The character of George Smiley is an iconic one — longtime spy, mild, podgy, middle-aged. He blends into the fog and the old gray streets of London.
Author John le Carre put Smiley in the center of eight spy novels in the 1960s and '70s, and Alec Guinness portrayed him indelibly in the 1979 TV series made from le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Forced to resign after an operation in Eastern Europe goes wrong, Smiley is quietly called back to MI6, the British foreign-intelligence agency, when the spymasters there discover they may have a mole — a traitor in the heart of the organization.
A new take on le Carre's Cold War classic, opening in theaters Dec. 9, features an ensemble cast of top-drawer British actors, including Colin Firth, John Hurt and Ciaran Hinds. But it's still Smiley's story — and this time, he's portrayed by an actor who's played everyone from Sid Vicious to Pontius Pilate, with stops along the way for Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula and Harry Potter's godfather.
Gary Oldman says the offer to play Smiley came in over the transom, unsolicited — but he didn't necessarily jump at the chance.
"I did not say yes immediately, because the ghost of Guinness loomed," he tells NPR's Scott Simon. "He was a phenomenal actor, part of the establishment, very much beloved — and was the face of Smiley."
But the opportunity was ultimately just too good to pass up.
"I think I played a sort of trick with my mind, and thought, 'Well, look, treat it as a classical part,'" Oldman says. "There've been many Hamlets, many Romeos, many King Lears. ... You are constantly walking in the shadow of all the people that played the part before you."
Viewing the movie as a reinterpretation of the story, Oldman says, allowed him to move past Guinness' version. His portrayal doesn't have the older actor's world-weary headmaster style.
"I think it's partly to do with the fact that Guinness was nearly 70 when he played the role," Oldman says. "I'm 53. It's a sizable gap. ... There's a little bit of a sadist in [my] George; [he's] a little more harder-edged, a little more prickly."
'The Level Of Paranoia ... Would Take Years Off You'
Smiley carries ghosts with him as he searches for the MI6 mole, Oldman notes: He's haunted in a personal way by the betrayal of a friend (Colin Firth's Bill Haydon), by an unfaithful wife, professionally by the specter of a Soviet spy he's never able to reel in.
"It must have been a very strange world to live in," Oldman says. "In law enforcement, you'll chase a bad guy, capture him. He'll go through the process and go to prison. There's a consequence."
Spies, on the other hand, often have to "turn" their targets, once they run them to ground. "He may have killed people, but you want him on your side."
The actor talked to his character's creator — himself a former spy who put in time at both MI5 and MI6 — to "find out a little more of what George was like actually in the trenches."
"From his own experience, he described the level of paranoia, where you would always wait for the footsteps on the stairs, [signaling] that your cover was blown," Oldman says. "It would take years off you."
'Casualties' Of A Life Lived In The Shadows
Tinker, Tailor director Tomas Alfredson, a Scandinavian, brought an outsider's sensibility to what Oldman says is a "quintessentially British" story.
"It could have been more nostalgic," the actor says. "But he wanted to make this movie about these lonely, fractured people, these casualties of this life that they've chosen, or has chosen them."
He misses George Smiley already.
"He was good for my blood pressure," Oldman says. "It's always nice to be the smartest man in the room. I don't often get to play that."
He may have another chance.
"There's whispers we may do Smiley's People," he confides.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
George Smiley is an iconic character, longtime professional spy who's mild, podgy, middle-aged and blends into London's fog and old gray streets. John le Carre put Smiley at the center of eight spy novels in the 1960s and '70s. Alec Guinness portrayed him indelibly in the 1979 TV series made from La Carre's novel, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY")
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY")
SIMON: We've joined Gary Oldman in New York.
Thanks so much for being with us.
SIMON: When somebody first came to you and said, We want you for George Smiley, did you say, oh my gosh, that's Alec Guinness?
: Something like that. Yeah. I was familiar with the books. I was familiar with the television series. Old enough to remember in the days before TiVo and the VCR, where we would organize one's social calendar around that hour a week to watch "Tinker, Tailor."
I did not say yes immediately, because the ghost of Guinness loomed. He was a phenomenal actor, very much beloved, and was the face of Smiley.
SIMON: So what changed your mind?
: The opportunity was too good to pass up. And I think I played a sort of trick with my mind, and thought, well, look, you know, treat it as a classical part. There've been many Hamlets, many Romeos, many King Lears, you know. You're always walking in the shadow - certainly in the theater - if you're doing classical work, you're constantly walking in the shadow of all the people that played the part before you.
SIMON: Yeah. Gielgud did this, Gielgud did that.
: Richard Burton did this, or, you know.
SIMON: They did all of them. Yeah.
: So that's how I sort of viewed it. It's just a reinterpretation. You know, you're setting yourself up, but there you are. That's what keeps you on your toes.
SIMON: John le Carre just turned 80. Did he get involved? Did he talk to you?
: He gave his blessing to this. And his brief to Tomas Alfredson, the director, he said, look, don't make the book. Take the book, capture in essence the spirit of the book. The book exists. And he said, and if you go and make a bad movie, the book will still be good.
SIMON: Well, tell me what you think you might have done differently with George Smiley. A lot of critics have pointed out that Alec Guinness in the original series, bless him, he could make George Smiley seem a bit like the headmaster of a boy's school. Whereas, critics suggest you have a potential for violence.
: I think it's partly to do with the fact that Guinness was nearly 70 when he played the role. I'm 53. I probably think I remember the series better than I do because I did not revisit it, because I didn't want to be contaminated by it. But it was a bit of a cozy, sort of British cozy affair. A little nostalgic. And Guinness had that world-weary, sort of schoolmasterly gait. And I play him with a little bit more - there's a little of a sadist in George, a little more harder-edged, a little more prickly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLIDER, SPY")
SIMON: Is the name ironic, Smiley?
: I think it must be. I mean, Mr. Smiley at the circus, the clown that doesn't smile.
SIMON: The circus, of course, is British intelligence. And they happen to be headquartered in Cambridge Circus.
As George Smiley searches for a mole, he's haunted in a more personal way by the personal betrayal of a friend, Bill Haydon, played by Colin Firth, and the specter of this Soviet spy who is kind of this great red Russian whale...
SIMON: ...that he was never able to reel in. Now, spies kind of like actors, are supposed to be able to compartmentalize their emotions.
SIMON: Can you really do that as an actor or a spy?
: I'm not sure about a spy. I mean, George carries with him the two sort of ghosts in the movie. I think this is the idea that Tomas Alfredson had, is that the two people that haunt him, his collar who he couldn't turn.
SIMON: So the Soviet block spy.
: The Soviet block spy.
: But he has this huge admiration for him. He respects him. But he's a ghost. And of course his wife, Ann.
SIMON: Is a great spy a great actor?
: Yes, but we - people sort of say, oh, well, acting is just like being a really good liar and that's not quite true because you're looking, you're searching, at least, for the truth of something.
: I wanted to find out a little more of what George was like actually in the trenches.
: And le Carre from his own experience said - he described a level of paranoia where you would always wait for the footsteps on the stairs, that your cover was blown. It'd take years off you.
SIMON: The director, Tomas Alfredson, is Scandinavian. Do you think he brings a kind of outsider's eye?
: Yeah. It could've been more nostalgic - it's quintessentially British - but he wanted to make this movie about these lonely fractured people, these casualties of this life that they've chosen, or has chosen them.
SIMON: When you finish a role like this, do you want to do a sitcom again?
: With "Friends," you're referring to.
SIMON: Yes. That's the only one I know.
: Yeah, yeah. No. There's whispers that we may do "Smiley's People."
: Yeah. I think le Carre is actually behind it. So if that were to happen, I would return. I miss him.
SIMON: What do you miss about him?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
: He was good for my blood pressure. I used to love getting into work. Well, it's always nice to be the smartest man in the room. I don't often get to play that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
: And if someone said to me, hey, man, George Smiley. It's a nice association. Yeah.
SIMON: Gary Oldman. He is George Smiley in the new "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." And perhaps more. Opens in theaters this month. Thanks so much for being with us.
: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.