Upon first meeting Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) and British actor Gary Oldman (Batman Returns, Harry Potter), who came to town to promote their spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I am immediately reminded of Laurel and Hardy.
While Oldman, tall and long, demurs elegantly at the table wearing a purple blazer and matching cravat, Aldredson, tall, round and very expressive, is already standing, greeting this reporter with a friendly welcome "Hi, I'm Toomaaas!"
And yes he is! The same guy who brought us a very elegant, atmospheric Swedish language vampire movie is now busy promoting yet another very elegant atmospheric film, this time a period thriller based on the famous John le Carre spy novel by the same title.
Alfredson is a big, burly man who seems to radiate energy. In fact, considering the schedule of the day, he seems impressively full of energy, almost bionic. It's now 3 p.m. and they are both still wearing the same clothes they wore in a TV interview I watched live at the crack of dawn. Younger folks may have crashed and burn by this time in a long day of press - but not Alfredson.
In fact, just the opposite, he is excited to speak about his deliberate and cool spy movie based on a very well-known novel written by a world famous writer. In fact, if there was any nervousness regarding how his movie would be perceived is now long gone or just not here today…
With great composure and confidence, Alfredson shares that his biggest challenge in getting all of the novel in the movie was to "create as much space for silence as possible so that the audience could not just digest but also chew on the information before swallowing and digesting the information."
He also seems a bit apologetic about some creative freedoms he took with the project. "I fought a lot to create images of information rather than have people refer to stuff. We did not want to leave our hero undefined".
Alfredson is most certainly not worried about how the legions of loyal fans of le Carre books may perceive his "reinterpretation" of the famous spy novel and the equally famous character, George Smiley.
But how does one redefine a character that has been considered the anti-Bond and described by critics as "a brilliant spy and totally inadequate man"? Apparently very gently and very meticulously. Watching Oldman's measured performance as Smiley is practically hypnotic. But how did he agree to take on a character first played by no other than Sir Alec Guinness, perhaps the most established actor in Great Britain, if not the world, and the man who made the Smiley character famous in millions of British homes in the 1970's.
Oldman, after a long and deliberate pause admits, in the softest of voices that there was much fear involved.
"Yeap. Lots of fear…the ghost of Guinness looms so very large because he was such a revered part of the establishment. He was nearly 70 when he played Smiley. It was like the grand master sort of thing, so being offered the part was a no brainer. I waited 30 years for this part, but I didn’t say yes immediately. And that was the fear. I remember, I sent you (referring to Tomas) an email, I remembered where I was, I was in Utah, and I remember saying to myself, 'What am I doing, I need to say yes.'
He immediately sent Alfredson an email which got only a smiley face as a response and as they say the rest is history.
Smiley, is of course, the creation of le Carre, who is very much alive and whose presence must have been felt by both the actor and the director during the making this film. Besides the fear of stepping into Guinness' shoes and provoking the wrath of his ghost, the key person associated with this book is clearly le Carre himself. Alfredson seems almost joyful describing his personal connection with the famous author.
"He reminds him of my father in many ways. He is so open-minded and dynamic. He's very young though he is 80. He just turned 80 and he is like a 25 year-old. He has seen all the films. He reads all the papers. His enthusiasm is so contagious, he is like a jukebox of stories…" as he laughs remembering le Carre stories.
Many mere mortals would believe that working with a director of the stature of le Carre, especially in their first English-language film, would be seriously intimidating if not downright paralyzing. But this director is no shrinking violet. Alfredson does not betray any such feelings. In fact, Tomas seems genuinely delighted with the fact that le Carre is very opinionated as well as very entertaining and not shy about anything.
"He always has an opinion and that is very charming." And as if to counterbalance this last statement he quickly adds "He is very open with everything."
Not wanting to lag behind, Oldman is quick to add his own le Carre anecdote. "He surprises you as well because he is a literary giant but he does sit back sometimes and he fiddles and you ask himyou mention someone and he will go 'Oh, he is a f*cking prick and just don’t expect it…" as he lets out a huge laugh.
He goes further to describe le Carre as quite the opposite of his literary hero, George Smiley. "He is radioactive." A definite compliment, especially for anyone over 80.
Just to make his point about le Carre, Oldman asks me if we have the word "chuffed" here in the U.S., which he even spells for me.
"Chuffed is an English expression…" Oldman goes on to teach me the expression, "to be chuffed…and it means delighted…'I was chuffed'"
After one of the screenings I knew that le Carre had seen the movie and I said to him, so are you happy, and he answered "I'm as chuffed as f*cked"…as he lets out another huge roar of a laugh. "You quite not expect it."
And then again who needs the critics blessings when you have the ringing endorsement of the author himself? Not this team but just in case they do. The critics so far all agree, this new rendition of George Smiley is a winner and you should be chuffed to make his acquaintance.