It's the kind of part that is both exhilarating and terrifying: playing a role already canonized by a great actor, in this case Sir Alec Guinness.
In the month it took Gary Oldman to commit to playing George Smiley in the new movie adaptation of John le Carré's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," the veteran of "The Dark Knight" worried about how his performance would be compared to the acting of Guinness, who played the British spy in a 1979 BBC miniseries. "He was my nemesis," Oldman says in this excerpt from The Envelope Screening Series. Eventually, Oldman overcame his fears, and turned in what has been hailed as one of the year's top performances.
Here's the actor explaining how he convinced himself to play Smiley:
With the carefully paced spy thriller “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” storming the art-house box office this weekend – it notched a whopping $75,000 on each of its four screens -- filmgoers could soon be in for another dose of John le Carre’s iconic George Smiley character.
The man who plays Smiley in “Tinker Tailor” says that a follow-up based on le Carre’s novel “Smiley’s People” is a very viable possibility. “There are whispers,” actor Gary Oldman told 24 Frames. “Actually, I think they are more than whispers. I think it could very well happen.”
A “Smiley’s People” film would be based on le Carre’s third book in the so-called Karla Trilogy. (The second tome, “The Honourable Schoolboy,” is set largely in Asia and also did not rate an adaptation when the BBC turned “Tinker Tailor” and then “Smiley’s People” into miniseries material in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.)
In the Cold War trilogy’s final novel, the taciturn Smiley is now retired from the Circus, the secretive British espionage agency. But his life is shaken up when an agent and friend turns up dead, as the battle between Smiley and Soviet arch-nemesis Karla begins to intensify.
As Oldman sees it, the well-reviewed “Tinker Tailor” introduces viewers to a bevy of characters who could then be mobilized, with a minimum of exposition, for the new story. “We've basically set the kitchen up, so we can just come in with another recipe,” the actor said.
Certainly filmmakers would have cinematic justification. While this movie’s ending (spoiler alert, skip ahead if you’d rather not know), shows Smiley back in charge, it leaves tantalizingly open the issues of how long and under what conditions.
But a new film also wouldn’t necessarily look to pick up on every dangling strand from this picture. “It’s a very good story and it can hold up on its own,” said Oldman of a “Smiley’s People” adaptation. ”It’s a sequel but it’s not a sequel. It’s rather like ‘The Godfather: Part II’ in that sense.”
Of course, any new Smiley film would have to make financial sense. "Tinker Tailor" has performed well in the U.K., where it topped the box office for nearly a month, but the Focus Features film's commercial fate in the far larger U.S. market will be determined as the movie widens in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Oldman said he thought a new movie would work creatively only if—fittingly for a spy thriller—the team came back together, principally producers Working Title, himself and enigmatic director Tomas Alfredson.
Alfredson could be a wild card. The director has evinced a clear preference for mixing things up, as you can see from this recent interview with The Times, and it’s an open question whether he’d want to return to the same territory.
At the very least, he’ll be working on a movie in his native Sweden for his next project, according to him and Oldman, which would put a “Smiley’s People” at least a few years away. Given the deliberate pacing of “Tinker Tailor,” though, that should be a relatively minor wait.
[For the record: An earlier version of this post stated that in the book "Smiley's People," George Smiley is in charge of the British spy agency, known as the Circus. He is retired.]
Gary Oldman gives a very restrained performance as George Smiley, the master British spy at the center of "Tinker Tailor Solider Spy." Sometimes, Oldman says in this interview from the Envelope Screening Series, director Tomas Alfredson found Oldman's acting just a bit too subtle. Doing a scene in a movie, Oldman says, is a bit like climbing a mountain a step at a time, and in "Tinker Tailor" he wasn't always sure he could reach the summit.
The new Cold War spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" had its work cut out for it, first in condensing the 400 pages of John le Carré's 1974 novel into two hours of screen time, and then in surviving comparisons to the beloved 1979 BBC television adaptation. But with an ensemble cast led by Gary Oldman as a veteran British spy hunting down a double agent, the film is garnering many positive reviews.
The Times' Kenneth Turan says "Tinker Tailor" is "endlessly rich in incident, atmosphere and personality, a film that leaves us hanging on by the barest skin of our teeth as we try to figure out who is doing what to whom and why." It is, Turan writes, "perhaps the great spy tale of our time." Calling the film "masterfully directed," Turan praises Swedish director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") and his handling of "a superb ensemble cast." Screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan also score points for "artfully compressing" Le Carré's novel.
When people think of movie spies these days, they generally picture Daniel Craig's rough-and-tumble James Bond or Matt Damon's kinetic action man Jason Bourne. But British author John le Carré’s George Smiley is cut from a much more understated, tweed and elbow-patches sort of cloth, even as rendered by Gary Oldman in the new update of the novelist's espionage saga “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which comes to U.S. theaters on Friday.
Oldman delivers a minimalist performance, with Smiley not even speaking for the first 16 minutes of the film. In a role in which even the smallest half-smile can seem a grand gesture, Oldman turned to director Tomas Alfredson to gauge how expressive to be.
“If you’re going to rein something in and be that minimal, then you gotta have a barometer outside yourself saying, ‘Oh, that’s too small’ or ‘adjust it here or there,’” Oldman told 24 Frames at the party following the film’s L.A. premiere on Tuesday.
Alfredson and Oldman had several discussions about the character before production, but once shooting began, their communication was “almost telepathic,” Alfredson said. The non-verbal direction proved helpful as it was the Swedish director’s first English-language film.
“We very early decided to trust each other and that he should trust the silence,” Alfredson said. “I’ve said to him, ‘Trust me and trust the camera. You will communicate even from your neck. I will see to that.’ … He has been so brave to carry this almost all-silent part.”
Oldman said he drew a lot from Le Carré’s book to craft his approach to the character, and he also took inspiration from meeting Le Carré and from a photo Alfredson gave him of British writer Graham Greene “posing in a mackintosh a little like Smiley’s.” But he was careful to not be influenced by other portrayals of Smiley by actors such as Sir Alec Guinness, who played the role in the 1979 British TV miniseries of "Tinker Tailor."
“I didn’t worry about past performances. To have revisited it, you would feel that you were doing an impersonation,” Oldman said.
When “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” opens in American theaters Friday, it won’t be the first time the John le Carré novel has been brought to the screen. But it will be the first time the spy story has been adapted since the end of the Cold War, giving the filmmakers more of an outsider perspective on the conflict than the creators of the 1979 miniseries had.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” -- about Le Carré's iconic spy character George Smiley as he’s forced into retirement -- was published in 1974. (Smiley appears in other Le Carré books as well.) In this adaptation, Gary Oldman fills Smiley's shoes, which have been worn in various projects by Sir Alec Guinness, Rupert Davies and James Mason.
At the film’s L.A. premiere on Tuesday, Colin Firth said the 1979 TV adaptation of "Tinker Tailor" was viewed as “an up-to-date, up-to-the-minute documentation of how these things really unfold. Now of course we can take a rather patronizing look back at how wrong everybody was.” The actor plays intelligence officer Bill Haydon in the film.
Some cynicism about the Cold War comes through in a scene when Smiley is talking with MI6 researcher Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke). She says of World War II, “It was a good time.” “It was a war,” Smiley responds, to which Burke says, “It was a real war. Englishmen could be proud then.”
“I don’t think we could have made this film back then. I think there’d have been political implications. It’s given us distance,” co-writer Peter Straughan said.
That four decades-long distance not only creates the opportunity to take a more cynical, critical perspective of the Cold War; it also has given the filmmakers the opportunity to keep the movie focused on the themes of friendship and betrayal.
“If we had done this when the Cold War was going on, people might have wanted us to be more political or dramatic or tried to be philosophical about the East-West conflict. We have chosen to make a very character-driven and emotional drama,” director Tomas Alfredson said.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” comes to U.S. theaters Friday, following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and a September opening in Britain.
British actor Ralph Fiennes, who stalked theaters earlier this year as the dark wizard Lord Voldemort in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2," returns to the silver screen in the coming weeks to make his film directing debut with "Coriolanus." In the adaptation of the Shakespeare play, Fiennes also costars as a banished general who seeks revenge on his own country.
Fiennes recently told 24 Frames which of his peers' films he's anticipating most this award season, and like "Coriolanus," it's a tale of opposing nations, intrigue and betrayal:
"I'm really looking forward to seeing Gary Oldman in 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.' I love Gary Oldman's work. I just think he's a genius actor and I long to see him in a heavyweight role."
In "Tinker, Tailor," which opens Dec. 9, Oldman plays a veteran British spy hunting a Soviet mole within the intelligence agency MI6. The film is based on the 1974 novel by John le Carre. "Coriolanus," meanwhile, opens Dec. 2 in Los Angeles and New York for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run ahead of a Jan. 20 nationwide release.
Which film or performance are you most looking forward to this season? Is it Fiennes' first time in the director's chair, Oldman's heavyweight return or something else altogether? Let us know in the comments.
Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carre's spy thriller "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," Steve McQueen's NC-17-rated "Shame" and Paddy Considine's drama "Tyrannosaur" lead the 14th British Independent Film Award nominations Monday morning with seven each.
Those three pictures were all nominated for Best British Independent Film, along with the Formula One documentary "Senna" and Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
The other nominations announced Monday:
Best director: Ben Wheatley for "Kill List," plus McQueen, Alfredson, Considine, and Ramsay.
Douglas Hickox Award for best directorial debut: Joe Cornish, "Attack the Block"; Ralph Fiennes, "Coriolanus"; John Michael McDonagh, "The Guard"; Richard Ayoade, "Submarine" and Considine.
Best actress: Rebecca Hall, "The Awakening"; Mia Wasikowska, "Jane Eyre"; MyAnna Buring, "Kill List"; Olivia Colman, "Tyrannosaur;" Tilda Swinton, "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Best actor: Brendan Gleeson, "The Guard"; Neil Maskell, "Kill List"; Michael Fassbender, "Shame"; Gary Oldman, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"; Peter Mullan, "Tyrannosaur."
Best achievement in production: "Kill List," "Tyrannosaur," "Weekend," "Wild Bill," "You Instead."
The awards will be handed out in a ceremony on Dec. 4 in London.
Unlike many of the movies that debuted at the Venice Film Festival in recent days, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" isn't making a quick leap across the Atlantic to another cinematic gathering in, say, Toronto or New York.
The film is set to soon begin a slow rollout in Europe, but U.S. fans of the John Le Carre espionage novel (or 1970s miniseries) will have to wait until December to see Swedish director's Tomas Alfredson's take on the tale of George Smiley and his hunt for a mole within British spy agency MI6. But early reviews out of Venice indicate that their patience will be rewarded.
Leslie Felperin, writing for Variety, says the film –- starring Gary Oldman as Smiley -- is an "inventive, meaty distillation" of the book and offers "an incisive examination of Cold War ethics, rich in both contempo resonance and elegiac melancholy." Felperin adds that just as Le Carre's novel captured the mid-1970s zeitgeist of disillusionment with politicians and those in power, coming as it did after Watergate, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Shah in Iran, this remake "catches the newest wave of disillusionment and anxiety. It may be a period piece, right down to the slacks flared just so and the vintage wallpaper, but it feels painfully apt now to revisit the early-to-mid-1970s, when things were just about to fall apart.”
Alfredson may be best known to Americans for his Nordic vampire tale "Let the Right One In," which was remade last year into the English-language "Let Me In." Besides Oldman, "Tinker, Tailor" offers the chance to see Colin Firth off his Oscar-winning role in "The King's Speech." The cast also includes John Hurt, Ciaran Hinds and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Deborah Young says in the Hollywood Reporter that the film "shows a faithfulness that should fully meet the expectations of the writer's fans" and says it's "visually absorbing" and "a solid piece of thinking-man's entertainment for upmarket thriller audiences."
Xan Brooks of the Guardian called the movie "the film to beat" at Venice. We'll see shortly: The Golden Lion will be handed out Saturday.
Photo: Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt arrive for the premiere of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" at the Venice Film Festival on Monday. Credit: Joel Ryan / Associated Press