How I met Sirius Black

Oscar winner Gary Oldman talks about the second season of ‘Slow Horses,’ the trick behind book-to-screen adaptations, and why he’ll always be Sirius Black to an entire generation of Harry Potter fans

November 30, 2022 06:01 pm | Updated December 03, 2022 05:43 pm IST

Gary Oldman in ‘Slow Horses’

Gary Oldman in ‘Slow Horses’

I’m wearing my favourite Harry Potter T-shirt at 2 am in the morning.

It doesn’t have Harry, Ron or Hermoine on it; not even Snape or Hagrid. 

Instead, it features a deranged-looking Sirius Black, grinning from his iconic poster, bearing the legend, ‘Have you seen this wizard?’

There’s a reason. In less than five minutes, I’m set to talk to the man who brought Sirius Black to life 18 years ago in Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), when in a stroke of inspiration, director Alfonso Cuarón cast Gary Oldman as Harry’s godfather who escapes from the Dementors of Azkaban.

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’

Gary Oldman as Sirius Black in ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’

But wait, as devoted a Potterhead as I may be, it’s perhaps silly to begin describing Oldman’s legacy from his character in the Harry Potter movies. This is the man who was bestowed the Academy Award for Best Actor after stunning the world as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and almost won a second for his genius turn as Herman J. Mankiewicz in Mank, or indeed, as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (he was nominated for both movies).

However, I wait to speak to him about his latest success; his smarmy yet wickedly-enjoyable portrayal of Jackson Lamb in Slow Horses, Apple’s adaptation of the Slough House series of novels by Mick Herron.

The show follows a team of British intelligence agents who serve in a dumping ground department of MI5 due to their career-ending mistakes, led by their notorious leader, Oldman’s Lamb. Together, the spies traverse England’s espionage world, desperate to be back in the thick of things, but can they stop bickering with one another?

Oldman’s here, smiling at me via Zoom and politely introducing himself. I hurriedly ask him my first question. 

Having appeared in several literary adaptations ( Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the Harry Potter movies, among others) — and that’s not counting him playing Commissioner Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy — what does he feel is the key to a good book-to-screen adaptation?

“You know, it really is all about the writing. In the case of Slow Horses, our head writer Will Smith (not the actor) is a very talented man and he’s got a great team of writers to work with. That’s really important. As anyone will know, often, the screen adaptation isn’t as good as the book. But that’s the problem when you have an elephant that you are basically trying to squeeze into a phone box!” he quips.

Oldman adds, “So it’s a very specific skill, taking a novel, and in our case, adapting it for a six hour show. The vital strength is in the writing; our writers have the base, the source material, the template and then they give it their own particular twist.”

Gary Oldman plays the role of Jackson Lamb in ‘Slow Horses’

Gary Oldman plays the role of Jackson Lamb in ‘Slow Horses’

In season two of the spy-thriller series — titled Dead Lions — we find that a retired spy has died on a bus going to Oxford, of a suspected heart attack. But distant alarm bells have started ringing in Lamb’s brain, as long-buried Cold War secrets emerge and a liaison with Russian villains takes a fatal turn.

“I’m excited to see how it’s come out. Early on, they discussed making it three episodes a season. There was also talk of taking two books and putting them together, which I think would have just been disastrous, because you would have just lost so much of the character. Finally, they settled on six episodes adapted from a single book, and that seems to have panned out well without losing the spirit of the essence of the original novel,” he says.

Recently, much to the shock of his fans and filmmakers, Oldman also dropped a subtle hint of his retirement, saying that he may draw the curtains on his illustrious career after Slow Horses wraps its production (the series has already been renewed for its third and fourth seasons).

“I’ve had an enviable career, but careers wane, and I do have other things that interest me outside of acting. When you’re young you think you’re going to get round to doing all of them — read that book — then the years go by,” he said.

“I’m 65 next year, 70 is around the corner. I don’t want to be active when I’m 80. I’d be very happy and honoured and privileged to go out as Jackson Lamb, and then hang it up,” he told the Times.

However, the veteran is not too inclined to address that in our interview — maybe much ado has been made over nothing? — in fact, he will soon be seen in Nolan’s next, Oppenheimer, essaying the role of US President Harry S. Truman.

He swiftly moves to recall a memory from his Tinker Tailor... shooting days, that Oldman says, is relevant today.

Gary Oldman in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

Gary Oldman in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’

“I remember speaking once with John le Carré (the renowned British author known for his espionage novels such as The Tailor of Panama and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who I had a lovely, brief association with. Sadly, he is not with us anymore. Whilst we were making Tinker... he said something quite interesting to me.”

“He said, ‘Look, my book exists. Now, what you have to do now is go away and make your film. You know, you’re making the movie; you’re not making the book. If your movie fails, then okay, but my book will still be great.’”

“John really encouraged us to veer off the book and make it very much our own. Funnily enough, the one thread that runs through the film — the Christmas party — is not there in the book!” Oldman smiles.

Alas, my time with him is up, and I didn’t manage to get a single Potter-related question in. I thank Oldman, wish him luck with the show, and tell him I hope he doesn’t retire anytime soon…

“But wait, before you say goodbye… now, you can tell the world that you’ve seen him,” Oldman grins expectantly at me. 

“Sir? I’ve seen... who?”

“You’ve finally met him!”

“Umm, I don’t know what—”

He is positively beaming now. “Your shirt. Of course I noticed it. Tell the world now that you have seen the wizard. You have met Sirius Black.”

If there only was a Dementor around, I would have produced the world’s best Patronus.

The first two episodes of the second season of Slow Horses premieres December 2 on Apple TV+

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