After wowing the critics at the Venice Film Festival, and becoming a smash hit in its native U.K., "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is finally reaching U.S. theaters on Friday in limited release. We recently caught up with with Firth who was doing press rounds in New York along with the film's co-writer Peter Straughan. Read on for some of the highlights, and if you do one thing this weekend, it should be to see this movie.
As we said, while Firth might have signed on to the film before "The King's Speech" went supernova, it was still after his first Oscar nomination for "A Single Man," and he must have been more in demand than ever before, so he'd be forgiven for perhaps thinking that a role with as relatively little screentime as Bill Haydon wouldn't be worth his while. But in fact, Firth says he was so keen to appear in the film that he would have happily taken on any role offered to him. "I was actually the first of the current cast involved," he said, "so when I was talking to Tomas Alfredson, none of these actors were involved. I would have played any part in this. It's partly because the project as a whole appeals, the aura appeals, Tomas Alfredson appeals to me. And partly because the characters are all interesting enough to have their own story told. If you could follow them off screen, there's a film to be made about each of them."
As is so often the case, the costume in some way provided Firth's way into the character.
The film is one of the most sharply-dressed of the year (indeed, designer Paul Smith was a consultant on the project), and we're fully expecting a run on 1970s suits to rival even the "Mad Men" craze. Of the whole cast, Haydon is perhaps the snappiest dresser, and Firth explains that it was his way of putting his stamp on the character. "He has his own affectation. There are a lot of protocols you follow working for that organization, clearly, you do show up in a suit and tie, it's the military. But Haydon has his own rakish things that he wants to assert, hence the red socks, which I'm afraid were my decision. Just to say 'I'm a little bit bohemian, I bet to break convention, because I'm confident and charismatic.' That's where he stands on himself," he explained. "So I thought let's not make him look like a city business guy, sit him in a three piece and give him the tweeds, which make him feel a little freer. Like a man in the country...I think sometimes you just look at the clothes you're wearing, the environment around you, the language you've been given to speak, and it plays itself, you don't have to impose decisions on that."
Part of the appeal of the film was its retro approach to the genre, but Firth asserts that much of the tradecraft remains the same today.
Look at a Bourne or a Bond, and on the surface, it's a far cry from the kind of espionage in the 1970s-set 'Tinker Tailor,' all impossible contraptions and computer gizmos. But while Firth sees that people have connected to the retro technology on display, he believes that spies haven't changed hugely since the day of Smiley, Haydon and company. "There's a big appetite for that stuff," Firth says, "the reel-to-reel tape, and typewriters that clack, and elevators where you see the pulleys. The fact that things can't be solved with a microchip or a satellite, you have to fall back on human ingenuity. But on the other hand, from what I understand, the spies don't rely on the technological stuff, because it's unreliable. I'm not talking about the drones or whatever, I'm talking about the stuff that these guys are doing. You don't carry a cellphone around, because it's traceable. From what I understand, they use paper still, and so do the Mafia. This guy they arrested in Sicily a few years ago, [Bernardo] Provenzano, who's been on the run since the year I was born, he wasn't caught largely because he never had a cell phone or a computer, or anything that was hackable or reproducable, he wrote his instructions down on miniscule pieces of paper, like lint."
Always a tricky adaptation, it's no surprise that even past the assembly cut stage, 'Tinker Tailor' was running long, with such a complex mix of information to get through and a wide cast of characters. As such, Firth says he was pleasantly surprised by how well the film worked at a relatively lean 127 minutes. "I suppose I was surprised it was so well achieved, although I knew that Tomas Alfredson was not going to try to lean excess of dialogue and information. One of the frightening things about trying to take on an adaptation of this book is that it's dense, a lot of the information is conveyed through complex dialogue, and a lot of detail, and the challenge was to pare that down to two hours, and not only do that, but also two hours with very little dialogue. And it was amazing to me how well that worked. It blew me away, because I knew the struggles they'd had in the cutting room, when they'd had a three and a half hour cut, and said 'We can't make it any shorter, we won't have anything left, all the information is critical.'"
Indeed, the actor says that he loves how the film sets out its stool in the opening reel, refusing to rush through exposition, and instead spending time setting up Smiley as a character. "There's a dialogue scene, then another when Control gets fired, and then there's ten minutes of no talking. And I thought 'Wow.' You've been worried about how much time you have to tell this story, and then you spend ten minutes watching Gary Oldman walking down a street. And I actually loved it! Because it showed such confidence. The music was incredible, it looked so sad and melancholic, this man with his raincoat getting his new glasses put on, that told me much more that I was into something that was going to commit me to be interested in this person, that it was an emotional story, that something personal was going on," Firth says. "If you're going to confuse people, and it will confuse people, I think in a good way, people like to be a little stretched and dazzled, otherwise people wouldn't do sudoku and crosswords. They like to have a puzzle. And I think almost everybody comes out feeling they haven't grasped everything, but mostly it's in a way that makes people want to go back, rather than because they were just annoyed. And you do that by drawing people, and you can do that if you magnetize people, Gary's such a magnetic actor anyway. But those shots, and that sense of melancholy, that sense of stately pace and silence, are far better currency than just a lot of information."
For the writer and director, it was more important to build the period setting through small details.
As the man entrusted with encapsulating a book previously adapted as a six-hour miniseries into a two-hour movie, writer Peter Straughan, who penned the script with his late partner Bridget O'Connor, knew that he couldn't be literal, and instead set out to capture its mood. "[It was] distillation -- trying to hold true to the spirit and tone of the book, and to fit in what is quite complex plot, and yet leave the air and the autumnal, melancholy tone, so it wasn't just lots of people talking in rooms." And when it came to that mood, and the sense of period, Straughan and director Tomas Alfredson agreed that it was more important to focus on the little things; "Tomas had this interesting idea. The small things, a pencil, or a packet of mints, on a screen are as big as a building, so you can build the period with the details."