Originally published Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 5:34 AM

Gary Oldman on 'Tinker's' George Smiley

An interview with actor Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley in a new adaptation of John le Carré's book, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." Oldman, perhaps best known for playing Sirius Black in the Harry Potter movies, has a history with Smiley dating back three decades.

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"I saw him like a wise old owl. His glasses are owllike — the big eyes. He sees everything and hears everything. He actively listens. It's listening, but it's not just hearing."

Actor Gary Oldman, in Seattle last week, is talking about his latest character: George Smiley, the quietly watchful British spy created by novelist John le Carré, and the central figure in the movie "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," based on the 1974 novel. (The movie opens at several local theaters Friday.) Oldman, perhaps currently best known for playing Sirius Black in the "Harry Potter" movies, has a history with Smiley that goes back more than three decades — to 1979, when the actor was a young drama-school student, and the seven-part BBC version of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" aired, starring Alec Guinness.

"It was hugely popular," Oldman remembered. "We'd never seen anything like it. You'd organize your social calendar around that one hour a week and be home. That was my introduction to the books." Though he hasn't re-watched the miniseries since then ("you'd feel a bit contaminated," he said, by seeing another interpretation of the role), he remembers it well, describing the adaptation as "line for line, word for word."

The new movie, directed by Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In") and adapted for the screen by Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan, had a daunting challenge: trimming down the book's labyrinthine plot to two hours. "As le Carré said, you have to reduce an oxen to a bouillon cube," said Oldman. The novelist, an executive producer of the film (look carefully and you'll spot him on screen, in the Christmas-party scene), helped by encouraging the filmmakers to make the story their own.

"What John did, which was very classy, was to basically say, 'Don't make the book,' " said Oldman. "If you try to make the book and you make a crappy film, your film will always be crappy and my book will always be good. So make it original. Take it and run with it. You have my blessing."

Indeed, Oldman only remembers le Carré visiting the set once — the day of the Christmas party scene. (That scene, le Carré readers will recall, isn't in the book, but the filmmakers contacted le Carré — who famously worked undercover for British intelligence during the Cold War, before beginning his writing career — and asked if the office would have had Christmas parties. "He said, 'Of course!'" said Oldman.)

And le Carré's present in the film in another way: in Oldman's depiction of Smiley. The actor, who met le Carré before filming began, said he based Smiley's voice on the writer's, as well as the way that he sits. In the film, Smiley sits upright but ever so slightly leaning back, as if to distance himself just a bit. ("Sitting is an eloquent business; any actor will tell you," says Smiley, in the book. "We sit according to our natures.") Oldman met a number of le Carré's children and grandchildren, in the course of making the film, and remembered the writer's granddaughter Jessica commenting, "I love the little things you do in the movie, the things you do like Grandpa."

Oldman, who said that during the making of the movie he consulted the book so often he had "kind of a photographic recall" of it, also drew inspiration from a brief passage. In it, Smiley's wife Ann describes him as "like a swift" — a small animal, Oldman said, that can "regulate its body temperature to the atmosphere, to the room. It sort of disappears, whatever situation it's in. That was a big clue for me, how to physicalize him. It doesn't suggest someone who is fussy and frenetic. You would notice someone like that."

Though his work on "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" is complete, Oldman may not yet be finished with George Smiley — there's talk, he says, of the same creative team filming another le Carré novel, "Smiley's People." If it happened, the new franchise would be well-timed: Oldman's just this year said goodbye to two recurring roles: Sirius in the "Harry Potter" movies ("we were like a family," he said of the experience, which encompassed eight years), and Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy. Though many wonder if "The Dark Knight Rises" (in theaters next summer) will truly be the end of the saga, Oldman says that his Commissioner Gordon is retired.

"I think Chris is done with it, yeah," he said. "This one ["The Dark Knight Rises"] is a superb epic, he's woven in echoes to the first movie, brought it all the way round. It's a nice way to walk away."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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