One of the unexpected treats of this year's Butt Numb-a-Thon was sitting through director Tomas Alfredson's take on the classic British spy tale from author John le Carré, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, starring the surprisingly dialed-back Gary Oldman as George Smiley, an old-world intelligence man brought out of a forced retirement to find a mole in the halls of MI6. I had actually seen the film before this, but something about that second viewing made all of the nuances in both the script and the performances rise to the surface.
Swedish-born Alfredson is best known for his devastating vampire story LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, arguably the finest film of 2008. Now, working with an extraordinary A-list of Britain's finest male acting talent, Alfredson has constructed a film of magnificently grim atmosphere and knowing sideways glances. Oldman's Smiley has spent the better part of his adult life being a doormat. He's also a keen observer of human behavior whose deductive skills are as sharp in the twilight of his life as anyone in British intelligence. Oldman peers through oversized glasses into the truth of any situation, rarely letting emotion enter into his deductions or decisions.
Of course Oldman has been a force of acting for a couple of decades now, making his earliest mark in film with 1986's SID AND NANCY, followed the next year in his equally gripping performance as the late playwright Joe Orton in PRICK UP YOUR EARS. Since then, Oldman has given us one great (often high-voltage) performance after another in such films as ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTEN ARE DEAD, STATE OF GRACE, JFK, DRACULA, TRUE ROMANCE, IMMORTAL BELOVED, LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, ROMEO IS BLEEDING, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, AIR FORCE ONE, LOST IN SPACE, THE CONTENDER, HANNIBAL, THE BOOK OF ELI, and in two mega franchises of late--as Sirius Black in the HARRY POTTER films and Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan's BATMAN films, including the upcoming DARK KNIGHT RISES.
I sat down with Alfredson and Oldman a couple of weeks ago, and had a terrific time chatting with them about all things spy related, the anti-Bond-ness of John le Carré's work, and a few other points of interest on the map of Oldman's career. Please enjoy Tomas Alfredson and Gary Oldman…
Tomas Alfredson: How are you?
Capone: How are you, Tomas?
Gary Oldman: It’s nice to meet you.
Capone: It’s good to meet you. Welcome back to Chicago.
GO: Thank you.
Capone: I remember reading in the novel REMAINS OF THE DAY somebody described the butler character as “When he walks in a room, the room becomes more empty.”
Capone: I got a sense that that’s what George is like or had been for many years as the number two man under Control.
GO: We have an expression in the theater in England for someone who is not very good, and they say, “When they came on, it was like 12 people going off.”
GO: You know that noise? Yeah, the room becomes more empty. That's just about perfect.
Capone: You almost go out of your way not to notice him, but then this story is about “What if a man who has spent his entire career being that kind of person is then pushed to the front? After a lifetime of being a professional listener and a observer, how does this man now become that man in charge?” How do give traits to a character who was lived a life without traits for so long?
GO: Honestly, that’s a question for John le Carré. It was all there. That was the map that we were following. I mean there’s [his wife] Ann’s description on him in the book where she describes him as “like a swift,” like he can regulate his temperature up or down to the environment he is in, which is the same kind of thing I suppose, a man walks who walks into a room and then…
TA: A chameleon.
GO: Yeah, like a chameleon that then disappears. I mean, you get people to talk to you. I mean he is a master interrogator.
Capone: And then what fascinated you about a character like this?
TA: From a cinematic point of view, it’s quite complicated, because he is described as someone you would immediately forget in the book, and that’s one of his greatest talents. To have a main character be someone you are supposed to forget is quite contradictory, and that’s also the challenge and what’s interesting about this man to see “What can we do to communicate with the audience this ability he has?”
But luckily the camera can show details that you would see, but not the people in the scene would see, like if George is turned away from people and to see his fingers move or whatever it is, but it is a very interesting ability. I have one friend, a woman, an editor, that anyone, whoever it is, starts talking to and they open up their lives with very private stuff, and she never asks anything and she doesn’t want to know.
TA: She hates it. “Oh, I left my wife last week,” and people start talking and she listens very politely, but she hates it. It’s just a thing, certain people make you talk. It’s like me and kids; kids always turn to me and I don’t know why, and you don’t love all kids, many you do, but small kids…
GO: Like you?
TA: Yeah, like me. I don’t know why.
Capone: I have read somewhere that you were very particular about the glasses that George wore and I particularly liked the way the bifocal separation basically cuts your eyes off by obscuring them. Most of us connect with people by looking into their eyes, but George's eyes are not always visible.
GO: Tomas said that he wanted to be able to look like through them and the way they distort. Someone asked me last night after the Q&A what it was like spending the entire movie looking through those magnifying glasses, and I said, “No, that’s my prescription.”
GO: I felt so old. I wear this sort of bifocal.
Capone: I can see it when you hold it up, yeah.
GO: Well the bifocal in the '70s was like these moons, so the guy that did the glasses--the guy that put the glass in--I mean they were period glasses from that timeframe, and the guy that put the bifocal in was an old guy. I went to look at props and I've never ever been to a prop meeting with a director, and that’s the first time.
TA: Is that so?
GO: Ever, where we looked at the props together, and that thing you talk about with disappearing eyes, we decided George wouldn’t have cuff links, he wouldn’t have a tie pin, nothing that other people would remember.
Capone: Yeah. Even his posture is perfect, and I don’t know if that was deliberate, but you notice when someone slouches or has an unusual way of sitting, but he’s just an “L.” He sits exactly right and blends with the angles of the room. It’s sort of fascinating, and yet you are drawn to him somehow.
TA: Didn’t we discuss aftershave? “Would he use that?”
GO: Yeah, yeah. We decided no.
TA: He just smells like George.
GO: He’s just the Nowhere Man, you know? But the creation of him is John, I mean in the film obviously we’ve got two hours to tell the story, and some of these characters have gone by the wayside, some are a sort of cocktail of other characters. Connie is wonderfully served in the film by Kathy Burke, but you read those scenes with Connie in the book, it is the most fabulous creation, Connie Sans. It is just a stunning, stunning character. He’s a great, great writer.
Capone: George has been portrayed by many actors over the years, Alec Guinness most famously, but do you take that into consideration at all and try to make yours different or borrow, or do you ignore? How did you handle the iconic nature of this particular character?
GO: I just think you are going to bring your own inherent thing to it anyway. You’re going to be different just by the fact that you are. I mean Guinness was nearly 70 when he played him, and they climb the mountain a bit for you too and navigate some of the paths for you. You can’t be completely ignorant of what's come before. It’s like that thing Picasso said, “A good artist borrows and a great artist steals.”
There’s always someone who’s climbed the mountain, and you are playing the same role and you are in many situations in similar scenes, saying the same dialogue, and there will be conclusions that you do arrive at that are similar. No matter how inventive a director is, you might get to a point where you just go, You know? It’s a 75mm and it’s a close up and it’s a classic; that’s what this scene needs. Everybody is used to 50mm, but there are sometimes when you just kind of go why tinker with what works? Does that make sense? We're walking the same paths.
Capone: Adapting books based on Smiley's stories must be like doing a variation on a Shakespeare character; he is so much part of the British iconography that it’s not even a remake, it’s just the latest version.
GO: Well the ghost of Guinness was obviously who was the most famous. He really was the face of Smiley. He loomed large. Of course it was a consideration with comparisons, and who the fuck do I think I am to follow the great Alec Guinness and all? All of those voices will talk to you in your mind.
Capone: Was that a consideration? Did you say it wasn't worth those questions?
GO: Yeah and I chatted with Tomas, and you think “I’m in good hands,” and he’s got such an original take on the material. And at the end of the day, there are other people that have played Hamlet and Romeo and King Lear and all of that, and you are just another interpretation.
Capone: So after LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, I’m sure you got scripts thrown at you constantly. How did you decide this was the one that you would take?
TA: Well, it was a little confusing, because I’ve been directing for 25 years before that, and to experience this this late in my career was quite upside down. So I really didn’t know what to choose or where to go and I didn’t want to consider myself as a horror director, and with this, my manager had heard that the production company had bought the rights to the book, and they said, “What do you think about that?” I thought, “Well it’s almost impossible to do it, so why not?”
So that was the challenge. The challenge was big enough and strange enough, and it was a very different topic and it just felt right, and also the fact that we have a historic distance to the Cold War today, and we could set a drama in the Cold War era without having to have philosophical ideas about it. For me, this film is not so much about the philosophical parts of the Cold War complex; it’s more on a very human level between these people about loyalty and friendship and betrayal.
Capone: George is something of a doormat in certain instances, with co-workers and his wife. Again, he's not someone you would think you would want to build a spy movie around. Was fear a factor in deciding to do this film?
GO: Well I certainly think it was for you.You said, “It’s exciting” and all of that, but I remember one day saying to you, “How do you feel?” and you sort of went “[Exhales] Yeah, okay.” And that’s how I felt a bit, you know? It’s good to be challenged like that. I haven’t felt that alive in a long time, where you can’t rely on your bag of tricks.
Capone: And you have a history of playing a little more physical and bombastic characters who rarely hide their emotions.
GO: Yeah. And that is partly to do sometimes with just some of the stuff that you are in, it’s surviving. You know, that all started really I think with Luc Besson, and [his films] are cartoons, they are cartoons. So you're much bigger than life. I mean that guy I play in THE PROFESSIONAL is not a realistic guy from the DEA; they're like cartoons for grown ups, and I think then that people want to see that again and again.
TA: Directors and casting directors are lazy. They work in a very conservative way or the whole system works in a very conservative way, so we will put actors in roles that we know they can do, and that is so irritating to see, having great actors not have the possibility of showing other sides of their art.
Capone: But even lately between this film and what you are doing in the BATMAN films--Gordon is a relatively normal guy in extraordinary circumstances.
GO: With George and Gordon, I mean there’s no direct lineage, but they are very, very distant cousins in as much that they are world-weary and they don’t emote in that respect.
TA: Gary, you showed me yesterday this retrospective reel of you, which was like very, very impressive to see.
Capone: Are they playing that tonight?
GO: No, I’m getting the Gotham Life Achievement Award next week. I’m at that age…
Capone: Clearly you’re tapering off on the workload, too.
GO: The old fart is still around [laughs]. But they were putting together a reel, which they sent me to see.
TA: Which is a fantastic palette.
Capone: Just recently, a friend of mine showed me a VHS cassette of what I believe is your first movie, I think it was something you did for TV, called HONEST, DECENT AND TRUE, which I can’t even find on IMDB. You play a painter and you have this great speech in that about how painting on a blank canvas makes you cry.
GO: How the relationship to one thing over here becomes another thing over there.
Capone: There was one about how every time you ruin that perfect white canvas that makes you cry. It’s a great speech.
GO: Yeah, that was an improvised movie. It was Les Blair who directed it, he devised it. Les was sort of a poor man’s Mike Leigh, let’s put it that way. I mean talented, but he doesn’t go full out like Mike, which is six months rehearsal followed by shooting for months.
Capone: I think it was Richard E. Grant’s first film, too.
GO: A little BBC thing. Oh I was young.
Capone: One of the things that comes along with setting a film during the Cold War is this wonderful old technology, which is both fun and frustrating for us almost to watch how slow everything feels. It looks like we;re just on the verge of new technology coming in at this point in history.
GO: It’s right on the cusp of that.
TA: Yeah, I was born in 1965 and I clearly remember 1973 and what I have been experiencing since 1973 to now. We were discussing the first Mac today in the car that you could carry. It’s fantastic, and the way that affects life actually that you could make decisions at one minute to twelve, and the whole time frame in life was totally different because of technology, but it’s great to make cinema with it.
It’s interesting to see, because you understand if you would have a tape recorder and it broke, you might, if you're a little handy, you could open it and you could see what had happened. But if you would open that [points to my digital recorder], it would be totally incomprehensible, so therefore it’s great to do that on film, because you could actually see what’s happening. You understand the logic of the technology. Today, depicting a computer is one of the most boring images you could have on film.
Capone: Well there’s nothing to look at.
GO: Yeah, you have to go through the wires now, don’t you? That horrible shot of the camera going through the wires in the back of the computer.
Capone: Gary, this would have been the first film of now three with Tom Hardy. Both of you, tell me about working with him.
TA: Is it your third now?
Capone: I just saw a release date for WETTEST COUNTY IN THE WORLD.
GO: Now THE WETTEST COUNTY, Tom is in it, but I don’t work with Tom. I’m in it, if you blink you miss me. I’m a little cameo. The DARK KNIGHT RISES movie I’ve honestly had hardly anything to do with him as well. “Hardly Hardy.” [laughs] I’ve gotten to know him socially. Our paths crossed on the set of DARK KNIGHT, but we weren’t really… I’m in one scene with him, and then I’m unconscious and another scene where he’s in the room. But TINKER, was the one where we really got to share scenes.
TA: But he was very nervous before the first day he met Gary.
Capone: I just saw an interview with him where he said he just watched you and forgot that he was in the scene with you. “Oh, I have to say something here.”
GO: Yeah, he was. It’s flattering. He’s nice, but he’s ascending, isn’t he? What about Cumberbatch? Do you like Cumberbatch?
Capone: I love him. I have seen him in things before, but I took note of him in the FRANKENSTEIN production in London directed by Danny Boyle.
GO: I wish I had seen that.
TA: I missed that, yeah.
Capone: He and Jonny Lee Miller switched roles every other night, and that’s how I kind of learned who he was, and the TV "Sherlock Holmes" now. I understand you became pretty friendly with him.
GO: Yeah, I think he’s just marvelous in that scene where he says, “What’s shrug? Stop shrugging at me." “Get off my back!”
Capone: All right gentlemen, thank you very much.
GO: And you.
Capone: It’s good to meet you, Tomas.
TA: It was nice meeting you.
Capone: Gary, good to meet you. I saw an interview recently where the interviewer was talking about his readers favorite roles of yours, and you made a point to say, "People always forget about JFK. I would like to say for the record that I never forget that movie. I always tell people that even if it's a work of 100 percent fiction, it's still some of the greatest storytelling I've ever seen. You seem to be especially proud of your portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald.
GO: That's true. I still think that's Oliver Stone's best work as a director, so intelligent and perfectly structured. And it's all true, and I know that because I was there. [laughs]