The role in question is George Smiley, the brilliant but reserved British spy who appears in many of John le Carré's novels and was immortalized by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," in which Smiley tries to determine which of his peers is a traitor. Now Oldman is stepping into Guinness' "very big shoes" in a new film adaptation from director Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In"), and the decision to take on the character could have been "a colossal failure," the actor admits. Instead, the role is earning him rave reviews and buzz that one of the most respected actors of his generation will finally score his first Oscar nomination.
Oldman is such a chameleon onscreen, one isn't sure what to expect upon meeting him in person. He has perfected so many accents, you can't even be sure what he'll sound like in real life. Even when he stands next to a poster for the film, it's difficult to believe it's the same man: Smiley has gray hair, a face furrowed by seriousness, and thick glasses obscuring his eyes. Oldman is lithe and sprightly, is prone to bouts of laughter, and looks much younger than his 53 years. Point out that he frequently plays characters much older than himself and he quips, "I'm getting there, though. I'm finally catching up with my last name."
He is old enough, however, to remember when the "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" miniseries aired. "It was the days before TiVo and all that, and you would work your social calendar around that one hour a week on Sunday night," he says. "I remember it quite well, and the shadow that Alec Guinness casts looms large, you know?" Oldman knew that comparisons would be made and feared he would come up short. "I certainly don't put myself in the same league as Alec Guinness. But at the end of the day, I convinced myself; I played a little trick on my head and I thought, 'There's been other Romeos and other Hamlets, and you're always in the shadow of someone that played the role, whether it was Barrymore or Ralph Fiennes.' So I sort of walked through that fire and convinced myself that I was up to the challenge."
In his early film career, Oldman made a name for himself giving wildly entertaining, over-the-top performances in movies like "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element." So it's interesting to note how reined in Smiley is. In the source novel, his wife describes him as a creature who can regulate his body temperature to the room. "He really is the perfect spy," Oldman says. "There are people who light up a room, and there are people who disappear. I thought of Smiley as like watching a lava lamp: It has the pace of snow falling." The actor was able to deliver such a calibrated performance because Alfredson took pains to make a film that would quietly draw the audience in, Oldman says. "You go to movies now, and with 3-D and films that are just cut, cut, cut, you feel like you're being assaulted. I want to take a nap afterwards. But 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' makes you sit up and come to it."
Preparing to play Smiley came easier than preparing most roles, according to Oldman, thanks to the wealth of source material. "Everything you could want to know about George Smiley is in the books," he says. "In addition, I had access to John le Carré, who was a spy at MI-6 during the period where the film is set. It was one-stop shopping." Though he doesn't necessarily stay in character between takes, Oldman admits he was quieter than usual on set. "I kept kind of to myself," he says, adding that he did forge a good friendship with Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Smiley's protégé.
Oldman also might have unintentionally taken his character home with him at the end of the day. "I shot this during the school year, so my wife and children were home in Los Angeles. I rented a little apartment, and it was actually furnished a bit like George's," he says. "So I would finish work and come back home, and I would be alone in this environment. I'd watch TV or sit and read, or just go to bed, but the situation and the surroundings very much complemented the role I was playing."
Up next, Oldman will complete his run in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy as Commissioner James Gordon in the highly anticipated "The Dark Knight Rises." When Oldman is asked to reveal any plot points about the secretive finale, a quick smile crosses his face. "Oh, if only I could," he says with a sigh. But there's no use trying to get anything out of him; he is, after all, the perfect spy.
Other films include "True Romance," "JFK," and "The Contender"
Calls himself a fan of the new generation of British actors, particularly Michael Fassbender and his "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy
His lengthy stage career includes playing opposite Glenda Jackson in "Summit Conference" in 1982 and an award-winning turn in 1985's "The Pope's Wedding"