(This interview was originally published on December 15, 2011 at The Rogers Revue)
When we sat down with Gary Oldman and director Tomas Alfredson to discuss their adaptation of John le Carré’s 1974 Cold War espionage thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, I was prepared to interview two men with the same reserved demeanor as the characters in the film. Instead, a lighter mood seemed to engulf the Chimney Stack room at the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton where they invited us to talk about their re-creation of the classic spy novel, as well as their experience with the legendary British author.
Oldman plays George Smiley, an MI6 man called back from forced retirement to investigate a suspected breach in their organization by a Russian mole. The character was originally portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness in the critically acclaimed 1979 mini-series.
“It’s great to play someone who’s the smartest man in the room,” laughed Oldman. “I don’t always get [to do that]. Carrying Smiley around was like being with a buddy. Here’s the hard thing about this sometimes: you have to analyze and objectify what you do. You’re asked to break down what you do intuitively. There were a lot of scenes where we came in, rehearsed, went for a take, never discussed it, did the scene and Tomas said ‘Alright, got it, cut! ”
The film also stars Toby Jones (“My Week With Marilyn”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Hobbit”), Ciarán Hinds (“The Debt”), Mark Strong (“Sherlock Holmes”) Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”) and Tom Hardy (“The Dark Knight Rises”).
Hardy plays suspected defector Ricki Tarr, a rogue MI6 agent who claims to have information about the mole. Said Alfredson of Hardy’s role, “If you’ve read the book, you’ll see we’ve made some rearrangements, particularly with Tarr’s backstory which [starts off] both the book and the TV series.”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is the first of three books in the ‘Karla series’ (Karla is a reference to the high-ranking Soviet operative responsible for deploying the mole). Oldman laughed as he told us that le Carré was, in his own words, “as chuffed as fuck” after the screening of Alfredson’s film.
“In many ways, le Carré reminds me of my father,” said Alfredson. “He’s so open-minded and dynamic, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He’s like a jukebox of stories. [Laughing] Just press K9 and you’ll hear about what happened in Egypt in 1961. The man is like a dictionary and he always has an opinion, which is very charming.”
For Alfredson’s first English language film (he is best known for directing 2008’s vampire film “Let the Right One In”), the Swedish filmmaker was faced not only with translating the classic story in his own style but also condensing the 7-part miniseries into a reasonably coherent 127 minute piece, which was written for the screen by Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan (“The Debt”).
“[I wanted] to create as much space for silence as possible,” Alfredson stated. “So that the audience could not just digest, but also choose some of the information…. I [wanted to] create images of information rather than have people verbally referring to everything.”
Gary Oldman’s career encompasses a myriad of characters, from amoral psychopaths like the dreadlocked Drexl in “True Romance” to mild-mannered, iconic police commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy. As George Smiley, he exudes a quiet apprehension that undoubtedly reflects the temperature of the Cold War era. Oldman discussed the relevance of the film and how it might speak to the anxieties of contemporary society.
“I don’t think a great deal has changed,” said Oldman. “The faces have changed and the enemies have changed… or as we now call them, ‘opponents.’ In that sense, it’s just as relevant [as it was then]. I think the book has enjoyed the life that it’s had because ultimately [le Carré] doesn’t get into the big philosophical questions and the politics. The Cold War is a backdrop to this story about these very lonely, damaged people. It’s about love lost, friendship, betrayal and loyalty on a very personal level.”
Alfredson added,”I think if you are the mole, that person must be damaged in many ways. He is described as a fanatic, he thinks he’s doing something good for the opponent. But in order to do that, to betray all his friends, he has to be a very damaged to have that ability. As a director, you have to understand and respect the characters, even the villains. The people who are involved in this story, they’ve suffered a lot. They’ve chosen this very strange place to be, and what they’re going through is in one way likable because they’ve suffered so much.”
In a world of spies, it’s difficult to distinguish the line between right and wrong, particularly in a story as intricate as this one. Alfredson talked about capturing that moral gray area.
“The film is too complex to lock these characters into role models, good or bad. All of them do good and bad [things]. Even Smiley does some bad things for what he considers the greater good.”
So what of the other two books in the series? Oldman talked about possibly revisiting the character of George Smiley.
“There are whispers that we may do another. Perhaps two books, or maybe [combine] ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’. Le Carré has expressed a big interest in doing it, so if creatively all the same people could come together and the timing is right, I’m in.”
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is currently in limited release and will open in DC area theaters on December 16th.