Gary Oldman Stars in Cold War Classic

George Smiley, the central character in the big-screen adaptation of John le Carr 's Cold War thriller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," doesn't say much, and that suits Gary Oldman just fine.

"If you can do it in two lines and a look, I'm happy," says the British-born actor who roared onto the screen in 1986 with his first big role, as punk rocker Sid Vicious in "Sid and Nancy."

Over the years, Oldman has delivered memorable and masterful performances -- often as villains -- in films like "JFK" (in which he played Lee Harvey Oswald), "Dracula" (as the title character in the Francis Ford Coppola film), "True Romance," "Immortal Beloved" (as Beethoven), "The Professional," "The Fifth Element," "The Contender," "Hannibal," the Harry Potter movies (as Sirius Black), and Christopher Nolan's "Batman" trilogy (as the Dark Knight's police ally, Jim Gordon).

Sometimes he's brought into a movie because he can be electrifying and bigger than life on screen. For 2010's "The Book of Eli," Denzel Washington, who produced the film, and directors Albert and Allen Hughes were looking to cast a Gary Oldman type as the bad guy when they thought, why not get the real thing.

"Gary is one of the greatest actors of our generation," says Washington.

But the 53-year-old Oldman says he breathed a sigh of relief when he was offered the part of the reserved George Smiley in the new adaptation of "Tinker," which opens in limited release on Friday before going wider the following week.

"I jokingly said that I've waited 30 years to play a part like this. It's wonderful to exercise different muscles," says Oldman, who we think isn't really joking.

"You don't get offered everything," he says. "You're not only at the mercy of the industry but at the imagination of the people who are casting you. But it's nice when something like this comes through the letterbox."

His portrayal of Smiley has already deservedly received Oscar buzz.

Of course, espionage fans are familiar with the wily old spy, who was a major character in five of le Carr 's novels, and from Alec Guinness' memorable portrayal of him in the 1979 BBC miniseries of "Tinker."

The new adaptation, directed by Tomas Alfredson ("Let the Right One In"), is leaner and meaner, more reminiscent of the German Oscar winner "The Lives of Others" than the leisurely paced miniseries.

Still set in the early 1970s, it finds Smiley recently in forced retirement after a foul-up at MI6, the British intelligence service known as the "Circus." But it becomes apparent that there is a Russian mole high up in the agency and the old spy is brought in to uncover him.

Le Carr has said the new version of "Tinker" had to be made "without sentiment, sexier, grittier and crueler." To that extent, Oldman describes Smiley as a bit of a sadomasochist.

"He operates with great moral certainty. It's not narcissism. He completely believes," says Oldman. "He's from the old school of queen and country but is very aware of the ugly, dirty world he operates in. There is a cruelty to him. There is the meanness to him. He wants to put somebody on their back foot -- rather like when you meet someone who is passive-aggressive. They say something, and it's almost like a chemical reaction in your body. You're thinking, 'This person is pleasant enough, but he just insulted me.' Smiley has that skill."

The character has his weaknesses.

His wife, Ann, constantly cheats on him, which he does nothing about, and he is haunted by his nemesis, Karla, a Soviet spymaster, who always seems to be one step ahead of him.

"He doesn't challenge Ann. He doesn't challenge her lovers," observes Oldman. "It's a rather strange dynamic. Karla and Ann hold him like ghosts."

Alfredson says Oldman was perfect for the role because he has star quality but "is also a chameleon." To prepare, Oldman spent time with le Carr , who had been an agent in MI6 himself before becoming a novelist.

"It was great to meet him. He's 80 and it was kind of like hanging out with a 25-year-old," says Oldman. "I just wanted to observe him at close quarters. I felt maybe there was something that I could steal. There is a certain musicality in his writings; so that was kind of intriguing to me to actually look into the whites of his eyes."

One thing that struck the actor while talking with the writer was the level of paranoia involved in being a spy.

"He said often the work was very mundane and could be at times very laborious, very boring," says Oldman. "But he said if you are operating with an alias you were always fearful of footsteps on the stairs and that your cover was blown."

Though he was a friend of Guinness, considered one of Britain's greatest actors, le Carr calls Oldman's portrayal a "tougher Smiley" and says he was "hypnotized by his performance."

The new "Tinker" is also filled with a powerful British cast, including recent Oscar winner Colin Firth, Kathy Burke, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong and John Hurt.

"A lot of your work is done for you when you're in a scene in the boardroom and you're sitting at a table with all those great actors and you're trying to work out what they're thinking," says Oldman, who adds that he fulfilled a career ambition to act with Hurt.

"I was watching John long before I even got the idea of becoming an actor," he says.

Recently, Oldman, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two younger sons, finished working on Nolan's third Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," which opens next summer. He called the seven-month shoot a marathon but has high hopes for the film.

"It promises to be an epic," he says. "Christopher Nolan is too smart and too classy to just make a third film for the sake of making it. He wanted to have a great story, and I think this will deliver."

Oldman will also be seen in the Prohibition-era films "The Wettest County," which is set for release next spring.

"You blink and you'll miss me, but I like the director's work," he says, referring to John Hillcoat ("The Road," "The Proposition"). "Sometimes it's nice to work on a movie with people you admire even though it's not a big role. It was great to come in and play a '30s gangster for a day."

What's next?

"I am technically out of work as we speak," Oldman says, laughing. "The life of an actor."

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