A chat with Gary Oldman, Gary Oldman interview, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, George Smiley
Gary Oldman

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Check out Will's other interviews from the junket, including roundtables with co-star Colin Firth and director Tomas Alfredson and screenwriter Peter Straughan!

When Focus Features drops you a line and asks you if you’d like to head to New York City for an overnight stay at the Waldorf Astoria in order to attend a screening and press junket for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” based on the novel by John le Carré, you don’t think about it. You just say, “Yes.” It isn’t until a bit later, after you learn that you’re also going to be doing a one-on-one with Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley in the film, when you finally allow yourself a moment to say, “Oh, my God, this is freaking awesome!” But, you know, that’s only because it totally is.

Before the one-on-one took place, however, I was fortunate enough to be able to participate in a roundtable with Oldman, along with several other journalists. I really didn’t get the chance to contribute very much to the discussion – the first ten words you see from me, during which I make a not-particularly-clever reference to how much older he looked in the film, are the only ten words I had the opportunity to offer before they called “time” on the conversation – but it was such a pleasant and fascinating chat that I thought I’d offer it up in its entirety before we shift into the one-on-one.

One word of warning: the potential for spoilers exists within the piece. But, look, given that the original novel was published in 1974, followed by the TV miniseries in 1979, it’s not as if you haven’t had plenty of time to absorb this information already…

Bullz-Eye: You look younger than the last time I saw you.

Gary Oldman: [Laughs.] Do I? I’ve just seen Colin Firth. Talk about looking younger!

On working with John Le Carré: “He’s fantastic. I mean, he’s 80 years old this year. It’s like hanging out with a 25-year-old. He’s got the energy and the mind…it’s like a steel trap. I mean, his memory is prolific. And he’s like a jukebox, because he plays that thing, ‘Well, I’ll only talk if you need me. I’ll be at the end of the phone, but you don’t need me.’ Things like that. Of course, when you meet him, it’s like putting a coin in the jukebox. You put it in, and he doesn’t shut up. You don’t think of spies like that, do you?”Journalist: On a related note, I’d like to ask you about your transformation for the film. What did you have to go through to look the part? Besides get new glasses. [Laughs.]

GO: The physical? Well, we grayed my hair. And the glasses, of course, are iconic. I mean, to me, the glasses are, like, the equivalent to the Aston Martin for James Bond. [Laughs.] I knew that I had the scene where I swim the pond, and I knew that I was going to be in some sort of period bathing trunks, and I wanted a little bit of that sort of middle-aged, retired thing. So I had an excuse…well, I called it Eating for George. [Laughs.] It was basically an excuse to eat anything that was bad for me. It’s the taking it off that’s the hard bit.

J: What’s it like being a chameleon?

GO: A chameleon?

J: That’s what the director called you.

GO: Well, part of the fun of the job, to me, is playing different people. That’s the joy of it. And I think I was influenced growing up… I mean, it’s ironic, I suppose, that (Alec) Guinness made this part incredibly iconic – I mean, he was the face of Smiley for many generations – but I remember watching the reruns all through the ‘60s and ‘70s of all those Ealing comedies that he made. I mean, “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” where he plays seven characters. He wears wigs and noses, and he’s the woman and he’s the grandmother and the head of the school. And, then, (Peter) Sellers was another hero of mine, and he had his fair share of dressing up. D’you know what I mean? So I like to think I’m in a sort of… [Trails off.] I was very influenced by that. There’s part of me that likes all of that. Changing your shape and your voice and all of that.

J: Well, with that said, I recently – and coincidentally – saw “The Fifth Element” again, and you can’t get any different with that character you played and this one. When you approach roles… just to take those two, I mean, is acting just acting, or do you have to pull out a different bag of tricks for each role? One’s so extraverted, the other’s so introverted.

GO: Well, I think it’s just the way you… I mean, look: you take someone like George, and you could say, “Would you like a cup of tea?” You take (Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg from) “The Fifth Element,” who I based on Bugs Bunny and Ross Perot…

J: Seriously?

GO: Yeah! But you take him and you go [In the character’s voice], “Would you like…” [Starts laughing.] D’you know what I mean? I mean, the shift is… you have to sort of have the facility for it. It’s amazing to me, people who can’t act. I don’t mean, like, bad actors that maybe have careers. [Laughs.] I just mean people who find it completely impossible to sort of do it. But to me, I see a great guitarist play, and…I play guitar, but I’m not a great guitarist, and I see a great guitarist play, and it’s an absolute mystery to me. And it’s the same when people can’t act. I go, “Well, come on, you can do that. It’s easy!” But it isn’t for some people. You know, I’m not trying to say…I don’t mean it in a patting-my-back, arrogant way. I’ve always…I impersonated as a kid. I would do impersonations.

Gary OldmanJ: It came naturally to you?

GO: It did, yeah.

J: Which of your characters of your career has been your favorite or most like yourself in real life?

GO: [Considers the question.] Most like myself…

J: ‘Cause I was thinking Sid Vicious, but not knowing you, I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not.

GO: No, “True Romance,” I think, is the one. [Laughs.] No, I’m joking. And I’m not Sid, either. Sid was a stretch.

J: Really? How did you prepare to play a character that different?

GO: What, Sid, do you mean? I just watched a lot of video of him and spoke to various people. You know, you find a key. I mean, I was not going to go and take heroin. But I wanted to know what it felt like. And I met someone who described it to me, they said, “Imagine if your spine is wrapped in cotton.” Like, cotton buds. And that was a sensation, a feeling I could understand. That the spine just goes very soft. It’s, like, you look for a feeling or a sensation. I mean, with George, there’s a passage in the book that Ann describes him as a swift, someone who can regulate his body temperature to the room or the situation that he’s in. It’s almost like you can lower your heartbeat. And that was the key hidden for me. Because he’s that character that…he’s described as a sort of perfect spy in that sense. He blends in with the room. Even the furniture he’s sitting in. He sort of disappears. So you look for something, and that’s where the stillness comes from. That’s how I read it.

J: But what keeps him going? Because he’s been betrayed by everybody. By his wife, by the people he’s worked with…

GO: Well, there’s got to be a touch, I think, of…he’s a bit of a sadist. He can be cruel and quite mean when he wants to be. When he needs information. He sort of…it’s what I called…he tickles you. [Laughs.] You just have to tickle someone to get what you need. And he must be a bit of a masochist, I think, because one doesn’t get the impression…she’s left many times before and has virtually slept with everyone at the Circus, and you don’t get the impression that they argue, or that they mention it, or that they talk about the affair. And he doesn’t go after the lover. There’s no sort of retribution. He seems to just accept her.

J: “Ann has left you again,” I think was the line, someone said.

GO: Yeah. “She’s left you again.”

J: But he’s very moved when she comes back.

GO: Yeah. Because he loves her. But I think…I mean, I’ve certainly had my share of inappropriate relationships like that, where one is willingly a victim. You find yourself in situations like that, where you accept people until you get to a point where you go, “I feel I deserve more than this.” It’s more about how you feel about yourself. So I applied…that’s how I could understand it. I feel that I know those situations and those feelings. I applied a lot of my own melancholy to it.

J: Did you get insight on George from Mr. le Carré?

GO: Well, everything, really, you need to know about him is in the book.

J: No, I mean, he was an executive producer. Was he offering anything that could help?

Gary Oldman

GO: Well, I spoke with…I mean, le Carré was there as a sort of resource if we needed him. I wanted to know a little bit more about George in the field, before you meet him in the film, and get a little sense of what that was like, being a spy with a cover and working in the field. And the thing that struck me…if you were in a situation where you’re a member of the police or something like that, the idea is, you chase a bad guy, you find the bad guy, he goes through the justice system, and then there are consequences, and he’s jailed. You find the bad guy, and that’s it: you lock him up. When you’re off in the spy world, once you’ve got your guy, you want to turn him. See, you want to bring him over to your side. He may have killed people, but you don’t lock him up. You hunt him down, you find him, and then you want to bring him over. And I can’t imagine…I mean, I honestly really can’t imagine what that’s like. John talked about the level of paranoia, of being on an assignment and waiting for the footsteps on the stairs, that your cover was blown and that the game was up.

J: From his own experience?

GO: From his own experience. He said the level of paranoia could be so high that even George might think he was the mole. [Laughs.] I mean, obviously, his face is on a chess piece, and that’s Control doing his job. I mean, he admires that.

J: George does?

GO: Yeah. It saddens him, but he’s…I think it saddens him because he was Beggar Man. That’s the thing. “And who was I?” “You were Beggar Man.” But there’s a certain sort of admiration, because he goes, “That’s Control. That’s who I learned from, and that’s him being thorough and doing his job.” But those are the things I wanted to get from John. He’s fantastic. He’s…I mean, he’s 80 years old this year. It’s like hanging out with a 25-year-old. [Laughs.] He’s got the energy and the mind…it’s like a steel trap. I mean, his memory is prolific. And he’s like a jukebox, because he plays that thing, “Well, I’ll only talk if you need me. I’ll be at the end of the phone, but you don’t need me.” Things like that. Of course, when you meet him, it’s like putting a coin in the jukebox. You put it in, and he doesn’t shut up. It’s fantastic. [Laughs.] You don’t think of spies like that, do you?

J: There’s a great bit at the end when George sits in Control’s chair, and this smile comes over his face, finally. Was that something that was in the script? Did you do it in the moment? And what do you think he’s smiling about?

GO: Well, of course, he’s only temporarily there, to tidy up. But…there’s a cut there. What was shot and what was in the script is, I come into the room, I sit in the chair, the camera pushes in as it does, and then at the very end of the music, there was a line where I say, “Shall we begin?” And it was one of the rare… [Hesitates.] You know, le Carré was somewhat of a…he was a passenger on this. I mean, he was there if you needed him, but, creatively, he didn’t have…he surrendered the thing over to Tomas (Alfredson), and he even said, “Please don’t make the book. Do something original with it.” But there were certain things that he was absolutely adamant about, and there was a line earlier when I say to Guillam, when he says, “Why didn’t you tell me about Ricki Tarr?” And I would say to him, I would say, “Secrecy is a habit.” John le Carré said, “I don’t want that line in the movie. Because that’s unsaid. That’s a given. No spy would say that to another spy.” It’s a nice movie line… [Laughs.] …but he didn’t want that. And at the end, when I say, “Shall we begin?” John said, “No. It’s too flip.”

Publicist: Thank you, that’s all the time we have.

J: Hey, Gary, just out of curiosity, what kind of guitar do you play?

GO: I have a Martin. And I have a really old Gibson, from 1910. An acoustic. But I’m learning the ukulele. [Laughs.] I get crazy on the ukulele.

When I walked into the hotel suite for my one-on-one with Oldman, I was more than a little nervous. As you’ll soon see, I mentioned to him how I’d been a fan of his work since “Sid & Nancy,” and, frankly, I couldn’t believe I was getting the opportunity to chat with him one on one. Given his body of work, I had to approach the interview with the awareness that I was never going to get the chance to ask him about everything I wanted to ask him about, so for the most part I just let the conversation flow wherever Oldman chose to take it, shifting topics only when I had the opportunity to do so. Inevitably, the predominant topic of conversation was “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” but reflecting on our chat now, I feel as though it turned out as pleasant and fascinating as the roundtable which had preceded it…which, to my way of thinking, was about the best I could’ve hoped for.

“(Alec) Guinness was nearly 70 when he did (‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’). My initial reaction when it first came in was, ‘I’m too young.’ You kid yourself that way. But Tomas (Alfredson) wanted to just cast it across the board a little younger, make it a little…’sexy’ is not the right word, but he wanted to give it a slightly harder edge. I think Guinness is probably a little more huggable than me.”Bullz-Eye: Having watched the film, I’m curious: were you intentionally trying to channel Sir Alec Guinness, or am I just seeing what I want to see?

Gary Oldman: [Chuckles.] Occasionally, there is homage. Yeah.

BE: I’d just wondered, because I got the impression from what you were saying earlier that you’d at least seen the original miniseries.

GO: I saw the original in the ‘70s. But I didn’t revisit it, because I didn’t really want to be…contaminated by it. You know, to the point where you’re… [Trails off.] If you’re mining the same material…well, like I said earlier, or I think I said earlier, about how there was a passage where Ann talks about him as a swift.

BE: Yeah, I remember you mentioned that.

GO: Yeah. That’s sort of where the stillness comes from. Maybe that’s also something that he saw. He was the first to climb the mountain. But, yeah, there are little whispers of him.

BE: You’ve certainly stepped into a few roles that others have played before you. Whether you’ve seen those earlier portrayals or not, does that ever intimidate you, to know that people will inevitably be making comparisons between your performance and those that preceded it?

GO: Well, certainly, as a classical actor, if you’re someone who is... [Hesitates.] There’s always sort of a “with each generation” thing. Now (Derek) Jacobi has reached the age where he plays Lear. He’s done Cyrano, he’s played Hamlet, he’s played Iago. And then there’s a new generation that comes along. (Kenneth) Branagh’s done the same thing. And Branagh will probably give us…I can see that there’s probably a Lear in there, somewhere down the line. So you’re always in a tradition where the comparisons are going to be made. I think that the Dracula idea was such a sort of…even though it was going back to Bram Stoker, it was such a sort of radical reinvention that you couldn’t…I mean, you couldn’t do Bela Lugosi if you wanted to. But I think…there’s a sort of motive to George that is just inherent. It’s there in the book, it’s there in the role.

BE: “If it’s on the page, it’s on the stage.”

GO: [Chuckles.] Yeah. It’s there for you. So in a sense, maybe Guinness did a bit of the…he blazed the trail, you know? He did a bit of the work for me. Did you see the series on DVD?

BE: I saw it when I was younger, but I have yet to revisit it myself. But Christmas is coming up.

GO: [Laughs.] Well, I’m sure it holds up. It was a very good series.

BE: Did you have any hesitation about wearing the make-up to make you look older? It’s very well done, but aging an actor via makeup has been notoriously tricky to pull off realistically.

GO: Well, we wanted to give George a little bit of gravitas, just in terms of paling down the skin and aging up the hair. But, I mean, Guinness was nearly 70 when he did it. My initial reaction when it first came in was, “I’m too young.” You kid yourself that way. [Laughs.] But Tomas wanted to just cast it across the board a little younger, make it a little…“sexy” is not the right word, but he wanted to give it a slightly harder edge. I think Guinness is probably a little more huggable than me. [Laughs.]

BE: As I watched it, my first thought was…well, there’s certainly no question that you’re a well-respected actor, but it almost feels like a line has been drawn in the sand with this film, saying, “This is when Gary Oldman became…” – and please don’t take offense at this choice of phrase – “…an elder statesman of the British acting community.” I mean, it definitely feels like a very important point on your career timeline…or, at least, I hope it will prove to be.

GO: [Considers the premise.] Yeah. Yeah, I’d agree with that. You reach a certain… [Hesitates.] 50 then, they were like old men. 50 today is considered…you’re a young man.

BE: It’s the new 40, I hear.

Gary OldmanGO: [Laughs.] Yeah, you’re a young man. I remember as a kid looking at someone who was 50, and they were, like, a hundred. They seemed ancient! And so you meet these young actors, and you feel youthful enough with Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Another actor I admire is Michael Fassbender. You look at this new generation coming up, and you feel a part of it, but…you realize that there’s 20 years age difference. And then Tom Hardy says, “Oh, I love all your stuff, I used to watch you when I was a kid.”

BE: That’s got to hurt.

GO: [Laughs.] And now you’re part of that older generation to them, in the same way that I look up to and admire John Hurt, who’s 70. It all goes so quickly. It all seems to go by in a flash. But I would agree with that, yeah. The time is right.

BE: Yes, there are good ways and bad ways to find yourself perceived as an elder. This seems like one of the good ones.

GO: This seems like a very good one, yes. [Laughs.] I’m very proud of the movie, and I’m honored to be a part of this new generation. As Guinness became the face of Smiley for my generation, I will be the face of Smiley for them.

BE: I know we don’t have a lot of time, but I wanted to touch on a few other things you’ve done over the years. First and foremost, I must tell you that I’m a big fan of your work on “Greg the Bunny.”

GO: [Uncertainly.] On…?

BE: “Greg the Bunny.”

GO: [Suddenly comprehends, then bursts out laughing.] “Greg the Bunny”!

BE: Yes, you seemed truly taken by Warren the Ape’s Shakespearean performance.

GO: Oh, my. Whatever happened to that? It didn’t hang around very long, did it?

BE: No, it only lasted a season on Fox. But the characters turned back up on IFC, then Warren had his own reality show on MTV. [Laughs.] Did you enjoy the opportunity to poke a bit of fun at yourself?

GO: Yeah! You know, you’re asked to do these odd little things that come in. I did one of the early characters for a video game, and…it was an unusual thing to do back then, and I remember saying to my agent at the time, “Really? A voice? I don’t know. A character in a video game? Isn’t it just loads of shooting?” And this is when they would just…it was the dawn of them becoming where you had real narrative and characters.

BE: Yeah, they’re definitely more than just shoot-‘em-ups now.

GO: They are. And it was a very kind of unique and very unusual thing to do at the time. And now I’m more famous for the voice of Reznov in “Call of Duty” at school than I am for Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” films or any of the other roles I’ve played. [Laughs.] Who would’ve thought it?

BE: Whenever I’m going to do an interview, I always mention it on Facebook, and I’m always entertained by people’s immediate reaction to an actor’s name. When I mentioned I was going to be talking to you, one of my friends immediately came back with a quote from the episode of “Friends” you did. I didn’t even recognize the reference. I had to Google it to figure out what he was talking about!

GO: [Laughs.] Yeah, I remember at the time, I thought, “God, one could get quite used to this!” It was over at Warners, which is about a 10-minute drive from my house. We had a read-through, two rehearsals, and on the day, we recorded it and…it was nice. It was almost like shooting a movie and doing a little bit of theater at the same time, because, you know, the audience was there and reacting, but you could stop and cut and go back. And then you’re home by nine at night. And they would do this week in and week out. So, yeah, I said to my agent, “God, I could get used to this!”

BE: Surely there’s a TV series in your future, then.

GO: [Dismissively.] Nah.

BE: No…? You wouldn’t want to take one on full-time?

GO: I don’t think I could do a drama. It’s like shooting an entire movie every two weeks. And I’m grateful to do what I do, and that I have those breaks to be at home with the family. I think I’d never see them! [Laughs.] And I like being available. I like doing other things, too. And that really ties up your life, I think.

Gary OldmanBE: To shift from television to film, I’ve always been curious how you enjoyed the look you were sporting as Drexl Spivey in “True Romance.”

GO: You know what? There’s a story behind that. I was putting together that character, and I had no rehearsal and…I was on another movie, so I actually finished on a Sunday evening, drove home, and started Drexl the next day. And I had to kind of put him together, I had to work on him while I was doing something else. Because there just wasn’t the time to meet with Tony (Scott). I wrote him a letter, sent him a note, saying, “I would like dreadlocks. What do you think?” And he said, “Yeah, great.” So I knew Stuart (Artingstall), who had been the wigmaker on “Dracula,” so he made me that wig in about 48 hours. And I went to a dentist – I was working here in New York – who made the gold teeth, and I got the eye from the prop department at the…well, it was one of the eyes I wore for “Dracula”! And I put ‘em all together and walked on the set and hoped Tony liked it.

BE: And he did.

GO: And he did, yeah. [Laughs.]

BE: To start wrapping up, my wife and I have been fans since “Sid & Nancy” – in fact, we actually have a “Sid & Nancy” poster on our bedroom wall – but we saw “Prick Up Your Ears” at the same art-house theater, and as I was saying to her the other day, it never would’ve occurred to me back then that the two leads of that film would go on to appear in big-budget hero films: you as Commissioner Gordon, and Alfred Molina in “Spider-Man 2” (as Doctor Octopus). Would you ever have imagined it?

GO: No. [Laughs.] Especially not playing those guys! Fred Molina would always say, “Our careers are over after this.” He was my first screen kiss, you know…

BE: [Laughs.] I did not know that. Well, I know we’re out of time, but it’s been a real pleasure to meet you and speak with you.

GO: Thank you! So, “elder statesman,” eh? You know, I think I quite like the sound of that. [Laughs.]

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