In the 24 years since Roger Ebert called him "the best young British actor around," Gary Oldman has convincingly played the Devil, Beethoven and the police commissioner of Gotham City. His latest iconic role is less known on this side of the pond: the retired spy at the heart of John le Carre's Cold War classic, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."
Oldman plays George Smiley, a taciturn right-hand man brought out of retirement to hunt down a Soviet double agent. Canonized by Alec Guinness in a highly popular 1979 miniseries for the BBC, Smiley is a certain sort of powerful man, likened in the novel to a heat-regulating swift for his ability to fade into any atmosphere. That physical quietude, so at odds with the frantic roles that made Oldman famous, suits the older Oldman, whose mellow, rumpled Commissioner Gordon is one of the highlights of Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise.
In "Tinker, Tailor," Oldman's acting is again rich with detail and restraint -- from the considered way he sits, to the perfectly rationed 15 pounds he put on for the movie's swimming scenes. Even at "Tinker Tailor"s most cryptic -- which it will be in spades for those who don't know the story -- Oldman and the cast of British all-stars flanking him (John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy), under the stylish direction of Tomas Alfredson ("Let The Right One In"), are mesmerizing.
The Huffington Post recently caught up with Oldman, out from his "hidey-hole" in LA to do transatlantic press for the movie. Read on for his thoughts on what a long-awaited Oscar nod would mean at this point in his career, what it's like to be idolized, and which Disney hero he'd play if he absolutely had to play one.
How was it to work with an all-male cast of this caliber on a spy movie, which is such a boyhood fantasy genre?
It was sort of six degrees of "Harry Potter." We've all been involved with ["Harry Potter"] in one way or another, I think, except for David (Dencik) and Colin (Firth). And we're all fans of one another. Also, a sort of career ambition was fulfilled working with Mr. Hurt. I'd always wanted to work with him, and admired his work, you know, even before I'd had the idea of becoming an actah. It ups your game when you work with people of that caliber.
Is that out of a competitive spirit?
More inspiration, not in a competitive way. We were all very much there to help and serve one another. I mean, Colin is so good in that last scene. And you don't really have a movie without a great Hayden, because that's where it's all journeyed to. It's important in that respect, as a qualitative thing.
How much weight did you give to Alec Guiness' portrayal of Smiley? Did you study it at all?
No. I remember watching the series when I was younger, but I never went back to it. I never re-watched it. I felt that I would somehow be contaminated.
He was for many years the face of Smiley. I mean, other people have played him, but he was considered to be the sort of definitive portrayal. So he was quite a sort of ghost that cast a big shadow. I kind of approached it like an actor might approach a classical role. If you're playing Hamlet, for example, you are going to be measured by all the Hamlets that came before. It's a sort of occupational hazard.
A critic for The Hollywood Reporter described your Smiley as cold-blooded and inscrutable, which I thought was an apt description of the movie as well.
She ends by calling you a 'very British sort of hero.' Do you think the movie is also fundamentally British at some level, in a way that might miss the target here in the U.S.?
They've always loved the British cinema here. We're great allies. There's a great fondness, and a tradition and a relationship between us both. But yes, it is quintessentially very much a British affair. I think the characters are perhaps less cozy and a little less huggable than they were in the series. But I imagine le Carre enjoys a popularity in the UK over America. That’s my instinct.
We had the same situation in the UK a few months ago. We were standing there on the Thursday evening before we opened on the Friday, and you know, we were patting each other on the back and had a handful of very good reviews. But of course the one component that was missing was the audience. We had no idea whether it would make one dollar or ten dollars. But it turned out to be successful!
And now there's going to be a sequel.
I think so. It was a whisper that has become a loud rumor now. There's three books in the Karla trilogy, and it's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Honourable Schoolboy" and "Smiley's People." The middle book is somewhat epic and travels around, and I would think it might be costly to make. But "Smiley's People" -- it's the third book in the trilogy and it's a wonderful story -- so there's now talk that we will return and do "Smiley's People," and I will revisit the role of George, which I'm happy to do.
Speaking of whispers, can you tell us anything about the remake you're collaborating on with Colin Firth?
I cannot divulge what it is, but I had an idea in my head for awhile to remake a movie from the '60s, and then when I worked with Colin and we met and got on, I thought, here's the guy to do it. I can't say any more than that. Someone asked me about it the other day and said I would be directing it, and that is not true. It's not for me to direct.
Have any of the many characters you've played been more challenging than others?
For just sheer length of time and hours in the makeup chairs, Dracula would have to be up there. It was a long shoot and there were many, many, many hours in the makeup chair. And the same with Hannibal. You're in makeup for six hours and then you have a 10- or 12-hour day -- you need a great deal of stamina.
There's a serene place you have to go when you're performing in makeup. You just have to surrender up to the process of it, and you can't challenge it. You can't fight it. Otherwise it would become torture.
They're also great villains -- Hannibal and Dracula. Why is it that you're called on to play villains so often? Is there a science to it you've cracked?
They tend to be lonely, rather damaged, fractured people. And you have to find some redeeming thing about them. You have to find something that you like about them, to make them watchful and interesting. I don't know about the "villains," really. I see them as rather sort of complex individuals. To me they're outsiders, and I include George [Smiley] on that list. He's an outsider. So is King Lear. Hamlet's an outsider.
Who's an insider, then, in "Tinker, Tailor"?
(Pause). There aren't many. I can't think of one.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you had to play a Disney hero, the shiniest of all character types, who would you pick?
(Pause). I'm lost. I don't know. (Long pause). Who's that character? Pinocchio's father. What's his name?
Geppetto? That's perfect.
Yes, I'd play Geppetto.
Your portrayal of Smiley has come with its share of Oscar buzz. At this point in your career, what would it mean to you to get an Oscar?
I think one has to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. We'd have to get a nomination first. I've never actually been nominated. I've been doing this now for 33 years, and it is nice when people like the work and acknowledge it. Listen, if it would happen, even just a nomination, I would be thrilled. It would be very nice.
Is there any particular reason you live in LA rather than the UK?
By default really. I sort of wound up here by circumstances, and my boys were born here. I like the weather, I must say. I can hide away, too. I can work and then I can sort of disappear into my hidey-hole. So I like that.
You're not the typical L.A. actor -- you don't court celebrity, and yet nearly every rising male star has called you their role model. As an actor who relates with outsider characters, what's it like to be such an insider in that way? To be idolized?
It is a little strange, and it's also very flattering. You realize your age. You're a young actor and then you become, I guess, for want of a better phrase, an elder statesman. And then you get people like Tom Hardy, who says, "I used to watch you as a kid." And Ryan as well. They're great talents, you know, and that's the nice thing about it all, really. It's a tradition. We're all links in a chain and we pass through and now I look behind me at the really great talent coming up -- people like Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling -- and you know, it's exciting to watch them.
WATCH a preview for "Tinker, Tailor":