When Michael Fassbender accepted the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival last Sunday, he paid tribute to someone who might well have collected the prize himself. "I have been following Gary Oldman's career since I was 14," he said. "And I feel very, very humble tonight."
One can't help sensing a greater resonance here than in the usual heat-of-the-moment speech. Fassbender, who is currently starring in Jane Eyre, could well become the dominant actor of the next decade; the 53-year-old Oldman, who was in Venice with the impeccable adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is rightly cited as the best British actor of his generation. Ever since burst ing into the limelight in the Eighties, in Mike Leigh's Meantime and, as Sid Vicious, in Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy, Oldman has been a consistently ver satile and daring performer, with a string of historical figures and fic tional monsters to his name, brought to life with an uncanny ear for accents. Ray Winstone, no slouch himself in front of the camera, once called his friend "a genius".
When I ask Oldman if he might have some tips for the young Fassbender and the Hollywood machine of which he's been a part for 20 years, his eyes twinkle. "I don't think he needs any advice from me. I think he's the bollocks. The real deal. When I heard what he'd said about me, I thought, 'Here's back at you kid'."
It's been a busy fortnight for the actor, flying back and forth between Los Angeles, where he's reprising his popular role in the third of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies as doughty cop Jim Gordon, and Europe to promote Tinker, Tailor .... Meeting me last Wednesday, the morning after the London premier, Oldman looks typically dapper – with a fetching combo of salmon-pink shirt and red socks – but says that by midnight "it had all gone a bit blurry".
One suspects that Oldman, who lives in Los Angeles, is enjoying every minute of fronting such a quintessen tially English project. In Tinker, Tai lor ... Oldman follows in the esteemed footsteps of Alec Guinness as George Smiley, "spying on the spies", the mes merising lead of a top-notch cast that includes Colin Firth, John Hurt, Bene dict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong. "These moments are great, because they're rare," he says. "I think with the script, the material, Tomas [Al fredson, the director], this cast – there's an alchemy here. And it's very audacious, because this is not a Bourne film, or a Bond. You have to watch, and listen. I think people are ready for something like this."
Smiley is Oldman's first leading role in several years. Despite his success as a chameleon performer, whose varied roles have included Lee Harvey Oswald, Beethoven and Count Dracula, we simply haven't seen enough of him over the past decade – though his regular appearances as Gordon in the Batman films, and the similarly heroic Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise have at least halted a run of typecast, larger-than-life villains. As he puts it: "I've spent the last 10 years in fantasy ... and doing other things."
Chief among the "other things" has been acting as a single parent to two sons, Gulliver and Charlie, from his marriage to Donya Fiorentino, which ended in 2001 (he has been married twice before, first to the English actress Lesley Manville, with whom he had a son, Alfie, and to Uma Thurman). "I'd had a sort of 'domestic derailment' and then found myself with these two young boys," he recalls, wryly, of what must have been a dramatic situation. "I felt both trepidation and a sense of excite ment. And I just wanted to be there, for them.
"So actually, Sirius and Gordon came at a good time. They allowed me, certainly financially, to really be at home with the kids. You make a Harry Potter movie for six weeks – and some of the time they would travel with me – and then you have maybe seven months at home. It's been wonderful. They are my greatest accomplishment, terrific boys."
He speaks enthusiastically of home work, and particularly of mornings. "I love getting them up, having breakfast and driving them to school – although Gulliver, who's 14 now and in high school, pretty much takes care of himself in the mornings. He's discovered girls, and doesn't want to be a grotty, smelly kid any more, so he's really making an effort in that department.
"And I'm an honorary mother. There's a group of friends from pre-school, we're close and still see each other." I get some of the trademark Oldman diction as he curls his tongue deliciously around the phrase, "I'm one of the mums".
It's slightly strange to hear a man whose CV is littered with wild psychotics, and is blisteringly intense even in sympathetic roles, speak so warmly, and calmly of the basic pleasures of parenthood. But while he may have lowered his acting profile over the past 10 years, one suspects that as a man Oldman has come into his own.
His own childhood in New Cross, south London, was tough. His father, an alcoholic, left his family "with out two ha'pennies to rub together" when Oldman was seven (the actor would himself struggle with alco holism, but beat his addiction in the Nineties). Though he insists that his phenomenal directorial debut Nil by Mouth, in 1997, was not autobiographical, the harrowing portrait of a south London family arguably exorcises a few demons.
As well as casting his eldest sister, actress Laila Morse, in Nil by Mouth, Oldman included a recording of his mother singing, at the end of the film. The latter has now moved to LA and regularly figures in her son and grand sons' lives. "She's a young 92," he says. "A remarkable bird, my mother."
When I ask him if he misses going to football matches – he supported Millwall as a youth, and followed Manchester United so that he could watch his idol, George Best – he leans back in his chair and puts his hands behind his head. "Funnily enough, my mum's just told me a remarkable story about my dad. Just after the war, she ran a boarding house, for football players, Millwall players. And I knew that my dad was involved somehow with the reserve team. But two weeks ago my mum said, 'Oh yeah, your dad played for Millwall. When he was young he had a couple of first team games.'
"It was in the kitchen, making tea. I said, 'What are you talking about? You tell me this now?'" He laughs. "We'd kick a ball around when I was very young. But I was rather surprised to discover that my dad – albeit for five minutes – had been a professional footballer. I was quite chuffed, and proud."
Having grown up in America, Gulliver and 12-year-old Charlie don't share their father's passion. Oldman is resigned to taking them to Dodgers games. "It's their culture. It's what they know."
But he doesn't rule out a return to London. Typically forthright, Old man tells me that he and his wife since 2008, the English singer Alexandra Edenborough, have talked about hav ing a child and, if that were to hap pen, dividing their time between the two countries.
We come back to Smiley. When I assume that he snapped up the role when it was offered, he quickly corrects me. “No, I did waver. I remember seeing the series, and it was before the days of VCRs, so you would work your social calendar around that hour a week. The ‘Ghost of Guinness’ – they’re big shoes to step into."
Ultimately, "it was too good to pass". And he believes that the two creations are very different. "The Guinness Smiley was huggable. Mine is a little colder. I think there's a cruelty to Smiley that is in the book and is in our film. Our whole approach is less cosy, less nostalgic."
While Oldman has intimated that he will finally return to directing, the response to Smiley seems to have prompted a renewed taste for acting. "To play the lead again, yes, I definitely feel that this could have some momentum," he says, sweetly. "I've realised that I've got a fan base out there – and that they are genuinely pleased to see me back in the saddle."
1958 Born 21 March, in New Cross, south London, to Kathleen and Leonard Oldman. His father leaves the home seven years later.
1974 Leaves school with no qualifications.
1976 After an unsuccessful audition at Rada, joins Rose Bruford Drama College, in Kent. Graduates with a BA in drama three years later. 1982 Film debut, in Channel 4's Remembrance, starring Timothy Spall.
1986 Gets first starring role as Sid Vicious in punk biopic Sid & Nancy (above).
1988 Oldman's first child, Alfie, is born. Oldman has two more children, Gulliver Flynn (1997) and Charlie John (1999).
1991 Plays Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone's JFK.
1992 Starred as Count Dracula in Francis Ford Coppola's romance-horror.
1993 Checks into a rehab facility in Pennsylvania. 1997 Writes, directs and produces Nil by Mouth. Wins best screenplay Bafta.
2001 After a difficult and public divorce from third wife, Donya Fiorentino, Oldman wins custody of their two children.
2004 Appears in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as Sirius Black. In three more Potter films.
2005 Plays James Gordon in Batman Begins and its sequels – the second of which, The Dark Night Rises, will be released in 2012.
2008 Marries fourth wife, Alexandra Edenborough.
2011 Stars in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as George Smiley.