Gary Oldman cracked code of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s’ Smiley

To say Gary Oldman has had an up-and-down career is like saying Sid Vicious was a slightly influential musician. In nearly three decades of acting, Oldman has had landmark turns — as Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK,” as the pimp Drexl Spivey in “True Romance” and, of course, as a certain tragic punk rocker in “Sid & Nancy.” He’s also had years of career inactivity and disappointment — not to mention a tumultuous personal life that included a child custody battle and, at one point, a self-confessed alcohol addiction.

In recent years, Oldman has enjoyed a career uptick, playing supporting parts in two franchises (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and the Harry Potter series). And this season, Oldman has what could fairly be called the role of a lifetime: He plays the reticent British espionage agent George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson’s new big-screen adaptation of John le Carré's “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” It’s a role that has earned him rave reviews and plenty of Oscar buzz

The Envelope caught up with the colorful and often press-averse 53-year-old actor over breakfast recently in Los Angeles.

It’s hard to hear about someone playing Smiley and not think of Alec Guinness’ iconic turn as the character in the 1979 British miniseries. Did his legacy weigh on you?

The Guinness performance was so beloved it seemed an impossible mountain to climb. Long after I agreed to do this movie, I think it was a week before I started shooting, I called Tomas and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I was blindsided by fear.


Was there something specific you did to get past that?

I decided to view it as one would a classical role. Someone who is about to play Hamlet is measured against all the wonderful Hamlets who came before, or a Blanche DuBois, or a King Lear. So I told myself it was just an interpretation of an iconic literary figure. And the funny thing is, after I finished shooting someone gave me a memoir of Alec Guinness’, and in that book he talks about calling up the director two nights before [he was set to begin shooting] and saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know how to play this character. There’s no there there.’ So I don’t know what it is about this role.

Any theories?

Maybe it’s the fact that he’s so insular and closed off. But that was obviously also part of the attraction. He’s like an owl. He’s got huge eyes behind those glasses, and he’s a wise old owl who watches and listens. I’ve played so many roles where I expressed myself physically that I enjoyed a gear shift like this.

Does it bother you that the public and the critics have sometimes blown hot and cold with you?

With anything in this business, you’re at the mercy of the industry and at the mercy of the people who cast you. You can engineer your career to a point, but sometimes it takes someone like Tomas [Alfredson] or Chris Nolan to see other shades.

Do you resent the term ‘comeback,’ then, because it implies you’ve been gone?

Somewhere along this [press] journey, someone called it a slump, and I said, ‘You mean from 2001 to 2004?’ And then I said, ‘Go back and have a look at the movies over those years. The industry was going through a very strange time when there was an actors strike that didn’t happen but may as well have. At that time I also became a single dad [he was awarded custody of the two young children he had with ex-wife Donya Fiorentino]. And that meant I had to make a decision whether to be a dad who wasn’t there or a dad who was there. And I decided to be a dad who was there.

When you look back at your career, are there roles you view differently in hindsight, or even don’t like?

I think if you talk to any actor, you’ll find there are some things he likes and some things he doesn’t like. Reading this memoir of Alec Guinness, he was scathing about some things he did.

Is there a movie you feel that way about, or at least feel some ambivalence about?

I look at “Sid & Nancy” and my reaction to it is so — what’s the word? — subjective. Because of the career and where I’ve traveled, it’s a vaudeville act. It’s a curtain raiser, before the curtain went up on a career. Yet people come out of a screening room for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and say, “It was good, but I loved you in ‘Sid & Nancy.’” It’s like I’ve done all that work and it doesn’t matter. Do people say [he laughs] to Robert De Niro [after a current screening], “We loved you in ‘Taxi Driver’? We loved you in ‘Mean Streets’?”

They probably do. They love an iconic movie like that.

[Laughs again] I suppose. And I love it too. But I’m not in it.