If you believe the pundits, Colin Firth will win the Academy Award for Best Actor this year.
The 50-year-old actor should have received his big break in 1989, when a then-unknown Firth landed the lead opposite Annette Bening in director Milos Forman’s (“Amadeus”) film “Valmont” – an adaptation of the French novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Unfortunately, the film was beaten to the multiplex by Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winning film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” and played to little fanfare.
After starring as Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 BBC miniseries “Pride and Prejudice,” Firth became an instant heartthrob, and was subsequently typecast as characters bearing the repressed Darcy persona – including his spurned lover roles in “The English Patient” and “Shakespeare in Love,” a contempo version of Darcy in “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” and tortured-in-love painter Johannes Vermeer in “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
Recently, something’s changed. Perhaps it was his leading role as a courageous warrior in the sword-and-sandals epic, “The Last Legion,” which bombed terribly at the box office, or appearing in the highest-grossing film in British history, “Mamma Mia!,” but of late, Firth has taken on more complex roles in character studies, including last year’s drama, “A Single Man.” The film marked the directorial debut of fashion icon Tom Ford, and featured Firth as George Falconer, a melancholic, gay professor mourning the death of his lover. The character was Firth at his most vulnerable, and garnered him an Oscar nod for Best Actor – his first.
While accepting the BAFTA – the British equivalent of Oscar – for “A Single Man,” Firth stammered through his acceptance speech. At first, it looked like just nerves, but little did the audience know that Firth was in the process of filming “The King’s Speech” – the tale of King George VI, who was plagued by a paralyzing stammer, and his unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who helps him. And if this writer is to be believed, Colin Firth will be hoisting a golden statue high in the air come February 27, 2011.
MMM sat down with Colin Firth to chat about his critically-hailed role in “The King’s Speech,” his own brush with royalty, the film’s rating troubles, and his personal thoughts on the British royals.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: One of the central themes of the film is the issue of friendship and being isolated from people in general. It has to be relatable from a person in entertainment since you must have people who want to be your friend because it sheds the spotlight on them a bit, and I think Bertie’s main issue was that he’s never had a friend before.
COLIN FIRTH: You’re bang-on. It’s funny to say a story about the royal family, since none of us can say what that’s like. How can it possibly be universal? But I think what it’s done is taken issues that apply to absolutely everybody and taken this convention to heighten these things. Isolation is universal; it doesn’t matter how close you are to your family or how perfect your marriage is. There’s some level on which you can’t be reached, and this is taking that reality and making a very extreme case out of it. If communication’s imperfect, let’s show a case where it’s traumatic; if men protect themselves behind certain reserves against intimacy, then let’s take a man who not only does that, he’s protected by high walls, titles, protocols, and make the therapist work through all those things. You could almost look at them as metaphors for barriers we all put up.
MMM: Have you ever met royalty?
FIRTH: Not meaningfully. There are certain events in which you might find yourself shaking hands with a member of the royal family, but there’s nothing that gives you any clue of what it’s like to be that person—apart from watching people’s behavior around them. I was at an event where Prince Charles, who is very gracious with the people he meets, was being ushered around by his private secretary, and he would try his best to give as much of his focus and interest, and usually knew quite a lot about the people he was speaking to. But his private secretary would make sure he wouldn’t go too long with that person cause there was someone else in line. It was interesting to see people who were otherwise composed and would claim not to be impressed by royalty suddenly completely transforming, and becoming very, very nervous. You realize that if you are a member of the royal family, you encounter this very often, and that’s how you see the human race.
MMM: In the film, it showed how Bertie overcame his stammer. Was that based on facts?
FIRTH: I don’t think the film shows him overcoming it, I think it shows him coming to an arrangement with it where it won’t stop him from doing his job. That last speech, his therapist is right there and he has to fight for every word. He was never cured. I tried to follow the cadences of the real speech, and you hear it’s very measured and broken up, and you hear him going through three syllables and ending on up-phrases, and every now and then you’d hear him get blocked again. And that’s a fight. Everyone who’s sitting there listening to it – the Queen, Churchill, all the rest – are on the edge of their seat until the end. So, he overcomes the debilitating fear of it; he doesn’t overcome the fact that he will always have the obstacle.
MMM: What tricks did you use to get the stammer down, and were you able to shed it at the end of the day?
FIRTH: No, I got a bit confused in my own speech patterns. I’m a little worried when I tell people this, about how “deeply-immersed” you are in your role. It’s muscle memory. Your body will train itself to do that exercise. If you train yourself to interfere you’re your rhythm of speech, something in your brain remembers that, and follows it, and if you’re going around trying to promote “A Single Man” at the time, it sometimes comes around to haunt you. That’s not a real stammer; that’s my mind playing tricks on me. I spoke to the head of the British Stammering Association a few weeks ago, and he said research shows that there’s a strong neurological component; it’s not a psychological problem, there’s something happening in the brain. So I asked him if Logue is on the wrong track since he’s trying to work on the psychological process, and he said no, you learn not to be crushed by it; not to be disabled by it.
MMM: Could you talk more about your process and how you mastered the stammer?
FIRTH: I can’t! It was such an incremental process; in conversations with Tom, in conversations with David Seidler, our writer, who spent his childhood battling a stammer and still says that it’s not something that’s completely gone. But to listen to the way he talked about it, and to talk to Tom about the way it can work in the context of a film – we have a certain amount of time, we’ve got scenes that have to have a certain pace, and we also have to judge it so that people who are rooting for him can experience the agony of the stammer; how do you do that in a way that people share that, but in a way that it’s not so uncomfortable so that they film becomes unwatchable? Or that the pace grinds to a halt?
MMM: There were some major issues with this film getting an R-rating thanks mostly to the one therapy scene, as well as issues with the British ratings board.
FIRTH: Well, we won the battle with the British ratings board. Spectacularly. As far as I know, it was precedent. In Britain, we have a ’15,’ so it’s an in-between. We go 12A, 15, 18 – which is our R. It originally had a ’15,’ so it was already more lenient, and then it got dropped to a ‘12A.’ There’s a message on the poster that says, “It contains strong language in a speech-therapy context.” This can get really facile, this argument. I spoke about this a few weeks ago and got a ‘Firth blasts the MPAA’ headline. I’m not blasting the MPAA. They love the word ‘blasting.’ This isn’t a non-issue. I get that people don’t want their small children hearing these words. I don’t like them. One of the things the British board said was that it was not in a violent context, wasn’t directed at anyone, and wasn’t in a sexual context. As a parent, the context I would like to keep my kids away from is casual use. I love football – soccer. I love to take them to soccer, but I have to wrestle with myself because what they hear there would make a sailor blush, and certainly would make that scene sound like something from “The Sound of Music.” And they are screaming, those [soccer fans], and they are angry and serious, and I’m sitting there with a 6-year-old and I don’t want to deny him the joy of a football game, but you can’t get away from it. He’s heard worse, but it doesn’t make him go around saying it. It’s a dilemma. So, I don’t relish those words, so I’m not sitting hear judging people who don’t like the words. But, as far as the rest of public opinion is concerned, I’d be kicking in an open door if I stood here railing about it, because everyone seems to be in harmony on the subject; especially with the consistency issue.
MMM: Plus, this is a story that teenagers should see because of both the history element, and the quality of the film. So it must be frustrating that they can’t.
FIRTH: Yes, it is. I think this is why it’s being used as a bit of a flagship for the cause. I think every parent has a right to set down parameters for their own kids, and I don’t want my kids to think that language is okay. But that’s not the case in this movie. It’s not vicious, it’s not sexual, it’s not lazy; it’s anything but. These forbidden words have become momentary tools to get a guy to break out of extreme repression, and then he immediately gets rather sheepish and apologizes. There couldn’t be a more harmless context. And so, if there ever was an exception—I would hate to discourage kids in that age bracket, from 13-18, from seeing a film that has so much to say to people that age.
MMM: How do you feel the British monarchy has changed over the years?
FIRTH: I don’t watch them closely, so I don’t know. I find it very difficult to answer questions about the monarchy because I’m not a royal-watcher. Some people are. But an extraordinary moment happened in England with the death of Princess Diana. People became incredibly emotional all over the country, and the Queen was criticized for not lowering the flag. I don’t know what’s happening in their real lives, behind closed doors. They have the right not to exhibit it to the public the same way everyone does. I don’t want to be photographed hugging my kids either. It’s my business, not yours. But somebody made a comment around that time—a columnist said it’s about the nature of who the British think they are. This idea of British repression has always been a stereotype which is qualifiable anyway, but I think the English are just as accurately represented by the Rolling Stones as they are by John Major, or somebody. I mean the royal family aren’t even English, anyway. Philip’s Greek, the rest of them are German… they’re immigrants. [Laughs] No I’m being a bit arched there, but we are all a mixed nation. But this guy said, “We seem to have gone overnight from a country who can’t talk about their emotions to a country that cannot stop.” Everybody was holding each other and hugging each other and it suddenly became essential to hug each other. “Have you hugged your kids lately?” And the English have turned into that. It’s quite extraordinary how this touchy-feely thing came over.
MMM: Not to throw a jinx your way, but I know you were honored to being nominated for an Oscar for “A Single Man.” Would it be particularly gratifying to win an Oscar for this role?
FIRTH: Well, I mean it’s gratifying to get attention for a performance. I’m not going to wish any of it away! Talk as much as you like, but I welcome all of it! Well, we have to wait for it to come out. All I can say about it right now is if people are talking about it like that, I just think “wonderful start.” It’s code for “it’s a really good movie,” at the moment.
MMM: What’s coming up next?
FIRTH: I’m doing a movie called “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy,” which is from a novel by John le Carré, and is a wonderful novel which was a brilliant television series in the 1970s. Tomas Alfredson (“Let the Right One In”), a very fine Swedish director, is directing it. I am playing a spy—flawed, melancholy, the loneliness of the human motivation inside espionage. It’s thinking man’s spy stuff.
THE KING’S SPEECH is now playing in select theaters.