Gary Oldman, at SIFF Uptown, on Dealing with 'the Ghost of Guinness'
“It was very good for my blood pressure.”
--Gary Oldman on playing supercalm spy George Smiley in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” during a Q&A at SIFF Uptown last night
The Uptown Theater in Seattle was shut down in November 2010 and for most of 2011 it was a garbage-strewn, boarded-up ghost of a building with a movie marquee perpetually announcing farewell, until, in late summer, the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) bought it, renovated it, and reopened it in October. Last night, in its main theater, it hosted a screening of Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carré's Cold War novel, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” follwed by a post-screening Q&A with the film's star, Gary Oldman.
Early in the Q&A Oldman mentioned the hurdles he has to jump for every character he plays, and whlie the immediate follow-up was never asked by the on-stage interviewer—what were the hurdles to playing George Smiley?—Oldman eventually answered at least some of that on his own.
“The Ghost of Guinness,” he said, “loomed very large.”
It's such a well-known story, he said, particularly in Britain, and the 1979 adaptation starring Alec Guinness as Smiley is so famous, so imposing, that it took him a month to even accept the part. Even afterwards, he said, he was nervous, feeling like he'd set himself up for a fall. It wasn't until he began to think of the role as akin to a classical role, a Shakespearean role, that he began to relax. Like being one of the many men to play Hamlet. “Pull yourself together, Gary,” he told himself.
Ultimately, he said, playing Smiley was “like being in the company of a dear friend. You just got comfortable with it. ... But you had to do the work.”
I'm generally not a fan of Q&As with the audience—you get stupid questions and pontificators who never ask questions and ... it's just embarassing—but last night there were surprisingly good questions from the audience, including one from a local director, who asked, “What can a director do to bring out the best in you?” After a succinct response that brought laughter—“Leave me alone”—Oldman clarified with a story about a discussion he'd had with Alfredson, the Swedish director of “Let the Right One In,” prior to filming a pivotal scene in “Tinker Tailor.” It was the first time Smiley enters the safe house that the traitor used to transmit information to the Soviets. “It's contaminated,” Alfredson said of the room. It was responsible for the death of friends, the forced retirement of others, and the tarnishing of everything Smiley had worked for. It was like a gas chamber in a concentration camp. Alfredson didn't tell Oldman how to act the scene; he didn't tell him to use this information in his performance. He merely mentioned it and walked away.
“Good directing,” Oldman said, “is knowing when to not saying anything ... to let you flower.”
Review of the movie up later this week.