Oral History

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’: Oscar Nominees Gary Oldman and Peter Straughan

Oscar nominees Gary Oldman and screenwriter Peter Straughan dissect five key scenes from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the intricate spy drama.

Jack English / Focus Features

More than 25 years ago, when he broke out playing the angry, skinny punk Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, few could have envisioned Gary Oldman as the cerebral, icy, and archetypal British spy, George Smiley. But time and experience have mellowed the 54-year-old Oldman and sharpened his acting. And while his vast range of performances, from Ludwig van Beethoven in Immortal Beloved to Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, have brought him much critical praise, an Oscar nomination has eluded him—until now. With this nomination for his role as Smiley in John le Carré’s, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he is finally in the club. He says putting his stamp on the beloved le Carré spy series is nothing short of a “fairy tale.”

For screenwriter and fellow nominee Peter Straughan, the Oscar nod is more bittersweet. His wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, succumbed to cancer in September 2010 at the age of 49. Straughan has struggled with how he should feel about the honor, going from deep sadness to celebrating the nomination as a tribute to his late wife’s work. He also says it was terrifying for them to take a stab at one of Britain’s most beloved novels, not to mention competing with the BBC’s beloved 1979 miniseries (shown on PBS here, and starring Alec Guinness as Smiley). Last weekend, Straughan and the late O’Connor won a BAFTA award for best adapted screenplay.

But the proof is in the work, and now Straughan, Oldman, and others on the production are already talking about a sequel. Here, Oldman and Straughan discuss key scenes in the movie, which was helmed by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson.

George Smiley Explains His Brief Encounter With the Russian Spy and Chief Nemesis, Karla:

Straughan: This is the scene where Smiley tells Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) about Karla. At the time [when Smiley first caught him] nobody knew who he was except that he was a Russian spy and he will most certainly face death if he flies back to Moscow.

Oldman: This is the Achilles heel of Smiley, really. Karla was the only one he couldn’t turn. In an odd way, he feels responsible that he created Karla. After this, [the lower-ranking Russian spy] becomes [the powerful] Karla.

Straughan: Yep. Karla flies back and he isn’t killed. Instead he rises to the top. Because this was such a long story, we thought we would have to actually go back into a flashback and act out the scenes. But we didn’t want to show Karla. And we felt it was too obvious to show Karla. So we talked to Tomas and we decided to just do it. It would put a lot of pressure on whoever was going to play Smiley to be able to hold an audience for that long.

Oldman: When I first read the scene I could see why they didn’t want to go into another flashback because then you are into making me look younger and other problems arise which I think can take an audience out of the story. But I thought it was very audacious. It is almost like a play, isn’t it?

Straughan: Yes, it is a theater piece.

Oldman: And it is also 40 minutes in. You have a momentum with the movie and then it stops for seven minutes. It is quite unusual in that respect.

Straughan: We saw it as the still center of the film. It is at the heart of it.

Oldman: In a very indirect way, I am saying to Guillam, cut the [personal] ties. Don’t make the mistake that I did. I am confessing.

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Straughan: Of course, he gives away his [cigarette lighter which was a gift from Smiley’s wife] to Karla then, which Karla can use against him. And that is how Karla gets him … I remember watching it in the edit and we were a little nervous because the scene is so long … But it is shot directly into Gary’s face so the audience becomes Karla and we thought, “This works, this holds an audience.”

Oldman: We went back and forth with it. There was a line that was missing in the first cut: “He gave a pack of cigarettes to me untouched.” I was adamant that we had to put it back. This tells you something about the character of Karla. Here is someone who is a chain smoker and he gives the full pack of cigarettes back to me in the morning. It gives you great insight into the character of Karla. I am glad I won the argument.

Straughan: Yes, we did the full version and it is my favorite scene in the movie.

George Smiley Finds Bill Haydon Waiting for Him in His Home:

Oldman: This is where I come home and see Haydon (Colin Firth) and I know [something is not right] … He delivers this awful painting, and he thinks he is a good painter.

Straughan: It’s the painting that is hanging on the wall at the beginning of the film that Smiley is staring at.

Oldman: He would be damned if he would take it down. If [Smiley’s ex-wife] comes back and it’s off the wall, he gives her a victory. It shows you what kind of man he is that he would keep that painting on the wall.

Straughan: A thorn on his side.

Oldman: We worried that the [shot of] the [untied] shoes under the table maybe was not enough. But that little beat of the shoes and the red socks is really all the scene needs [to clue the audience into what is going on]. There was a voyeuristic shot of [Haydon and Smiley’s ex-wife Ann] through the window where you saw the shapes of them making love. But that was cut.

Straughan: There was also a flashback scene where Ann answers the phone when Prideaux [Mark Strong] has been shot. They ring to find out why Smiley isn’t answering the phone and Colin is in bed with her. But working on the same principle we had throughout the whole film, we wanted to do more with less. The red socks were a stroke of genius by Tomas.

Oldman: They are sort of polar opposites, Haydon and Smiley. They both wear a mask. Smiley would disappear into the furniture and that is his cover. Haydon is doing much the same thing but in a more extrovert way.

Straughan: By being so noticeable, Haydon hides himself. By wearing red socks with all the symbolic value red can have with communism. It is a double bluff … And the politeness in it. In a later scene when Smiley interrogates Haydon, they never break through the barrier of politeness.

Oldman: Smiley is the last of them, of a certain kind.

Straughan: Karla knew that Smiley’s wife was his weak spot.

Oldman: It is an amazing piece of writing. Smiley is being cuckolded by a man who is thousands of miles away.

Straughan: And Haydon, who prides himself on being a leader of the men, is basically Karla’s whore.

Ricki Tarr Confesses He Screwed Up:

Oldman: At this point Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) is hiding out and believes that they are after him and indeed they are. He really finds the safest place to be Smiley. He tells this extraordinary story about [another spy] Irina and what he has learned. The book starts with this story. It is the second chapter.

Straughan: We knew from the beginning that we had to move it deeper into the story [in the movie] because we had to introduce George Smiley. Didn’t you say, Gary, that when you were shooting this scene that you maintained a Smiley silence which was freaking Tom out?

Oldman: Yes, it discombobulated him.

Straughan: You stayed in character.

Oldman: You’ve got a great excuse when you are playing Smiley. I would get to the set, and I was ready and I would just sit and wait. There is no particular method of how you approach a role but you find one. It was a nice thing for me to get there and be ready. There was a set up in this scene and we had about 40 minutes of downtime. I stayed sitting in the chair. And Tom was just talking and talking and talking and I was just sitting there like a statue, without realizing it. Tomas was watching this and he said, “Do you know that you have not spoken for 45 minutes?” I just watched Tom burble on. That is one of the secrets of George and how he gets people to open up.

Straughan: Right, I was going to say, that is the energy of the scene where Smiley just sits there and waits and Tarr just unravels.

Oldman: All I say is, “What did you do then?”

Straughan: Smiley is almost like a priest. People confess their sins [to him]. Tom knows it is a terrible thing he did. He has betrayed Irina by saying too much in the message back to the Circus; he alerted the Russians to her.

Oldman: And of course, Smiley says, “Well, I understand. You wanted to do something.” But he is really thinking, “What an idiot.” He sees great potential there with Guillam. He has great respect for Control. He has an admiration for Haydon. And of course, he has great respect for Karla. But there are people along the way, like Tarr, who are flies.

Straughan: The audience connects more with Tarr because he is so human. He is sort of flailing around like the rest of us, trying to find a connection with someone.

Scene With Connie Where Smiley Gets His First Sense of a Spy in the Circus:

Oldman: We are all trying to find ourselves after retirement. We have all been forced into early retirement. I am at home listening to my obscure 17th-century German and swimming. Connie (Kathy Burke) basically opens up her house for the dramatic society at Oxford to fill her life with young people.

Straughan: That is the first link that Smiley finds that Polyakof, who is posing as a cultural ambassador, clearly has a military past that he keeps quiet. It rings alarm bells because if he had a military past then he is probably a spy. That is the first link in the chain that Smiley gets.

Oldman: He is computing.

Straughan: I think it is also one of the examples of that touch of ice in Smiley that he goes to visit Connie with a bottle and Connie says, “Oh I am not supposed to—doctor’s orders.” But he knows he can tempt her into getting drunk and once she is drunk she will tell him things she otherwise she might not want to tell him. There is a bit of iron in him.

Airplane Scene Where Smiley Sends Esterhase Packing:

Straughan: It’s funny isn’t it? That scene was shot with a very long lens. So that plane was a very long way behind Smiley and Esterhase [David Dencik] but on screen it looks as if it’s a few feet behind them.

Oldman: It was something ridiculous like a 2,000-millimeter lens. We are on the airfield and they were miles and miles away. The crew looked like ants from where we were standing. The lens crushes all the depth of field. The plane stopped a good hundred meters from where we are standing but it looks like it is going to decapitate us. And Esterhase is all panicked. It worked rather well. I think David forgot his line.

Straughan: It looks just as if he is terrified.

Oldman: I think he lost the script there for a second but it worked …

Straughan: Originally that scene was going to be Smiley walking Esterhase through some woods and there were men on either side flitting through the trees. Esterhase sees them and doesn’t know what is going on and they bring him to a clearing and there is a black van parked there. We felt it was a little familiar—like the Coen brothers' film Miller’s Crossing where they walk him through the woods to kill him.

Oldman: And the men had guns.

Straughan: Yes … the men had guns.

Oldman: I think we felt at the end of the day that it wasn’t Smiley’s style. That it was far more manipulative and more clever to take Esterhase to an airfield and have him get on a plane.

Straughan: A touch of extraordinary rendition. In the book and the film, Esterhase had played both sides working for the East and West and so if he goes back there, he is a dead man. Again it is a very Smiley thing of, “I’m not going to kill you but I will send you back there and they will kill you.”