While John le Carré has always maintained that the spy worlds he creates are far removed from the one in which he lived, the life experiences backing his work comes through especially strongly in the character portraits. In George Smiley, he forged an especially detailed one.
Although the late Sir Alec Guinness is most memorably associated with the part, le Carré reminds that there have been several other George Smileys. “James Mason played him,” reveals the author; the character, however, was renamed for The Deadly Affair, itself the retitled 1967 movie version of the author’s Call for the Dead. Aside from Guinness, Smiley by name has been portrayed as a lead character by Denholm Elliott, and in cameos by Rupert Davies and Arthur Lowe. On radio, Simon Russell Beale, George Cole, Bernard Hepton, and Peter Vaughan have all starred as him. For Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Gary Oldman took on the challenge of starring in a feature film as one of fiction’s most iconic spies.
Tim Bevan sees Smiley as “a quiet guy who disappears into the woodwork of a room, watches and listens very carefully. He has a hard core to him, but doesn’t need to go chasing or shooting people to make his point.”
Tomas Alfredson recalls the character description of Smiley as “‘the perfect spy.’ He is someone you would immediately forget if you saw him on the street. He never expresses anything, never gives away what he’s thinking. He asks questions and gets his answers. So, you might think he’s not a very cinematic character – but he is!”
To prove that point, an actor who is thoroughly compelling even when “not doing very much,” as Bevan says, was essential to the film. The producer remarks, “Gary Oldman can clean his glasses and it’s as electrifying as somebody else punching someone out.
“Of his generation, he is probably the finest; Gary is held in very high esteem by his peers.”
Alfredson adds, “When Gary was suggested for the role, the reaction was, ‘Perfect!’ Just look at this actor’s career, and how many different characters he’s played. Gary has all the star quality, yet he is also a chameleon; he doesn’t have this voice that you would recognize through a wall.
“Gary tells us so much about Smiley through even the smallest expressions. When he raises his voice even a little, the effect is enormous. It’s a very vulnerable approach, for an actor to work with such subtlety. It’s been fantastic to see.”
Le Carré, who counted Guinness as a firm friend, notes, “I identified with Alec in one way, but with Gary in a completely different one. They’re different beasts in different products. What you feel with Gary is that he has an extraordinary command of himself as an actor; he steps right outside himself.
“With Gary you share Smiley’s pain, share the danger of life, the danger of being who he is. That is much more acute. His is a tougher Smiley. He radiates the man’s solitude, and conveys a little cruelty. I’m hypnotized by his performance.”
Oldman says, “I was very flattered to be asked to play George – just to be involved, really. Smiley is drawn from a world of John le Carré’s personal experience; all of his complex characters are so fully realized. Britain has a long espionage tradition, and I’d say we’ve spied quite well. But we have also held a rather romantic view of it, and le Carré showed the reality. I hope this movie will encourage people to discover his books.
“George Smiley is a delicious character, and a wonderful role for an actor. He is many things at once; mild-mannered, sagacious, and perspicacious. He is a student of espionage, and a great manipulator of bureaucracy who works on his wits. Smiley has a prodigious memory, like a steel trap. He has an innate sense of the foibles, the weaknesses, and the fallibilities of the human condition. He possesses a strong moral sense, even though he recognizes and understands the dark, unethical, and ugly side of what he does.”
As in the novel, Oldman’s Smiley is haunted by a quiet melancholy, born not only of his job, but also of his personal life. Oldman remarks, “One of the reviews for the book, I think it was in The Spectator, said that ‘Smiley is a great spy but an inadequate man.’ For his name to be Smiley – John le Carré is brilliant at coming up with names. Le Carré describes Smiley as a rather short guy, unattractive, overweight; yet he told me, ‘It’s yours now. Make it what you will.’”
In speaking at length with the author, Oldman also “took a few little things from watching le Carré – which I think Alec Guinness may have done as well! I also ate a lot – custard, treacle sponge…I put on a bit of weight, a paunch.”
After having briefly met with Alfredson early on to compare notes on the material and the character, Oldman conferred with him regularly during pre-production. The director remarks, “We would have discussions about Smiley’s silhouette, about if he were wearing a watch. We decided that he doesn’t wear cufflinks, because that would express something.”
In becoming Smiley from head to toe, Oldman started at the top; disdaining a wig, the actor’s own hair was bleached and highlights were weaved in. Silver rinses over the top were then added.
Oldman, Alfredson, and costume designer Jacqueline Durran conferred over just which would be the right pair of glasses for Smiley to wear throughout. Ultimately, Durran remembers, “Gary went and found this pair and brought them back to us in England. Tomas loved them, so they became Smiley’s. We had to have them duplicated in case something happened to the main set.”
Alfredson confides, “Gary is open to ideas, but works very intuitively; he will say when something doesn’t feel right. He is always prepared, so sometimes it felt like Gary was getting into Smiley all the time, and it was mind-blowing to see him at work.”
Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays opposite Oldman as Smiley’s Circus colleague Peter Guillam, found him to be “so inclusive to other actors. There’s nothing precious about what Gary does.
“But we were doing this one scene, where Smiley is recalling a past encounter, and it became a very thin line for me not to fall over; Guillam is enthralled, and I was mesmerized! Gary was completely inhabiting Smiley.”
Oldman reflects, “I’ve played many an extroverted character, so I loved portraying someone so still, so quiet. Smiley doesn’t act out. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, he’s part of a high-stakes chess game, one where everyone is intently watching how – or, if – another person is going to move.”