"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was first adapted to film by John Irving ("Ghost Story", "Dogs of War", Hamburger Hill") in 1979 and featured an overpowering performance by Sir Alec Guinness of the lead character George Smiley.


The story, adapted from John le Carre's novel of the same name, visited the Cold War in Britain following every detail of the narrative for seven one-hour episodes in a made-for-television miniseries. For Guinness it won him a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and Broadcast Press Guild Awards for best actor. It became one of Guinness' iconic roles. In other words, a tough act to follow.



British actor Gary Oldman - who plays George Smiley


Now comes Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, best known for his adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's Lat den Ratte Komma In (Let the Right One In) in 2008. Charged with adapting the novel to the big screen in under seven hours!


Alfredson cast a Who's Who in British A-list acting with John Hurt, Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds, Colin Firth and Gary Oldman in the lead as George Smiley. The choice of Gary Oldman was bold considering he is often identified with playing characters on the other side of the law or, at the very least - over the top.


While in Chicago promoting the film, Gary and Tomas chatted with me in their suite at the Peninsula Hotel.


CINEMATREK: Gary, what was your approach to taking on a role made iconic by Sir Alec Guiness?


Gary Oldman: "The challenge was to bury the ghost of Guinness. I don't mean to deliberately go out there like some sort of assassin; but he was the face of Smiley. He was the personification of him even though James Mason had played him, Denholm Elliott had played him, Anthony Hopkins has played him - you know... he was so beloved. So part of the English tradition and all that. So that was the challenge. How can one, essentially play the same role, play the same words, and completely try and make it your own. And also keep what was essentially there, or is fundamentally there as Smiley... which Guinness found! Because we're both climbing the same mountain.


CINEMATREK: So how did you attack the part differently from Guinness?


Gary Oldman: There is a cruel aside about Smiley; I think he is a bit if a sadist - and he's a bit of a masochist. because that wife of his keeps having affairs... and one gets the feeling that they never argue; he doesn't go after the lover. He just accepts her back... and takes her back in. That emotionally must take a toll on someone! That you allow yourself to be treated like that. And he can be cruel. And I think those are characteristics of Smiley that are in the book that Guinness - for whatever reason - decided not to play.


CINEMATREK: So you think Smiley is cruel?


Gary Oldman: "It's very cruel of Smiley when Prideaux asks him at the school "My contacts... my people... did they get out?" And Smiley says "No, they were blown and the story is you blew them"... That's a mean... fucking awful thing to say to someone. But he's getting in; he's tickling him... he's getting him going. [Later] he then says to Esterhase "Are you still a wanted man Toby?" That whole setup with the plane and everything.



Swedish director Tomas Alfredson


CINEMATREK: What about the feel of the film; the way it looks.


Gary Oldman: "Tomas is an adorable man. I've never met anyone; when he discusses the look of the movie... the look of the film is like nicotine. It's got this kind of grayness and he talked to his DP (director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema) and they wanted to capture the smell of damp tweed. That was the look he was going for. I don't know many people who talk like that... see a color as damp tweed. When I met Tomas I thought he was so unique and also you run the danger with a piece like this, unlike the original - that series suffered from a little. It's a sort of cozy British thing. They (the characters from the original) are all a bit cuddly and a bit sentimental.


Tomas Alfredson: I wanted to reflect on the time. So I remembered my first visit to London when I was a boy and it was all gray and black and white; it was during the cold war. So I wanted to capture that look. Especially around the Circus... there is no color. Just shades of gray.


CINEMATREK: Did you two discuss the look of any particular segments?


Gary Oldman: The scene with Esterhase was originally set... I was in the woods with a gun. And there were like shadows in trees, and things like that.


Tomas Alfredson: "And I said you know what, he wouldn't have a gun... he wouldn't threaten him or things like that. He would do it in a far more subtle way.

Tomas Alfredson on the set, contemplating the look of damp tweed perhaps


Gary Oldman: "So it's not death... it's exile."


CINEMATREK: So what about that scene where you are talking to Karla (who is not there)... it's just a chair. [Note: Karla is the spymaster who ultimate controls the mole in the Circus]


Gary Oldman: "Oh yes, the empty chair. The scene the book... is a flashback to Karla in the cell. And Thomas wanted to avoid partly another flashback"


Tomas Alfredson: "So I looked at it as something on the stage; like a play... like a set piece. It was one of those things in the script that could work... then it could not. I wasn't sure about it. As for Ann (Smiley's wife) she has a face in the book but she's not a feature. I felt, because of the time constraint - you know - distilling a book into two hours, I felt if we show her - or Karla for that matter - you would want to see more of them. And there wasn't time in the story."


CINEMATREK: And what about Ann?


Gary Oldman: "Everywhere Smiley went everyone was asking 'How's Ann... How's the lovely Ann?' And they all know! I mean she's slept with virtually everyone at the Circus. And so rather than give her face, and rather than give Carlo face - because in the book it's a flashback - Thomas felt that the two people that most effect Smiley emotionally, that you don't see. The audience would have to fill in the face. They (Ann and Karla) are more like ghosts."


CINEMATREK: So will you be doing more parts like Smiley?


Gary Oldman: "I've played characters like this years ago on stage. I've danced...I've you've got this range of things that one has done. I've never been in a Shakespeare film or a film about a Shakespeare play, but I've done Shakespeare. After "Leon: The Professional" and "Fifth Element"... which are kind of cartoons; their like cartoons for grown ups, you get a little typecast. It is an interesting - you're not only at the mercy at what comes walking in the door, because you don't get offered every part. They didn't ask me to do "Four Weddings and a Funeral", and they didn't ask me to do "When Harry Met Sally". So you're also at the mercy of the imagination of the people casting you. Then you get someone like Chris Nolan ("Dark Knight") come along and he says "I'm not going to cast you as a villain, I'm actually going to cast you as this" (Police Chief Gordon). So it's just another part of my arsenal. Their doing Les Miserables and I was after that, but they didn't want me. So there you are. I thought that would be nice haul to come out with, wouldn't it?


Upcoming for Oldman is "Girls, Guns and Gambling", "The Wettest County" and of course "The Dark Knight Rises" where he reprises his role of police chief Jim Gordon. For Alfredson, several project are in front of him, mostly from his homeland of Sweden.   -- GEOFF BURTON