Hello,” says Gary Oldman. “Hi,” we respond. On paper, it’s not a particularly remarkable introduction. In reality, though, we’re side-by-side at a urinal. In all honesty, it’s not how ShortList envisaged meeting one of the most respected actors of our time.
“We’re due to interview you in a second.”
“Oh, great,” he says, in his pronounced thespian, and occasionally transatlantic, tones. “Well, it’s nice to meet you.”
We don’t shake hands for obvious reasons, but, nevertheless, it’s a friendly enough encounter, and nowhere near as awkward as how you’d imagine answering nature’s call beside Gary Oldman might be.
Five minutes later and we’re saying hello again, but this time in the more traditional interview setting of a room without direct access to Toilet Duck. Oldman is sitting comfortably on a sofa in the plush surroundings of London’s Soho Hotel to talk about playing George Smiley — the iconic protagonist of John Le Carré’s 1974 espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s now a film role that the 53-year-old actor recently called “probably my greatest ever”.
Bearing in mind that Oldman’s previous characters include True Romance’s dreadlocked pimp Drexl, Leon’s drug-pickled cop Stansfield [pictured right, inset] and Dracula’s, er, Dracula, this is a bold statement. So, ShortList was eager to find out how he justifies it…
So, what makes Smiley probably your greatest role ever?
Well, firstly, Smiley hangs in the gallery of iconic roles I’ve played because he’s such an amazing creation by Le Carré. But secondly, many of the characters I’m best known for are very frenetic people. So it was nice to play a man who sits in a chair occasionally. And listens — it was nice to listen for once.
Tinker boasts a sterling British cast. Did you all bond?
Absolutely. For the most part you turn up and you do the work, but there were days [when we messed about]. There was one day I remember in particular when John Hurt [pictured right, main] told a true story with a very funny punchline that had us falling about.
So what was the story?
Oh, I can’t say. It’s John’s story.
Could you just give us the punchline?
All right — the punchline was “failure”. John delivered it in his own inimitable way: [Adopts gruff, theatrical voice] “FAILURE!” Anyway, he told this story between takes and myself, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Firth and Toby Jones just fell about. It was a while before we could collect ourselves. We were like school kids [chuckles mischievously].
There was a lot of talk online about the early photos from Tinker, as Tom Hardy appeared to be wearing lipstick in one scene. Was he?
Lipstick? No. I think he’s just very pretty, isn’t he? He’s a good-looking lad, Tom Hardy. Well, actually, he’s not looking so pretty at the moment [referring to Hardy’s bulking up for Warrior]. He’s twice the size he was on Tinker.
Have you ever gone to those kinds of lengths for a role?
For Sid & Nancy, I lost a lot of weight, but that was many years ago. Actually, there are a couple of scenes in Tinker where Smiley is swimming at Hampstead Ponds, so I indulged in the puddings for those because I wanted that realistic middle-aged paunch. It was eggs and bacon, shepherd’s pie and always a dessert. I’ve been trying hard to lose that paunch since.
Do you miss playing “frenetic” characters?
Not at all. I was younger then, that’s all. In a sense, The Dark Knight is a good example of the change in the roles I’ve been offered. In that film, I’m the 50-year-old police commissioner while wonderful, young Heath Ledger is bouncing off the walls as The Joker. Now, had that part come along 15 years earlier, people may have said, “That’s a Gary Oldman role.” It’s an age thing. I think about it like a vase and some flowers — I was happy to sit there and be the vase while Heath was the flowers.
Did Heath ever seek your advice during filming?
No, he didn’t need to. He’d really done his homework. Although, it’s funny: there was one occasion when we were filming the scene where The Joker is sitting in the holding cell and Commissioner Gordon comes in to find out he’s been promoted. And there’s that shot of The Joker applauding from behind the bars. I went up to Heath afterwards and told him, “You really reminded me of Alex [Malcolm McDowell] in the opening shot of A Clockwork Orange just then.” He said, “I was just watching that film in my trailer!” I think that was probably one of his big inspirations for that scene.
Talking of Malcolm McDowell, you’ve cited him as one of the reasons you got into acting. Have you ever had the chance to tell him that?
Yes, I hooked up with him many years ago, and it was great to be able to meet such a hero and say, “You were a huge influence on me becoming an actor.”
Have you had any young actors say similar things to you? Daniel Radcliffe has previously mentioned you as an inspiration…
Yeah. It’s funny — I’m the old man now [laughs]. It’s really flattering when it happens. On Tinker, it was Stephen Graham. One day on set, he told me that he’d chosen to study acting at Rose Bruford College in Kent because he knew I’d gone there too. It’s nice that they like your work enough to tell you. It’s nice to feel that you’ve influenced people.
Is it true you taught Radcliffe to play the bass while you were both on the set of Harry Potter?
I did a bit of noodling around with him, yeah. I was trying to teach him to play Come Together by The Beatles. He managed to pick it up, but I don’t know if he still plays. He must have been about 13, so it may just have been a phase.
Do you still play music?
Yes, I’ve got a few friends that I get together to play music with. The most recent thing I did was sing some backing vocals on an album by a friend of mine, Jonathan Clark. But I don’t really tell anyone about this stuff. Jonathan and I went on the radio recently to sing an Everly Brothers song and a friend called me up later to say, “Was that you that I heard singing on the radio?” It’s funny, life. The things you end up doing. I even got onstage with Jonathan at the launch of his album and sang a few songs with him.
We realise that you can’t really talk about The Dark Knight Rises. Is it difficult having to be so secretive about the film?
It sounds overly protective, but there are so many people out there who are putting spoilers on the internet and Christopher [Nolan, the series’ director] doesn’t want anyone to ruin it. And I completely understand that.
Apparently, he doesn’t even send scripts out, for fear they’ll fall into the wrong hands…
The newer people [on the film] go to his office to read the script, yes. They sent mine out, but it had to be hand-delivered directly to me and nobody else. And the final few pages were missing. That way, if anybody did manage to get hold of it, they still wouldn’t know how the film ended.
So did Christopher Nolan have to tell you the ending himself?
Yes, I went along and talked to him in person about the ending. Then I locked it away up here [taps his head].
Do you still follow Millwall?
No, I used to support them back when they were bottom of the Second Division. I still watch football occasionally but I don’t follow it as much as I used to. When I was in the UK doing Tinker, I watched a lot, though — that’s how I’d relax. My kids play soccer a lot — it’s a big thing in the US now.
Finally, have you turned down any major roles in your time?
Could you tell us which ones?
[Laughs loudly] No!
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is at cinemas nationwide from 16 September