Colin Firth: Not your average English gentleman
Colin Firth has just turned 50 and the night before we talk, he celebrated his birthday at a late-night party at the exclusive and trendy Soho House club in downtown Toronto.
It is clear the British actor has been giving this significant birthday considerable, erudite thought, concluding that the benefits of middle age probably outweigh the disadvantages.
"I'm very aware of being in a different place in my life than I was in the past and I'm aware that life is cyclical and you hopefully go forward rather than in a straight line," he says. "I think the good things in life have to reset themselves and you have to rediscover them. Your relationship with your friends and your children and your wife are not things that just cruise."
Professionally, he has no doubts whatsoever. "The kind of work I'm getting involved in now is far more interesting than it has ever been because I am now playing people with a past, and hopefully a future, too. I'm now in the middle of the narrative somehow, and I'm dealing with characters who experience loss, regrets and people who have given up on life.
"I appreciate that and it makes me feel a lot better about the physical deterioration I'm experiencing," he adds, laughing.
Firth is dressed formally in a dark suit and a white shirt as we talk in a Toronto hotel. He is in the city for the world premiere of his latest film, The King's Speech, in which he portrays King George VI, a role he could not have played in his younger years.
The film tells the story of how the king, also known as Bertie, reluctantly took the UK throne in his 40s when his elder brother, Edward, abdicated in 1936 to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson.
The unprepared king - the father of the future Queen Elizabeth II - turned to a radical Australian-born speech therapist named Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, to help him overcome his severe stammer. In the film, the two forge an unlikely friendship.
A few days after Firth and I talk, the movie wins the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and there has been speculation that Firth's tear-jerking performance could bag him an Oscar nod.
He sought the advice of his sister Kate, a voice therapist, to help him portray a man struggling with a crippling stammer. He also talked to people who had suffered from stammering, and in doing so says he gained a deep understanding and sympathy for them.
"I think a person with an impediment to his communication finds himself in a kind of abyss," he says. "One of the things that defines us as human beings is language, so if the ability to communicate is interfered with, your identity, your sense of self-worth and your connection to other people is all stifled, and this is a story about a man trying to reach through that."
His impressive demeanour, eloquent speech and the parts he has played all earmark Firth as a typical English gentleman.
But nothing, he says with a dismissive smile, could be further from the truth. In fact, although he lives in London, he does not feel any more at home there than in other parts of the world.
"Through my film work I've tended to represent precisely the kind of Englishman that I'm not - the repressed Englishman of mythology," he says. "It's hard to run into those guys now. I'll give you a hundred dollars for every guy with a bowler hat and umbrella you see walking the streets of London who's not going to a fancy dress party.
"My generation wasn't saying: 'I can't wait to grow up so I can put on a pinstripe suit and go to an office'. They were piercing their ears and learning to play the guitar.
"If you want to define an Englishman nowadays, you might do just as well to take Keith Richards or Johnny Rotten or Ray Winstone as to take John Major or Prince Charles."
The son of academic lecturers who had spent several years in India, Firth was born in Grayshott, Hampshire, and lived in Nigeria for four years before his parents moved back to England. They settled in Winchester, where his father was a history lecturer at what is now the city's university but because his mother had grown up in the United States, young Colin spent a year at school in St Louis, Missouri. He also lived for a while in Canada.
"At home I was surrounded by people from India, Nigeria, the United States and from all over the world, so I don't feel that I entirely belong to the British Home Counties, where I largely grew up," he says. "I feel a balance between it having been a difficulty and an extreme privilege. I suppose it alienated me from some people but it also freed me from convention."
After returning to England from St Louis in his early teens, he joined the National Theatre, doing odd jobs for the wardrobe department. He was recruited by its drama centre, where he appeared in his first production of Hamlet in 1983.
"We rehearsed for 10 weeks and it ran for one week," he remembers with a laugh. "It was about five hours long so if anybody was left in the theatre at the end it was a bonus."
He made his professional London stage debut replacing Daniel Day-Lewis as the spy Guy Bennett in Another Country. In the film of the play, he took the role of Tommy, opposite Rupert Everett as Bennett.
His first starring film role was in 1989 in Milos Forman's Valmont, before he moved back to Canada to take a pivotal role in Circle Of Friends.
Although he was heralded as one of the best British actors of his generation, and was particularly praised for his harrowing portrayal of the paralysed Falklands soldier Robert Lawrence in Tumbledown, it was not until the televised version of Pride And Prejudice in 1995 that Firth's film career really took off.
He became a transatlantic symbol of romance and sexuality when his portrayal of the brooding, glowering Mr Darcy in the television series aired in the UK and North America and is still slightly sheepish about suddenly becoming the object of thousands of women's fantasies - particularly with one famous scene in which he emerges dripping from a dip in the Pemberley House lake.
"If people expected me to be Mr Darcy, then they were disappointed," he says. "I don't think I'm an excessively romantic guy. Romantic clichés don't appeal to me and I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day. I think romance can be a bit facile."
The television series did, however, have a positive effect on his life and career.
"I was 35 when I did Pride And Prejudice and I thought that romantic, leading male roles were passing out of my scope," he recalls, still laughing. "It was time for me to do character roles and joyfully get fat, so the reaction to Mr Darcy took me very much by surprise.
"It put the romantic, leading man character back on the agenda for me in terms of the sort of work that was coming my way. It came back in a way I would never have expected. I don't know what would have happened without Mr Darcy."
Then he hastily adds: "Things were going all right beforehand. I was working fairly consistently so it's not as if I was struggling and suddenly found a life."
Firth went on to take a variety of roles, including one in the Oscar-winning The English Patient; as the love interest (also called Darcy) in Bridget Jones's Diary; as Wessex in Shakespeare In Love as the intended groom of Gwyneth Paltrow's Viola; in Girl With A Pearl Earring as painter Johannes Vermeer alongside Scarlett Johansson; and in the film version of the musical Mamma Mia! as one of the potential fathers.
Last year he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his role as a college professor grappling with solitude after his long-time partner dies in A Single Man.
"I work with the options I have in front of me and my reasons for choosing a job can vary enormously depending on the circumstances," he says. "Sometimes I take a job because it's a group of people I'm dying to work with and sometimes it can be a desire to shake things up a bit and not to take myself too seriously. A life of very serious, po-faced films would drive me nuts. I need - and I'm fortunate to have - a fairly varied menu in that respect."
He lives in London with his wife, Livia, an Italian film-maker he met in 1996 while they were working on the film Nostromo. They were married in June 1997 and have two sons, Luca, nine, and Mateo, seven.
Firth's earlier serious romantic involvements - and he insists there have been few - have been with his leading ladies.
He has a 20-year-old son, William, from a five-year relationship with the Canadian-American actress Meg Tilly, whom he met on the set of Valmont. He also had a brief relationship with the British actress Jennifer Ehle when she played Elizabeth Bennet to his Darcy in Pride And Prejudice.
The craft and technique of acting is something that Firth talks passionately and in depth about. He is inspired by the language of a good writer and appears to have devoted much thought and analysis to the subject.
"There is nothing more intoxicating for an actor, and nothing sets you on fire, more than good language," he says. "Text is where it all starts and it is our source material. It is our job to interpret it, so when the language vibrates, if you get it right, you catch fire. It fires up your intellect and even your body is affected by it. It is a very visceral experience and an intellectual challenge."
Although normally calm and dispassionate, Firth is incensed by the decision of the British government to dismantle the UK Film Council, which distributes funding for British films, warning it could lead to a haemorrhaging of talent from the UK.
He has been fortunate enough to be cast mainly in major films that do not rely on its handouts but he says: "I think abolishing it is a profound error. We're looking at a very perilous moment for British film. I know we're living in very straitened times and everybody is suffering from cuts but doing this is a false economy. A lot of films that have been helped by the Film Council have been economically very beneficial to everybody. It's an industry that we need."
It is a cause he has taken up together with a number of charitable projects to which he devotes much of his spare time.
A dedicated supporter of Oxfam International and a campaigner in the fight against poverty and injustice, he was named philanthropist of the year two years ago by the Hollywood Reporter, and voted European campaigner of the year in 2006 by the European Union.
He brushes such honours aside. "My parents and grandparents have always been engaged in teaching or the medical profession or the priesthood so I've sort of grown up with a sense of complicity in the lives of other people. There's no virtue in that; it's the way one is raised. But I'm just a kind of medium. The people who do the real work don't get heard."
For the next few weeks, Firth will be busy promoting The King's Speech in various parts of the world. He will be attending the Dubai International Film Festival, which starts tomorrow, before embarking on other film commitments that will keep him on the move.
He will film The Promised Land, a political crime thriller set in British-ruled Palestine, as well as star in the big-screen version of John le Carré's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for Universal Studios.
While admitting he leads an enviable life, he says the older he gets and the more travelling he does, the more unsettled he feels.
"I play different characters, I live in different countries, my wife is Italian and I have a son in North America - that's the price I pay," he says. "Feeling rootless can produce a kind of heartache. I think I would feel more peaceful if I had somewhere that was absolutely home and I don't have that - but I feel incredibly enriched by all the rest of it.
"The diversity and the fact that I feel just as comfortable with people from other parts of the world as I do with people from my own neighbourhood is a gift, I think."
With that, he shakes hands courteously and takes his leave. He may not be the archetypal Englishman but he is a gentleman to the last.
The King's Speech opens the Dubai International Film Festival on December 12.
The man who gave the King his voice
The real-life story behind The King's Speech is one the British Royal Family long tried to quell
Lionel Logue, the Australian speech therapist who helped cure King George VI of his stammer, was a publican's son who taught elocution in Adelaide and Perth at the turn of the 20th century. In 1924, aged 43, he set off with his wife and three sons to make a new life in London.
Logue (played in the film by Geoffrey Rush) rented some rooms at the cheap end of Harley Street. He had no formal qualifications, but his work during the First World War with returning Australian soldiers who had lost the power of speech convinced him he could use similar techniques to cure other defects.
EARLY COACHING It was just what the future King - known to his family as Bertie - needed. Since he was a child, even the simplest conversation had been an ordeal; his problem grew with the increased public engagements after he became Duke of York in 1920. His young wife, Elizabeth - later better known as the Queen Mother - was determined to help.
How Bertie, father of the current Queen, happened upon Logue remains a mystery, although one intriguing theory is that he was introduced by Evelyn "Boo" Laye, a glamorous musical comedy star and friend of the Yorks, who was being treated by the Australian.
Logue helped prepare a tour of Australia in 1927 - during which the Duke had to make a high-profile speech to open the new parliament building in Canberra. Logue's role became even more important after Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936, leaving his reluctant younger brother to take his place on the throne. Logue worked closely with the new King to prepare for his coronation.
WARTIME When George VI spoke to the Empire on the day the Second World War was declared (the climax of the film) Logue rehearsed the speech with him carefully, striking out difficult words, and was beside him in the room at Buckingham Palace from which he broadcast.
"In this grave hour," the King began, "perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself."
As the red broadcast light faded, Logue turned to him: "Congratulations on your first wartime speech," he said. The King, relieved his ordeal was over, said simply: "I expect I will have to do a lot more."
The King was right: over the six years that followed, Logue was often called to Buckingham Palace, Windsor or Sandringham to help him prepare speeches. The Christmas Message, a live broadcast and tradition started by his father, George V, was a particular challenge. So close had Logue's relationship with the King become by then that he ate Christmas lunch with the Royal Family before facing the microphone.
THE DIARIES Logue was discreet: he knew any attempt to trade on his royal connection would mean the end of it. He did, however, keep detailed diaries: in a spindly hand, he recorded the minutiae of their many sessions over 25 years - but kept them to himself.
And that was precisely how the Royal Family wanted it. When David Seidler, a young California-based screenwriter, approached Logue's son, Valentine, in the early 1980s asking for access to his late father's papers, he was told to check with the Queen Mother.
"Not in my lifetime," came the reply.
Seidler obeyed, although he could not have predicted that Bertie's widow, already in her 80s, would live for another two decades. A few months after her death in 2002, he began his screenplay, which is the basis for the film.
And the diaries? Seidler had given up hope of finding them. But when the film was in pre-production in London last year a researcher stumbled across Valentine's nephew Mark, who not only had the diaries but a wealth of other material about his grandfather.
There was time to incorporate only some of this into the script, but Mark Logue kept finding more letters, and other documents, in archives and hidden away in a cousin's attic in Leicestershire. It is these finds that form the basis for the book The King's Speech - How One Man Saved The British Monarchy.
A DEBT OF GRATITUDE Mark Logue's discoveries reveal how closely the two men worked together, and the huge debt owed by the King, and the nation, as a whole, to this unconventional Australian. It was a debt acknowledged by the Queen Mother - but only in private."I know perhaps better than anyone just how much you helped the King, not only with his speech, but through that his whole life and outlook on life," she wrote to Logue three weeks after her husband's death in February 1952. "I shall always be deeply grateful to you for all you did for him."
For Logue, who died the next year, there could not have been a more fitting epitaph.
The King's Speech - How One Man Saved The British Monarchy, by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi, is published by Quercus.
The queen behind the king
It's logical that Helena Bonham Carter gets cast in regal roles: she has a blue-blooded background, with barons and baronesses in her family tree, and a former prime minister (Herbert Asquith) for a great-grandfather.
Still, it's remarkable for any actress to play two queens within a year, even if they're wildly contrasting ones: in The King's Speech, she's the quietly devoted Elizabeth, wife of George VI (played by Colin Firth) and mother of the current Queen. Last spring, in her partner Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, she appeared as a comic, spoiled, petulant Red Queen, constantly shouting: "Off with his head!" when she could not get her way.
Of the two films, she says her work on The King's Speech was the more demanding. Over tea at The Savoy hotel in London, she reflects: "Elizabeth was the ultimate supportive wife. So it might have been a snooze-fest for me to play her. But what intrigued me about her is she played that role and had a sweet, demure exterior. But underneath, she had this completely tough core. It's been said George VI would never have been able to become King without her strength behind him.
"Cecil Beaton [the fashion photographer and designer], who knew her, said she was a marshmallow, but one made on a welding machine. So there was that duality."
Bonham Carter, who is 44, is one of the hardest-working, most in-demand actresses in film. She lets slip that while she was shooting The King's Speech in London she was also working on the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. She plays Bellatrix Lestrange, a pure-blood witch loyal to the evil Lord Voldemort.
Yet despite her formidable work ethic, she talks dismissively about her talent, often making wry jokes. She's the antithesis of a pompous self-regarding ac-TOR.
She says of her character in the new film: "She's the ultimate woman behind the man. Unfortunately the story's about the man behind the man - Lionel Logue, the King's speech therapist, played by Geoffrey Rush. So I'm just in the background. But it was quite a good part for me, because I didn't have to go on any 'actress diet.' Elizabeth liked her food."
So she didn't need to resort to a fat suit?
"The fact that you asked me is deeply hurtful to me," says Bonham Carter sharply, before roaring with laughter. "No, I just didn't need to watch what I ate. And we didn't go overboard in making her clothes look slimming. Everything about Elizabeth was perfectly round."
Firth manages to keep a straight face as he says of Bonham Carter: "It's a tribute to Helena's brilliance that she comes across as supportive in this film, because most of the time while I was stammering and she was off camera, she'd be looking at her watch, wanting to get away."
She was 19 when she became famous, playing an English rose in the Merchant Ivory film A Room With A View. Her image was reinforced by roles in other "corset dramas": Where Angels Fear To Tread, Howards End and The Wings Of The Dove.
But these days she looks much the London bohemian, in vintage clothes and with her hair in wayward, cascading ringlets - a perfect visual foil for Burton's equally quirky appearance. Still, she can play royals with all the dignity required.
"It's fun," she says. "Because you're playing a queen you can get to behave outrageously on set. I don't think I actually said: 'Off with his head!' about any of the crew. But I may have come close a few times."
Published: December 10, 2010 04:00 AM