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.
"The ghost of Guinness just sort of loomed so large," Mr. Oldman said of Sir Alec, who brilliantly played Smiley on television in a 1979 miniseries of "Tinker" and 1982's "Smiley's People."
Mr. Oldman finally exorcised that ghost by likening Smiley to classical roles played again and again by different actors.
"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."
No matter how good Guinness was as the frumpy, unfashionable spy whose bland exterior concealed fierce intellect and drive, Mr. Oldman figured he was entitled to create his own incarnation of Smiley.
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.
Already a hit in Britain, where it opened in September, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" comes into a wide-open Academy Awards season with great buzz for Mr. Oldman's best-actor prospects.
Oscar contender would be a new role for Mr. Oldman, 53, one of those actors so universally respected you'd figure he must have half a dozen past nominations behind him. But not only has Mr. Oldman never won an Oscar - he's never been nominated.
"It's never really bothered me. I just go about my life and my thing and work. And there are moments in careers where the light shines on you, and you recede, you go back into the shadows. There're ups and downs in a career," said Mr. Oldman, who likes the sound of his awards chatter.
"I am flattered, to be very truthful. I'm enjoying it. ... I've heard it before, and it might be my time. I mean, for a nomination. I'd be happy with that."
Mr. Oldman reprises his role as Police Commissioner Gordon opposite Christian Bale's Batman in next summer's "The Dark Knight Rises," the finale to director Christopher Nolan's acclaimed superhero franchise.
Details remain under wraps, but Mr. Oldman gushes about the film.
"I'm sworn to secrecy, and we're not allowed to really talk about it much. But I can say this much, that the story's terrific. That he's going to really go out with a bang," Mr. Oldman said.
There's talk of sending Smiley out with another bang. The filmmakers are considering an adaptation of Mr. le Carre's follow-up novel "Smiley's People," possibly incorporating elements of another Smiley adventure, "The Honourable Schoolboy."
Mr. Oldman said he would love to have another go at Smiley, another chance to take on the "ghost of Guinness."
"I love the tradition of Guinness and Peter Sellers, those kinds of actors, even Laurence Olivier, I guess. You only have to think of 'Kind Hearts and Coronets,' where Guinness, I think, plays seven members of the family, doesn't he?" Mr. Oldman said.
"You see yourself as part of that tradition, and you're aspiring to be as great as these people. So he was a hero of mine, and just a big dragon to slay. And at the end of the day, I think he was perhaps there as a friendly ghost."