February 2012

Spy Work

Menacing, seething or in your face onscreen, in real life cinematic chameleon Gary Oldman would much prefer to stay in his hidey-hole, thank you  by ERIC ESTRIN / photographs by ANDREW MACPHERSON

One thing you can say about Gary Oldman is he’s a man of contradictions. Introduced to most of America in a slew of controversial film roles—seminal punk rocker Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy, scandal-plagued playwright Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, an Ebonics-spouting pimp in True Romance—he spent years mining the edges of the indie landscape, before landing the part of pureblood wizard Sirius Black midway in the unprecedentedly popular Harry Potter series.

With a chameleonic talent for accents, he played the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven, Count Dracula and Lee Harvey Oswald, and Basquiat director Julian Schnabel cast him as the hustling New York street artist modeled after himself.

Now, with almost 50 films under his belt, Oldman is garnering buzz yet again. His Irish-inflected Chicago police commissioner Jim Gordon returns in this summer’s hotly anticipated Batman sequel, The Dark Knight Rises. And he’s currently wowing audiences as George Smiley, John le Carré’s upper-crust British secret agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, who keeps his tortured emotions in icy check.

Offscreen, Oldman’s accent recalls the South London of Nil by Mouth, a 1997 film he wrote and directed about a loosely autobiographical group whose lives revolve around alcohol, heroin and violence. He dedicated the film to his father, who ran off with a friend’s wife when Oldman was a boy.

At 53, Oldman has conquered any personal demons and is a committed family man raising two boys with his fourth wife, jazz singer Alex Eden, whose recent music video he directed.

Over breakfast in Hollywood in December, he addressed a glaring contradiction—why, despite being acclaimed to the point of reverence by critics and peers, he has never been nominated for an Academy Award. (As we were sending this issue to press, Oldman was, at last, handed a lead-acting nom.) Surprisingly, he said it didn’t bother him too much—and since he’s such a good actor, I couldn’t help but believe him.

Sid & Nancy gave you such a grand entrance into Hollywood.
It’s funny, I have a love-hate relationship with that film. It’s a vaudeville act in front of the curtain before it goes up on the career. If I catch it on TV, I’ll switch it off immediately. It’s old work, you know? I don’t often go back and revisit.

What was the vibe like on that set? It must have been weird playing the father of punk.
There was one night where we were creating Studio 54, and they were shooting across an avenue, and there was a big, big crowd outside. I guess they had put an ad in a local paper, scouring for extras—real punks—and they’d kept them in a waiting area for hours. By the time they finally got to shoot, which I guess was about 1 in the morning, they were tired, stoned, drunk and very pissed off. In the shot, I get out of a limo and am hustled through this crowd, and some of the extras just started spitting at me. Four guys jumped me, and as we were setting up for another shot, I was inside in the corner, and the four guys were kicking the s--t out of me.

Unscripted, I take it?
Yeah, they were mad for having to wait so long. One of them was going, “Look at you, you think you can play Sid?” They were screaming obscenities.

Did you fight back?
I kicked a bit, but there were four of them kicking and punching, until finally the A.D. came in to help. It was a low-budget production. There wasn’t any money for putting security in the crowd. That was the only time I have ever been physically beaten up on a film.

You played a lot of really wild characters after that.
Yeah, typecasting got its grip on me in the ’90s. I did those two rather extraordinary cartoon characters for Luc Besson in Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element, and then I began to be perceived as crazy, manic, like a circus freak. That to me was just one book in the library of Gary Oldman, but you’re just asked to write it again and again.

So you made a conscious effort to get away from that?
It’s a big ship to turn around. You have to find the right vehicle. I became a single dad and had the responsibility of bringing up two boys, and I chose to be a father who was around. That coincided with a shift in the Industry. A lot of productions were being exported. All of a sudden, American productions were going overseas for tax breaks, so certain options were closed to me, because I couldn’t be somebody living out of a suitcase. And that’s when Harry Potter fell from the sky, shortly followed by Batman, two of the biggest franchises in cinema history. It was wonderful not only to be a part of it, but I was earning a little more than in indie movies, and I got to be home with the kids.

And now you’ve taken another iconic role with George Smiley. Were you familiar with the PBS version of Tinker Tailor?
Sure, that was my introduction to the le Carré books, really. I saw the miniseries, and then later as a student, I started reading the books. It was sort of experimental, inasmuch as it was the very beginnings of long-form television.

Was it intimidating trying to fill the shoes of Alec Guinness?
Hugely. I left the U.K. many years ago, so I’m a bit of a defector in that sense. They like things in their place. So if Gary isn’t at the Royal Court, Ken Branagh isn’t at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], and the Queen isn’t at Buckingham Palace, they think, “You can’t run off to America and be successful. We didn’t tell you you could.” That stopped me from committing to the project immediately. I had to slay the dragon in my head for about a month before I said yes.

Actors are great observers of human behavior. Could you have been a spy like Smiley?
I doubt it. I have too much of a conscience. I’m not very good with secrets. Le Carré talked about the level of paranoia one has when on an assignment. He said you were always waiting for footsteps—and that adrenaline level you lived on when you had an alias. It’s like these guys in the futures markets—they burn out very young.

Or else they keep succeeding until they crash the economy.
Yes, there’s also that.

Did you think much about whether your name would be on this year’s Oscar nominations list?
Well, I’ve heard the rumor that it may be my time. No bones about it, I would be very happy.

Why hasn’t it happened so far? You’ve certainly been acclaimed by your peers.
Don’t know. I’ve never pushed myself much in that regard. I don’t have a publicist. I like my hidey-hole.

I imagine artists would rather just focus on their art, that the business end is something quite different.
Yeah, we’re not salesmen. You really just want to be an actor or a writer or a painter. Occasionally you’ll find someone who can do both—like Schnabel. [Laughs.]

Do you think your father leaving influenced your later growth as an artist?
Yeah, and I guess it’s influenced my relationships with women as well. I have been a bit disastrous in that area. It took until my fourth time, I’m not proud to say. I recently remarried, and though it’s taken me a long time, as we say in England, I’ve found a cracker.

How did it feel to go through a messy divorce publicly?
Pretty filthy. But I’ve gotten used to it. It’s that old saying that whatever people think of me is none of my business. You learn that something you might react to as an eight on the Richter scale—now it’s a tremor. I think that just comes with age and knowing what is important. When I’m at home, I want my focus taken up with my family, and I don’t want to fill the hard drive with bulls--t. But easier said than done.

GROOMER: Erica Sauer / Exclusive Artist Management