Gary Oldman's pantheon of film performances include some deliciously over-the-top characters, like his bad, Beethoven-loving cop in 'The Professional,' hideously scarred pimp in 'True Romance' and the maniacal Zorg in 'The Fifth Element.' But it's his quiet, understated role as retired spy George Smiley in his new film 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' that might get the criminally under-appreciated-by-the-Academy actor his first Oscar nomination. Oldman sat down with Moviefone to discuss the challenge of taking on a role made famous by Alec Guinness and why he needed a dialect coach to play Smiley.
Do you think audiences might be disappointed in a spy movie with no action?
No, I think that's what sets it apart. It's quite refreshing, this approach. We've yet to see what happens. Most people I've spoken to really like the movie, but that one thing that's missing is the audience. But we are coming here on a wave of a very successful opening in the U.K. It was number one for four weeks and it's still there, it's still making money. So it says to me that people want to go and see an adult movie without everything blowing up.
I was reading that you hired a dialect coach because you hadn't played a British character in a while.
Yes, well, you live in America for so long. I haven't really lost my accent, but the sound that you are surrounded by ... my kids are American, and so there's just certain sounds that I make that are not what would you call perfect received pronunciation English. So I just needed a brush-up on my English. Where did you read that?
From a Q&A you did the other night at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica.
I didn't know I talked about that!
So Sirius Black doesn't count as a British character?
No, it's just different sounds that you have to make. And that's sort of very Oxbridge, Whitehall vowels that one has to use. I think it's quite common. Take Sean Penn for example, if he was playing someone from New York, he would have to have a voice coach because he's from Los Angeles. And Toby Jones, he's Scots in this [and he's not in real life] so that was an accent that he was doing.
Did you have any trepidation in taking on a role that's so identified with Alec Guinness?
Yeah. He made it so much his own. Other people have played Smiley but in different guise, different shapes. But Guinness was quite a dragon to slay, just to really get on with it, get him out of ... well, the dragon's in your head, isn't he?
Had you watched the miniseries?
Yeah, I'd seen it in '79 when it was on. I think I remember it better than I do.
But you made a point not to rewatch it before doing the film?
No, I didn't want to be sort of contaminated by it. There's always the danger that it's so fresh in your head that you're doing sort of an impersonation.
Had you ever met Sir Alec?
No, I'd not met him, but my manager used to be a Broadway producer and did maybe two or three or plays with him and knew him quite well. And of course we had access to John le Carré [the original author of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'], and he told some great stories.
Guinness was very famously not pleased with having made 'Star Wars,' and you're in two of the biggest film franchises of all time. Do you ever feel conflicted about big Hollywood versus "the craft?"
Well, it's sort of perception, isn't it, really? It demands the same commitment from you. Whether you're playing Smiley or whether you're playing Jim Gordon. It's not as highbrow as 'Tinker,' but it takes great technique. Often the challenge of Jim Gordon and characters like that, as in Potter is -- as le Carré says -- you turn the oxen into a bouillon cube. To adapt a book, you have to turn it into something much smaller. A lot of character goes by the wayside and so exposition and plot become character. You find the characters are speaking the plot and that takes a type of skill to be able to pull it off and make the plot character, make it believable and sound like you are speaking like a normal person.
You do it admirably! Would you be up for more Smiley films?
They're talking about doing 'Smiley's People,' which is really just a whisper, but now I hear that they're really very keen to revisit it. And it's a great story. If we got all the team back together, the same creative people, yeah, I'd be up for it.
[Photo: Focus Features]
'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' is in theaters now; head here for tickets and showtimes
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