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It’s a dreary afternoon in West London, and I’m waiting to interview Colin Firth, an actor who has made the study of emotionally adrift aristocrats almost entirely his own — no more so than in his new film, The King’s Speech. So when he shows up informally dressed, prepared to engage and on a bicycle, it feels wholly unexpected.
In fact, this archetypal Englishman proves a study in surprises, the greatest of which is that he doesn’t feel very English at all. “I don’t feel planted here,” he says.
He adds: “I feel very connected to America. My mother grew up there for about seven years, and I spent a year at high school [in the U.S.]. Growing up, I felt almost American in lots of ways.”
Embodying one character when he clearly is another is a paradox Firth struggles with. “It’s true that I’m very associated with this English stereotype, but I don’t think that it exists except in the roles I play,” he says.
As a teenager growing up in a regular state school — not the grand “public” school some might expect — he says his pretensions were very different. “I had pierced my ear, I’d done the band. I wanted to be as American as possible.”
Three decades on, he’s hardly pseudo-punk.
Fans of his role as Darcy in TV’s Pride and Prejudice might be disappointed to learn that he does not smolder, brood or pout. Nor does he parse his comments with icy silences.
For an actor with an Oscar nomination under his belt for A Single Man and heavily tipped for another, he seems surprisingly subdued, pondering what could inspire him in the same way as these past two films.
“They made me think that maybe this acting thing is quite fun after all,” he says, sipping a cup of green tea. “That’s a problem because I don’t know how to participate in where it leads. Some people say, ‘Take it into your own hands; find your own material.’ I’m sort of trying to do that because I don’t want to spend another 20 years in the hands of fate.”
Firth smiles, but the matter clearly weighs on him. “I can’t simply wait for another insane person to throw a huge amount of money at an unlikely project,” he says.
The “insane person” in question is, of course, Single Man director-producer Tom Ford, whose intervention in Firth’s acting career seems to have changed everything. The former Gucci champion picked Firth for the role of George Falconer, a grieving gay man in 1960s America who decides to commit suicide after his lover of 15 years is killed.
Firth describes Ford as “magical” and “visionary.” “There was this strange, nocturnal atmosphere and this man who tended to glide around sprinkling the magic dust over people,” he says, noting that filming took place over an intense 21 days, mainly at night, and that the totality of Single Man is something Firth has found hard to shake off.
“I was sort of in love with the character,” he says. “Here is a 55-year-old broken person, and you get to tell their story. How much better does it ever get than that? That fired my imagination, and it was invigorating just to wake up to that fact. I remember reading another script [during shooting] — a good script, actually — and that is when for the first time I realized that everything else felt banal.”
King’s Speech wasn’t. In it, he plays Bertie, the Duke of York, who must overcome his stutter and ascend to the British throne as King George VI. “I was full of doubt a lot of the time,” he says. “Doubt because we couldn’t really know all the history, doubt because I wasn’t always sure I was getting to the bottom of things, and I really wanted to.”
In a pivotal scene, speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) has Bertie unleash a paroxysm of epithets to free his vocal paralysis. “We don’t know that Logue actually did use swearing,” Firth says. But director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler were “ferocious” about having as much accuracy as possible, consulting with Logue’s family and using his original papers for their research.
“We’d stop filming to see if there was something else to be discovered, and I enjoyed the rigor of that,” Firth says. “I’m not trying to claim authenticity for it, but it felt right for the story we were trying to tell.”
Now, the stories he wants to tell are more off the beaten path, just when most actors would be using their success to springboard to big-paying Hollywood vehicles.
He’s filming the espionage drama Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and produced, wrote and directed History Channel’s The People Speak, based on a British stage performance that brought together actors including Ben Kingsley, Keira Knightley and Ian McKellen to declaim dissenting political polemic.
“It had its origins in the book by the American historian Howard Zinn, who died this year,” Firth says. “I got to know him. He basically said dissent is a patriotic act.”
1989 Valmont (Orion)
Firth is the title character out to seduce a married woman.
2001 Bridget Jones’s Diary (Miramax)
Renee Zellweger has a thing for Firth’s stuffy barrister.
2008 Mamma Mia! (Universal)
He is one of three possible dads for about-to-be-married Amanda Seyfried.
2010 The King’s Speech (The Weinstein Co.)
Firth overcomes a stutter before becoming England’s King George VI.
The SAG Awards
Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles
Sunday, Jan. 30
The 17th annual SAG Awards nominations, selected by the guild’s eligible members via online balloting, will be announced at 6 a.m. PT Thursday, Dec. 16, from the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles. For the first time, the awards ceremony will be simulcast live in all time zones at 5 p.m. PT Sunday, Jan. 30, allowing West Coast viewers their first opportunity to watch the event as it happens. Ernest Borgnine will receive SAG’s 47th Life Achievement Award for his career and humanitarian accomplishments.
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