Film: A Conversation with Actor Gary Oldman and Director Tomas Alfredson on The New Spy Thriller ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’

Conversations / Film & Animation / December 16, 2011

Film: A Conversation with Actor Gary Oldman and Director Tomas Alfredson on The New Spy Thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Photo: Sean Dackermann

In the opening scene of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, two men casually meet in a quaint and somewhat desolate cafe in downtown Budapest. What begins as a frivolous conversation turns operative as one of the men attempts to buy information from the other. They’re both spies working for opposing governments. Nothing is what it seems, and the cautious British spy is shot dead as he tries to flee when his cover is blown.

The hollowed and unforgiving world of espionage during the Cold War is the backdrop for Tomas Alfredson’s impressive new espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy.

Adapted from the novel by famed British author, John le Carré and the 1979 British mini-series, the film stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a retired, middle-aged former British intelligent agent forced out of retirement to track down and uncover a Soviet mole in the British Intelligence Agency. A gorgeously-shot period piece that recalls the dreary, suspect world of international intelligence and Cold War paranoia, the film is director Tomas Alfredson’s follow-up to the celebrated coming-of-age vampire film Let the Right One In.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Director Tomas Alfredson

During a press tour of the film, both director Tomas Alfredson and actor Gary Oldman were kind enough to sit down with Meets Obsession to discuss the making of the film.

Meets Obsession [To Tomas]: With developing this film from a novel and a mini-series, there’s such a wealth of source material, yet the film flows together so organically, what were some of the biggest challenges to put this film together?

Tomas: I think it was to create as much space for silence as possible, so that the audience wouldn’t just immediately digest information, but choose information before swallowing and digesting it. I did a TV series many years ago and I remember doing a single scene that was something like 8 pages. It was a nightmare to film because it was so stuffed with information that we had to have the scene and we couldn’t divide it into several scenes. We shot it and it turned out to be 12 minutes. A 12-minute scene is quite something to work with in the editing room- I think I sat there for two or three weeks editing…and trying to boil it down to something comprehensible. But, after two or three weeks, the answer was clear- we had to make it longer. So we put in silences and pauses and suddenly you could see it and understand it.

I fought a lot to create images of information rather than having characters verbally referring to things happening. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know we’ve made some rearrangements, especially with Ricki Tarr’s back story, which sort of starts off the book and the miniseries. We didn’t want to leave our hero to be left undefined for that long and be drawn into something else, that was the main idea when we started it.

MO: As a film that takes place during the Cold War, it still feels very relevant. How do you feel it speaks to the anxieties of the world now?

Gary: Well, I don’t think much has changed, the faces have changed, the enemies have changed, or as we now call them, the opponents. The novel and the mini-series, I think, has enjoyed the life it’s had because ultimately it doesn’t go into the big philosophical questions of politics. The cold war serves as a backdrop to the story about these very lonely, very damaged people. It’s about these themes- love lost, friendship, betrayal, loyalty, all on a very personal level.

MO [To Tomas]: Obviously, loyalty and honor are a huge theme in the film. With so much betrayal going within the context of the film, how much did you want to make the characters sympathetic?

Tomas: I think if you were to look at the mole, that person must be damaged in many ways. He is described as a fanatic who thinks he’s doing something good for the enemy, but in order to do that he has to betray all his friends, even one of his best friends, his wife and himself.  You have to be a very damaged person to have that ability. As a director, you have to understand and have some kind of respect for all the characters, even the villains. The characters in the story suffer a lot and have chosen this very strange place to be. What they’re going through is in one way likable, because they suffer so much, which is, somehow, a likable thing, even though some of them do nasty things to each other. But it’s too complex to lock these characters into simple good and bad archetypes. I think they all do good and bad stuff, all of them. Even George does bad things for the greater good. It’s impossible to just paint them black and white.

MO: [To Gary]: What sort of cues did you take from Alec Guiness’s portrayal of George Smiley in the 1979 mini-series? It seems like your portrayal is much more edgier than the mini-series and the novel.

Gary: The ghost of Guiness was very present because he was such a part of the establishment of the film world. He was a revered actor, I’m not sure if he won an Oscar, maybe an honorary Oscar, but by the time he played George Smiley he was nearly 70, so it was like a ‘grandmaster’ kind of thing. He was the definitive face for George Smiley, so being offered the role and being a part of it was a no-brainer for me. It was as a “I’ve waited 30 years for this role” kind of thing for me. It’s a great opportunity, but I didn’t say ‘yes’ immediately because it was the fear of filling such large shoes that made me apprehensive.

I remember when I was deciding if I should sign on, I was in a hotel in Utah and I’m thinking to myself “what am I doing? what am I doing? Of course I’m going to do this, I’ve got to do this!” So I emailed [Tomas] and I said “I’m in,” and he sent me a smiley face back [laughs]. I thought “that’s his response? What does that mean? I think it means George Smiley” [laughs].

MO: Is that what you meant?

Tomas: [laughs] Yeah. It was my way of saying I was thrilled he signed on.

MO [To Gary]: I read in an interview that you carried around the role of George Smiley like a friend. How is it now that the film is done, what about playing the character of George Smiley do you miss?

Gary: Playing George, I felt as though my blood pressure lowered. Obviously it’s great to play someone who’s the smartest man in the room because I’ve played some fairly stupid characters in my career [laughs]. So, carrying him around was like being with a buddy; he was my pal.

Film: A Conversation with Actor Gary Oldman and Director Tomas Alfredson on The New Spy Thriller 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'
Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 

Here’s the hard thing about [acting] sometimes: you have to analyze and objectify what you do because, right now we’re in this situation where we’re talking about it and I’m asked to analyze intuition, what I do intuitively. There were a lot of scenes where we came in and rehearsed and went through the take and never discussed it and Tomas would say “great, we got it, cut!” We didn’t even discuss the scene! He just said “Yeah, I like it, let’s move on.” You do your homework and come with your intuition and it just flows very organically. I don’t quite know what I mean really, but I loved coming in each morning and putting “George” on. I’d have my clothes ready and I’d put on my tie, switch out my glasses and then I’d sort of “put George on,” look in the mirror and just go to work. He was great company to be with and when I stopped, it was like I lost a friend. I felt a bit displaced. I have more of a distance from it now, but there’s whispers that we might do a sequel.

MO: The film takes place during the Cold War, but it’s also during the late 60’s, a period that’s sort of looked back on as a carefree, swinging time period, yet the film’s aesthetic presents a very bleak and dreary London.

Tomas: A great deal of Europe and London was still suffering from the wounds of the war during that time. It was very bleak and very far away from the vibrant experience it is today. I remember Picadilly Circus was very grey–like an ashtray. Today it shines, it’s all so beautiful, but it was cold and damp and still paying for the losses of the war back then. I wanted to have the feeling of that in the film, the canvass of which the film happens.

MO: [To Tomas]: Why did you decide to follow up Let the Right One In, with Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy? And, more generally, what draws you to adapting novels into film?

Tomas: It’s a coincidence that I’ve done two literary adaptations, as I’ve been doing film, theatre, and stage work for over 25 years. But it is an interesting process and it can be quite bumpy to do. The benefits you get from adapting a book is very appealing though, you get the world of the book; the atmosphere. It doesn’t always have to be a great book, but in the cases of both of my films, they’ve been great books. A so-so book can be a great film, you just have to find a strand; a fillet of the book. You have to be truthful to the feeling of the book more than just what’s on the page.

Gary: It’s a tough one isn’t it? Because there’s a communion when you read a book between the novelist and the reader. You hear voices and you see faces and you create the world of the book with the writer. And then we come along and put faces to them, it’s really something quite spectacular when you think about it.

MO: Well congratulations to both of you on the film and thank you very much for talking with me!

Tomas: Thank you so much, it was our pleasure.

Gary: Yes! Thank you very much!

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens today in theaters everywhere, click here for theaters and showtimes.

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Matt Cohen
Matt Cohen
Matt is currently obsessed with Rap Snacks, post-hardcore, pizza parties, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

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December 16, 2011

Film: A Conversation with Actor Gary Oldman and Director Tomas Alfredson on The New Spy Thriller 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'