Earlier this week, Gary Oldman did a Q&A after a Hollywood screening of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as part of a retrospective of his work. The actor discussed the difference between adapting this tale now, after the Cold War era had come and gone, as opposed to the British mini-series adaptation, which aired in 1979.
"Oddly, I think it was a little more nostalgic then. I think the TV series, as brilliant as it is, was a sort of cozy British affair. The characters were a little more huggable, and it was a little more nostalgic. This has more of a harder edge, and, certainly this Smiley is a less huggable character than (Alec) Guinness was. He was nearly 70 when he played the role. I think the movie is as relevant, really, today. I don't know what's changed a great deal. I think faces have changed, locations changed, the enemy has changed, but we go through these periods of stability, with the occasional promise of annihilation."
Gary Oldman also revealed his initial trepidation in stepping into such big shoes for the role of George Smiley.
"I was offered the role outright, which is unusual, because normally, there are things that you want, and you can't even get in the door. The director's mind is made up, and he wants a particular actor. But this one was unusual. I was literally in my kitchen, having a cup of coffee, and the phone rang. I often think that, the best part of being an actor is the phone call. You get the phone call and they say 'You're playing Hamlet.' Then you say 'I'm playing Hamlet!' Then you put the phone down and say, 'Shit, I'm playing Hamlet.' Then you know you have all that work ahead of you. So, I said I was intrigued and interested. I knew the work, I knew the book, I knew the role. I dilly-dallied, for about a month. I was thinking about it constantly, but I was paralyzed by fear, because Guinness was so iconic, and had become the face of Smiley. You're stepping into these big shoes, of an actor who is part of the establishment, was knighted, very much beloved. I was, basically, just projecting. I was putting myself up as a target, and thought they would crucify me if I did this."
"It was very liberating and freeing, in a strange kind of way. You have a great text. You have an incredible source material. When you have a good script, if you're intuitive, then you follow the road signs. If you're working up a sweat, you're working too hard. Many times, when you feel you are working harder than you should be, you're trying to support the material, you're working too hard for it. This comes along a few times in a career, the writing of this quality. All the sub-text is all in the book. Everything you want to know about the Cold War, Smiley, how to play him, is in that 500 pages. You never felt you were a cork out in the water, trying to make it work, which is what you're often asked to do, as an actor."
When the questions started filtering in from the audience, Gary Oldman pontificated on his start in the movie business, and how he never envisioned he would act in films.
"This whole movie career, for me, is a miracle. It's a surprise. For me, my training was the theater, and that's what my training was for. I spent nine, 10 years in the theater. Movies were things that other people did. I remember being at drama school and seeing Taxi Driver, which I saw about 11 times when I was a student. I just thought it was people like (Al) Pacino, (Robert) De Niro, and Gene Hackman, that had movie careers. Those guys did movies. I never dreamed, in a million years, that I would be in film."