When the casting folks in Hollywood are looking for somebody who can play anybody, they more often than not turn to Gary Oldman. He’s a chameleon. People tell him that, in the most positive of ways, right to his face.

When the casting folks in Hollywood are looking for somebody who can play anybody, they more often than not turn to Gary Oldman. He’s a chameleon. People tell him that, in the most positive of ways, right to his face.


When director Tomas Alfredson was putting together his new adaptation of the John le Carre novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he didn’t want to do any casting until he had someone to play the lead character, George Smiley, a retired British spy who’s brought back into service to sort out a problem with a mole.


“We needed some kind of a chameleon,” he said, “and if you look at the work Gary’s done, it’s very different personalities.”


He’s right on target.


Over his career, Oldman has played, chronologically, punk rocker Sid Vicious (“Sid & Nancy”); assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (“JFK”); vampire Dracula (“Dracula”); megalomaniac Zorg (“The Fifth Element”); bad cop (“Romeo Is Bleeding”); good wizard (various Harry Potter films); and good cop (various “Batman” films).


“He’s almost never typecast,” added Alfredson.


Oldman, 53, takes it all in stride, insisting that it’s just what one does as an actor. The London native got his start on stage in the early 1980s, then was propelled into the cinema spotlight with his frightening portrayal of drug-addled musician Sid Vicious. Now playing the laid-back, ever-watching George Smiley, he operates at the other end of the acting spectrum. He doesn’t speak much in “Tinker Tailor.” And when he does, it’s done very quietly.


Oldman recently sat in a New York hotel room and tried to explain the difference between his interior and exterior styles.


“You can take someone like George and he’ll say, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’” said Oldman, softly and properly. “But you take Zorg in ‘The Fifth Element,’ who I based on Bugs Bunny and Ross Perot,” Oldman breaks into a spot-on, somewhat high-pitched Bugs Bunny imitation. “Would you like a cup of tea?”


“I guess I just have a facility for it,” he said. “It’s amazing to meet the people who can’t act. I don’t mean bad actors. I mean people who find it completely impossible to do it. And I think, ‘Come on, you can do that. It’s easy.’ But it isn’t for some people. I don’t mean it patting my back in an arrogant way. I did impersonations as a kid. It just came naturally to me.”


The chameleon business was brought up, and yes, he’d heard it all before.


“Well, part of the fun of the job is the playing of different people,” he said. “That’s the joy of it. I was influenced growing up. (Alec) Guinness, of course, made this part iconic. He was the face of Smiley “for many generations. But I remember watching the reruns, during the ’60s and ’70s, of all those Ealing comedies that he made. In ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ he plays seven characters, and he wears wigs and noses, and he’s the woman and the grandmother and the head of the school.


“(Peter) Sellers was another hero of mine, who had his fair share of dressing up. I was very influenced by all of that. There’s part of me that likes all of that changing your shape and your voice.”


Oldman explained that he prepared to play the part of George simply by reading the book. Of course, the makeup folks grayed his hair, and the costume department found the right glasses for him to wear.


“And I had the scene where I swim in the pond,” said Oldman. “I knew that I was going to be in some sort of period bathing trunks, and I wanted a little bit of that middle-aged, retired” – he grinned and patted his stomach – “thing. So I had an excuse. I called it eating for George.”


But when he wanted to gain a little more insight on the character, he went right to the source. Smiley’s creator, John le Carre, who served in the British Foreign Service before turning to writing, is one of the film’s executive producers, and he made himself available to the actors.


“Le Carre was there as a resource if we needed him,” said Oldman. “I wanted to know a little bit more about George before you meet him in the film, and get more of a sense of what it was like actually being a spy working in the field. I couldn’t imagine what it was like. But John talked about the level of paranoia, of being on an assignment and waiting for the footsteps on the stairs, that your cover was blown, and that the game was up. That was from his own experience. Those are the things I wanted to get from John. He’s fantastic. He’s 80 years old, but it’s like hanging out with a 25-year-old. He’s got that energy and a mind like a steel trap.”


For more of a chameleonic turn, Oldman recently finished portraying what he calls a “bad Elvis impersonator” in “Guns, Girls, and Gambling” and is about finished shooting scenes reprising his Jim Gordon role in the next Batman entry “The Dark Knight Rises.”


“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” opens on Friday.


The Patriot Ledger