While preparing to star as George Smiley in the recent film adaptation of John le Carre’s classic spy novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” Gary Oldman was visited by the ghost of Alec Guinness.
Not literally, mind you. No erudite British poltergeist appeared in his bedroom. But it was impossible not to see Guinness’ Smiley, the one ingrained in countless memories from the 1979 television adaptation of the book, hovering over this updated project.
“For those who read the books and knew the character, it was already iconic,” Oldman says. “He put it over the edge and became the face of Smiley.”
Oldman said he is an enormous fan of Guinness, and therefore greeted the challenge of playing Smiley in director Tomas Alfredson’s version with the deepest amount of respect.
“I approached it much like any actor approaches a classic role,” he says. “There are other King Lears, other Hamlets, other Romeos. They enjoyed longevity because they’re great parts and great pieces. That’s how I looked at it.
“You hope to find things in the character that maybe Guinness didn’t push to the fore,” Oldman says. “There’s a cruelty, a meaner side to Smiley, which is there in the books. I think Guinness’ Smiley was more loveable, huggable. That’s a wonderful thing to say, by the way.
“Growing up, Guinness was very much a hero of mine. To say I might have found a nuance in the character, whether I did or didn’t, it’s quite nice to be in the company of Alec Guinness.”
Oldman says the role eventually came to his attention because his name unexpectedly popped up during a meeting of producers
“I believe they were discussing the usual suspects,” he recalls. “It may have been Tim Bevan who said, ‘What about Gary Oldman?’ And from that day, as directors often do, Tomas got obsessed with the idea. He couldn’t see anyone else doing it, which was lucky for me.”
It was also apparently a blast, since the cast included such other U.K. heavyweights as John Hurt, Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds.
“We got a bit naughty,” Oldman says with a chuckle. “When you get a bunch of thespians around a conference table, it can get quite lively.”