Pete Hammond

From his first appearance on the world stage as the tragic Sid Vicious in Sid And Nancy, Gary Oldman has established himself as an elusive, hard-to-predict character actor. He’s been villainous — Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Carnegie in The Book Of Eli or Korshunov in Air Force One — and he’s been heroic, like Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series and Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Often known for his showy acting, Oldman tones it way down for the more ambiguous George Smiley in this year’s awards contender Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Although Tinker Tailor has yet to make much of an impact this awards season, it has turned into a hit in England and a sizable success so far in limited release in the U.S., where it has grossed over $4 million since opening December 16. It will expand to 800 screens on Friday. Oldman is receiving the International Star award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Saturday and will receive a three-day retrospective of his films beginning Monday at the Arclight in Hollywood. Surprisingly, he has never been nominated for an Oscar. Focus Features, which provided Deadline with an exclusive clip of Oldman (see below), is releasing Tinker Tailor in the U.S. and is obviously hoping to change that, backing Oldman with an extensive campaign that has included many Q&A appearances from the star himself. I spoke with him at one of those, and here are some highlights of that conversation that recently appeared in an issue of AwardsLine.

Playing Against Type:

You’re at the mercy of the imagination of the people out there who are casting you; they see you and you do get into a little bit of a groove and you get typecast. I applaud people like Christopher Nolan and Tomas Alfredson for seeing something else there. It was a great opportunity to play a character like this. I think it was [legendary acting teacher Sanford] Meisner who said, “An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.”

How He Created His Character:

Well, you’re working from a great piece of literature. So it’s like these giants of writing: Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller, John le Carré. The script to me is your map of the world and all the clues to playing Smiley were in the book. When in doubt it became the Holy Grail. Although it’s set in the Cold War period, the story remains timeless: I don’t think a great deal has changed. I never really looked at this as a period piece as such. The faces have changed; the enemy changes, but we seem to continually go through these moments of stability that are punctuated with the promise of annihilation. That’s what I remember when I was a teenager growing up I the ’70s, we thought World War III was going to happen.

Resonance With Today’s Corporate Culture:

I think that’s also why the book has enjoyed such longevity. It might be the closest thing to the corporate world.

Techniques He Used To Prepare For The Part:

Sometimes it starts with a silhouette. I mean specifically for Tinker the silhouette was a photograph of Graham Greene in sort of the late ’30s, looking very suave with a cigarette and a trench coat and a Macintosh, and that was the beginning of Smiley. Again, you had this great book and you look for the clues … I call this kitchen acting, like I’m in my kitchen, and I pace. And I put the script on the counter. And I do that bookwork there. But you can only work it to a point. I don’t know what Colin Firth has been doing in his kitchen. So you get together and you wait. How is he going to hit the ball back? It’s exhilarating and it’s terrifying and that’s what keeps you doing it.

Working With Alfredson:

Tomas has great faith in you. And he’s cast you; in his opinion, 85% of the work is accomplished right there. He’s decisive; he’s very sure of his talent. He sets a wonderful atmosphere to work in. It’s very open and creative. And it really does come from the top, an atmosphere on a set. … He expects you to do the work and come ready.

What He Looks For In A Role:

It’s been 10 years of fantasy. It’s been Harry Potter and it’s been Batman and I feel very grateful that I’ve been associated with them. Of course, Sirius Black and Jim Gordon are great parts. But I haven’t played a lead for … I can’t remember when. So you wait for something to come in. There are things you hear about and things you chase and say I’d like to be cast in this and yeah I can play that part.

There’s A Possibility That He’ll Play Smiley Again:

Well, there are whispers that they may do another. It was hugely successful in the UK, and much to our surprise there was an audience for it. … Most of the critics liked it. It was No. 1 for something like four weeks in a row. It all comes down to money. … If they want me to do it again, I’d love to. I miss George. I was excited to get in the car and get to work and sort of put him on.

Here’s the clip:

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