Gary Oldman, Oscar campaigner?
It seemed an unlikely role for the veteran actor when "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" began screening back in September. Despite a lengthy and brilliant career, the 53-year-old British actor had never received an Oscar nomination, and he hardly seemed the type to embrace the rigors of awards season on behalf of a moody, understated, smart movie that might well prove too subtle and thorny for voters.
But Oldman has been a constant, affable presence on the circuit for months – never with the hard sell, but always around to remind voters just how ridiculous it was that he'd never been nominated despite a career that has included "Sid and Nancy," "Prick Up Your Ears," "JFK," "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "True Romance," "The Contender" and many more – including, in recent years, both the "Harry Potter" franchise and Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy.
On January 24, his Oscar shutout ended with a Best Actor nomination for his defiantly low-key performance as master spy George Smiley, who is always both the smartest and the quietest man in any room.
The first time we spoke this season, "Tinker Tailor" had yet to be released, and its Oscar prospects were uncertain. When we sat down again in early February, Oldman showed right away that he is a man given to understatement.
"Things have changed," he said softly, "since I last saw you."
The Oscar nomination is certainly a huge change. In the past, were you ever surprised when you didn't get nominated?
No, no. You know, there's quite an amount of work that you have to do. I don't know why people can't watch a movie and tick a box. But I know why they don't: because it's business as well. So I understand it. It's the machine.
But I've never really put myself out there, so it never surprised me when I wasn't nominated. I've never done everything that was required of one to even be noticeable.
What caused you this time around to say, "Okay, I'll do what's required?"
It was a cumulative thing. It's a lead role, which I haven’t played for a long time. I'm very happy to be associated with Smiley, and "Tinker Tailor," and [author] John le Carre. And I thought that Tomas Alfredson had made a really good movie, and I was just very proud to be associated with it.
And then you get good reviews, so that changed the game a little. Then you realize that it’s actually making money, that there's an audience for the movie. It develops a momentum, and one can either get off the train, or say, "Let's just ride this to the destination and see what happens."
But you were still considered something of a longshot before the nominations were announced.
I wasn’t expecting an Oscar nomination. If you take the temperature of SAG and the Golden Globes, we were missing. And then we got 11 nominations at the British Academy, and you think, Well, someone's got it right. [laughs] And then we got Oscar nominations for the score, which I think is just tremendous, and the screenplay, which is the one we were all rooting for. And I slipped in there too.
I'm enjoying it. It becomes quite frenetic, and you notice a lot of stress around you that could contaminate you. And I'm really stepping back from that, and embracing the ride. I'm determined to enjoy every bloody minute of it.
How do you not let the stress infect you?
Well, when I'm not here, I'm not really thinking about it very much. It's really a day at a time. I glance over the schedule, but I don't always know what's coming up next. I just ask these guys at Focus, I say, "What am I doing next?" "You've got TV, Jimmy Kimmel." "Oh, that's tonight?" And I just go along, and then I'm done tonight at 8 o'clock and I go home and see the kids.
It's exciting, but my life, and my movie career, and even the life of "Tinker Tailor," it doesn’t all end on February 26.
So are you going to have fun on that day?
Yeah. I've got a lot of love, a lot of people that are rooting for me. And I've got a very nice suit to wear that is being made by Paul Smith. So it's all rather nice.
I noticed that when you got an award in Palm Springs (above), and also when I watched the Gotham Awards online, that when that clip reel of your work plays, it gets a huge reaction. In Palm Springs, Adrien Brody watched it and then said, "Holy shit, that's a reel!" How do you feel when you watch your work back like that?
It's a mix, really. Some of it I can watch, some of it I can't. I appreciate why people are fans of certain roles, but it's a subjective thing with me, and I bring baggage to it. So for me, watching it all put together is a mix of "So what?" and "Holy shit!"
But I guess it's pretty impressive when you see it all put together like that. It can silence a room.
Are there things in your career that mean a lot to other people, but you just can't look at them?
Yeah, yeah. A lot of them. But there can be a healthy dislike of something, and then there are reasons that are particular to me. And I think occasionally I can be a bit hard on myself. But there are a couple of pictures that I just don't want to be reminded of.
I have a love-hate relationship with "Sid and Nancy." I don't think I'm very good in "Prick Up Your Ears." I'm okay. There's a bit of a sour taste with "The Professional," only because it pigeonholed me for a while. It has a certain charm, but it's silly. But people love it, and it’s become quite a sort of cult film.
It's that thing of, if you're four lads from Liverpool, and you've got "Sgt. Pepper" and people still want to hear "Love Me Do," after a while you just go, "Oh, for fuck's sake!" You'll give a Q&A for "Tinker Tailor," and someone will come up and say, "I loved you in 'Sid and Nancy.'" You feel that in the intervening years, somehow you've not measured up.
Old work is a bit like cold coffee, really. It was hot and delicious at the time, but …
Is it easier for you to embrace "Tinker Tailor?" Can you look at that and say, "Yes, I did well there?"
Yeah. I'm proud of this one. And there have been others. I thought "State of Grace" was a terrific film at the time, and was very proud to be in it. I remember watching "JFK" for the first time and thinking, Holy shit, this is a terrific picture, and I'm a part of it.
And "True Romance." I had no idea Tony Scott was doing what he did on that movie, but when you see the whole thing put together, it's just a fabulous ride.
So what are you doing after Feb 26?
I can't say anything right now, but there may be something that I'm going to do, that's close. It's very different. And I've been writing the last couple of years, and finished something and we're looking for money.
Is that the Siamese twins story you were adapting, "Chang and Eng?"
No no no. That's still around. That's a terrific script, but it's a 270-page script. It may be better suited for television, something long-form down the line. But I'm looking at doing something in 2013 as a director. And that will be nice, because it will be like a bit of a transfusion to get back and do that again.
This must be an interesting point in your life. The "Dark Knight" series is coming to an end, the "Harry Potter" series came to an end, and those were two major things for you over the last …
Ten years. I'm very happy to have been involved with them. To get one franchise is lucky, and to get two is obscene. And I can hear the other actors on "Potter" saying, "The lucky bastard's got 'Batman' as well!"
It was great to have those, especially through a dark time, a slump. They have the gravitas and they have the money and they have the studio. So whatever one's going through, you always knew that there would be another "Potter" and there would be another "Batman."
They gave me a very funny gift after my last shot on ["The Dark Knight Rises."] I was standing on a rooftop with Chris Nolan, and they gave me a shadow box, in this black frame. Inside it was my badge, my glasses and a mustache that they stick on the stuntmen. So they even retired my mustache. It was a lovely, funny little gift at the end of it all, and a lovely keepsake.
That's coming soon, yeah. And it promises to make a few dollars.
Nominees luncheon photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images. Palm Springs photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" photo by Jack English/Focus Features. Related Articles: Crazy Gary Oldman Tones It Down -- But Can It Finally Get Him an Oscar? Review: Ice-Cold 'Tinker Tailor' Burns Hot