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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Gary Oldman and the stillness to his role

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Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Gary Oldman
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) © 2011 Focus Features

Gary Oldman is known to millions around the world for his roles as Sirius Black, Harry Potter’s godfather, and Commissioner Jim Gordon in the Batman franchise. He has also played such diverse roles as Dracula, Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Orton and Sid Vicious.

In his new movie Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, based on John le Carre’s classic bestselling novel, he portrays George Smiley, a career spy with razor-sharp senses. Set in 1973, Smiley is hired by British undersecretary Oliver Lacon to track down a double-agent who is working for the Soviets, jeopardizing England.

Where does the title of the movie come from?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Stephen Graham, Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman
Jerry Westerby (Stephen Graham), Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) © 2011 Focus Features, Photo by Jack English

The title of the story is taken from the name of a nursery rhyme: ‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.’ Some of these are used to refer to the high-ranking men under suspicion. Just about everyone and everything has got a code name.

Did you have a fondness for either the book or the miniseries before coming onto this?

Yes, I knew the books and remembered the series. Alec Guinness was the face of Smiley for many. Other people have played Smiley, but he was considered the definitive performance of it. It was a dragon to slay in my head. They are big shoes to walk in.

This is a very methodical, quiet, controlled performance. Looking over your career many of your performances are very flamboyant, animated and emotional. How did you prepare to put yourself into the persona of Smiley?

First of all you have the book. When in doubt always go back to the book, and that became the Holy Grail, that was the map of the world emotionally. There’s a passage in the book, which I will butcher and misquote terribly, his wife Ann describes Smiley as a creature that can regulate their own body temperature to the room of the situation that they’re in.

That’s just someone who has a slower heart rate, that’s someone who wants to almost disappear, like a chameleon. That was an early clue for me for the physicality of him, of the stillness in him. That doesn’t suggest someone that is busy and fussy and frenetic.

I saw him as a owl, he’s like a wise old owl, he sees everything and he hears everything. I think subconsciously that’s why I landed on those glasses because they remind me of those big owl eyes. What I bring to him is three decades of experience.

Do you prefer playing the outrageous characters?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Gary Oldman
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) © 2011 Focus Features

When you play those characters that are bouncing off the walls, and I’ve played a few of them, there’s a cloud over the day when you wake up and you’re going to go in and play something like that, because you have to draw on something.

You may have to get very angry or you might have to become very emotional, and you worry that is it going to be there, am I going to hit the level I need to? Is it going to feel fake or am I going to connect with it and deliver? I never had that with Smiley because I knew I was going to go in and sit in a chair and listen and I didn’t have to do all that wild stuff.

I remember working with Heath Ledger (in Batman Returns), and it was obvious he was going to be marvelous in the role (of the Joker), he was dazzling on the set just to do the scene with him. I remember playing Gordon opposite him and thinking at that stage in my life, ‘Oh, rather you than me. You can bounce off the walls for awhile. You’re a young man.’

What was the hardest scene to do in this?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman
Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) and George Smiley (Gary Oldman) © 2011 Focus Features

I suppose the one that I was not concerned with but challenged by was the story that he tells about Carla in the room upstairs. They didn’t want to do another flashback, and I think (the movie’s director) Tomas Alfredson wanted both the two people that haunt him, Ann and Carla, [not to have] a face. So you experience them the same way as Smiley does.

That set piece with me talking to the chair is quite theatrical, it’s not often that you see that in a script and you certainly don’t see a scene where someone talks for eight minutes, forty minutes into a film.

Obviously Tomas was more confident than I was about it, but it was slightly heightened and it’s theatrical and I wasn’t sure if it would work or fit in the overall movie. But it does, and that’s when you surrender up to the director, you really have to have faith in the director. He’s the barometer and the measure of how little you do and how much you do and how it works.

You had the opportunity to speak with John le Carre, what did you want to know from him that helped you?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) - Gary Oldman
George Smiley (Gary Oldman) © 2011 Focus Features

I was looking for the sound of Smiley and when I met John he has a got a very specific way of speaking and so I stole that. That was the first thing I stole. You start with an impersonation and the more you work on it the further you get away from it, so I didn’t end up impersonating him, but that was the springboard for me.

I wanted to know just a little more about Smiley before we meet him, as a younger man in the field.

John was MI5, and he talked about the level of paranoia that one always felt as a spy, you were always worried that you would hear the footsteps on the stairs and that your cover would be blown.