Who Might Be Who
Gary Oldman reveals, “The title of the story is taken from the name of a nursery rhyme: ‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.’ Some of these are used to refer to the high-ranking men under suspicion. Just about everyone and everything has got a code name.”
Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan accordingly retained many of the code names and monikers that John le Carré mapped out in his original novel. To name but a couple, there are the ‘Mothers’ in the typing den and the ‘Scalphunters’ out in the field.
Casting the Circus ensemble around Oldman as Smiley “wasn’t that hard,” says Robyn Slovo. “We had a great screenplay based on an iconic novel, with a great actor in the lead role. We got our first or second choices at every turn.”
Tomas Alfredson adds, “We needed strong actors who could balance each other. I think we achieved that; when you see the Circus conference table with these guys gathered, well, it was like a candy shop for me as the director.”
Tim Bevan notes, “We had people coming to the table because these kind of character roles aren’t around so much in films these days. Actors want to play them.”
At the top of the Circus is Smiley’s friend and mentor, known only as Control, played by two-time Academy Award nominee John Hurt. Oldman says, “I’ve admired John’s work since before I became an actor. I loved every minute of being in his company.”
Hurt comments, “Control is not an enormous part. In fact, I call it the shortest leading part I’ve ever played. It is one, though, because it’s central and what he knows – or suspects – about the mole gets carried through by Smiley right to the end of the film.”
“Once Control becomes privy to the fact that there is a mole at the top of MI6 – a huge hole in his own outfit – it causes him great agony, because these are the people that he works with and this has been his life’s work.”
Even though Control is close to Smiley, he still counts his friend among the suspects. But in line with the rhyme, the lineup begins with ‘tinker,’ Percy Alleline.
Percy is able to wrest oversight of the Circus from Control, as a result of a botched mission – the ripple effect of which is gradually revealed during the course of the film. Toby Jones, cast as Percy, sees his character as, “to a certain extent, the vehicle for change, in the sense that his own ambition means that he seeks to reform the way that the Circus is organized. But every character in this film is potentially both a pawn and a knight, as it were. So while Percy thinks he’s pushing, he’s also being pulled.
“Percy lacks respect for the way in which things have been done previously at the Circus. He is that dangerous reforming spirit who appears to be without caution, and it’s exactly that kind of spirit which can be conditioned and controlled by someone with malevolent intent. His weakness in his desire for power is exactly the kind of weakness that could be exploited.”
The power shift atop the Circus that occurs early in the story benefits the personable Bill Haydon, portrayed by Academy Award winner Colin Firth. Given that Haydon is better-attired than the other senior members of the Circus, he is the ‘tailor’ among the mole suspects.
Firth comments, “Haydon wields considerable power in dealing with foreign operations. He’s very much looked up to by some of the younger members of the organization, with hero worship. They’re subscribing to his self-image; dashing, with a kind of glamour and rather cavalier – for example, he’s the one who rides his bicycle into the office and through the typewriter pool. That’s indicative of the confidence and flair that he operates with…
“But all these characters are extremely lonely. I remember somebody misinterpreting John le Carré’s work as ‘boy’s stuff without any emotion’, and I think that couldn’t be further from the truth. All of these men are highly trained, but their idealism has been bruised. Each of them is vulnerable in some way, and they’re not particularly capable of intimacy. Even when they are, there is betrayal. Through it all, these are men that cannot afford to indulge their emotions.”
The workmanlike Roy Bland, played by Ciarán Hinds, is tagged as ‘soldier’ by Control.
Hinds sees Roy as being part of “this cabal who senses opportunity when the power balance suddenly shifts. With Control out, Roy is able to move forward and pursue his ideas more aggressively. He’s direct, but he’s also learned to play games.
“His colleagues are not aristocratic; I’d say they’re middle-class or probably upper-class. Roy comes from a sort of working-class home. He’s well-read and was able to get into a ‘red-brick’ university. I saw him as being motivated a lot by his father’s ideas of politics, which would have been more radical, more left-wing. This serves him well in terms of making contacts in the Eastern Bloc.”
Several names from the rhyme are not borrowed by Control for the suspects’ IDs, in part to avoid confusion and in part because there are only so many suspects. Oldman opines, “When Smiley discovers that he’s on the list, I think his admiration for Control – which is already high – soars!”
The ‘poor man’ label is ascribed to Toby Esterhase, played by David Dencik. The character “allies himself with Percy Alleline, because he knows Percy’s taking over with Control out,” notes Dencik. “Esterhase seeks out what will be best for himself. He speaks several languages, he came over from Hungary, and he wants so much to integrate into British society.
“The Circus is very segregated; people very much hold information for themselves, or share it with some colleagues but not others. Esterhase likes and respects Smiley, who helped him somewhat to get to where he is today.”
While Esterhase looms in the Circus’ future, Connie Sachs lingers in its past; the lone female Circus player in the story, this former “Queen of Research” is one of the few people Smiley trusts, even though she is permanently out of the spy game by the time his investigation begins.
Kathy Burke, cast as Connie, clarifies, “She’s still a smart cookie who doesn’t miss a trick, and remains very into the Soviets and what they’re up to and what they’re about. She feels particularly close to Smiley, because she sees him as incredibly smart, and loyal. He’s always treated her as an equal.
“Hearing that Control has been ousted devastates her, because she knows that it’s the end of an era. She remembers when everybody was a team, and there was no fear that somebody amongst them could be working for the other side. She wants to remember everybody as they were, and I do think she was in love with a colleague at some point.”
Connie is a particular favorite of many who have read le Carré’s book. While the screenplay adaptation – and Burke’s portrayal – hew closely to the original conception, another character changed; the novel’s Jerry Westerby is an Oxford graduate, but the movie’s Jerry is not.
Stephen Graham, cast as Jerry, explains that “the character in this adaptation is from a working-class family background. This was done to show that there would have been people from Liverpool, people with different regional accents, in the SIS. The concept is that Jerry was bright and intelligent, and picked out early on by MI6.”
As the duty officer on-site at Circus headquarters on the night that a mission abroad goes bad, “Jerry is integral to the story because he receives the phone call that kicks off the whole chain of events – leading to Control’s ouster and Smiley’s, then Smiley’s being rehired and investigating,” reveals Graham.
Once reinstated and tasked with smoking out the mole, Smiley relies on Peter Guillam (pronounced “gwill-im”) as his right-hand man. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the younger Intelligence officer, whom he sees as “heroic, in the sense that he very much subscribes to the Service as home. Guillam has a great sense of esprit de corps; he genuinely believes in what the cause is. To him, it’s clear-cut; fighting the Russians. This gives him certainty in what is a life of increasing uncertainty. But he has made sacrifices, as all these men have.
“Guillam exercises a great deal of charm and leverage within the Circus bureaucracy. We get to see how Guillam is quick-thinking, pragmatic, and ruthlessly efficient; ‘ruthlessly polite’ is one of the John le Carré descriptions of him. His precision is enticing to Smiley, and there is a bond between the two of them.”
Despite his youth relative to the other Circus principals, Guillam is newly charged with overseeing the Scalphunting division of the Circus, which practices “a more visceral level of spying,” according to the actor. “Scalphunters were people who would be sent to foreign climes with faked IDs, and they might go and do a one-off operation, assassination, or infiltration…possibly even hostage-taking.”
Guillam has assumed oversight of the Scalphunters after the failed Hungary mission which led to Control’s ouster. Agent Jim Prideaux, who had headed the Scalphunters, barely survived the debacle, and has since been relocated into a placid new identity as a schoolteacher.
“Once he’s invalided out of the Service, there are few tears shed for Jim back at the Circus,” notes actor Mark Strong of his character. “It’s not that he’s disliked; it’s more to do with that protective quality which you had to develop – whether you were in the RAF or the SIS – so if a close friend was shot down or sent away, you just never really mentioned him again, largely because it was too difficult to bring up.
“Jim is very conscious of his sense of duty and service to his country; he would do the dirty work in the field and then come back to Circus headquarters, until he was sent out again. As a Scalphunter, he had to assume various identities in undercover work – and have more than one at the ready. He’s a very erudite Englishman, but emotionally he’s quite stunted.”
Bevan adds, “I do feel that all the characters probably end up wondering who they really are. But what you see with Jim Prideaux and another Scalphunter, Ricki Tarr [played by Tom Hardy], is both a glamour and a sadness. They’re so active in the field, out in the world, yet the melancholy that flows through the film is particularly evident within them.”