Bringing ‘Tinker Tailor’ to the big screen

Dec. 7, 2011, 12:56 a.m.

Sweden’s Tomas Alfredson makes his English-language directorial debut with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” an adaptation of John le Carré’s popular British spy-novel featuring an all-star cast including Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Tom Hardy. Fresh off of wrapping production on “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan’s conclusion to his celebrated Batman trilogy, Gary Oldman recently joined Alfredson in San Francisco to talk about careers, homoeroticism and why contemporary audiences will still enjoy their Cold War-set story.


For Alfredson, the journey all began in 2008 with the unprecedented international success of his vampire flick “Let the Right One In.” The scripts came pouring in, and yet he doubted whether he could execute any of them–daunted, in part, by directing in a language other than his native Swedish.


“I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing for me to do,” Alfredson confessed, “so I just rejected everything that came up until someone said that Working Title [Films, a British production company] had retrieved the rights to this book.” The director had read the book and watched the mini-series years ago, so when he expressed interest in the project, everything fell into place–well, almost.


Casting the role of protagonist George Smiley proved to be the biggest hurdle.


“In the book, he’s described as someone that you would immediately forget,” Alfredson elaborated, “so the problem was to find an actor not uninteresting, but to play uninteresting.”


After six months of deliberation, his team began to get a sense of “If we can’t find this man, let’s not do this film.” But fortunately, when casting director Jina Jay came up with veteran actor Gary Oldman, it was an instant fit, after which they simply cast the rest around him.


Oldman remembered Alfredson’s worries on the set as he complained that “50 to 60 percent of his [linguistic] tools were taken away.”


However, “when you’re working on a film set with actors for 12 hours a day and that is your only way of communication…you get into a shorthand really quickly,” the actor continued, emphasizing that the language of film is universal.


Linguistic barriers aside, Alfredson enjoyed quite a bit of freedom in crafting his version of the story.


“John le Carré said in the beginning of the process, ‘If you need me, I will answer the phone, but I won’t call you and I won’t interfere,’” the director recounted.


“Since he himself was a spy in the ‘60s, he was a great help to have, because he knows and remembers everything about all the details, documents, how stuff looked and so on and so forth,” Alfredson said.


The author also proved a valuable resource to Oldman, who added that, “A lot of the history of George was from [le Carré’s] own experience.”


When asked about his extraordinary, chameleon-like performances, Oldman, in contrast with known method-actors who notoriously stay in character day-in and day-out, merely said that, “Once you’ve got a character and you’ve done the work, then you can switch it on and off.”


With that said, the lead-up to a shoot can be more intense.


“I always scare the dogs and the kids when I’m doing a role that’s slightly more [energetic] than George,” Oldman joked.


“They have play-dates that come over and say [in hushed voice] ‘Is your dad alright?’ ‘Oh yeah, it’s just rehearsal,’” he added.


In addressing the film’s appeal to today’s moviegoers, both reached first for the story’s broader themes.


“I’m not particularly interested in the Cold War or espionage,” Alfredson said bluntly. “I mean, it’s interesting, but for me, this film is not about those things.”


“It’s about love, love lost, friendship, betrayal,” Oldman agreed, adding that, “the politics are almost like a backdrop to it.”


Yet at the same time, the setting is what enables it to be so profoundly character-driven in a way that many movies these days simply are not.


“It took a different kind of soldier,” Oldman continued. “These men that were in MI-5, MI-6, are more like the Bill Haydons [Colin Firth’s character]–there was a lot of closet homosexuality going on because it was absolutely not accepted.” (Though homosexuality was punishable by law until 1967, the stigma remained long afterward).


“Within the secret service it was forbidden because you would expose yourself to blackmailing,” Alfredson confirmed, “and yet the people that were recruited very often were [gay], and to sacrifice that, as we see in the film–it’s so cruel and heartbreaking [in] a very strong motive.”


Also crucial to the film’s ‘70s vibe is the fear so atmospheric it’s practically tangible.


“I remember the ‘70s,” Oldman reminisced. “I mean…I was more interested in girls and David Bowie at that time, but I do remember that sort of threat.” Referencing current global events, he hinted that perhaps every generation, to a certain extent, experiences some form of zeitgeist that will enable them to connect with the story. Thus, even though the Cold War itself is “a thing very much in the mists of time,” the apprehensive wait-and-see of what moves the world’s political players will make it quite similar to today.


Venturing back into less controversial territory, I wonder whether there might be any memorable moments from the set to share. After thinking a moment, Alfredson recalls shooting a small scene early on as Oldman’s character adjusts to retired life.


“It’s a really, really boring situation which everyone can relate to,” the director said. “I said ‘cut,’ and [Oldman] came to me and said, ‘Can I watch that?’ We played it back, and he was looking at the monitor and said, ‘I used to play [Sex Pistols bassist] Sid Vicious.’ He saw this gray man with an apron frying an egg!”


But perhaps this side of the character is closer to the real Gary Oldman than he would care to admit. His sons, of whom he spoke quite lovingly, popped up several times in the course of our conversation.


“When I’m not working,” the actor said, “I’m a dad–it’s book reports and science projects.”


And is there anything on the table for Alfredson?


“It’s a very emotional thing,” he mused, “to choose a project. I think it’s [that] you read something and if your body reacts on it, it’s probably a good project. Like if you laugh or cry or something happens in your heart.”


When pressed, Alfredson added, “I deliberately haven’t read anything since we opened with this film in London. I need to rest a little and see what happens.”


Well, sir, we eagerly await your next move.

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