From Sid to Smiley

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


Gary Oldman has got to the age - he turns 54 on March 21 - when lifetime achievement awards are the norm. 'I've a number of them and a few I've had to turn down because I can't physically be in two places at once,' the actor says, in a voice so unassuming and deliberate it's hard to match it to the hyper-intense characters he's played in films such as Leon, Air Force One and The Fifth Element.

His latest is the Gotham Award - quite apt given he's been introduced to a new generation of fans as the moustached keeper of Gotham City, Commissioner Jim Gordon, in Christopher Nolan's Batman series. A tribute reel was shown before fellow actor Alec Baldwin presented him with the prize. 'We went backstage afterwards to take some photographs and he said to me, 'Jesus, man, what a f****** reel that is!' And when you see the gallery of the characters in two minutes, even I sit there and go 'Woah!''

You only have to think of the iconic characters Oldman has played to imagine just how powerful it must have been: Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy), Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears), Ludwig van Beethoven (Immortal Beloved), Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK), not to mention the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula. He now has another to add to that list: George Smiley, the veteran MI6 agent at the centre of John le Carre's classic novel of betrayal, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

We meet in a London hotel bar near Hyde Park in mid-December - just an hour before the Golden Globe nominations are announced. Oldman, as he will discover, has been overlooked. He's almost used to it by now, having been snubbed by the Oscars repeatedly. 'It's not something I think about. We just had the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] nominations, which I'm not in. And I've had e-mails from people who have seen Tinker Tailor... and they have kindly said, 'I can't understand it'. I just say, 'Understanding is the booby prize. Don't even waste your energy trying'. You move on.'

As it turns out, Oldman later received a Bafta and an Oscar nomination - only to be beaten both times by The Artist's Jean Dujardin. He even had to face the indignity of his Leon co-star Natalie Portman, a winner for Black Swan last year, present the Oscar to Dujardin after telling Oldman in front of millions that it was 'crazy' that this marked his first ever Oscar nod. As if he needed reminding. Still, he's too classy to gripe, particularly since Smiley is his best work in years, even eclipsing memories of Alec Guinness, who played the character in the BBC adaptation.

Moreover, Smiley represents his first leading role after a decade when, by his own reckoning, his most famous outing was voicing a character in the Call of Duty video game series. 'It was lovely,' he says, referring to having a crack at being Smiley. 'And I got to have a go with all of them - that was the great thing.' By which he means the stunning parade of British actors - Colin Firth, John Hurt and Tom Hardy to name but three - who help thicken the web of intrigue as Smiley tries to unearth a mole in their ranks. Oldman calls the experience 'a harmonic convergence' - where everything from the cast to the script is perfectly in synch. Even so, it took the producers 10 months of fruitless casting searches before they thought about Oldman. 'It's a weird one, this one,' he says. 'It came in as an offer and it just fell from the sky. You can engineer and steer a career to some extent, but you are at the mercy of the industry and what they're making, and you're at the mercy of the imagination of the people that are casting you. You can get into a bit of a rut. You can get typed.' In his eyes, director Tomas Alfredson saw beyond the archetypal Oldman - or, as the actor puts it: 'Screaming my lungs out'.

Casting Oldman as the taciturn Smiley is what you might call thinking out of the box, given he spends much of the film quietly observing the others at 'the Circus' - as le Carre's MI6 is dubbed. 'He's still doing something even though he's sitting there and listening,' argues Oldman. 'And that's what you're trying to do. There's an action, even in the passivity of it. But I was thrilled to be asked to sit there and listen. I've played a lot of characters that physicalise everything. So it was quite a relief to be able to hold it all in.'

There's talk that Oldman will return for another le Carre outing - Smiley's People - though not before we see him in the conclusion to Nolan's Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises, in the summer. Just three weeks before we meet he was on a city block rooftop, playing Commissioner Gordon for the very last time on the final night of the shoot. 'It was sad to retire him, in a way,' he says. 'They gave me a box, and it has my badge, the glasses and underneath, they've taken a moustache, one that they stick on the stunt-men, and given me that.'

Much of the reason Oldman took to playing smaller roles with larger paycheques in franchises such as Batman and Harry Potter was simply to look after Gulliver, 14, and Charlie, 13, his two boys (he has two older sons as well) from his third marriage (to Donya Fiorentino). 'I wanted to really make a decision. Am I going to be a dad who's always away, or am I going to be a dad who's around?' he explains. 'So I've worked less to do that.' Partly, he says, this is why he never followed up his sole directorial effort - 1997's searing Nil By Mouth. 'Now they're at an age where maybe I can work more.'

With marriages to actresses Lesley Manville and Uma Thurman prior to his time with Fiorentino, Oldman's now on his fourth union, to English jazz singer Alexandra Edenborough, 19 years his junior. It means that despite living in America for the past 23 years - seven in New York, 16 in LA - he still has ties to England. 'I've got family here, in-laws,' he says, not to mention his beloved soccer team, Millwall. He grew up in southeast London, where Nil By Mouth was set, working dead-end jobs (even beheading pigs in an abattoir) before landing a place at a drama school in Kent.

When I press Oldman on whether he gets nostalgic for his old movies, he clams up. 'I tend not to like the work very much,' he says.

Is he critical of his acting? 'Some of it. Yeah, I'd stamp it into the ground. I'd set fire to it.' Like what? 'Sid and Nancy. It's funny. There are moments in it, but I see it as almost like a vaudeville act. Before the curtain went up. There are bits in Prick Up Your Ears I can't bear. And I see sometimes things come on the TV, and I have to just switch them over.'

It's a shocking revelation. But I suspect he doesn't feel that way about George Smiley.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens on Thursday