Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson trades the vampires of his breakout film Let the Right One In for the business-suited bloodsuckers of the British secret service in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a new feature film adaptation of John le Carré's seminal spy novel, previously adapted into a famous BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness. Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, a forcibly retired MI-6 agent brought back into the fold to ferret out a mole in the upper echelon of the organization. But who could it be? The dapper Bill Haydon (Colin Firth)? The excitable Percy Alleline (Toby Jones)? Or possibly even George himself? Alfredson, Oldman and Firth passed through New York recently and talked about the movie's various twists and turns and the legacy of le Carré's book.
Gary Oldman on Getting into Character
"We grayed my hair and found those glasses which are, of course, iconic. To me, George Smiley's glasses are the equivalent of James Bond's Aston Martin. Physically, I also wanted to look middle-aged, so I used that as an excuse to eat everything that was put in front of me. I called it Eating for George. [Laughs] Part of the fun of this profession for me is playing different people. That's the joy of it. Growing up, I was influenced by Alec Guinness, who was the face of George Smiley for many generations. But I remember watching all those Ealing Comedies he made where he plays so many different characters with wigs and noses. Peter Sellers was another hero of mine and he had his fair share of dressing-up. So I was very influenced by that. There's part of me that likes all of that, changing your shape and your voice and all of that."
Alfredson on Casting Gary Oldman as George Smiley
"On the page, George is described as a person you would immediately forget -- anyone's uncle or a piece of wallpaper. And that is his great talent; he makes people talk. As we learn during the course of the film, he's carrying a big cross and he must be extremely lonely. But he never complains; he's the most loyal person you could ever imagine. It was quite hard to find the right name to play the role and we didn't find it until maybe six months in. In fact, we almost gave up. I said, 'I don't want to do any costumes before we have George.' We needed some kind of a chameleon, and if you look at Gary's work and what he's done, they're all very different personalities. He's almost never typecast. I thought he would be ideal for the part, so I flew over to L.A. to meet him. We connected very well and I'm very happy he did it. He's the kind of actor who is so experienced that he dared not to do too much. You have to have played as many characters as he has to dare to be this quiet and silent."
Colin Firth on His Character, Bill Haydon
"Haydon's probably the most mysterious character in a way. He thinks he's Lawrence of Arabia -- he wants to drag the ignorant and afflicted out of the dark and into the light. But he also wants it to be all about him. He's powerful, bright and forceful and interested in breaking some rules. In the book, he's not described in terms of what he wears, but I thought, let's put him in the tweed so he doesn't look as business-y as the others. Let's give him a bit of flamboyance."
Tomas Alfredson on How He Got Involved with the Film
"For me, when I start looking at a project, it's not about saying 'I want to do this.' It's very much, 'I want to start working on this, I want to start the process.' In the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, one of my managers had heard about the film and I had been looking for quite a while for my next project after Let the Right One In. When I heard about this, it just felt like the right thing to do. I remembered the old TV series and I remember reading the book, but what was more important was meeting the people involved with this version, the writers, the producers and John le Carré himself. They're all very nice people and to do a scary thing like this, you need to be encouraged. If you're surrounded by encouraging people who you trust, it's much easier. I think it was the vulnerability and loneliness of the soldiers of the Cold War that first made me want to do this -- how they work and what kind of soldiers were needed in that war in comparison to a hot war."
Colin Firth on the Spies of le Carré's Generation
"Those spies shared secrets with the Soviets for reasons not to do with self-advancement or monetary gain -- they just did it. They were all educated in the elite system. They were considerably above average intelligence and privileged. And you have to ask: why would privileged people who are taking all the benefits of the decadent Western capitalist society throw it all away by giving secrets to an anti-capitalist system? Those elite schools actually became a training ground to be a spy, because they were the place where you most wanted to screw the system. I don't think the similar situation would happen today, because the components aren't the same. That generation of elite English schoolboys were weaned on the idea of the British Empire and Communism as polarities and those concepts have disappeared. With those gone, it's very hard to see how people would do the same things for the same reasons."
Gary Oldman on the Psychology of George
"I read George as being a bit of a sadist. He can be cruel and quite mean when he wants to be, particularly when he needs information. His wife has virtually slept with everyone at his office and you don't get the impression that they argue or mention it. He doesn't go after her lovers, there's no retribution. He just accepts her. He loves her. I've certainly had my share of inappropriate relationships like that. You find yourself in situations like that where you accept people until you get to a point where you feel, 'I deserve more than this.' It's more about how you feel about yourself. So that's how I found my way into this character. I feel I know those situations and those feelings. I applied a lot of my own melancholy to it. Le Carré was there as a resource if we needed him and I asked him a little bit more about Geroge in the field -- what he was like as a spy with a cover. John talked about the level of paranoia of being on an assignment and waiting for the footsteps on the stairs, which would tell you that your cover was blown and the game was up. He said that the paranoia was such that George might even believe that he was the mole. Those are the things I wanted to get John. He's fantastic, he's 80 years old this year and it's like hanging out with a 25 year old."
Colin Firth on le Carré's Enduring Popularity in England
"I hadn't read the book before I made the movie and I can't remember whether I saw the TV series. I probably saw some episodes and it was so constantly being trailered, you heard about it all the time. You know, I remember at one point wondering whether I'd actually read Great Expectations or if I'd only seen films and TV adaptations. I could probably take you through that story in great detail, but I don't think I've ever read it. And Le Carré is one of those cultural reference points. When the Berlin Wall came down, I think people were less concerned about what would happen to Western Europe than what would happen to John Le Carré. What the film has done is focus in on the experience of putting your trust in an institution like MI-6. I know there's a group of spies that saw this film and there's a line that Tom Hardy has where he says he wants out because he wants a family and it got a laugh from them because of a painful recognition."
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