'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy': Gary Oldman And Colin Firth Take On British Classic

12/09/2011 09:40 am ET | Updated Dec 09, 2011

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" seems like the stuff of boyhood fantasies -- the type of movie that makes you want to buy a trench, peck away on a typewriter and maybe even take up smoking. At first glance, the plot appears just as sexy: a retired MI6 agent George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, is brought back to uncover a Soviet mole within the Secret Intelligence Service, or the Circus.

Based on the seminal spy book by ex-British intelligence officer John Le Carré, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" became worldwide bestseller after release in 1974 and was viewed as Britain's attempt to process the world of espionage and The Cold War. A classic 1979 miniseries soon followed, starring Sir Alec Guinness as the bespectacled Smiley -- something that made Oldman initially wary.

"It's a new interpretation of him but I was fearful," Oldman said, while describing Guinness's Smiley as "more huggable." "So what I did in the end, I just thought, well, there's been many Hamlets, many Romeos, many King Lears and this good material is constantly reinterpreted and enjoys a long life."

As far as classic characters go, Smiley is a bit like James Bond, except instead of shaken martinis, his vice appears to be designer specs.

"I looked at over 300 pairs of glasses," Oldman said. "And I found them in Pasadena." In a happy coincidence, Oldman found his spectacles in the very shop where his co-star, Colin Firth, bought his signature frames for Tom Ford's "A Single Man."

"I'm driving up Sunset Boulevard," Oldman recalled, "and I see this poster for 'A Single Man' and, first of all I thought it was Marcello Mastroianni, and then I get closer and it's Colin Firth. And I thought, I like those glasses."

In addition to Oldman, several more of Britain's best talents were interested enough in Le Carré's material to get involved. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" features Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Stephen Graham and, of course, Firth as a counter to Smiley's buttoned-up seriousness -- a dandy in hush puppies and red socks.

"It is absolutely a phenomenal piece of writing," Oldman said. "A lot of the time, you're trying to make shit work. I'm not talking about 'Batman' and 'Harry Potter,' but occasionally, you're working so hard for the material, and if you take an OK or not a very good novel and then you get a screenwriter to adapt it and sort of kick it up a bit, you're still ultimately working from poor source material."

This version of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was adapted by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan; Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") directed. When "Tinker" made its way to the Venice Film Festival, and the word "confusing" was rearing its ugly head, Firth told reporters that he believed the movie would yield a tremendous response from "underestimated audiences."

And indeed, he was right. The film held the top spot in the British box-office for three consecutive weeks. But the question remains, as a decidedly non-action-packed film: will "Tinker" have the same luck across the pond?

"You won't figure it out [in the] first watching of this movie," Firth said plainly. "I think everyone needs to be reassured about that. You just have to enjoy the enigma."

Despite his recent Oscar win for "The King's Speech," Firth dials down his star-power in "Tinker." In fact, he seems happy to take a backseat to Oldman.

"I mean, I think he's unrivaled in my generation," Firth said of Oldman, who has never won an Oscar despite his lengthy and lauded career. "I think he should be on his sort of sixth or seventh win now. And I think this is arguably the best thing he's ever done."

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" hits theaters December 9.