If you’ve seen Gary Oldman play Sid Vicious (“Sid and Nancy”), Lee Harvey Oswald (“JFK”) or Dracula (“Dracula”), you know Gary can be scary. In fact, “Scary Gary” was reportedly his on-set nickname during “Air Force One,” in which he played a terrorist.
So it’s quite the reality check to watch and listen as the 53-year-old, soft-spoken Englishman talks about eating Gary’s popcorn (not Garrett's, I asked) and watching “The Sound of Music” in Grant Park while in Chicago to film “The Dark Knight.” The veteran actor certainly seems far from his many villains and closer to the accessible calmness that appeared when he played Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” franchise.
In “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” (opening Dec. 16), Oldman shows how much he can do without making a lot of noise or saying much at all. In the film, based on John le Carre’s novel that inspired a popular BBC miniseries, Oldman plays George Smiley, a British spy who never shows his hand as he tries to identify the Russian mole in his operation. Colin Firth and Tom Hardy co-star.
At the Peninsula Hotel, L.A.-resident Oldman and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), 46, talked about acting with tiny facial muscles, James Bond’s foolish tactics and Voldemort’s ultimate villainy.
Why do you think that these days most spy movies come with explosions and chase sequences, rather than the restraint of “Tinker Tailor”?
Gary Oldman: There’s a poster in here somewhere where it says that John le Carre redefined the thriller. I think that’s what it says. He lived in that world. He’s writing from a very subjective point of view. This is closer to the world of spies than, say, the Ian Fleming world. It’s the anti-Bond. It’s not a particularly glamorous world of Aston Martins and tuxedos and casinos.
Who would win a war of wits between George Smiley and James Bond?
GO: Smiley. I can’t think of any other spy that actually goes to places and then lets people know who he is. Everywhere he goes: “Bond. James Bond.” “There he is over there. Kill him.” “There he is; that’s him.”
He is a very easy target.
GO: He’s always struck me as a very easy target!
And yet no one can kill him.
GO: I loved the James Bond series but could never get my head around that. That he tells everyone who he is.
Gary, you’ve done a lot of work with accents throughout your career. How much time did you spend on this one?
GO: Well, I had to go back and learn English again because I have lived in America for so long that there are things now that my speech has really changed over the years. And American, that’s the accent I hear all the time. So I had to really brush up on my original way of speaking because … my A’s are a little flatter, my R’s are a little harder.
You once said the Illinois accent is a very flat, unimaginative thing. Should we be offended?
GO: No, I don’t think you should be offended. I just think that there wasn’t a great deal of musicality in it. I had to focus; I really had to concentrate. Was I referring to Shelly Runyon in “The Contender”?
GO: I had to work very hard every day to keep it. Because there’s little clues that you have and accents tend to have their own inherent musicality, they have a rhythm to them and that you hear the original accent, you hear the Irish in an Irish-American, you can hear the Italian in an Italian-[American], New York for instance. And those things, the ear latches onto those things as an actor. And I found that Illinois didn’t have the same musicality.
I read that you used to do Beatles accents. Can you give a Beatles impression for the camera?
GO: [doing impression] Oh, I could probably do a bit of George Harrison. He used to talk out of the side of his mouth like that.
Can you switch from one Beatle to the next?
GO: [as Ringo] Well, there’s Ringo. [as Paul] And there’s Paul, you know he’s up there, he talks like that. [as John] And you know there’s John. [As himself] Yeah, I used to do them as a kid.
Tomas, do you do any accents?
GO: [Still in Beatles accents] Now you do the Beatles!
Tomas Alfredson: I could do different Swedish accents if you want. [Speaks in Swedish]
How about a Swedish chef?
TA: Well, that’s the American interpretation of how a Swede would talk. [Does impression.]
Tomas, tell me something you wanted to challenge Gary to do in this role.
TA: Well, the biggest challenge for him was not to do so much. To be as spare as possible. And that takes a lot of courage and a lot of experience to dare to do. I think it’s fantastic to see how he uses the tiniest muscles there are in his face and in his body to express himself when the camera is so closely looking at him. I imagine it would be very a feeling of standing very naked in front of the camera without very strong words to say or actions to play.
Gary, do you prefer playing a villain or a hero, and how do you think Voldemort’s evil compares to the evil of villains you’ve played?
GO: Well you go through phrases in a career. So maybe I’m coming into my quieter phase. I have played my share of bad guys. But nothing compares to the evil of Voldemort. Even Dracula wants to drink your blood but you can feel some compassion for him. I don’t think you can for Voldemort.
He’s just trying to kill Harry Potter though, not the President [like Oldman’s character in “Air Force One,” and when Oldman played Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK.”]
GO: Yes, but I think as a cinema villain, Voldemort, that creation, he gets the prize.
There’s been much talk of you being possibly the greatest actor to not be nominated for an Oscar. Have we thought much about that happening for this film?
GO: You hear the odd rumor that it could be the year. I’ve not been nominated before but …
TA: You’re not against it.
GO: No, I’m not against it. And I’m not particularly resentful. It’s something I really don’t think about. Last year I was very happy for Colin. I think he’s done a lot of work and I felt that his performance in “The King’s Speech” was a remarkable piece of acting. I watch the show and my feeling is just, you know, good luck to ‘em. … It’s always nice that you do the work and the people like it and if they want to honor it, I’m not against that. There’s no shame in that.
On Chicago: “I’ve shot three films here. And the last time I was here would be with ‘The Dark Knight.’ It was over the summer and I went the, you know they have the festival, the outdoor screenings, so my memory is of Garrett’s popcorn … I got a picnic basket together and went to the park and watched ‘The Sound of Music.’ … Great history, great architecture. And good food. We sampled some of that last night, didn’t we?” (GO) “Yes we did. We went to Gibson’s and ate gigantic steaks.” (TA)
Did either one of them ever want to be Batman? “I am Batman. Didn’t you know?” (TA) “[Laughs.] I don’t have the physique. It’s a younger man’s [part].” (GO)
On their iPod: Beach Boys’ “Smile” re-issue (TA); Frank Sinatra (GO)
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