Gary Oldman a chameleon in classic spy story

Courtesy photoBring on the awards: Gary Oldman is getting praise for his performance as a British intelligence agent in the long-awaited film version of “Tinker

Courtesy photoBring on the awards: Gary Oldman is getting praise for his performance as a British intelligence agent in the long-awaited film version of “Tinker

On Sunday, the San Francisco Film Critics Circle honored Gary Oldman with its annual Best Actor award for his understated performance as George Smiley, a retired British intelligence operative pressed back into action to hunt a Soviet mole, in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”

Whether the prize turns out to be his first of many before February’s Oscars, or merely one to savor briefly before turning the page — and bracing himself for the publicity maelstrom sure to surround next summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises” — Oldman isn’t terribly concerned.

He was so eager to portray the quietly disillusioned hero of John le Carré’s labyrinthine 1974 novel that he never really saw it as a career stepping stone. He did know it afforded him a role of rare depth and an impressive cast of reliable co-stars, including Toby Jones, John Hurt, Tom Hardy and Colin Firth.

It was also a change of pace from some of his quirkier roles, like the werewolf-hunting priest in last spring’s “Red Riding Hood.”

“You can be a big character or a guy like George, who’s holding it all in behind the mask,” he says. “It’s the quality of the writing that’s key, I think.

“I couldn’t do much with ‘Red Riding Hood.’ I defy anyone to try. On that movie, we were just trying to save our own asses. ‘Tinker Tailor’ is far more emotionally complex, and the writing is so rich that it allows you the luxury of being subtle.”

Sometimes, Oldman admits, his choices were so sly that director Alfredson missed them entirely, asking the 53-year-old London native to do “bigger takes” so the camera could highlight a slight tilt of the head or a quick glance.

Oldman also took cues from le Carré himself, a onetime MI6 operative who recounted the dispiriting solitude of life as a spy.

The results speak for themselves — very softly — and Alfredson expected nothing less. “Smiley is described as someone you would immediately forget, like someone’s uncle,” says the director, who became so focused on casting Oldman that he planned to halt production if the actor said no.

“To have a main character who’s supposed to be boring is quite hard. What I needed was an actor who could not actually be boring, but who could play someone who is. This was almost impossible, because most big movie stars have very specific faces, which isn’t what we wanted. But when you consider what Gary has accomplished over the years, you realize he’s a true chameleon.”

IF YOU GO

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Starring Gary Oldman, Toby Jones, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth
Written by Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Rated R
Running time 2 hours 8 minutes

artsentertainmentGary OldmanMoviessoldier

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