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Gary Oldman gets a Cold War role worth waiting for

Ask any young-pup actor to name a peer he reveres, and the answer is likely to be Gary Oldman. His name is synonymous with a kind of high-wire acting that's flashy yet somehow always real. Born and raised in London, Oldman – along with his compatriots Tim Roth and Daniel Day-Lewis – burst into view in the 1980s in performances that come at you, and feel almost operatic in their grandeur – Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears, Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK and the title character in Coppola's Dracula.

But unlike Day-Lewis, who said no to projects a lot more often than he said yes, thereby preserving a kind of artistic purity, Oldman admittedly took jobs for the paycheques. Soon the roles of his villain period – an evil profiteer in The Fifth Element, a Russian terrorist in Air Force One, the sociopathic Dr. Smith in Lost in Space – overshadowed his more serious work (such as writing and directing 1997's gritty Nil by Mouth). For the past decade, he's appeared almost exclusively as recurring characters in extravagan-sagas – Jim Gordon in the rebooted Batman films, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise, and voice work in video games like Call of Duty.

"I've been away from the scene a little bit, focusing on my boys," Oldman said in a phone interview earlier this month, referring to his younger sons Gulliver, 14 and Charlie, 12, with whom he lives in Los Angeles (his eldest son, Alfie, 23, is already launched). Because Oldman has used a different voice in nearly every film, his real one surprised me: It's a little higher than I imagined, more delicate and tentative. It reminded me of someone, and eventually I figured out who: Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) from Spinal Tap. "They do test you," he continued. "They open their chests a little, open their shoulders. But they're wonderful. Wonderful. Honestly, they're my biggest accomplishment."

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With the new film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, however, Oldman may have found what we, and he, have been waiting for: a potentially recurring role – seasoned covert agent George Smiley – that also gives him the opportunity to really act. (It opened in theatres on Friday.) Based on the enduring novel by John Le Carré about Cold War-era British spies in a world-domination chess match against the Soviets, it's a great confluence of a character who's seen it all, who's been counted out by many but has a few moves left; and a lion-in-autumn actor (Oldman is 53) still capable of swatting away anyone nipping at his heels.

It's fitting that Oldman's re-emergence is in a film about the Cold War, because that period is having its own moment in the spotlight. In addition to Tinker Tailor, there are the films J. Edgar, The Rum Diary, The Help and My Week with Marilyn; and television shows including Mad Men, Pan Am and the now-defunct Playboy Club.

The era is hot for many reasons: It's a lushly cinematic time period, with great interiors, manly men in sharp suits sporting hats (long before hipsters discovered them) and womanly women in shapely dresses, with everything pointed upward – bosoms, hairdos, eyeliner. It also feels both more significant and yet simpler than our current era: The stakes were the absolute highest – either total success or total annihilation – but the combatants were clearly differentiated.

It was a hinge time, with significant social change (the Civil Rights, women's and youth movements) just ahead, coupled with enough prosperity that "the future" still looked bright. And it was perhaps the last time one heard the phrase "the future" and pictured utopia rather than dystopia.

"In that period is the making of our modern world," said Marilyn's director, Simon Curtis, during a recent stop in Toronto. "Certainly the year of our film, 1956, when Marilyn was 30, seemed very significant in British culture. England was just breaking out of the shadow of the Second World War. Rock 'n' roll was about to arrive, and commercial television, Look Back in Anger. There were rules, even if people broke them. The culture was more contained in a way, so everything meant more. Now there's so much of everything, no one quite has ownership of anything."

Oldman added, "Not unlike today, we had periods of stability, with the occasional promise of annihilation. Its ugly head pops up on the news: 'Do they really have that arsenal of weapons? Are those rockets pointed at us?'" He laughed. "But when I was a teenager, it wasn't something I wanted to think about too much. It was about girls and soccer and David Bowie for me."

Now Oldman's in a hinge moment of his own. Though he's been divorced three times (two of his ex-wives are actresses, Lesley Manville and Uma Thurman), he and his current wife, Alexandra Edenborough, will have their third anniversary on New Year's Eve. He's done his share of misbehaving, including an arrest for drunk driving in 1991, but he's been sober for years. "It's a blessing that was all done and dusted before these two [children]came along," he said. "None of that's come up yet. When they start Googling a bit more, I may have to talk my way out of a corner." And he made a conscious decision a few years ago: "Enough with the typecasting," he said. "Enough with the villains."

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He was drawn to Tinker Tailor partly because its depiction of spies was "a little more true to life than Bond or Bourne," he said. "The filmmakers screened ours for some people at MI6 [the British CIA]and they responded favourably, and said how close it was to being a spy," he said. "Certainly the Bond world is a male fantasy, innit, of what we think spies are. Smiley is more in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. He's like an investigator. He's piecing it together as the audience is.

"They were more gentlemanly in those days," he continued. "Obviously, people were killed. But when you found your man, you didn't imprison him or shoot him, you turned him, because you wanted him to come onto your side."

And partly, Oldman signed on because he knew Smiley was a fantastic role. "It was such an opportunity, to get my teeth around something that is serious and thought-provoking, that comes with such pedigree," he said. "It is a glorious part, and then you add to that the crème de la crème of English acting," co-stars such as Mark Strong, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth. "If someone put a gun to my head and I was forced to go on a desert island with five of my own movies," he concluded, laughing, "this one would be on my shelf." There's already talk of filming a sequel, Smiley's People.

But Oldman doesn't "think about the old work very much. It's done. Some are better than others. And I'm not too worried about other careers," he said. "I just see what comes in, literally, through the letterbox. You are still very much at the mercy of the industry, and the imagination of people who are casting you. How do you see it?"

"I just want to see more of you," I replied.

"Well," he said, with a small chortle, "make a few calls, then."

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