Gary Oldman: 'The secret of playing George Smiley was in finding the silhouette of a spy'

A compelling performance by Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sees a return to form by an actor best known recently for franchise blockbusters

You couldn't exactly say that Gary Oldman has been away. He has, after all, had recurring roles in the two great film franchises of the past decade: Harry Potter, in which he plays Sirius Black, and as Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's peerless The Dark Knight series. But this is not the dangerous, unpredictable Oldman, the south Londoner whose work in the 1980s marked him out as one of our truly great actors (Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears) and who, in the 1990s, became Hollywood's go-to psycho (Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK and the title character in Bram Stoker's Dracula). Off the set, his legend was made even richer with multiple marriages (second time round to Uma Thurman) and a raucous relationship with alcohol before he went into treatment 15 years ago.

Still, technicalities aside, Oldman is back. As George Smiley in the adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), the 53-year-old achieves a few remarkable feats. One, he eclipses Alec Guinness's portrayal of Smiley in the vaunted 1979 BBC series. Two, he eclipses a superb British cast (Colin Firth, John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy among them). Finally, he delivers a subtle and restrained performance quite unlike anything in his three decades of work. The tag of "best actor never to win an Oscar" may be about to be passed on.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an espionage thriller, but it has very little in common with the Bourne and Bond films. Was that part of the appeal for you?

Le Carré has said that when these books first came out they were like the polar opposite of Ian Fleming. I guess he was a spy, so he tries to give you the real world of spying, as opposed to the gadgets and the gizmos of James Bond. Ironically, here it is the wife who is promiscuous; it's normally Bond who jumps into bed with every girl. But it's the rather quiet and complex, in a way dull, day-to-day policing of something, rather than buildings blowing up.

All of the agents are so dark and troubled. It's a terrible advertisement for a career in the secret service, isn't it?

Yes, these people are professionally anonymous, even anonymous to their families. It's strange that everywhere James Bond goes he announces who he is. He meets the villain and says: "Bond, James Bond." He's a secret agent!

There's a lovely description of Smiley in the book as "one of London's meek who did not inherit the earth" – did you do anything to physically prepare for the role?

I wanted a little bit of that paunch of someone who had slowed down in life, likes his steak and kidney pie and a nice bottle of wine. So in the prep it was chips and hamburgers, ice-cream puddings – I used to call it "eating for George". The problem's taking it off.

When you make a physical transformation – as you did dramatically to play Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy – how does that help you as an actor?

Well, if you're carrying around a few extra pounds, we all feel it. But it also gives you a visual, it's something you can believe in when you look in the mirror, when you put those clothes on.

It's the silhouette, which is as important as the emotional or the internal. That's true with every character, whether you're playing Shelly Runyon [The Contender] or Drexl [True Romance] or Dracula. They all have their own shape.

Your Smiley is dark and sombre, tougher than Alec Guinness played him. Why did you take that direction?

With Smiley, one is conscious that there's this melancholy, he's a disillusioned romantic, his wife has left him. So that is the running condition of it, that's the motor underneath it all. And it was exciting to be able to do something that was contained and very studied, rather than normally – in the past anyway – being asked to play those rather frenetic characters.

There's a string of things I've done that are somewhat typecast and it's been fantasy for the past 10 years, it's been Sirius Black and Commissioner Gordon, so I am very grateful to Tomas for seeing beyond that.

Do you know why he wanted you for the role?

They threw a few names around and then came up with mine and I think Tomas became a bit obsessed with the idea. Directors do that sometimes, they get an actor in their head and can't see it any other way, which was lucky for me. When we met I said: "What is it? What do you see?" And he said: "Your face, it looks like you've lived a bit. You've been through some stuff." I said: "Yeess! Oh yes."

You have called this a return to proper work. How does a role like this exercise you in a way franchises do not?

You have the whole canvas. Sometimes when you come into a film and you've got a couple of scenes, it's like rock'n'roll, you feel like you've got to come in and burn with the first bar. Smiley's a bit more like jazz. I can just be there and build to that solo.

But I should say that they are minor grumbles, I don't think that anything else comes near the reinvention of Batman that Chris Nolan has put together. If that's my only problem, it could be a lot worse.

You are known for being very professional on set. Have you always been so diligent?

Anything I've been passionate about, yeah. When I was younger, I played piano and decided when I was around 13 I wanted to study at the Blackheath Conservatoire of Music – I don't know whether the rioters burned it down, it might still be there.

I studied the pieces and would practise three hours a day of scales, so I can become quite obsessive. But I know there are other people who work very differently. I hear that Gérard Depardieu just reads the lines and they are pasted up everywhere around the set. I couldn't get my head round that, it would terrify me.

Did you ever lose your love for acting?

Oh yeah, it comes and goes. I think 31 years of doing something, it's not always exciting. There are times when you just have to pay the rent, keep the kids in school. It doesn't mean that you give less, but sometimes you do things and they turn out not so well.

You have two boys (Gulliver, 14, and Charlie, 12) from your third marriage, to Donya Fiorentino. Would it be fair to say that your career has taken second place to bringing them up in recent years?

Yes. Well, first of all, I just ended up being a single dad. Then made a decision that I would either be that dad who was always away or I'd be the dad that was around. And they are my greatest accomplishment, I'm more proud of that than I am of anything.

Your own father left home when you were seven; was that a factor?

Maybe it had something to do with my own dad not being around, who knows? There are things I'd have liked to have done with my dad that we never did and I think he would have enjoyed what I've done. I think that he would be proud.

But I don't really remember him that vividly. I liken it to a video cassette, a VHS that has been taped over: there's an image, a bit of blank space and there's a memory and there's a big blank space. And I didn't want these guys to have that.

You've been known for being rather wild. Do you have a quieter life now?

It's not completely square. My obsession at the moment is the ukulele – I'm trying to play blues on it. I suppose you could say I've smoothed out some of the sharper edges. But there's some life in the old boy yet.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is out on 16 September


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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