With memorable roles in movies like The Professional, JFK, and even Air Force One, Gary Oldman has gained a reputation as the villain (who usually) screams a lot. This stereotype of his legacy is now retorted by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which Oldman plays George Smiley, a quiet ex-spy who is assigned to find a mole within the British secret service. In the film, directed by Tomas Alfredson, Oldman plays opposite the likes of Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, John Hurt, and more. I sat down with the magnetic Gary Oldman in a roundtable interview to discuss the way he gets into character, why he won't run anymore, and how Christopher Nolan helped guide him towards his latest acting direction. For very good measure, Oldman also threw in an impersonation of Al Pacino.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens in Chicago on December 16.
We tried to push Tomas to get a really bad question, something to really get under your skin ...
Gary Oldman: Not much gets under my skin these days.
When you play a character like this—obviously you’ve played characters in the past from real life or fiction-- with a character like Smiley who’s so ingrained in people’s minds, both through the book and then through the Alec Guinness Series, I mean, does it in any way change how you approach playing the character, as just another part, or how you work on it?
Well the challenge is how can you overcome the memory, for those who remember the memory of things, you kind of have to kill it, I don’t mean like an assassin, but he was so… the face of him, the shadow sort of it looms large and that was a challenge because you are on the same road, so you are playing the same role, you are saying a lot of the time the same words, and there’s things that he found that are there inherently in the role and he’s done some of the work for you. If you try to go in the opposite direction you’re betraying the character.
Yes, you can’t just do something different for the sake of it, I mean it’s gonna be different because I’m me and he’s him and we’re different, and I think he was nearly 70 when he played him, so I was thinking, how does one do that? Because it’s slightly easier for someone who’s playing a Hamlet and they’re been many Hamlets, and many Romeos and many King Lears.
Or even Dracula.
But Dracula and Smiley are on film, performances on stage live in the memory of the people that were actually there and saw it. Is that common practice for you if you’re playing a role that’s been played before, like Sid Vicious or Commissioner Gordon or Dracula, do you avoid watching other iterations for that character?
Yeah, like Oswald, or something, you’d have to get as much material as you can and you kind of start with an impersonation. I always tend to start with something like that. At the end of the day I had access to John le Carre and he is the bones and the marrow and the DNA, the sinews and the muscles of all of this, and he had a very interesting sort of way of talking, a kind of music to the way he spoke, so in looking for a voice for Smiley, I uh, I stole it. And then you begin with an impersonation and then as you own it you sort of move away, I moved way from le Carre, but initially that’s sort of where I started.
Do you start with a mannerism for a character or a speech pattern, or is that something you do only when there’s something to base it off of?
It depends, sometimes. The stillness of Smiley just spoke to me. I think it’s interesting, was anyone there last night? I think it’s interesting what Tomas said about that woman that asked the question and then he said "Your memory of tonight will be us three sitting here with a screen behind us, and my memory of exactly the same room is 400 people, but it’s the same."
They always say in communication school "What you see depends on where you sit."
So there might be other people that come along and may interpret it another way, but that’s sort of how it came off the page to me, that he was very contained. You’ve played these dangerously emotional people in your younger days and now you get to play these people who have to keep everything so restrained and unemotional?
A relief. A relief. Yeah, I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I now look at Tom Hardy and I go "rather you than me."
I was younger I used to do Mick Jagger impersonations and as you get older I just do Charlie Watts impersonations, you just sit, you know?
Yeah, exactly, it’s a sitting down role. I’ve said that and I’m being flippant, but it is, Smiley is a sitting down part. You know, you drive a scene, you’re motoring a scene but you’re doing it from a very passive place rather than all that jumping around. That’s what Smiley learns after his 40 years in the service, "I don’t have to be the one out in front with the gun, I can be the guy in the back of the car that rolls the window down quietly."
And only just enough, you know? I feel that you get to a certain point also, it’s a little silly for me to be running around, I mean Mick Jagger … are they doing another tour?
Yes a 50th anniversary tour. (Sighs) It’s enough.
With Jagger in the past 40 years you’ve always felt like he’s the front of corporation and that corporations stock holders say "We need you to go out and work."
Well they’ve just become a great cover band, they just go out and cover their own stuff for the last 30 years.
Tomas said this himself, he said this is the part of your life ... where do you feel this fits in with all of your work?
Yeah, I would say ... Why do you think that is, why is this the role of your career?
It’s just ... it’s like a sort of wonderful wine, or something, it’s just such a wonderful character, it’s fully matured.
Is this the kind of character that you’ve always been looking for, that kind of plays into your ability to be a chameleon?
They’re going to very kindly honor me at Gotham Awards - I’m getting the lifetime achievement award next week - and I was involved very peripherally with putting together the tribute reel and I said, you know, "a little less of this and a little more of that." It’s only two minutes long, it’s just one of those reels. But I just recently watched it, you know, them all popping up, and I thought A) I overact and I thought B) Mr. Potato Head, that’s what I thought.
Your eyes pop out and your nose clips off? You know, just a potato head that you stick the ears and the hats and change the face.
But the overacting, you know, it’s perfect. Like in 'The Professional' or 'The Fifth Element,' I mean those aren’t characters where you want to go with a restraint thing.
You can take two minutes of anyone’s career and make it look like they’re overacting. They are cartoons, so I think that’s kind of really where it started too, where they are larger than life characters and one gets a little typecast, you do. I mean, I remember, and I don’t mean this with any disrespect, he’s the greatest living American actor, but I remember, you remember when Al Pacino used to talk like that [quiet voice] and then ALL OF A SUDDEN [loud Pacino voice] HOA-AHH!
I mean, he did this thing and you just go… And then for a while he was a bit bigger, you know like he couldn’t quiet shake it off, and I think I went through a period like that where I couldn’t sort of shake it off and people wanted me to sort of be that thing and even though you went "oh, no I’m not a villain" you sort of reluctantly went, "oh alright" and then Chris Nolan came along and switched it up for me, and maybe I’m going through now my next phase as I go into my sixties I play characters that don’t move very much. I’ve yet to play a really … well Hannibal was a disabled character but he was really sort of grotesque, but now you’ve got to play someone disabled and sympathetic. I haven’t done one of those yet. Well if they remake 'Whose Life Is It Anyway,' then there’s a role right there.
"Whose Life Is It Anyway," there you are, just a head - I’ll do it like Al Pacino [quiet voice].
Whenever you get a script from now one that says a character walks or moves or runs just cross it out and send it back, "I will be sitting in this scene."
But it is, you know, it’s very daunting when you know that you’ve got to energize something high octane, I can think of a scene, do you remember a movie called State of Grace and there’s that whole scene upstairs in that loft, we’re waiting and I’m saying “We gotta go,” and Sean is saying, ‘he said if he didn’t call Jackie or know if he did call’ and I’m like pacing around going “F**k” I mean, it was like, you just sort of feel, you know that day is coming up and you know that scene is coming up and it hangs over you like a bit of a cloud over you because you think, I’ve got to go find this stuff and get it to a point… It was such joy to come into work and get on the set and Tomas would say, “Gary, you’re sitting there.” And I would sit down in my chair and say, “I just sit here for the scene?” “Yeah.” How wonderful!
But it’s a lot of work, too. If you have a big role, like Sid Vicious, it’s like hanging a bell up on the wall and saying, “I need you to jump up and smash that bell.” But with a role like George Smiley, they’re saying “sit here across the room and slowly over the course of the next hour move that bell.”
You have to take the passion and make it more internal. Is that more challenging or less challenging?
You would get very hot. I would really work up a sweat underneath. I mean I did have on a Macintosh and a jacket and a scarf, but because you’re focusing all, everything is inner. And you have someone life Tomas who’s the barometer, there were times when he said to me, we’d do a scene and he’d cut and say, “could you just glance to the cup?’ Or ‘could you look to the painting on the thing?’ And I would say ‘I did’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, well you’re going to have to make it a little..,’ There’s a lot of Oscar buzz already about the movie, is that something you pay attention to? Would you want to be nominated for this role?
Well, (pauses), I can’t think of anything nicer. I can’t think of a better role, actually. But I’ve never really experienced it before. It’s nice, it’s nice that the people did like the work, that’s not a terrible thing, so it’s kind of exciting. If it happens it happens, you know, it hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not complaining, so I’m not one of those people, I’ve never really sort of chased it or coveted it, and I’m not one of those people, "Damn! I never got nominated." I watched the show, and I thought Colin was marvelous in that movie and I’m happy, you know what I mean? It’s great, also, to see someone, again, who’s been in Bridget Jones' Diary and those sort of movies and that sort of thing he’s been doing and then just sort of pull something out like King’s Speech.
So, you’re not practicing your speech in the mirror?
No, If I were to get nominated then I might work on something. but I’m not even thinking about that.
We’re talking about Colin Firth ... do you get a sense when you’re working on a film that it’s going to be a big thing, or do you just try to take it day by day? Working with such a cast of potential, do you try to take it as it is, or do you think "this could be something big"?
I think that we all felt that we were working on something really special and if people come along and they’re like-minded, then that’s great. We were all gathered having a dinner on that Thursday evening before this movie opened on Friday and when you the critics, when the people that had seen it, enjoyed it – the component that we didn’t know about, that was totally unknown, was the audience. But we didn’t’ know on the at Thursday night whether it was going to make a dollar or a hundred dollars. And the audiences came, and I mean for an independent movie in Britain, it was like number one for four weeks, and it knocked off Shutter Island, Black Swan and I just think that speaks.. I got the feeling last night – I’ve got the feeling from people that they want something.. we’re a little tired of 3-D and explosions, aren’t we?
Yeah, we are, 3-D especially.
That, I don’t understand it – as they say understanding is the booby prize, I’m not even going to try to go there, but I think it’s refreshing. As I said last night, to me, watching the movie is like watching a lava lamp, it’s like a 70’s lava lamp. It has a pace to it, it’s like snow falling, and it’s not this light in your face, it’s sound, and you come out of movies that I feel like I want to shower. I go to movies with my kids and I just feel a bit like “god, I need a Tylenol and nap after that.” And that’s why I run to the DVD and I put in The Conversation and that’s the sort of kind of movie I want to watch. So I’m glad that people have responded to it in a positive way.