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As Gary Oldman himself notes, he tends to be remembered more for the roles he plays big, broad, and uninhibited—like Sid Vicious in 1986’s Sid And Nancy, or the half-crazed Sirius Black in the Harry Potter film series—than for his more toned-down, serious efforts. That said, even his quiet, purringly controlled roles tend to bring in some bombast. For all his chameleonic power to disappear into roles as diverse as a bantering faux-Shakespearean courtier (Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead), Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, a drawling pimp (True Romance), a Russian terrorist (Air Force One), a crazed future-industrialist villain (The Fifth Element), Dracula (in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s book), Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), and Jim Gordon (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), he still tends to blow up at least once per film; surely directors know at this point that it’s exciting (and intimidating) to watch him rant.
He breaks the pattern with his starring role as George Smiley, the consummately guarded star of the John le Carré adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As a spymaster on the hunt for a high-level mole in a British Intelligence agency where anyone might be a traitor, Oldman plays his role with intense control and calm. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Oldman in Chicago to talk about turning down the volume, working with Let The Right One In director Tomas Alfredson, and getting back to directing at some point.
The A.V. Club: George Smiley keeps his reactions close to his chest. He’s a very internal character. Does that make him any easier or more difficult to play than a more expressive character?
Gary Oldman: I flippantly said it was a part I’d been waiting for for 30 years. Each role you play, they set a bar of challenges that you meet. And in the past, I’ve played characters that emotionally expressed themselves a bit more in a physical way. It was a joy, actually.
AVC: You’ve said this is the greatest role you’ve ever played. What defines that for you?
GO: It’s the complexity of the character that I don’t have to express. So I run a scene, but from a very passive position, and a lot of the other people I’m in the scene with are—I’ll give you an example. [The character] Ricki Tarr, when he comes to me, is going to talk. He’s there to talk. He wants to tell me something. I have to do very little to get him to open up. I think George is one of those people; he’s someone you want to talk to.
AVC: You did a lot of prep for this role, like watching the 1979 Alec Guinness Tinker Tailor series, and building the character with the director. Is that normal for you?
GO: It depends. I didn’t re-watch the series. I remember it from when it first came out. I probably think I remember it better than I do. But he became so iconic, so connected with it; Guinness was the face of Smiley. It was one-stop shopping. We had the book, the script—the book tells you everything you need to know. The book is the map of the world that you’re in with the character. And then we had access to John [le Carré] if we needed a resource. And he had been a spy. So it was all there at my fingertips to work from. Obviously you can’t put the entire book into two hours. It’s like a cow: You’ve got the rump, you’ve got the short rib, you can’t eat the whole thing. So you’ve got a filet, a piece of steak you cut from the animal. And everything you really need to fill in that has been left out is in the book, so you’ve got this wealth of information and character and history you can play.
AVC: Given all that wealth, the multiple other portrayals of this character, and all the information in the book, and the information you guys came up with, how do you narrow that down into something so reserved and internal?
GO: That, I don’t know. Instinct. Intuition. There’s things you do—it’s what spoke to me from the book. [Smiley’s wife] Ann describes him as something like a swift, where he can regulate his body temperature to the situation, to the room. And that spoke to me of somebody who is very still. That’s not someone who is jumping around, who is idiosyncratic and twitchy and nervous. That spoke to me of stillness, and that he plants himself in a chair, and almost becomes part of the fabric. A journalist yesterday said, “He sits at a right angle,” and if people see that, that’s terrific, but it wasn’t something I consciously thought about. He’s a real economy of energy.
AVC: How important is it for you to find a character before you start filming? Do you believe in finding a character spontaneously on the set?
GO: No, you have to find it first. You get very little rehearsal. I can work as much as I can on my character in my kitchen—it’s normally the kitchen, I don’t know, the living room, or wherever one goes and works, or even on walks. But I don’t know what Colin [Firth] and Benedict [Cumberbatch] are doing in their kitchens. And that’s what you find out in the moment when you get to work. So you work as much on the character as you can. You hope that you get there and you have a fully rounded character. But that tennis match will happen on the day, which is what I like about the work. I sometimes find, oddly, I’m not crazy about reading scripts. I know you have to do the work, but I don’t always—I enjoyed it on this, but I don’t always enjoy it. The work I enjoy is when the camera rolls, and I like the work in the moment.
AVC: You said in a recent interview that some roles you have to work at, and others are as easy as breathing. Where did this one fall?
GO: Well, once I found him, once I got into the rhythm of him, it was quite easy for me to switch in and out. And then it becomes an exercise of concentration. Because if you have the character, or you’ve found it, then going in and out is… [Snaps fingers.] The work has to be there, but once you’ve got a foundation, the writing helps you.
AVC: Can you think of characters that have been difficult?
GO: Well, a character I enjoyed playing and have very fond memories of working on was Shelly Runyon in The Contender. To keep that accent on track was hard work, because it was that Illinois—it was hard Rs, and there wasn’t a great deal of musicality in it. And those are the things you latch onto as an actor. There’s an inherent kind of music in Irish-New York, Italian-New York. There’s flavors of the original language that are still there, and rhythms, and those are the little pegs you hang it on. And I found that Runyon, there was very little music to him. And I had to really focus on keeping him on track everyday. I found it very hard work. I enjoyed it. I based George on le Carré, so I was looking for a voice for George, and when I met John, heard him speak… There’s a real rhythm and music to how he talks, and I thought, “Well, he is the muscle in the sinews, bone, and DNA of this.” So I started with John as a springboard. You begin with an impersonation, and as you make it your own, you move further away from it. Sometimes it’s physical, and sometimes it’s vocal. Each character sets up a different challenge. I don’t think there’s any one particular way—there’s no real method of finding it. You hope you find it.
AVC: It seems like the director, Tomas Alfredson, was a key part of helping you find the role in little details. Like the decision that Smiley shouldn’t wear cufflinks, because that would say something about him.
GO: And you would remember it. It would give him away. Another spy would remember something like that. So there are small decisions that one makes, and that’s how you, piece by piece, put something together. And of course, where you’re not really expressing yourself, you’re not really giving that much away, then you rely on the director to guide you through it. You hope that what you’re doing, you’re communicating, that it’s reading. And occasionally, we would do a take, and then Tomas would say, “Could you glance there to the letters?” or, “Could you refer to the thing?” And I said, “Well I did that.” Then he said, “Well, could you make it a bit bigger?” [Laughs.] “Because I couldn’t quite see it.” With a bigger character, with a more expressive character, it is slightly easier, and it’s more obvious, and then you have the director as the barometer. And he says, “Dial it down a little.”
AVC: You’ve played a lot of very big characters; do you often get told to dial it down? It seems like you’ve got a lot of characters where they’d be constantly telling you to dial it up.
GO: Um, I think it started—I mean, people remember me playing villains, and they say, “You’ve played lots of villains.” And if you look at the work across all my 60 films, or, God, however many it is, there aren’t that many. But you remember them. And I think it sort of started with the two characters I played for Luc Besson [in The Fifth Element and Leon: The Professional] that were like cartoons. Big, expressive characters. You got Sid [Vicious] up here [gestures above his head] and Smiley down here [drops hand to his side]. They are the two real extremes, and obviously this is the most recent, that was my first. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how it happens.
AVC: You’ve often said in interviews that you don’t really choose your roles, that in this business, you have to take what comes. But given how long you’ve been in the business, that’s hard to believe. You really feel like you haven’t had much choice?
GO: Yeah. They come to me. There are roles that you chase sometimes. But they didn’t come to me with Four Weddings And A Funeral, they didn’t come to me with Bridget Jones, they didn’t come to me with Daniel Plainview [in There Will Be Blood], do you know what I mean? The ones I’ve played are the ones that have come across my desk, then it depends where you’re at, and life circumstances. There’s a lot of factors that are involved in why you take a part.
AVC: You haven’t directed a film since your writing-directing debut, Nil By Mouth, in 1997. Do you want to get back to directing at some point?
GO: I’m planning to. I’ve been writing. There was a piece I tried to get going after Nil By Mouth, and for many reasons, it didn’t. But I hope to be doing something in the beginning of 2013, to get back to it. I miss it.