To the hardcore Jane Austen fans, 50-year-old English actor Colin Firth will always be Mr. Darcy after he appeared in a wet shirt in the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. But he really landed at the top of the hot lists with his 2009 Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing George in Tom Ford's A Single Man. Now with a one-two punch, the handsome actor has hit again with another Tom at the helm, this time Britisher Tom Hooper, directing Firth in The King's Speech.
The film has already been pulling in nominations or awards from all over the place including seven Golden Globes so far.
This feature provides perfect grist for this seasoned actor's mill since he has become an expert at playing the kind of male character that he does so believably -- one who overcomes self-doubt and rises to the occasion.
In The King's Speech, Firth plays Bertie, a life-long stutterer on a quest to find his voice, especially since he suddenly becomes crowned King George VI of England in 1936. It is based on the true story of George VI, who faced having to become a public personality and lead a nation on the brink of World War II, after years of shunning the spotlight because of his stammer. Once his father King George V (Michael Gambon) dies, his scandalous brother Prince Edward VII (Guy Pearce) -- who was the king-to-be -- abdicates the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson (an American divorcee with Nazi leanings). England is in desperate need of a leader.
Bertie's wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) -- the future Queen Mother -- had found him an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who provides an unorthodox treatment and the two men eventually form an unbreakable bond.
With Logue's support, the King comes to grip with his affliction, delivers an inspiring radio-address that rallies his people and unites them in battle against the Axis. Securing the support of his family, his government, and Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), the Royal Monarch succeeds and paves the way for his daughter Elizabeth to take over upon his unexpected death in 1952. At a recent roundtable discussion, he talked about his recent successes, his past career and what makes him such an evocative actor.
Q: Do we have to bow, Sir Colin?
CF: Get used to it. Don't bow for me necessarily.
Q: Is that disrespectful to you [chuckles]?
CF: No, no, we do get used to genuflection.
Q: I swear every time we see you, you get younger.
CF: I can give you a phone number.
Q: Growing up British, what was your attitude about the monarchy before making this movie?
CF: Oh, I don't think my attitude to the monarchy comes into this, really.
Q: At some point every British child has to have some attitude about it.
CF: I had attitude generally. Anything that felt like the establishment or authority was not my friend as a kid. I didn't [have much interest] about the monarchy. It's just that some people are royal watchers. Some people love it. Some people feel it's very, very important to their identity and to what it means to their sense of nationhood and all that. I'm not one of those people. I'm not that kind of patriot at all.
Q: Did your attitude change after making this movie?
CF: I don't think so. This film didn't alter any of my political or social views or anything. I just didn't see it that way.
It's about a man caught in the crossfire of the history of circumstances with pretty high stakes. I think that the reason why royalty is used for drama is because of those stakes. If King Lear only had one acre of land to chop up, you could tell that story. But [if you] just double the temperature of everything then...you'd probably have a Pinter play. It heightens things.
It's interesting that this seems to be drawing such universal appeal. All kinds of people are responding. How? Why? A king that isn't even that well known in history, with a particular disability which most people don't understand, in 1937, which most people weren't around for. Why? How does he reach people?
I actually think that [it appeals] on some [primal] level -- I'm trying to figure it out too. I think that you take normal human obstacles and heighten them. We all have trouble communicating -- we're not perfect communicators; we don't always have the eloquence we want; we don't always have the language we want.
Sometimes it's much worse than that. If you're intimidated by somebody, you see that completely. If you're in love with somebody, you probably see that completely.
There are all kinds of circumstances in which you can't summon the powers to communicate. We have fears of fulfilling ambitions. We have people who always feel there's somebody else who throws us into the shadows or whatever. Whatever those things are, [it is] heightened here.
This is a man whose problems with communication are so very, very extreme that he's written himself off. Another thing is that it is not uncommon for people in mid-life to think, "Well, I just never amounted to enough. I reached this age and if it's not fixed by now, it never will be."
[There are] problems between men and intimacy -- notorious, you know. Between anybody, actually, but this happens to be men and the way they don't want to be revealed as vulnerable. It's a story about one man trying to reach another through those barriers we put up. So let's exaggerate those. Make him royal. He literally lives behind high walls; he has to be [protected]. In order to be greeted, you have to get through a whole bunch of titles, and about five names, before you're even allowed to talk to the guy. He has to hold his hand out first before you get to shake his hand.
So you're building up all these protocols that we hide behind on a daily basis, but it's heightened by this situation. So I guess, long winded, but my theory is these are all universal things which have been beefed up. And being royal is part of that, you know. It's a human story.
Q: Did you know anything about this story beforehand; how did you prepare for it?
CF: I knew nothing about it. I knew that he existed. I knew about the abdication crisis, but I knew nothing about it. I hadn't even watched any of the dramas about it. I wasn't even quite sure whether he was George V or George VI. I remember my mother telling me that she had great sympathy for him because of the stammer, so I knew about that. I knew he died relatively young and that the queen came to the throne very young. We all know that because that was 1952, and she's still here.
I always understood that she was very close to her father and it must have been very tough to take that job on while you were still grieving. I had a picture of that as a kid. But that really was it. I couldn't have told you the date that it all happened. I never heard when it was broadcast. I don't think I even knew that our Queen Mother was his wife. It made sense, but, I'm not a royal watcher. So I was starting from scratch.
Q: Were you surprised to find out about this extraordinary story?
CF: It's interesting to follow what history might pronounce as the minor characters offstage and see where they go. It reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Tom Hooper would call the Wallis [Simpson] and Edward VIII story a plot of history.
So it interested me to turn an ostensibly minor character into a protagonist, realizing they're not that minor at all. Also, I think, [it reflects] different versions of heroism. I like stories that reflect on human virtues, not in the superhero realm. It's where we have to look for qualities that come, perhaps, in a quieter form.
Q: You've taken on difficult roles before and brought life to them in a way that didn't seem possible.
CF: Thank you for saying that. But I think what is so painful about this particular character -- and, in fact, a lot of characters I've taken on who find communication difficult -- is that they are people with a kind of lucidity inside. That's the problem.
It wouldn't be a tragic case if George VI really was dimwitted. I'm not commenting on the stammer, I'm commenting on the fact that he's been misjudged. If you read his letters or read his quotes or hear anything he has to say, this man had an elegance of thought and wit and language. There's no question about it.
He had [a sense of] irony. He was fiercely intelligent. He did not speak banalities. He had a sense of paradox. I mean, there's a really fine and subtle mind at work there. And for that not to come out is immensely painful; to be misjudged as stupid, which he was, when you have those faculties... I think that's almost entirely what it's about. And this guy, his mind was on fire. So I think that tempers, in a way.
Q: This role gets assigned to actors where people think of them as just playing these characters but they're not as smart as the director or the screenwriter, but yet there are definitely actors...
CF: Oh, yes, there are some supremely intelligent actors. And I've worked with a lot of [them], you know. And it's a pity Geoffrey Rush isn't here to bear that out.
Q: Or Helena [Bonham Carter].
CF: Or Tim Spall. I mean any of the people in our movie. I find it actually extremely common to meet highly articulate actors. Let's take a completely different area of public entertainment: talk about Mamma Mia. It's not highbrow work, but if you've ever interviewed Meryl Streep or Stellan Skarsgard, you won't hear two more eloquent people.
I think we have to deal with language. We don't write it. But I think that to grasp it and to own it, you don't have to be equal to it in the sense that you could have written it. But you certainly have to have enough gray matter to navigate it. You can usually tell an actor who's trying to catch up with words where they're totally out of their depth.
You have to be able to find your way around it -- whether it's Shakespeare or the incredibly long sentences that Jane Austen wrote with endless clauses in the middle, and then trying to find your way halfway down that paragraph and have it still make sense and find out where you took a breath on the way. That's a mental exercise.
Q: Speaking of articulate actors, what was it like working with Helena?
CF: I've known Helena a tiny bit for years and we've actually seen each other far more recently. But like Jennifer [Ehle, who plays Myrtle Logue], I love her dearly. She's got a fantastic sense of humor. She's got the filthiest laugh of anybody that I've ever met. You would hire her for a table read, I'm telling you.
We sat there not knowing if this film really had any humor in it that was going to work in the context. I felt there was when I read the script. You never really know until you put it to the test, and you only need her there because she just cackled through it all. She has a great sense of mischief. She's very committed to the job, but she also has a way of not taking it too seriously, which is a joy to have around.
Q: Most of your scenes with the rest of the cast, including Geoffrey Rush, are in a stage-like setting. What did you do to get that chemistry going? Much of it depends on how well you guys act opposite each other.
CF: We just really started to get to know each other. I mean, I didn't know him well. We had met 15 years -- well, not quite -- [when we did] Shakespeare in Love. We didn't really work much together on it, but we did the promotional stuff together -- the party part of that. And you know, you do get to know somebody when you're on junkets and unwinding.
Geoff's a lot of fun. I found him such easy company. He loves ideas. He loves to talk. He loves to go to find the humor in things. He loves to turn things around in ways that are interesting. Like Tom Hooper, he's never banal. There's nothing obvious in his thinking. There's always a fascinating twist. I found him stimulating company and exhilarating. We spent a lot of time in each other's company and, because Hooper, as I said, worked every last hour he possibly could every day of the week, there wasn't a lot of down time.
Sometimes you'd end the day in a state of complete and utter, almost debilitating, exhaustion. Nobody weeps for the trials of an actor, but we did feel drained. But we wouldn't go home because Tom, Geoffrey and I would just talk. We'd go and start to get our costumes off, begin chatting, and we'd be there until midnight talking about tomorrow's scene or laughing, and I think that became an intimacy that helped. We enjoyed the days on set. We laughed a lot between takes and played with it, you know.
Q: One of the most brilliant scenes in the film was where you cursed a lot. How did Tom help you to prepare for that scene and how did it feel to curse so much?
CF: I don't remember what the preparation felt like or what we did. We did work pretty hard on it. We had to work from how you go from that because Tom was brilliant at scoring, and what's going to have to happen before this to make it work really in this scene? What does David do to you that compresses you so much that this becomes the only way back out again? You know? And how far can you go? And how many words is it? And what are those words? And how playful is it? And how do you get from sitting on a sofa to that? And so that was one of the few scenes where there had to be a bit of improv.
Q: Are you aware that is the scene that got the film its rating?
CF: Oh, yes.
Q: You said you've been surprised about the public response to this film. At any point during the shooting did you feel that this was going to be a remarkable film?
CF: You never know anything. What made me very optimistic that it would be like this was the rigor, and Tom Hooper's sheer uncompromising commitment. In that respect, he reminded me of Tom Ford -- you know, that this a person who will not tolerate mediocrity. There's nothing that's going to get through, not get [scrutinized], for perfection. I think some people almost wishful think themselves into a result and that's where you get mediocrity. They get tired, so they say it's fine. But Hooper will not stop. Tom resents the fact that the human beings have to sleep, you know. He wishes we could all...
Q: Hooper, Ford or both?
CF: I'm talking about Hooper -- but I don't know, maybe Tom's like that too. And I think Tom Hooper wishes Sunday didn't have to happen, that we didn't have to have families or anything other than what happens on the set. So a man like that's not going to let a second rate thing go. I also saw great things happening just watching Geoffrey Rush, by itself, which made me think we had something special.
Q: At this moment, there has to be a part of you that says, "I don't want to jinx what's going on. What am I exactly doing?" Perhaps employing people who have taken actors that are hot on to that next level.
CF: Right now I'm not doing anything different at all. I mean, obviously I would love to find another role that I could just eat up. I'm not finding it right now. I think I'm doing the best film that's being made at the moment, which is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [based on John LeCarre's book]. I'm loving being on that set. I couldn't be in anything better. It's a wonderful role. It's an ensemble thing. I don't really want to be carrying a film right now. I think it's nice to leave that to someone else for a moment. It's Tomas Alfredson [best known for the Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In]. It's exhilarating to see what he's doing.
Q: Another Tom?
CF: Another Tom.
Q: Have you hit your stride in your career arc -- last year you had A Single Man and now The King's Speech being considered one of the top 10 films of the year?
CF: It's a great moment, but it's too random to call it a stride. If I keep getting roles as good as this, I would like to think it could be a stride. But I mean, this is a profession which notoriously trips you up, you know. And I felt there were moments when I had my mojo, I just didn't have the scripts. And, you know, I may have dropped the ball a few times along the way. I'm mixing my metaphors. But no, this happened to be a time when I was really enjoying the work. I feel that I'm at an age which is making the stories interesting. You know, I don't relish the deteriorization process, but I do find it interesting to play characters where the past counts, you know. And I've lived long enough to actually have one now.
Q: Though you're a consummate communicator, it must have been hard to figure out how to take a person who has such difficulty with communicating and communicate it. Do you find in stepping back and seeing that?
CF: No, I'm not going to take for granted your premise about my ability to....
Q: In meeting you years ago -- the days of the Falklands' war film Tumbledown -- you were a very serious guy and never seemed that ambitious. Valmont [which starred Firth and was directed by Milos Forman] got lost in the shuffle in the wake of the higher profile Dangerous Liaisons [which was directed by Stephen Frears and starred John Malkovich -- both are cinematic renditions of the French novel Liaison Dangereuses]. You never seemed to be somebody who really wanted to make it, and now here you are. Is it a matter of luck when you get there? How did that happen?
CF: It feels like luck. I don't think it can be. I mean I must be doing something, you know, and I don't just mean acting. I don't know, it's hard to analyze.
Q: You make choices now, though, that seem to be the right choice.
CF: Oh, that's the lottery -- do you think I didn't always want to get masterpiece screenplays? You know, if you can't get the masterpiece then you do what you can to stay in the game. I love working, you know. I love the collaboration. I love telling stories.
There's a lot of value in light entertainment as well. It can be a joy in being a part of that. Sometimes I've done movies I wouldn't go and see. But, you know, I think there was a part of me - some of them I enjoyed immensely. And some of them were, "I hope this keeps me in the business long enough to get the one I really want to do."
Q: There's that humility about you. Do you understand the humility of a character because you understand it in yourself?
CF: You should meet the people I have around me. Meet my wife. You'd understand it if I'm humble. There's no way to get too far above yourself with her around. I do admire the humility of George VI. There's something heroic about it in his case. I don't think there is in mine. There's no chance of me getting above myself with the people I know; I've tried, believe me.
Q: You're a family man. What do you think about your kids going into acting -- are they interested?
CF: I think every parent will say exactly the same thing. It's precarious. It can be bruising. It's a bit of a lottery. It's painful not to make it. It can even be troublesome if you do make it. And it's not an easy choice. But, you know, no, I wouldn't push it. Certainly not push them into it. I would want to expose them to as many options as possible. That's pretty much what my parents said to me. But I wouldn't stand in their way.
Q: You have one going in that direction.
CF: My oldest is in drama school now and I'm trying to encourage him.
Q: If King George VI were alive today, what would you ask him?
CF: What do you think of my chances in the awards season? I have decided to be perverse here.