The actor Gary Oldman knows a few things about playing spies.
He picked up the first of his three Oscar nominations for his portrayal of George Smiley, the agent at the heart of the 2011 movie “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” which was adapted from John le Carré’s thriller by the same name. (He won in 2018, for “The Darkest Hour.”)
In the Apple TV+ series “Slow Horses,” based on Mick Herron’s “Slough House” novels, Oldman is a similarly unglamorous spy, one of several dealing with divorce, alcoholism, gambling problems and other misfortunes. As Oldman said in a phone interview last month, they are far from “that rather sort of glossy world of Jason Bourne and James Bond.”
There is certainly no gloss to Oldman’s character, Jackson Lamb, a perpetually rumpled and frequently drunk MI5 agent who oversees spies tucked away for being embarrassing or otherwise undesirable. But Oldman has decided to spend more time with him than with any other character in his more than 40-year career.
“He publicly humiliates. He’s provocative. He’s deliberately confrontational. He’s all of those things,” he said. “And yet, he has an incredible sort of moral compass, and he’s very loyal, and I think that is sort of, if you like, redeeming.”
Season 2 of “Slow Horses” premiered Friday, while the third season is in production. (A fourth has been ordered.) Oldman talked about the books he’s giving for Christmas, the music he makes on his iPhone and the plays he performs on Zoom. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
1. Richard Miller I collect photographs. Once, I was looking for a print of a photograph of James Dean on a break during the shooting of “Giant,” sitting on a sofa, reading a Look magazine with Elizabeth Taylor on the cover. Next to him on the sofa is Elizabeth Taylor, with her head on his arm, asleep. I went over to the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles to see if they had a print. I described it but said I didn’t know who it was by. A voice behind me said, “Oh, that’s Richard Miller.” I turned around and met the gallery’s director, Gisele Schmidt, who is now my wife.
2. “The Dumb Waiter” I’ve had a chance to work with a wonderful actor and a lovely man lately called Arliss Howard. We recently got onto Zoom and read “The Dumb Waiter,” a one-act play by Harold Pinter about a pair of hit men. We did it for ourselves — you know, just keeping your hand in the game. I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere. Maybe Arliss and I will do it one of these days.
3. iPhone Music Recordings Again, purely for the hell of it, a friend in Canada and I have been recording songs by David Bowie, who was a very good friend of mine. We send tracks back and forth to each other by email and text. I’ll put down, say, the piano track, and he’ll put guitar on it. You’ll be amazed what you can do with an iPhone. When you hear these tracks put together, you would think they were recorded live in a studio with a band.
4. London’s National Portrait Gallery The National Portrait Gallery, the Imperial War Museums, the National Gallery — these are all places that are part of growing up in England. They’ve always been there. Always been accessible. Every time I go back to the National Portrait Gallery, I see new things.
5. The Beatles A friend of mine, the painter George Blacklock, always says that if you could look at a painting and get it all in five minutes, then it wouldn’t be worth painting it. They reveal new things to you over time. I feel that way about the Beatles. My God, the artistry. I am constantly in awe and total admiration for what they achieved.
6. John le Carré John le Carré had an eye for detail that I think is quite remarkable. “Tinker, Tailor,” for me, is the jewel in the crown of his writing. But I liked one of his next George Smiley novels, “Smiley’s People,” very much. We were going to do it. It never happened, for a variety of reasons, but I would’ve loved to have revisited George again.
7. Stella Adler The other day, I was talking to Saskia Reeves — who plays Catherine Standish on “Slow Horses” — about the many methods and techniques of acting. She’s sort of from the Stanislavski school, as many of us are, and she was talking about Uta Hagen and, I think, Sanford Meisner, but she was sort of unfamiliar with the great actor and teacher Stella Adler. So I think the book “Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov” will be in Saskia’s Christmas stocking.
8. Comedic Actors Working on Dramas I loved “The Patient” with Steve Carell and happen to think he’s a really wonderful dramatic actor. I also liked “Severance.” I was shocked to see that some episodes were directed by Ben Stiller. I knew he’d directed before, but it was really quite masterful. Sometimes we go: “Oh my God, this person can be funny and be dramatic!” And yet, for years, the wonderful Jack Lemmon bounced between the two.
9. Family Christmas This year, we’re having Christmas at the house, and it’s our first big, big, big Christmas. We have 14 for Christmas Day and five dogs. So, it’s going to be a houseful. We’re going to try and coax my son Charlie into making his carbonara.
10. Wet-Plate Photography I started learning about the wet-plate photography process when I was writing a script about the 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. I made one good plate and thought, “I’ve been searching all my life for this — why haven’t I discovered it earlier?” I find it incredibly satisfying, and it takes me away from my main job.