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In Depth

People In Film | Gary Oldman

Gary Oldman | Finding George Smiley

In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the stoic spymaster who is tasked with finding a mole in the heart of British intelligence. It was a daunting challenge for the actor. Not only did he need to fill the well-worn shoes of novelist John le Carré’s most celebrated character, but he would have to contend with the shadow of Alec Guinness' magnificent portrayal of Smiley in the 1979 BBC mini-series of the novel. Oldman approached Smiley with the same precision he brings to every character he plays. First was the look, getting the slightly paunchy body of Smiley just right. He told The Guardian, “If you're carrying around a few extra pounds, we all feel it. But it also gives you a visual; it's something you can believe in when you look in the mirror, when you put those clothes on. It's the silhouette, which is as important as the emotional or the internal.” And he took time to find just the right glasses. But then there was the emotional journey to find Smiley. Oldman explained to Will Lawrence at The Telegraph, “He is an intelligence officer, a student of espionage. He has a strong moral sense, too, a strong moral compass, even though he recognises the dark, unethical, ugly side of what he does. Also, there’s a melancholy and sadness within George. It isn’t accidental that his name is Smiley.” His hard work paid off. His performance has critics suggesting that Oldman should now get his long-overdue Oscar for this performance. He’s also gotten praise from Smiley’s creator himself. Le Carré saw in Oldman both a continuity and a contrast to Guinness’ Smiley. As he told The Telegraph, Oldman evokes the same solitude, inwardness, pain and intelligence that his predecessor brought to the part - even the same elegance…But Oldman’s Smiley, from the moment he appears, is a man waiting patiently to explode.”

Gary Oldman | A Childhood of Ambitions

Gary Oldman in 1987's “Serious Money”

Born in 1958 to a working-class family in a sketchy part of London, Oldman worked hard to pull himself out of his past. Although in doing so, he never lost touch with the trauma and tenderness with which he grew up. Oldman told Salon that “growing up in a particular neighborhood, growing up in a working-class family, not having much money, all of those things fire you and can give you an edge, can give you an anger.” Originally drawn to music –– both the Beatles and Chopin (via Liberace) –– Oldman changed his career trajectory drastically in 1970 after going to the movies one afternoon. He told Venice Magazine, “I saw Malcolm McDowell in a movie called THE RAGING MOON and that was it. It was like a moment of clarity. 'This is it.' That was lightning bolt.” Despite having left school with little work experience, Oldman was determined to pursue acting. Eventually, he secured a scholarship to Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent, where he graduated in 1979. Soon he was taking parts in plays across London, from Puss (the cat) to playing alongside Glenda Jackson (who was starring as Eva Braun) in the 1982 production of “Summit Conference.” After taking the lead in a restaging of Joe Orton’s “The Entertaining Mr. Sloane,” Oldman became someone to watch on the British stage. And he used his notoriety to convince the Royal Court Theatre to put on Edward Bond’s controversial play “The Pope’s Wedding,” an event that not only got him the British Theatre Association's Drama Magazine Award as Best Actor of 1985, but also brought him to the attention of director Alex Cox, who was looking to cast his next feature, a film about the punk band The Sex Pistols.

Gary Oldman | Bringing Real People to Life

Gary Oldman in SID AND NANCY; in PRICK UP YOUR EARS

Both shocking and spectacular, Alex Cox’s punk romance SID AND NANCY brought Oldman to the public’s attention. Roger Ebert was quick to recognize his talent, noting, “Performances like the ones in this film go beyond movie acting and into some kind of evocation of real lives.” Even Sex Pistols front man John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) commended Oldman’s veracity, writing in his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, “The chap who played Sid, Gary Oldman, I thought was quite good.” His genius for playing real people was further showcased in his next film, PRICK UP YOUR EARS, a biopic of playwright Joe Orton. (Interestingly, Orton’s play “The Entertaining Mr. Sloane” helped launch his stage career.) The director Stephen Frears remembers that on set “He [Oldman] turned up actually looking like Joe…I hadn't expected the physical resemblance, but that came naturally to him.” Indeed New York Times critic Vincent Canby recognized Oldman’s unique aptitude, writing that he “looks remarkably like the playwright and surpasses his fine work as Sid Vicious in SID AND NANCY.” Throughout his career, Oldman would often be asked to bring real life figures to life on screen, be it Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK, or Beethoven in Bernard Rose’s IMMORTAL BELOVED. Oldman once joked in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that playing real people is “a double-edged sword because in one sense you have a lot of material to work with, but in a strange kind of way that puts up a framework that you have to keep within. You can't play Beethoven with pink hair, but to an extent, because no one has ever met him, who's going to tell me that's not Beethoven?"

Gary Oldman | Making Characters Real

Gary Oldman in BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, TRUE ROMANCE, and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX

Oldman’s talent for bringing characters – both real and imagined – to life has been so tangible that audiences sometimes mistake the man for his creations. Oldman has gone from playing the title character in Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA to the drug-crazed, dreadlocked pimp in TRUE ROMANCE to a psychotic crooked cop in LÉON: THE PROFESSIONAL to a Russian terrorist in AIR FORCE ONE. More recently he’s brought to life the mysterious Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and Police Commissioner Gordon in the recent Batman films. He told Salon, “I always read "madman" or "genius," "volatile," "angry," "crazy," "mad" Oldman. People just associate me with the people I play. I have an absolute facility for it. I can turn it on and turn it off in my sleep.” But while he is not his characters, Oldman brings them to life with wondrous facility. Of his Dracula, The Washington Post extolled, “What Oldman does vocally in these early scenes is nothing short of genius.”  The New York Times applauded his AIR FORCE ONE villain as “played with scary glee.” Oldman’s ability to morph was perfectly captured in a story he told FHM: “I was staying with a friend, Doug, who has a little boy and one day one of his teachers took Doug aside and said, "Your son has a very over-active imagination - he thinks that Beethoven and Dracula are living at your house."

Gary Oldman | Director of Real Life

Ray Winstone in NIL BY MOUTH

While Oldman has masterfully embodied others’ creations, in 1997 he brought his own story to the screen with NIL BY MOUTH. The film – which he wrote, directed and produced – tells the hard-edged tale of a volatile impoverished family scraping by in South London: a violent and alcoholic dad, Ray (Ray Winstone), his abused wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke), and their drug-addicted son, Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), a lost soul whom Valerie keeps supporting despite herself. The realism of the story came from Oldman’s own memories. As he explained to Filmscouts.com, “I had the idea swimming around inside my head. Finally, I decided to take some time off and deal with it. I said to my agent, 'I don't care if Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese calls me. I'm not acting this year. I want to sit down and address this thing which has been bubbling around in me.'” The final product proved emotionally powerful. Kathy Burke won Best Actress at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of battered wife Valerie. The sheer realness of the family’s life and circumstances went beyond most expectations. The San Francisco Chronicle declared NIL BY MOUTH to be “as blunt and unsparing as a fist to the gut.” And the New York Times critic Janet Maslin highlighted Oldman’s unflinching sense of reality: “Capturing the same brawling realism and transparent machismo that were hallmarks of John Cassavetes' cinematic benders, Oldman lets his characters posture noisily at first, then begins pulling away layers of self-deception.” But Oldman's reality is ultimately not about pain, but about honesty and care. As he told Time Out London, “I wanted the film to represent the culture and neighbourhood I came from…I made it for Britain… And I'd like the folks round here to see it, because it's not just an art-movie, it's a love letter to them.”

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