When he started work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Gary Oldman wasn’t feeling himself. Ahead of him lay the prize role of endlessly wily British agent George Smiley in a big-screen retelling of John le Carré’s iconic thriller.
But there was a problem. He was scared – fearful after 30 years in the trade that audiences might no longer have a taste for him.
“I haven’t played the lead in a long time,” he frowns. “And carrying a movie is terrifying. You get up in the morning and desperately have to tell yourself you’re charismatic enough to do it – stare into the mirror and say: ‘Oh God… am I still interesting?’”
Panic spreads across his face – until he erupts into laughter. “Then the first day comes, you walk in, and everyone is there, excited about the film, excited to see you.
And you’re thinking, ‘Yes, hello. Here I am. The one person here who can f*** this up for all of us.’”
I wait for another laugh. It doesn’t arrive. “You do feel the responsibility.”
He pushes back his gently greying hair. A well-preserved 53, he’s affable but businesslike, his wardrobe a ragtag mix of smart blue blazer and bottom-of-the-drawer T-shirt.
Anyone whose clearest image of him is the cocksure kid who lit up British cinema during the 1980s would have to squint to find him here – but so would those who know him best from his roles as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies or honest cop Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.
They’re all a long way from Smiley, the grey, taciturn centre of le Carré’s spy novels, unforgettably played by Alec Guinness in the 1979 TV series.
Despite this new version being made by Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson (director of acclaimed horror movie Let the Right One In), the story remains categorically British. And it comes, as Oldman knows, with yet more responsibility.
“It had to be faithful to le Carré,” he says. “Adult. Intellectual.” The words are slowly measured out. “It couldn’t be filled with things
exploding. It’s not Bourne or Bond. I sit in various rooms, listening. I ask the odd question.”
Hence the fear of dwindling charisma? “Yes, there’s no bouncing off the ceiling to distract people. But the script was just so… [a raffish twinkle] delicious.”
Nevertheless, he hesitated before signing up, owing to “the ghost of Alec Guinness – I had to wrestle with him first.” But, in fact, it feels
absolutely right for Oldman to be filling the “big shoes” of his predecessor.
The most gifted British actor of his generation, he’s also now, strangely enough, an elder statesman. However stellar the cast around him (including Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch), it’s Oldman who runs the show.
His strongest advocate is le Carré himself, who declares that if Guinness had lived to see Oldman’s performance he would have been the first to give his heir a “standing ovation”.
I tell him I should put my cards on the table; he peers at me quizzically. I’ll lay them out here, too. Despite the chestnut about never meeting your heroes, this is exactly what I’m doing.
In my teens, I was wowed by the swaggering poise of Oldman’s early performances. He was simply one of the biggest reasons I went to the movies.
He smiles and thanks me, his expression somewhere between feeling his age and wondering if I’m a stalker. Undeterred, I say I could spend hours here poring over his films
There’s an epic pause. “But I forget them,” he says, finally. “I get mixed up with the when and the where.” He was recently asked to make a list of his favourite roles for an award ceremony. Dutifully compiling it, he then received a puzzled call from the organisers – because he’d missed so many out.
“I said, ‘Oh… JFK! I was Lee Harvey Oswald, wasn’t I? The Firm! Oh yeah.’ I watch the films when they come out, then they’re done. And most of them feel like a faraway land now.”
I, on the other hand, remember them all: from the name-making turns in Britain – an oddball skinhead in Mike Leigh’s Meantime, the doomed antihero of Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears – to the cavalcade of misfits and villains he unveiled in America at the turn of the 90s in the likes of Leon, State of Grace and True Romance.
A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good
And he stayed in the States. If Britain at the time was a place where the tabloids obsessed about his love life and struggles with drink (he’s been teetotal since the mid-90s), Hollywood offered both greater anonymity and juicier roles.
He remains in Los Angeles, his two youngest sons growing up with an English father in an American culture. Oldman’s a virtuoso with accents, but his own has erratic edges, an Americanised “liderally” colliding with a genteel “my word!” and a proper Londoner’s “y’know what I mean?”.
The last trait is a relic of still more distant times – a rough childhood in hard-up Deptford, where his father walked out when he was seven. I ask him if he ever goes back.
“Occasionally. It doesn’t change. London changes, but Deptford is… Deptford. The same men I was always scared of but fascinated by are all still there. In the pub.”
In fact, they fascinated him so much that the one film directed by him is all about them – the scaldingly brilliant Nil by Mouth (1997), starring Ray Winstone as a monster of a family man.
Inspired by his upbringing, it’s a movie he’s proud of but doesn’t want to be defined by. “I try not to get misty-eyed. For a long time I thought it was the only story I could tell because it was my story – but all that was only ever 15 years of my life. I’m older now, I’ve done a lot of other things. It’s just one book in the library of Gary.”
But plans for further ventures behind the camera were delayed by new priorities. In the same year as Nil by Mouth his (third) wife Donya Fiorentino had the first of their two sons. By 2001, their relationship was over.
In the messy aftermath, Oldman won custody of the boys. It was a victory that shaped his career for the next decade, with its regular supporting gigs in vast franchises like Potter and Batman, where he could earn well on a schedule that still allowed him to be home for dinner.
“Directing is all-consuming, and with acting, life circumstances dictate the work you can do. For the last ten years I’ve been bringing up two kids. That’s been my project. I had to decide to be a dad who wasn’t there, or a dad who was. And I was both mum and dad. So I chose. When people asked me to shoot for ten weeks in Prague, I said I couldn’t do it.”
There’s a certain note to his voice when he mentions Potter in particular – respectful, grateful, but admitting it was a job taken not through grand passion but through the need to juggle parenting with bill-paying.
But things change. The Potters are at an end and his sons are “older now, they need less looking after. And I’ve remarried [to British singer Alexandra Edenborough]. My life circumstances are different.”
Rather than continuing as Hollywood’s most prestigious cog, he sees himself permanently returning to leading roles in “grown-up stories – films you can chew on”.
And first among them is Tinker Tailor. “I’ve seen the film twice now,” he says. “The first time, all you see is you. But the second, I could see it properly. And it’s good.”
He glances outside, to the sunshine. “As it turns out, I didn’t f*** it up.”