role. They found a girl, who actually ended up being one of the brides in the movie — she was from Transylvania. And I listened to her and various tapes and made it my own. And occasionally, I would put in a little homage to Bela Lugosi."
Oldman explains that he's always trying to stretch his acting chops, though there are some roles he has been hesitant to play.
"There are things that are not in my wheelhouse. You have to know your limitations," he says. "Put it this way: A film I did 10 years ago with Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges [called] The Contender -- I play the congressman. I'm happy in the skin of [the congressman], but I don't know if I could play the president. That needs, I feel, something else. I wouldn't want to wear those shoes."
Instead, Oldman often wears the shoes of a film's villain. He's been the antagonist in films like True Romance, The Fifth Element and Leon. And in two of his movies — Air Force One and JFK — he has even played a presidential assassin.
It was therefore a relief, he says, to play Harry Potter's noble godfather, Sirius Black, in the Harry Potter films.
"It was a lovely switch of gears," he says. "It was such an incredible project to be involved with. ... There was nothing like it before, and I doubt if there will be after."
"Sometimes they can be quite heartless. I was at a Q&A a couple of months ago, and a woman had sat through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and then afterwards came up to me and said, 'I love your socks. ... I liked the film, but I love your socks.' [I thought] 'Well, I'm glad you like my socks.'
"But people are, on the whole, very kind and they have favorites. There are the Sid and Nancy fans, who — for them, you have done nothing over the last 25 years. Basically, 'We like you as an actor, but oh my God, we love you in Sid and Nancy.' They love The Professional. But I can move around with a certain degree of anonymity. That's the good thing about being a character actor. I do live a very normal life."
On playing George Smiley
"I was apprehensive because Alec Guinness was really the face of Smiley and made him so iconic. [Guinness] was a very much-beloved actor and part of the British establishment of acting. So it gave me pause for thought. I thought, 'Awfully big shoes to walk in.' I was a little apprehensive, a little fearful, even though I obviously knew it was wonderful source material. ... It's not every day that Smiley comes through the letterbox."
On meeting John le Carre, who was a spy in British intelligence before becoming an author
"In terms of when actors talk about research, it was one-stop shopping. ... He was 80 last year. It was like hanging out with a 25-year-old. He has a memory, a mind like a steel trap. He's rather like a jukebox, really. I was a little apprehensive about meeting him because he is the great author, the great master. And this is one of his great books. And you'd ask him a question, and it was like pushing the buttons on a jukebox. You put the coin in, and away he would go.
On Smiley's glasses
"The glasses to me were the Aston Martin — they had to be as iconic as the martini, shaken not stirred. I saw him as an old wise owl who could see everything and hear everything. And I wanted a certain type of look. And they couldn't be earlier than 1969 or later than 1973. So my window to find them was rather narrow. ... I tried on about 200 pairs, driving the director crazy. But eventually I found them in Pasadena, of all places."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Gary Oldman is sometimes referred to as the best actor never to have been nominated for an Oscar. That could change with Oldman's starring role in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."
Raised in a working-class London neighborhood, Oldman did stage work and broke into movies in a big way by playing Sid Vicious in the 1986 film "Sid and Nancy." He's since been in dozens of films and played memorable villains in Bram Stoker's "Dracula," "JFK," "Air Force One" and "The Fifth Element." He played Sirius Black in three Harry Potter films and a courageous cop in Christopher Nolan's Batman film trilogy.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is based on the Cold War spy novel by author John le Carre. Oldman plays George Smiley, a veteran spy who comes out of retirement to try and uncover a Soviet mole who's embedded in the highest ranks of British intelligence. The role was played by Alec Guinness in a highly regarded BBC series in 1979.
In this scene from the new film, we hear Oldman playing the normally reserved Smiley, who's a little tipsy and is recalling an encounter years before with a notorious Russian agent codenamed Karla.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY")
GARY OLDMAN: (As George Smiley) I met him once, Karla, in '55. Moscow Center was in pieces, purge after purge. Half their agents were jumping ship and I travelled around and signed(ph) them up, hundreds of them. One of them was calling himself Gasman. He was on his way back to Russia, and we were pretty sure he was going to be executed.
(As Smiley) The plane had a 24-hour layover at Delhi, and that's how long I had to convince him to come over to us instead of going home to die.
DAVIES: Well, Gary Oldman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's been a long time; it's great to have you back.
OLDMAN: Thank you, it's nice to be back.
DAVIES: When you were offered this role of playing George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor," how did you react?
OLDMAN: Well, of course I knew the material. I had seen the television series when it was first shown in - I believe it was '79, and that was my - I guess my introduction to John le Carre's work, through that series. So I was familiar with the material, but I was apprehensive because Guinness had - was really the face of Smiley, Sir Alec Guinness, and had made him so iconic and a very much beloved actor, part of the sort of British establishment of acting.
And so it gave me pause for thought. I thought they're awfully big shoes to walk in.
DAVIES: Right, and the producers clearly though these were shoes that you could fill, given your accomplishments and reputation. Did you go back and watch the Alec Guinness portrayal again? I mean, was that something - was that a reference point or maybe something you wanted to avoid?
OLDMAN: No, I wanted to – I wanted to avoid the Guinness portrayal. I really thought that I would be contaminated by it. And I didn't want to do an impersonation. It was very much a sort of reinterpretation. And so I just, I just worked from the book and the script, and of course we had access to John le Carre, which is very useful because he was - not only is he the writer of the book, but he was a spy.
So it was - in terms of sort of - actors talk about research, you know, it was one-stop shopping.
DAVIES: Can you tell us what you got from talking to John le Carre about - did he have advice? Did he have ideas? Were there things you got from observing him?
OLDMAN: Yes. I was looking for really a voice for Smiley and was searching. And then I met le Carre. So I nabbed some of the cadence in his voice, some of the inflections. And I guess you do as an actor sometimes, you begin with an impersonation, and the more work you do, the further you move away from that.
But often an impersonation can often work as just sort of a springboard, and he had a lot of fascinating things to say. I mean, he was 80 last year. It is like really hanging out with a 25-year-old. He's - he has a memory, it's a mind like a steel trap. He's rather like a jukebox, really.
I mean I was a little apprehensive about meeting him because he is sort of the great author, the great master, and this is his - one of his great books. And we met, and you know, you'd ask him a question, it was like pushing the buttons on a jukebox. You put the coin in, and then away he would go. So it was an interesting meeting.
DAVIES: You've done so many intense and very demonstrative characters over the years in your films, and the thing that's striking about this role is how quiet it is and how bland, in a way, George Smiley looks. And I'm wondering how you approach, you know, playing a lead, taking command of a scene, exerting authority when at least superficially you're doing so little.
OLDMAN: Well, he listens, he sees everything, and he hears everything, but there's action in the listening, in a way. It's very active. It's not just with the ears, but it's a real - it's a complete physical thing with Smiley. He's very, very restrained emotionally. He is the spy master. He has been, over his career, a wonderful interrogator, and this is what makes him dangerous. He is - he's the leopard in the foliage, in the jungle. He's the one that you don't see coming.
And his motivation is, it's always from a sort of moral certainty. It makes him a very interesting and complex character to play.
DAVIES: Right, and you said he sublimates his ego, and he is so emotionally restrained that I don't think in the film he even raises his voice when he discovers his wife is having an affair with somebody he works with.
OLDMAN: No, I raise my voice once in the film, and then it isn't - I don't raise my voice that loudly. It's been described, I suppose, Smiley, or "Tinker, Tailor" has been described as the sort of anti-Bond. It is the very opposite of Bond. Here is a man who doesn't wear a tiepin. He doesn't wear cufflinks.
He wears a drab sort of gray mackintosh. He disappears into the crowd. And of course that's what makes him dangerous. And he is not the man who is wearing a white tuxedo, jumping out of an Aston Martin.
DAVIES: When you were doing the part, did you take it with you off the set? I mean, were you more subdued a person when you were playing Smiley?
OLDMAN: I think so, I think so, yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OLDMAN: Yes, it was very good for my blood pressure, playing Smiley. Well, my family were not with me, and I stayed in a very modest apartment, and the decor was not too dissimilar to the house of Smiley. And I would come home after work and have dinner on my own and sit there, you know, watch the television. So I guess I was somehow leading a quiet life, an anonymous life, if you like, outside of the set.
But he's one of the few characters that I missed when the movie ended. I miss George.
DAVIES: And in what ways did you miss him?
OLDMAN: I used to love playing him. I used to look so forward to getting in the car, getting into work, and - it's hard to explain. That's the only way I can describe it, really. It was rather comforting and familiar, like being in the company of a very dear friend. I liked being in his company.
DAVIES: We're speaking with actor Gary Oldman. He stars in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actor Gary Oldman. He stars as George Smiley in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I wanted to talk about the 1992 film "Bram Stoker's Dracula," directed by Francis Ford Coppola. You had this amazing performance as Count Dracula. I thought we would hear just a bit of it, but could you first just give us the visual picture of the Count, what you looked like, what it took to put that getup on?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OLDMAN: Well, initially it took six hours to sort of put him together, but I am about 300 years old - this is going back, actually, to the days of scleral lenses, and they were a lens that obviously, from their name, covered the entire eye. And you could only wear them for about 15 minutes at a time, but they were glass.
They were rather uncomfortable to wear, and invariably when you're shooting, you wear them for half an hour. You never wear them for 15 minutes because people actually were shooting, and people forget you have them in. And after about half an hour, your eye, the muscles around the eye, around the socket, start to reject it, and they start to cramp.
I sound like Boris Karloff. I sound like - this is the old days, you know, when we used to wear these old lenses.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OLDMAN: And of course now it's all plastic; it's soft. But - I'm not complaining, but the robe was heavy, and then I had this sort of big, enormous sort of gray wig on the top of my head. It was quite something.
DAVIES: It was quite an effect, and I want to listen to - this is a short clip of you in the film, and you're doing a scene here with Keanu Reeves. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DRACULA")
OLDMAN: (As Dracula) I do so long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and the rush of humanity, to share its life, its changes, its death.
KEANU REEVES: (As Jonathan Harker) There. You, Count, are - are the owner of Carfax Abbey, Purfleet. Congratulations.
OLDMAN: (As Dracula) Your firm writes most highly of your talents. They say you are a man of good taste.
DAVIES: Ooh, that's our guest, Gary Oldman, scaring the willies out of you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OLDMAN: That's so camp.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OLDMAN: It's funny now, odd to hear. It's the first time I think I've ever heard the voice without the picture. And I worked with an opera singer. I lowered my voice almost an octave for the role.
DAVIES: And the accent, is that Transylvanian that you're...
OLDMAN: It is - you know what? It is Transylvanian. We found a girl who ended up actually being one of the brides of - in the movie. She was from Transylvania.
DAVIES: And so you listened to her speak, and you picked up the accent and the rhythm?
OLDMAN: Yeah, yeah, I listened to various tapes and things, and I made it a little of my own. And occasionally I would put in a little homage to - to Bela...
DAVIES: To Bela Lugosi, right. But it's so breathy and creepy, gosh. I want to play one more villain that you played. This is from the film "True Romance," written by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, where you are a pimp, and in this scene, Christian Slater, who wants to liberate one of your prostitutes, has come to confront you in your nightclub. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRUE ROMANCE")
OLDMAN: (As Drexl Spivey) Grab a seat, boy. Grab yourself a eggroll. We got everything here from (unintelligible).
CHRISTIAN SLATER: (As Clarence Worley) No thanks.
OLDMAN: (As Spivey) No thanks? (Unintelligible) I think you're too scared to be eating. Let's see(ph). We're sitting down here ready to negotiate, and you've already given up your (bleep). I must be a mystery to you, but I know exactly where your white ass is coming from. See, if I ask if you want some dinner, then you've got (unintelligible), I say to myself this (bleep) he's carrying on like he ain't got a care in the world, and who knows, maybe he don't.
DAVIES: And that really is Gary Oldman, our guest. These voices are just remarkable. But, you know, it's not just the accents and the rhythm, it's the timbre of your voice. I mean your George Smiley is different from the voice that I'm hearing right now. I mean, the pimp I just heard is not recognizable. Do you develop these things yourself, or have the directors said this is what I want? Or do they just know, get Gary Oldman and he'll give you a terrific villain?
OLDMAN: "True Romance," for example, I met Tony Scott and he sat me down, and he said, look, I can't pitch the story, you know, and the plot. He said I'm no good at that. He said but here's what I want you to do. Here's a character. He's called Drexl. He's a white guy who thinks he's black, and he's a pimp. And I said I'll do it.
It's Tarantino, I hadn't read the script, but I said I'll do it, it sounds fantastic. And then I was filming a picture called "Romeo's Bleeding" in New York, and we were in The Bronx, I think, night shooting, and I heard a group of guys outside on the street, and I heard a voice, and I thought, oh, that's it, that could be the voice for Drexl.
And so I grabbed the guy, and he came into the trailer, and I showed him the script, and I said, listen, is there anything that is insincere here? You know, would you say this? Would you say that? Am I phrasing that in the right way?
And the guy, who was African-American, who's from the street, you know, looked over the script, corrected a few things, and very kindly recorded some of his voice for me. And then I kind of based it on that.
DAVIES: Wow, do you do that much, just grab somebody and say, you know what, you're what I'm looking for?
OLDMAN: Yeah, I mean - occasionally I do. I met the writer of the Hannibal Lecter books. Is it Thomas Harris? Yes. And I was looking for a voice for Mason in "Hannibal," and - or a sound. I don't know what I was looking – really, here's a guy who's carved off his own face and has no eyelids and no lips, and I was looking for something.
And I met Thomas Harris for all of 30 seconds, but that was the voice. I like - obviously I like authors.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: I was going to say, this is like John le Carre.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OLDMAN: I just suddenly realized that I steal from – I steal the voices of writers.
DAVIES: You know, one more thing on this subject. I remember seeing you in the role of Dracula, "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and that was 20 years ago. And I was so blown away by the performance. I still remember lines, and I remember thinking: Who is this guy? And I looked and found out that it was Gary Oldman.
But I didn't connect you with subsequent performances because you looked so completely different in many of these roles. I mean, you were in "Air Force One." You were this crazy guy in the sci-fi film "The Fifth Element." And I wonder if it might have impeded you building more of a popular fan base that people didn't connect you from one film to the next.
Actors knew you were, but I wonder if people in the public just didn't realize this is this remarkable guy doing all these different roles.
OLDMAN: I mean possibly, possibly. I mean, I guess I've always - I've considered myself a character actor rather than - you know, I'm not the sort of square-jawed six-foot-two guy. You know, they don't - they don't really come to me for those roles, or certainly they don't knock on my door when they're looking for the lead in a romantic comedy. So...
DAVIES: I bet you can pull it off.
OLDMAN: Yeah, I'd love to have a - I'd love to have a go, yes. I mean, there are certain things that I've shied away from that have come in where I've said, you know, I'm not interested in playing that, or someone else should play this. There are things that are not in my wheelhouse. Of course you have to know your limitations.
DAVIES: Can you give us an example of something that's in that category?
OLDMAN: Well, I - let's, let's - put it this way. A film I did I guess 10 years ago was a political piece with Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges, "The Contender."
OLDMAN: And I play the congressman, Shelly Runyon. I'm happy in the skin of Shelly, but I don't know if I could play the president. That needs, I feel, something else. And there may be people that would disagree with that and say, well, I think you could play the president, but I wouldn't want to wear those shoes. It would be harder for me to do that, I think, maybe less convincing.
DAVIES: So you've twice played presidential assassins, right, "Air Force One" and "JFK."
OLDMAN: I shoot presidents, I don't play them.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: Right, Lee Harvey Oswald and then the crazed terrorist on "Air Force One."
OLDMAN: Yeah, yeah.
DAVIES: One more thing. When people recognize you on the street, are there certain roles they bring up or lines they speak to you?
OLDMAN: People are extraordinary sometimes. Sometimes they can be quite heartless and not realize it. I was at a Q&A a couple of months ago, and a woman had sat through "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and then afterwards came up to me and said I love your socks. Oh, I liked the film, but I love your socks. Are they Paul Smith? Well, I'm glad you liked my socks more than you liked my George Smiley.
But people are, on the whole, they're very kind, and they have favorites. There are the "Sid and Nancy" fans, who for them, you have done nothing over the last 25 years. You know, yeah, we like you as an actor, we like this, we like that, but oh my God, we loved you in "Sid and Nancy." So that's one that sort of haunts, that keeps coming back.
They loved "The Professional." But I can move around with a degree of anonymity. That's the good thing about being - I guess about being a character actor. I live a very normal life. I go everywhere. I do everything everybody else does. You know, I'll go to the supermarket, and I don't have bodyguards and entourages and all that kind - and I understand why people do, absolutely, but I can move around with a degree of anonymity.
DAVIES: Well, Gary Oldman, it's been fun. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
OLDMAN: I'm happy to be here, thank you.
DAVIES: Gary Oldman stars in the new film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.