The cast of characters Gary Oldman has portrayed on film would make a pretty intimidating street gang. There’s Sid Vicious, of course, as well as lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald, the crucifier Pontius Pilate, a count by the name of Dracula, assorted hooligans and mobsters – even the Devil himself.
Given so much opportunity to chew the scenery, it’s no small wonder that Oldman has earned his first Academy Award nomination (yes, his first nomination) for Best Actor for what might be his least emotive role to date – the inscrutable, near-motionless intelligence officer George Smiley, in the tense feature film adaptation of the classic John le Carré Cold War novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
For Oldman, playing the role was a relief from typecasting. “Instead of coming to work and having to crank it up,” he tells Rolling Stone, “it was lovely to come in and sit in a chair. I got very used to sitting down.”
Smiley watches colleagues and informers with a lizard-like stillness. “There’s a great deal of emotion going on with Smiley, but it’s all under the surface,” says Oldman. “It’s all reined in.”
In England, where Oldman grew up, the character is inextricably linked with the late Sir Alec Guinness, who played the part in the BBC’s blockbuster 1979 mini-series.
“That was huge,” recalls Oldman. “Obviously there were no VCRs or TiVo then. One was arranging your social calendar around that hour every week. It was experimental – the book in its entirety, line for line, word for word. It was the very beginnings of long-form TV. And it was the first time Guinness had been on TV.”
Oldman panicked after accepting the role, wondering how he would measure up against Guinness’ definitive portrayal. “You can’t mess with the molecular structure,” he says. “You can’t be radically different for the sake of it.
“I was paralyzed with fear,” he says. “I thought, ‘What have I let myself in for?'” Yet that fear may have helped him inhabit the role: in the underworld that Smiley navigates, anyone could be a double agent, and everyone is crippled with paranoia.
The film’s success – it’s earned more than $70 million at the box office to date and was nominated for 11 British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), the U.K. equivalent of the Oscars – has vindicated the cast and crew, who were initially just as nervous as Oldman.
“We all came into it with some trepidation – how famous the book is, le Carré, the TV series, Sir Alec,” he says. “There were all these dragons we had to slay. We could’ve been taken to the cleaners.”
We’ll see Oldman next onscreen reprising his role as crime investigator James Gordon in The Dark Knight Rises, and he’ll return to his rock & roll roots as an Elvis impersonator in Guns, Girls and Gambling (co-starring Christian Slater and Dane Cook) and a gangster in The Wettest County, directed by John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) with a screenplay by Nick Cave.
One of Oldman’s favorite gigs to date involved another rock & roll original, the late James Brown, with whom he spent a three-day shoot on a short film called “Beat the Devil.” The singer, playing himself, goes back for a return visit with the Devil – Oldman in a Spandex jumpsuit and sloppy blood-red lipstick – to renegotiate.
Oldman says the shoot was a thrill for him: “I was a soul man when I was growing up.” Meeting Brown, he says, was “like a kid who’s into rockets and space, and they meet Neil Armstrong. I mean, wow!”
In his own field, he stands alone. Oldman is “one of the best actors on the planet,” raved Peter Travers in his review of Tinker Tailor. Pitted against George Clooney and Brad Pitt for the Best Actor award, he’s finally getting that sort of recognition.
“It’s ironic,” he says. “All those roles, and I get the Oscar nod for the most minimalist piece of acting.”