The first thing that strikes you when you meet Gary Oldman is that physically, he’s quite average. For all of the larger-than-life performances he’s given over the years, you expect him to be much taller than five-feet-ten. To be sure, his personality does fill a room, a fact that became immediately clear when he sat down with Illinois Times for a conversation about his newest film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, on a recent visit to Chicago.
Introspective and thoughtful in his responses, the veteran actor, while not entering the twilight of his career is, rightfully, starting to get the sort of awards that recognize his vast and diverse body of work. Having graced the screen in such iconic roles as Dracula, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter films and Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the actor knows how fortunate he’s been to have such plum roles come his way. He was initially fearful of not being given the chance to show his range on screen.
“After The Professional and The Fifth Element, which are sort of cartoons, I did get a little typecast and that was a bit of a concern,” Oldman says of two films that, along with JFK, True Romance and Air Force One, made the actor the go-to-guy when a charismatic villain needed to be brought to life. “At that time, and really still to a certain extent, you’re at the mercy of what comes through the door. You get the scripts you get. I wasn’t offered When Harry Met Sally or Four Weddings and a Funeral. Recently, I inquired about playing Javert in the musical version of Les Miserables that’s being done and they weren’t interested. You hope someone will come along with a bit of imagination that will look at you in a different way. I’ve been very fortunate in that way.”
He is, of course, referring to director Alfonso Cuaron, who cast him as Harry Potter’s mysterious guardian, Sirius Black, in The Prisoner of Azkaban entry. And Christopher Nolan, who tapped him to be James Gordon in Batman Begins. Released back-to-back, these films made Oldman an even bigger star on an international scale but, more importantly, cast him in sympathetic roles, opening up various other opportunities as directors began to look at him in a different light. Of course there were more heavies to play in his future, most notably in The Book of Eli, but the perception of the actor had forever changed. That led to director Tomas Alfredson tapping him for yet another iconic, yet potentially daunting, role.
In adapting John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the director was taking on what many would label a “fool’s errand.” Previously made into a wildly popular and critically acclaimed English mini-series, the novel is considered the great revisionist spy story, a tale that grounds the world of international espionage and is arguably the best of the author’s novels. It features his most famous character, George Smiley, a lifelong spy who retires from the upper echelons of the British Secret Service only to be brought back to ferret out a mole. Alec Guinness gave a brilliant performance as Smiley in the mini-series, so much so that his name was synonymous with the character until his death. Oldman knew he was entering dangerous waters in taking on the iconic role.
“The challenge was to bury the ghost of Guinness,” he says when speaking of the difficulties inherent in taking the part. “I mean, he was a beloved actor and he made the role distinctly his own, so I had to find a different way to approach him. When you look back at the mini-series, you see that there’s a certain sentimentality to it. The spies come off as members of the same fraternity who take none of what they are involved in personally, but it is very personal and deadly serious. Tomas and I realized that in exploring that, we could put a distinctive spin on the story and the character.”
The film version of Tinker, to be released nationally in mid-January, is a tightly constructed thriller in which the stakes couldn’t be higher. The mole within the agency is leaking information that could enflame the Cold War between Russia and England and her allies. While the plot is a bit convoluted and hard to follow at times, the story keeps you guessing, much like Smiley, as the audience is unsure who to trust or who might be pulling all of the plot’s strings, even up to the last minute. With a cast that includes recent Oscar-winner Colin Firth, Mark Strong, John Hurt, Thomas Hardy and Toby Jones, the film has the feel of an old-fashioned thriller in which the minds of those involved are the most dangerous weapons.
“You know, Smiley is a bit of a masochist,” Oldman states matter-of-factly when asked about the differences between his take on the role and Guinness’ protrayal. “His wife constantly cheats on him and he always takes her back. That and the stress of the job have to take a toll on the character and it comes out with these bits of cruelty he employs. This was never really touched upon in the previous version and we wanted to explore that.”
One of the most important tools actors use in realizing a role is to examine their character’s wardrobe. While not as iconic in stature here, Smiley’s eyeglasses carry a symbolic weight for those who follow the character. Oldman knew the look of this prop had to be exactly right and that he would be able to tell something about the man through them. What he didn’t know was how the glasses should look or feel. “There’s a wonderful shop in Pasadena, the owner there, Russ, has more than 30,000 vintage sets of glasses. I told him that I needed something that was made between 1970 and 1974 and he brought me out hundreds of pairs and I just started trying them on. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for but I knew I would know them when I found them. I tried on over 200 pair and I relied on instinct. Though I drove Tomas insane, taking the time to get this right was important.”
It is this attention to detail in bringing a character to life that makes Oldman one of the great actors of his generation. Fascinating to watch and consistently looking for ways to challenge himself, he’s carved out a distinctive and impressive body of work that any performer would be proud to call his own. What is the role he’s most proud of? “I don’t really think about the old work,” he says after a pause to consider the question. “Truthfully, I think I am dreadful in Sid and Nancy, I just hate myself in that. However, I am proud of the work on Tinker and really, I’m just lucky and honored to be allowed to do what I do.”
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.