For 15 years, Colin Firth remained best known for emerging from a lake in a white shirt as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride & Prejudice miniseries. Since then, he had two girly fights with Hugh Grant in the Bridget Jones movies, flirted with a Portuguese girl in Love Actually and threw himself into 2008’s all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza Mamma Mia. But he’s never really had a chance to show us what he can do. Until now.
His recent Best Actor Oscar nomination for A Single Man was proof that, given the right material, Firth can blow us away. The directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford follows a day in the life of George, a lecturer in 1960s Los Angeles who, devastated at the death of his long-term partner, plans his own suicide. Firth talked to RT about the role of his career, and why he’d consider Mamma Mia 2…
Colin Firth: Great! The Venice Film Festival was the best moment because there were no expectations and nothing riding on it. The film hadn’t even been sold at that point. My wife is Italian so Venice is special anyway. We showed the film for the first time and got so much warmth. I remember thinking, it can’t feel better than this. That was so fantastic that anything else is just gravy.
CF: Some people feel there’s a dichotomy between style and substance, but the look of the film is absolutely critical to the story. The way that George dresses is a sign of his desperation, his neurosis. External appearance is the only thing he can control. I thought there was something wonderful about that. I wish I could open my drawer and see all my shirts starched and prepared. But that’s not me. Incidentally, I’ve been to Tom Ford’s home and it’s a lot like that. Tom is very fastidious, like George.
CF: It definitely had its doubters. Some of the people advising me were very keen for me not to do it. In fact, they were adamant that I shouldn’t do it. They knew that everyone would notice this film and, if it was a catastrophe, it would be a very noticeable one. People told me that this was nothing but a fashion designer’s vanity project, it would just be one big embarrassment and I should steer clear.
Colin Firth in A Single Man
CF: Not about Tom. But there was a problem with the narrative that did concern me. You’re supposed to invest a great deal in George’s grief. But, other than a couple of flashbacks, we don’t know anything about his relationship. Why should we care about this man’s pain when we don’t know his history? The scene with the phone call solved that. Tom was so courageous in letting that take its course.
CF: In the script, that scene is just two pages of dialogue in which George is very polite. It doesn’t say how he reacts at the end of the phone call. It’s just, “thank you for calling,” and that’s the end of the scene. What actually happened was that I put the phone down and Tom didn’t say “cut”. He was in a different room, watching on the monitor, so I stayed there until the magazine ran out. Eventually, I went through to the other room and said “how was that?” And I saw the crew were passing tissues around. Tom said, “could you do that again?” We did three takes, and that was it.
CF: The words are all Tom’s. And shaving off the eyebrow? That actually happened to Tom when he took mescaline. He was a young man at the time! My job is how it’s delivered and Tom is not an interfering director. The suicide rehearsal scene with the sleeping bag is without dialogue, so there’s a lot of my humour in that.
Colin Firth in A Single Man
CF: That wasn’t your film-festival-Oscar-nominations sort of film. But that’s snobbery. Some people thought it was just a big old karaoke, despite the fact that none of the boys can sing — which I quite accept! The segues from the dialogue to the songs are all ridiculous but we’re supposed to be in on that joke. Critics wildly missed the point when they complained that it’s clunky. It’s a joke! French and Saunders satirised it brilliantly, but the problem was that the film already satirises itself almost as much as they did. Comedy — particularly the frothy and frivolous — is notoriously neglected by festivals and awards. But it’s bloody hard to get right.
CF: That did occur to me. I know the Royal Family don’t comment on such things, but I was very aware that she would probably see it. And I’m aware that he’s remembered, not only by members of his family but also by the public, with great affection. I’m not a… well, we’ll leave my political views out of it. But, whatever my feelings about the monarchy, I hope the affection and respect I feel for him comes across. There was something very quietly heroic about him.
CF: Oh he nixed it did he? He’s going to need the work! No, I’m joking. I don’t want to spend my life in sequels and franchises but, having said that, I’d certainly get back with that group of people in a second.
A Single Man is out now.