Magazine article Screen International

Gary Oldman

Magazine article Screen International

Gary Oldman

Article excerpt

To play the disenchanted spy hunter at the centre of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman went back to the classic novel and used its author, John le Carré, as a template.

"It was a rare occasion," Gary Oldman says of the way he landed the role of spy hunter George Smiley in Working Title Films and StudioCanal's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. "Normally you're one of 10 people on a list, but I believe it was Tim Bevan [of Working Title] who said, 'What about Gary Oldman?' From that moment, they become obsessed and they only see you in the part, which was lucky for me.

"I didn't say yes immediately because the ghost of Alec Guinness was hovering and I remember the series very well," the 53-year-old UK actor says, in reference to the 1979 BBC TV adaptation of John le Carré's espionage masterpiece. "He was such a beloved actor and had taken an iconic literary character and given him a face, so that was a bit daunting. Then I thought, well, actors play classical roles and there are other King Lears and Othellos and Hamlets, and here's the chance to do a slightly new interpretation of it. So I approached it as if someone had offered me a classical role that had been played by many actors."

In this regard Oldman, who is yet to earn Oscar and Golden Globe nominations despite a spirited body of work that includes Prick Up Your Ears, Leon, Dracula and Immortal Beloved, received some help. There was a first-rate screenplay from the late Bridget O'Connor and her husband Peter Straughan, a formidable troupe of UK acting talent and the involvement of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, making his English-language debut after Let The Right One In.

Another significant asset in building the "disenchanted romantic", as Oldman describes Smiley, was le Carré himself. The former British intelligence officer's fiction is regarded as the gold standard of UK espionage writing, yet he was not precious about his work. "His brief was, 'Look, the book is there. It exists. The TV series exists. Take this book and apply your imagination. Make it its own thing.'"

The result is a perfect companion piece to the TV series. Oldman, who in recent years has given delicious restraint where once there was unbridled exuberance, delivers a younger, steelier Smiley as he constructs a trap for a mole in the British secret service.

"I thought because [the story] was about loyalty and the loss of love, and friendship and betrayal, it would be an interesting time for it, especially [considering] our history involving Saddam Hussein and the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. The fear that engendered reminds you of the Cold War, when there was this dread of nuclear annihilation. Above and beyond the politics and its setting against the backdrop of the Cold War, the book has enjoyed longevity because it's about people and character, and the fight for ideals."

To become Smiley, Oldman steered clear of Guinness' footprint and made a deliberate choice not to revisit the TV series. "I have the advantage of having this wonderful book -- the three books, in fact, that make up the Karla Trilogy -- and I didn't work much outside the book. It was a remarkable screenplay. Le Carré said we managed to turn a cow into an Oxo cube. So I had the book, I had the script and I had access to John if I needed it. All the clues about who Smiley is are there -- if you were ever in doubt, you went back to the source material." 'I just listened and watched'

Oldman visited le Carré, turning the observer into the observed. …

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