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There was a time in the '90s when Gary Oldman was becoming something of a caricature. At the same time, Oldman's drinking was getting the better of him. Two bottles of vodka a day were taking their toll.

"Yeah," smiles the 53-year-old actor. "I was battling a few demons back then, some of them in my head, some of them in the film industry. And I wasn't doing myself any favours. As always, I knew all this, deep down, but it still felt like something that I had to do. You know, get very drunk, live on the edge, and all that nonsense."

It was nonsense that often arrives when artists try to make great art, to break on through to the other side, and it was this wide-eyed dedication to his craft that saw Oldman deliver memorable turns in such early outings as Sid And Nancy (1986), Prick Up Your Ears ('87) and JFK ('91).

It didn't take long for the histrionics to break on through though as did Oldman's panto baddie performances in such movies as True Romance ('93), Leon: The Professional ('94), The Fifth Element and Air Force One (both '97).

Only in recent years, with supporting roles in blockbuster franchises Harry Potter (playing Sirius Black) and Christopher Nolan's Batman reboots (playing Commissioner Gordon) has Oldman had the chance to prove that he's older and wiser.

"God bless Christopher Nolan, in particular, for seeing something different in me that so many other directors were blind to," says Oldman. "I was always being offered the psycho roles. Which, for a while, I took, believing, partly, that I could have some fun with them, but mainly because I needed the money. But taking on the role of Commissioner Gordon in the Batman movies, and of Sirius Black in the Potter films, gave me a chance to move in a different direction as an actor. And these were pretty successful films. Hollywood takes notice of success, and if they reckon audiences like you in a different kind of role, they'll give you different roles."

And MI6 intelligence officer George Smiley in John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very different role for Oldman. Director Tomas Alfredson (making his English-language debut after his success with Let The Right One In) said when casting Oldman that he has "a great face" and "the quiet intensity and intelligence that's needed". Does Oldman agree?

"Well, I'm loath to say I have a great face," laughs Oldman, "or a quiet intensity and intelligence, but I felt I could put such qualities across, and be believed. It's a dream role, of course, as Alec Guinness proved in 1979."

Ah, yes, the 1979 BBC adaptation, a seven-part TV series charting Le Carre's tale of MI6 agent George Smiley as he's pulled out of retirement to uncover the identity of a double agent working for the Soviets.

"Nonetheless, I only managed to watch about half an hour of that TV series," Oldman says. "I just thought, you know, there's more than one Hamlet, and there's no point in my trying to become Alec Guinness's Smiley. I concentrated on the man who wrote the books, to be honest, because I think that's where the character stems from."


Back in 1979 Guinness had 290 minutes to tell Le Carre's tale. Alfredson has just 127. Yet somehow he manages it, delivering a slow-burning spy thriller that plays like Beckett does Bond.

Ex-MI6 agent Le Carre (aka David Cromwell) knew all about mole hunts and Alfredson captures the meditative, inscrutable silence perfectly.

This may explain why the critics have been raving, with the likes of The Hollywood Reporter and Variety arguing that Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was the finest film on offer at last week's Venice Film Festival.

"A film like this needs that kind of critical push," says Oldman, "because it's not blatantly commercial. This is a thinking man's thriller, and it's not always easy to find a lot of thinking men at the multiplex these days."

Luckily for the producers, besides Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy boasts a juicy cast, including, among others, recent Oscar winner Colin Firth, TV hunk Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Mark Strong and our own Ciaran Hinds.

"It might sound silly, but you know you're making a certain class of film when you've got people like that around you," smiles Oldman.

"It makes you up your game when you know every single person you're dealing with is great at their job.

"No matter how hard the work might be, you can't help but go home each night with a sly grin on your face."

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens on Friday