Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gary Oldman, Tinkering And Tailoring His Career

The actor Gary Oldman. 
© Douglas Kirkland 2012

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, February 15
, 2012

"YOU'VE JUST MADE MY MORNING," SAYS GARY OLDMAN, having been told over the phone last December that his work as George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is the best of his 30-year-career.

"A lot of journalists say to me, 'you were so good in this, and Sid Vicious was excellent, and you were great in that,' but no one has talked about this performance the way you have and I'm touched, so thank you," Mr. Oldman says sincerely and quietly in a mellow, relaxed voice.

It's astonishing that "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", Mr. Oldman's 71st acting credit in a prolific career, marks his first and only Oscar nomination.  Last month the 53-year-old Londoner woke up in his Los Angeles home to the happy news of Best Actor finalist.  Before that moment he looked at the potential honor of an Academy Award nomination in his typically calm and philosophical way: "I would feel very flattered by it.  I mean, things like that are not in one's mind when doing [the work], you know?  And I just do what I do to the best of my ability.  That's all you can do as an actor."

All Gary Oldman can do between now and the early evening of February 26, the date of the 84th Annual Academy Awards, is wait.  Never one to be enamored with the glare of celebrity spotlight, Mr. Oldman has nonetheless been doing the increasingly obligatory rounds of awards campaigning expected of actors at this time of year.  And in this home stretch of the 2011 film awards season marathon he's passed some of his time by attending lavish awards ceremonies, including most recently the Screen Actors Guild Awards and BAFTAs.  Last week Mr. Oldman was glad-handing and acquainting himself with some of his peers at the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills.

Soon however, the pleasantries associated with official and informal award candidacies generated this past film year will evaporate, and what audiences will be left with is the indelible work Mr. Oldman does in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", wonderfully written by the late Bridget O'Connor and her husband Peter Straughan.  The married couple's screenplay, adapted from John le Carré's international best-selling classic spy book, is also Oscar-nominated this year as is Alberto Iglesias' original music score, which gives the film, set in 1970s London and shot in Budapest and England, its cool, soothing and tragic feel. 

Mr. Oldman, a very humble and somewhat reserved figure 180 degrees from many of his volatile and villainous screen types, talked about meeting the challenge of inhabiting George Smiley, the British intelligence spy called in from the cold of exile by the government's chief intelligence minister to investigate the existence of a mole within the British spy outfit affectionately known as "The Circus". 

"I was aware of John's book, which is so detailed.  If you Googled George Smiley it's as if he was an actual person," the actor says of his big screen character.  "There was so much information on him." 

George Smiley's emotions in Mr. Alfredson's drama are otherwise invisible but for a palpable and poignant longing etched on his face and burned into his eyes.  Mr. Oldman's restrained Smiley portrayal is certainly more muted and buttoned down than Sir Alec Guinness's was in the 1979 BBC television series of the same name.

"Alec's fantastic work on the series, which I also knew of -- I was living in London at the time -- was somewhat in the back of my mind as I prepared but I had to make George my own.  I constructed him, layered him -- the silhouette you see of Smiley in the film was of Graham Greene in the late 1930s.  He looks like Graham Greene, the trench coat, everything."

"Tinker" costume designer Jacqueline Durran, one of several women behind the scenes who shape Mr. Alfredson's film -- production designer Maria Djorkovic and set decorator Tatiana MacDonald were among others besides Ms. O'Connor -- had Mr. Oldman look for what he called "wise-old owl" glasses for Smiley.  The actor was fitted for them and they gave the character "the psychological" profile from Mr. le Carré's novel.  "Smiley was always looking into and through things, but observing them all silently," Mr. Oldman noted.

Mr. Oldman as George Smiley in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy".  Jack English/Focus Features

George Smiley is like the ant, rather than elephant, in the room.  He moves stealthily and elusively.  Smiley's glasses, with those large wide lenses and thick black rims, look like binoculars.  Smiley has to focus on his investigation of the rogue agent in The Circus while discovering in one subdued but devastating moment that his wife is having an extramarital affair.  The look Mr. Oldman delivers during the scene in question is one that is immediately felt as it is given, and it reverberates through the heart and bowels of what is supposed to be a joyful, merry occasion.

The emotional component of Smiley was described by Mr. Oldman this way: "You connect with the similarities.  We've all experienced love lost or betrayal.  I've had the odd woman cheated on me.  You know, my approach is that of one-stop shopping acting.  There's the book, the script and the acting.  And you try to anchor that you can emotionally connect to." 

In "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", initially released in December and expanded to more  U.S. theaters last month, Mr. Oldman presides over a British lover's dream ensemble cast: Mark Strong, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon McBurney and Christian McKay.  Mr. Oldman is the silent moderator of an unpredictable and cantankerous group of film characters who in some respects are jackals, swooping in after the commotion caused by their leader Control's (Mr. Hurt) ouster and the subsequent investigation of The Circus.

Gary Oldman has been part of some highly successful film franchises that have created circuses of their own.  He appeared as Sirius Black in the immensely popular "Harry Potter" films, the final installment of which was released last summer, and will once again star as Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises", which arrives in July in theaters worldwide.  Several other films are in the pipeline for Mr. Oldman, who also directed the powerful drama "Nil By Mouth" (1997), a film based in part on the actor's own upbringing in South London.  Kathy Burke starred in Mr. Oldman's drama, and both are on screen together in "Tinker Tailor".

Sports-wise Mr. Oldman is a loyal Millwall Football Club supporter.  The southeast London football team isn't doing well at the moment in the English Football League Championship, currently lying fifth from the bottom of the table as of this writing.  (Millwall's miserable season has been cemented by a 6-0 home defeat to Birmingham City, although they managed to win on the road at high-flying Southampton recently.)

Despite his fealty to Millwall if you ask Mr. Oldman where his true heart and love lies, aside from his wife he'll tell you that it's with his Terrier dogs.  "I love them.  They're so lovely.  We had a Pincher who died," Mr. Oldman says ruefully, if offhandedly.

Condolences are quickly offered to the actor, who bristles at those whom he says would prolong the suffering of a dog or another animal companion in its last days just so its human owner isn't alone.  "I find it a little selfish."

"Out there nature just takes care of itself, you know?"

Despite his busy film career when he can Mr. Oldman spends a lot of time with his dogs.  His voice warms as he talks affectionately about them.

"I'm a real dog man," he declares tenderly.

This is one in a series of interviews for The Popcorn Reel Awards Season 2012.  Recent interviews include Sir Ben Kingsley for "Hugo" and Steve McQueen for "Shame".

Previous: Oscar contest - Win with Viola Davis - and win "Shame", "Help", "Drive" and 2012 Best Picture nominee Blu-Rays

COPYRIGHT 2012.  POPCORNREEL.COM.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.                Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW