As I wrote in both my review and interview with Gary Oldman and Tomas Alfredson, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not one’s average spy thriller. Nothing portrays the spy lifestyle as exciting or “awesome,” just cold, lonely, and harsh. Perhaps the greatest character who represents the themes of the film, while also still feeling like a person, is Jim Prideaux, played by Mark Strong.
Prideaux, like every other character in the film, descends to worse and worse places, emotionally and mentally, as things progress. The character’s as lonely as can be, and Strong conveys that with every somber and sad look on his face. It’s an interesting contrast to another one of Strong’s performances from this year as Clive in The Guard. A lot of actors discuss how they love variety and go for it — and most genuinely mean it — but Strong seems to be one of the prime examples of someone doing it right. A sympathetic villain, an alien superhero, and an isolated spy make up an eclectic bunch of characters.
Here’s what Mark Strong had to say about the catharsis of press, the divisiveness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and the comfortable amount of takes:
Are you enjoying your press day?
Yeah, I don’t mind doing these, you know? Everyone says, “Oh, you’re tired. They go on a bit.” I love talking about the stuff I do, because you spend so much time doing it in isolation — working out your character and approaching a scene. Talking about it is quite cathartic.
Plus, I’d imagine you wouldn’t go, “I have to go talk about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy“!?!
[Laughs] No, exactly. Touch on wood, I’ve never had to push one that’s been rubbish, and I don’t know what that would be like.
[Laughs] I think this one’s fantastic, so that must help.
Oh, good! I think it’s divided people, and quite rightly. Everyone comes to it with their own subjective opinion. I think cinephiles, people involved in film, critics, and people who know about movies have really taken to it. You can tell what an intelligent piece of work it is. There is a broad side of the cinema going public who just [find] it too challenging, and not that there’s anything wrong with them. I think they just want something different from it.
I do think it takes more than one viewing to really take it all in, and the movie really requires you to stick with it.
What’s also important for people to know is that it’s very faithful to the book. Not necessarily in the narrative or what’s incorporated, but in the tone. The tone of the book is incredibly arcane, difficult, obscure, and frustrating. When you read the novel, you never really know if Smiley knows more than you and if he’s discovered something you haven’t, and you never really understand that in the novel. The film mirrors that from the novel. For the people who haven’t read the novel, they’ll see it as being willfully difficult to follow. The fact is, that is the way the novel and the story was originally conceived.
I’ve seen a lot of people say how you get to know nothing about these characters, even though I think the film says a lot about them.
Yeah, you may not know much about these guys, but that’s somebody talking about the way they’ve been trained to consume film, which is everything has to be explained. Tomas sees it different, that everything doesn’t have to be explained. Sometimes you can absorb things by osmosis, just having a flavor or a feeling of something. There was a direction he gave, which Gary [Oldman] mentioned, when he asked Tomas how he wanted the scene to feel, and Tomas said, “I want the scene to smell of damp tweed.” What kind of director talks like that? [Laughs] It tells you everything you need to know about the scene. It makes you realize he’s operating on a different level, not from the usual type of spoon-fed narratives that everyone’s been trained to want. In that sense, I think it’s a very delicate and intelligent film. But people are perfectly at liberty not to enjoy it. It’s all subjectivity anyway.
Yeah, you don’t wanna be that guy who says, “Oh, you didn’t get it.”
Right, you can’t say that. In fact, it’s like Shakespeare in a way. If you go to see a Shakespeare play, you don’t understand every allusion to everything, because a lot of the language and references are archaic. It doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of the play, though, because you get the general idea.
Exactly. Like I said, I think the film says a lot without saying anything. One scene in particular that does that is when you see Jim give Bill a very vulnerable look at the party. Can you talk about finding those little moments that say a lot about who Jim is?
Yeah, I was very lucky with Jim. He does have his own particular arc through the story. You see him in Budapest being a spy, you know, doing the job. The reason he’s sent is because he’s the best at it. You see him doing the thing they’re trained best to do. Then you see him very down on his luck being tortured in this prison somewhere. Then you see him being chewed up and spat out having to go undercover at a school and trying to recover. What’s brilliant is, you get these flashbacks of all of us together before this whole incident. You realize they’re all in their own world, these guys. They’re all lonely and dissociated from everything around them. By sheer necessity, they have to be extremely private, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings or emotions.
I love that [party] scene because you get to realize Jim has had a crush on Bill Haydon for his whole life, but it’s observed with subtlety. There’s no great scene in which I say that or which it’s revealed; it’s just done with a look. Earlier on in the film, you see photos of them just having played a game of rugby, and they look very happy. Little subtle clues such as that I really enjoyed about this film.
I read this quote of yours about how the process of transformation is your favorite part of acting. For Jim, where did that transformation come from?
I think it was the vulnerability of the character. I’ve played so many villains recently, that I really enjoyed the opportunity to play someone sympathetic. Although Jim’s the least abled to do something, compared to what I’ve done recently, the transformation was the subtlety of what he wore and his hair. We had that debate of, “What if you were bald in the ’70s, just as everyone was getting to grow their hair, as you’re starting to lose yours?” We found that sort of comb-over thing Jim has, and it makes him look vulnerable. I love going to work on how we were going to make this guy work — very capable, which he obviously is, since he was the one sent to bring back the General, but also very vulnerable, since he’s the one spat out by the machine.
I’m surprised to hear you mention that about villains and getting the chance to play sympathetic. For me, Clive [in The Guard] was very sympathetic.
[Laughs] The gag I loved about Clive is that, he’s a villain bored of being a villain. He’s had enough and is having an existential crisis. Really, he just wants to settle down. Unfortunately, he doesn’t think it’s like the old days, where all the policeman are now stupid and all the other gangsters/criminals are not honorable. I like the in-joke, if you like, of playing a villain who’s fed up with playing a villain.
I love how Clive, instead of running or freaking out during a shootout, just revels in it. I think he had that line, “This is like fucking Christmas!”
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. He’s been so numbed in his life of crime that he’s just looking for excitement.
[Laughs] Him and Sgt. Boyle would probably get along really well in that film.
Yeah, they’d bond over a pint, that’s true.
[Laughs] I think The Guard and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are those type of films you find new details on repeat viewings. While reading those scripts or even seeing those films, do you constantly make new discoveries, as well?
It’s those things that usually ring the alarm bells in your head, that you’re dealing with something a little bit different. Certainly, with The Guard, that made me howl all the way through. I just thought it was dark, wicked, and funny. When we came to play it, there was no movement away from the original script, because John was the writer and the director, so he wouldn’t let you change anything. With this, I could just see it was all in the play, the nuance of the whole thing. Tomas adapted a lot of it. It was a joy coming into work because even though you felt you had a handle with what you were studying at home, when you got on the set, he would change things, and that was always exciting.
If I read correctly, he would usually only do two or three takes. Was it a very disciplined form of acting on set?
Yeah, I love doing that. That’s my perfect number, in a way. One take gets you used to it and gets you started. The second one corrects the mistake of the first one. The third take is when you’re flying a little bit and have now had a couple of gos at it. Beyond that, I find you’re then starting to repeat things and adjusting things for the sake of it; that’s exactly the way I like to work. The first take is usually the best, because that’s the first moment you come to it. Endless and endless takes, I’m not really sure what that’s for.
Do you recall the most amount of takes you’ve ever had to do?
I don’t. Martin Campbell is fond of many, many takes. On Green Lantern we would do quite a lot of takes, and Martin wouldn’t really explain why or what he was looking for. I began to realize he just wanted you to have a go at it, to get familiar with it. Like a duel, one would just pop out and be the right take, and he always knew what the right one was.
Even when doing those endless takes, do you just figure the director has his reasons?
Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt with Martin. Normally when somebody does that many takes, I’ll be asking, “Well, why? What do you want me to do differently? What do you want me to change?” The truth is, he didn’t want me to do anything different or change. He was just waiting for that one take that just works. It’s like taking a photograph — you’ll take five pictures, which are all pretty similar, but there will be one that’s better than the others. That’s how Martin works.
How’s Mr. Alfredson on set? Is he extremely detail-oriented?
Yeah, he’s very meticulous and very delicate in his approach to every scene. He would never force anything, though; he would just allow you to find it. It felt like a very straightforward, very easy, and absorbing job to do without any chaos or panic.
To end on: Speaking earlier about the transformation of acting, what roles have you had to transform the most for, both externally and internally?
Externally, I’d probably have to say Sinestro. When I got into the comics, I thought, “Wow, if I could look like that,” and that’s exactly what I love doing, where you do things that people don’t know it’s you. I did Polanski’s Oliver Twist, where I had a top hat, ginger hair, and big teeth. I did Syriana, where I was playing a second generation Lebanese Muslim, which is completely different from Oliver Twist. I love the perversity of that. Body of Lies came out the same time as RocknRolla, and they were completely different. Now, if you think about it, The Guard and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are completely different things. Externally, certainly Sinestro. Internally, that’s a very tricky question. I suppose I had to plumb the depths a bit with Lord Blackwood [from Sherlock Holmes], since he was such a fictional character, where he was supposedly in league with Satan and wanted to conquer the world, and those are pretty big concepts. [Laughs]
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now in theaters.