Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Actor's actor Oldman quietly finds his spy

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NEW YORK CITY -- Gary Oldman is one of those actors whom other actors -- Daniel Radcliffe, Tom Hardy and Ralph Fiennes to name a few -- revere.

If you are looking for an explanation, you need only consider this: The actor playing the cerebral, quiescent spymaster George Smiley in the new film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the same actor who once played the brash, feral proto-punk Sid Vicious in the 1986 film Sid & Nancy.

Oldman plays both extremes beautifully.

The character of Smiley from John le Carré's series of espionage novels nevertheless presented an immediate challenge to Oldman in that he would be playing a character once personified by the great Alec Guinness in two BBC miniseries adaptations of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley's People (1982).

"I am old enough to remember the series when it was first shown," Oldman says. "Obviously, Guinness made such a mark playing it and carrying the face of Smiley. He was nearly 70 when he played and my first thought was: Well, I am a bit young."

Oldman is 53.

"The ghost of Guinness was large. You could honestly say that it was almost a definitive portrayal of Smiley," Oldman says. "I said, 'God, how do you pull that off?'

"In the end, I sort of played a trick with my head. I sort of thought: Well, there have been other Romeos, Hamlets, and King Lears, and it is just another reinterpretation. So I sort of approached it rather how you would approach a classical part.

"But I didn't jump at it. I had to consider it."

Oldman-watchers may have detected a quieter phase to his career. Oldman clearly relished opportunities for grandiose performances in films such as Hannibal or Romeo Is Bleeding. Remember his baroque vampire king in Bram Stoker's Dracula?

But just as the character of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter series transmogrified from manic to gentlemanly, Oldman's screen work of late is quieter. Even in the role of cop Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy feels like a calm centre in a storm of comic book mayhem.

Oldman embraced the "invisibility" of George Smiley.

"He is beige and he just becomes part of the room, which makes him forgettable.

"So that was an interesting challenge," Oldman says. "You have to dial everything down. But the roles that you play in are what is required of you. I think you can get a bit typecast. Certainly the two movies I did with Luc Besson (The Professional and The Fifth Element) were very big, but they are cartoonish characters. So it was great to work on a piece of material where you can really play subtext."

In gathering material to leave his own stamp on Smiley, Oldman exploited the best possible source, author John le Carré himself.

"John was a spy and he lived through that time," Oldman says. "He was a great inspiration and I modelled George on John initially as a sort of springboard.

"He had a certain musicality in his voice and a certain wonderful quality about him. So I kind of stole some little mannerisms from him. You begin almost with an impersonation and the more that you do the work the further that you get away from it. But he is sort of the DNA of the whole thing.

"He is 80 this year and it is like kind of hanging out with a 30 year old. He has a prolific memory and he is a great actor, impersonator, and a wonderful raconteur.

"Once you meet him and you get him talking, it's like putting a coin in the juke box. You just put the coin in and then the record plays. It is fantastic. You can't shut him up."

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starts tomorrow at the Grant Park Cinemas.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2012 D5

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.


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