LOS ANGELES — Gary Oldman agonized over whether he should tinker with British spymaster George Smiley, a character who is an institution to John le Carre’s readers and already had been played to perfection by Alec Guinness.
The filmmakers behind the big-screen adaptation of Mr. le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” wanted Mr. Oldman to play Smiley so much that they offered him the role before he met with them to talk it over.
Mr. Oldman spent a month mulling it over, and even once he had agreed, the actor had a moment of terror a week before shooting, wondering if he could pull it off.
“If you’re going to play Hamlet, you’re going to be measured against all the great Hamlets that have come before you. Or Lear, or Willy Loman, or Blanche DuBois, or whoever,” Mr. Oldman said in an interview for “Tinker,” which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday. “You’re always going to be somewhat in the shadow of a great performance.”
Good thing. Mr. Oldman delivers what could be his finest performance in a career that ranges from notorious dark spirits (Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy,” Lee Harvey Oswald in “JFK,” the bloodsucking fiend of “Dracula”) to noble souls (Harry Potter’s godfather in the fantasy series, Beethoven in “Immortal Beloved,” stalwart policeman Jim Gordon in the current “Batman” franchise).
“The career he’s had I truly admire, because it’s such a fantastic collection of characters,” said Mark Strong, part of a stellar supporting cast in “Tinker” that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds and Toby Jones. “It’ll embarrass him, but he is a hero of mine. A lot of guys my age and younger look up to him, because he takes such risks with the parts that he’s played.”
“Tinker” director Tomas Alfredson calls Mr. Oldman the “Swiss Army knife of acting” because of his versatility.
Unlike the frenetic energy he infused in many past characters, Mr. Oldman had to bring a stillness to Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to unmask a Russian mole in British intelligence at the height of the Cold War.
“Gary is such a mature actor, he knows that even a neck can be very expressive,” Mr. Alfredson said. “Like in the beginning of the scene where he gets fired, we’re very close to his neck, and we can see how humiliated he is without looking in his eyes. It’s fantastic.”
The story is a dense one, abridged from a sprawling novel whose action flits about among dozens of key characters all over Europe.
The filmmakers are faithful to Mr. le Carre’s 1970s setting, subtle dialogue and thoughtful pace. They haven’t gussied up the film with car chases and shootouts, letting the action unfold with a slow, meticulous momentum that proves riveting.
“There’s a sort of industry wisdom, an unchallenged sort of thing out there, that this is serious adult drama that studios don’t want to make, and people shouldn’t be writing it, people shouldn’t be directing it, and audiences don’t want to see it. I like to think we’ve proved them wrong,” Mr. Oldman said.