Gary Oldman, the British film icon known for playing scenery-chewing cranks, is stunned into silence. In a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan, the 53-year-old actor, sporting clear-rimmed glasses and a salt-and-pepper mustache, is perusing a coffee-table book featuring side-by-side photographs of early-1900s New York City tenements juxtaposed with the present day. Oldman suddenly cracks a smile and, in his polite London accent, says, “How things used to look and where they used to be, eh?”
The same might be said of the sea changes in Oldman’s own storied career. His versatility in earlier roles, from punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy to gay playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, led film critic Roger Ebert to describe him as “the best young British actor around.” The U.K. press even anointed him de facto ringleader of what they dubbed the “1980s Brit Pack,” a group of up-and-coming British thespians that included Tim Roth, Colin Firth, and Daniel Day-Lewis. “I think [Oldman] was the actor of my generation, certainly in Britain, who we all admired most,” Firth told The Daily Beast.
In the ’90s, Oldman garnered a reputation for, as Firth put it, “playing bizarre characters who are tortured and live on the edge; who are dangerous.” He was a centuries-old vampire in Dracula, a white Jamaican expletive-spewing pimp in True Romance, and a psychotic, pill-popping detective in The Professional. As a result of that go-for-broke mentality onscreen, an entire generation of young actors, from Ryan Gosling to Michael Fassbender, have cited Oldman as one of their acting heroes. “Gary Oldman is, hands down, the greatest actor that’s ever lived,” rising star Tom Hardy gushed to The Daily Beast.
Eventually tiring of being typecast as a loose cannon and stuck in an acting slump, Oldman reinvented himself in the 2000s with a pair of good-guy sidekick roles in blockbuster franchises: as magician Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and the even-keeled Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
“I just got tired of being the villain, or the go-to guy when you wanted someone who was an extrovert or an eccentric,” says Oldman. “There’s a villain role that came in for me recently, and I just said, ‘This is how much I want.’” He laughed. “You have to pay me this much to even get me at the table, because I’m more expensive if I play a villain!”
Stigma aside, Oldman is earning some of the best reviews of his career playing the hero in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and adapted from the seminal 1974 spy novel by John le Carré. Oldman is George Smiley, a perspicacious spy brought back from forced retirement to help track down a Soviet mole in MI6’s highest-ranking sector, the Circus. Alec Guinness first made the role of Smiley famous in the 1979 BBC miniseries based on the book, but Oldman manages to leave his stamp on this quietly intense character in his most laconic performance to date.
“The role is very tricky,” says Alfredson, “because Smiley is described as someone you would immediately forget if you saw him, so the conflict for me as a director is to find an actor who could play dullness and who wouldn’t be dull to look at. I thought, ‘When you look at Gary’s career before this, he’s done so many different parts; he’s like a chameleon.’”
“If you look at the list of people who have not been nominated, I suppose one’s in good company,” he says with a chuckle.
To disappear into such varied roles, Oldman says he looks for what he describes as “the key to open the door to a character,” before giving an example of his process:
“For the movie State of Grace, I found real trouble finding that character. I went to a costume fitting at literally 5 to midnight and we were starting shooting in two days, and I didn’t have the character. I put on this leather jacket, and I had this long hair, and I flicked my hair. But I didn’t flick it sideways. I flicked it up. And I got him! I thought, ‘That’s it. This is the guy.’”
For Smiley, Oldman began with physical cues. According to Alfredson, the actor went on an exhaustive hunt for the right glasses, bringing in a new pair every day for the director to look at, eventually settling on the right spectacles after a six-month search—with just four days to go before shooting. Then he put on about 15 pounds, at his own behest, for Smiley’s swimming scenes, to portray the aging spy accurately. But he still didn’t have Smiley’s voice. It took a meeting with the book’s author, le Carré, for Oldman to complete his transformation process.
“I stole a little of his vocal inflection,” says Oldman. “I began with an impersonation and then moved further away from it. When I met John, that was quite late on too, and I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s him.’” Oldman laughs. “We always hope finding the character is going to happen, and sometimes it hasn’t. Then, as we say in England, ‘You’re all over the place like a madwoman’s piss!’”
While Oldman confesses that he “wouldn’t make a good spy” because he’s “too honest” and “sensitive” to lie, the happily married actor does admit to engaging in some light espionage in his past. “I’ve been moved to get in a car and drive past the girlfriend’s flat,” he says with a laugh. “You know what I mean? She says she’s out, but is the light on?”
Supporting Oldman in the film is an all-star cast of British actors, including John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth—marking the first time that the two “Brit Pack” stars have shared the screen. Unlike his fellow “Brit Packers” Firth, Day-Lewis, and Roth, Oldman has never received an Academy Award nomination, a development Firth calls “incomprehensible,” adding, “I think he should be on his seventh win now, at least, and I very much hope this is the time.”
Oldman, however, hasn’t taken his Oscar snubbing personally. “If you look at the list of people who have not been nominated, I suppose one’s in good company,” he says with a chuckle. “I have never really pushed myself forward and campaigned. Part of that is my own making.” He pauses. “But I can’t think of a better movie to do it with, if it is to be, and a better role.”
A few weeks ago, he wrapped filming on The Dark Knight Rises—the third and final movie in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The director gave him a special box to commemorate Commissioner Gordon’s retirement; in it were Oldman’s badge, glasses, and mustache from the film. “It was quite touching, in a way,” he says. “I was relieved and sad too about retiring. I said to Chris Nolan, ‘That’s it?’ And he said, ‘Of course, for me. Unless you want to whore your ass out on No. 4!’”
Oldman then glances back down at the cover of his old New York City photo book, pauses for a moment, and then, with a straight face, delivers some valuable advice to the next generation of young actors—the Goslings, Fassbenders, and Hardys—who will follow in his footsteps:
“There’s always room for a white Jamaican pimp. No matter who you are, everyone should do it at least once.”