Spies Like Us: Oldman, Firth Go Low-Tech for ‘Tinker Tailor’

Gary Oldman, Colin Firth (Kevin Winter/Getty)

James Bond had the Aston Martin. Jason Bourne had his cache of guns. And in the new movie “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy,” George Smiley has his glasses.

“Spectacles are the Aston Martin to Smiley. They are as important,” said actor Gary Oldman during a November press event for “Tinker Tailor,” in which he stars as Smiley, a retired British spy tasked with finding a Soviet mole embedded in British Intelligence.

“I looked at over 300 pairs of glasses,” Oldman continued. “I found them in Pasadena. A [store] called Old Focals. They have 30,000 pairs of vintage spectacles.”

The 53-year-old actor, who was cast in the role of Smiley (previously made famous in a BBC miniseries by actor Alec Guinness ) after a six-month search, said he obsessed over the character’s trademark specs. Coincidentally, it was Oldman’s “Tinker Tailor” co-star Colin Firth who inadvertently ended the quest.

“I’m driving up Sunset Boulevard and I see this poster for [the Firth film] ‘A Single Man,’” Oldman recalled. “First of all, I think it’s Marcello Mastroianni. And then I get closer and it’s Colin Firth. He looked so, sort of, period. And I thought – I like those glasses he’s wearing.”

Sometime later, Oldman discovered that Firth had gotten the thick-rimmed glasses for his Oscar-nominated role as gay British college professor George Falconer at Old Focals, and made a note to visit the store for some personal shopping. A year later, after being cast as Smiley, Gary recalled the curious shop.

“I went and I said, ‘They have to be British period ’70s glasses and they can’t be earlier than ’69 and they can’t really be later than ’74,’” Oldman explained. “So that’s the window I’m looking at. And he had them.”

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which is based on the novel by John le Carré, is unlike the bulk of other spy films. Set during the Cold War, the film recalls a time during which high-tech gadgets were reel-to-reel tape recorders, concealed flash-drives were folders in filing cabinets and, yes, a spy uniform was a polyester suit and a sturdy piece of eyewear. In “Tinker Tailor,” George Smiley doesn’t smoke out a British defector with a flurry of kung-fu skills, but rather, a restrained sadism, a silent strength and calculated hints at just how miserable he could make a traitor’s life.

Firth, who plays Smiley associate Bill Haydon, surmised that “Tinker Tailor” cuts through the glamour of most Hollywood spy films and the dazzle of modern technology to channel the human, emotional elements of espionage.

“It’s about men,” Firth said during the press event. “But it’s not about the macho virtues of male-ness. It’s not about macho effectiveness. It’s not about hard-bitten heroism. It’s actually, I think, much more about fragility and loneliness and disappointed idealism. These men all seem to be broken.”

He later added, “There’s room for all kinds of spy films. There’s always been action involved in the spy or detective genre. But I think one of the things people have found refreshing about this film, aesthetically as much as anything else, is the low-tech element. If you don’t have a machine or a microchip which solves a problem, it means it’s thrown back on human ingenuity to solve the puzzle.”

For Oldman, who has played a bevy of fantastical characters in monstrous action flicks such as “The Dark Knight,” “The Book of Eli” and the “Harry Potter” franchise, solving the puzzle with human ingenuity – rather than his fist – was a welcomed change.

“I’m probably getting a little too ‘seasoned’ or matured to bounce around the walls,” Oldman said, poking fun at my reference to his age. “I was happy to be on ‘Batman’ and I would watch Tom Hardy [who plays that series’ next villain] and I would just go – rather you than me. I’ve been there and done that.”

Adversely, Colin Firth has not been there, has not done that, and doesn’t seem to keen on starting.

“I think there’d be far too much running for me,” the 51-year-old said, later adding, “I don’t think people consider me to be an incredibly valuable commodity for action.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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