Firth in line to be king of awards speeches
Actor Colin Firth is already in the Oscar spotlight for The King's Speech but, finds Evan Fanning, it's not public speaking that gets him all aflutter
COLIN Firth walks into the room to find the director Tom Hooper lavishing praise on his leading man. Firth takes a seat next to his colleague and listens for a moment before he starts to shift a little uncomfortably in his seat. "Shall I go back into the bathroom and let you get on with it?" he asks in mock-embarrassment.
If Firth is uneasy hearing people eulogise about his work and character, he might want to find a dark room to lie low in for the next few months, because it doesn't look like there's going to be any let-up in people throwing acclaim in his direction.
The 50-year-old is currently odds-on favourite to go one better than last year and win Best Actor at the Oscars next month (he was nominated last year for his performance in A Single Man, but was beaten by Jeff Bridges). The King's Speech, directed by Hooper, has already been nominated for seven Golden Globes and cleaned up at the British Independent Film Awards.
While Firth seems to be a shoo-in for a second successive Oscar nomination -- if not the statuette itself -- being in this kind of limelight is not a position he is all that at ease with. As he sits slumped on the couch in this London hotel (he doesn't carry through his threat to return to the bathroom), dressed in an expensive-looking blazer and shirt, with a V-neck jumper over dark jeans, and boots, he doesn't scream movie star. In fact, he looks more like a stockbroker or barrister on a bit of downtime, which he could well have ended up being had he taken the advice of his parents (both lecturers) and gone to university rather than drama school.
Interviews with him are rare occasions, and Firth's only real public outings are at film festivals, award ceremonies or one of the many good causes he helps promote with his wife, Italian producer Livia Giuggioli, whom he met on the set of Nostromo in 1996 and married a year later. Together, they have two children, nine-year-old Luca and seven-year-old Matteo. Firth also has a 20-year-old son, Will, from a relationship with actress Meg Tilly.
In Firth's latest acclaimed role, he plays King George VI, although for much of the movie he is simply Bertie, as he is known to the inner-circle in the years before his ascendancy to the throne, or the Duke of York to give him his public title.
Ostensibly, the film is about George VI's struggle with his debilitating stammer in a period where radio and subsequently television demanded that the English monarch enter every home in the British empire. This journey of betterment is done with the aide of maverick Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and with the encouragement of his loyal and loving wife the Duchess of York (or the Queen Mother as she came to be known), played by Helena Bonham Carter.
Set against the backdrop of his brother Edward's relationship with Wallis Simpson and the looming destruction of the Second World War, it is to Hooper's credit that the film manages to retain its focus on Bertie and the development of his friendship with Logue.
Despite the wide scope of the film, for Firth it was the focus on a previously unexplored figure that sparked his enthusiasm for the project. "I loved the idea of looking at the less-examined narrative in history," he says. "The Edward and Mrs Simpson saga has been treated to great effect a number of times now and is a very celebrated piece of history, whatever your view of it. A lot of stories are told about Churchill, and endless stories about Nazism and what was happening there. There are a lot more famous protagonists of that period, but George VI really hasn't been dealt with. He often shows up as a minor character in stories about one of those other characters.
"This was fascinating to me because I'm always fascinated by what would happen if you follow a minor character off stage and saw where they went. And we find out, by making him a protagonist in this story, that, in fact, there was nothing minor about him at all."
In some sense, you could almost say that Firth himself is the once-minor character who has now been followed off stage. For many years, his portrayal of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, stripping out of his drenched clothes by the side of a lake, threatened to define his career.
In Hollywood terms, you could have said he was a poor man's Hugh Grant if they weren't portraying a version of Britain where everyone was so terribly middle-class. Just three years ago, I met Firth to talk about his part in the Blake Morrison memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? and he joked about losing out on roles to the likes of Rufus Sewell.
He need not worry about that any more. Since then, his appearances in the box-office gold that was Mamma Mia! and the critically acclaimed, Tom Ford debut A Single Man have meant that all the focus is on him, whether he likes it or not.
Hooper was in no doubt that Firth was the man to play the lead in the film, which has been in the pipeline for many years (screenwriter David Seidler wrote a version of the film in the early Nineties, but after sending it to the Queen Mother, he decided to honour her wish not to make it in her lifetime after she wrote to him saying "the memories of these events are still too painful".)
"From the research I had done, King George VI was clearly nice to his core, and had tremendous humility and was a gentle man, and had a great moral compass, and I felt that the most important thing was that Colin seemed to share some of these spiritual qualities or qualities of personality," Hooper says of his leading man.
It is easy to think that living in the public eye, as Firth does, it would be relatively easy to inhabit the mind set of a member of the royal family, but he is adamant that there is quite a difference between being a famous actor and a monarch.
"I don't think it helps as much as you might think," he says. "The trouble is, because I can't have complete understanding of what it's like to be a member of the royal family, I can only guess at the equivalent. At a London Film Festival event a few years ago, I briefly shook hands with Prince Charles and watched him in action being very gracious with everyone he met.
"An actor who was with me said: 'His whole life is a press junket.' We're doing this now, we have a few days of it and then we can disappear off the clock -- but every day he wakes he has to display this kind of grace. There are these duties he has to observe, and they are there from birth and they will be there until the end of his days. I don't think anything in my experience can really transport me into that place."
What amazed the actor from his observation of Prince Charles was how you would manage to get a grasp of the real world when people are in such deference to you all the time. He recalls an old hippie friend who attended that same event, "an arch-republican", whose ideals went out the window when he bowed and nodded when faced with the Prince of Wales. Apparently, people are a lot less deferential when they meet a famous actor.
"I don't know how you must see the human race if everyone's job is to bow when they meet you," says Firth. "I don't know what that's like. Even if I do get pointed at, it's not particularly respectful. And nobody bows and I certainly don't get any old hippies thinking they must be on their best behaviour when they meet me. So, frankly, I don't think there was much to draw on at all [when playing a royal]. Yes, there is that sense of being aware you are being observed, and that may make you a little bit cautious about your behaviour when you go out into a crowd."
Given that the film portrays George VI as the ultimate reluctant monarch, who goes about his duties in an almost permanent state of fear, I wonder is there any elements of Firth's professional life and career that fill him with nerves.
"All of it," he replies instantly. "I don't mean I'm a nervous wreck all the time. Doing your job well doesn't mean you don't have anxieties about it. The assumption that because you do a certain job then you must be equal to all of the things that you have to do and you're comfortable with it all and you never worry about it -- I'm sure whether you're a policeman or an astronaut or a journalist or an actor or a prime minister you will always be haunted by the things that can go wrong.
"In some ways, I think we do it for those reasons. Those are the things which drive us. I think if we were operating constantly in a perfect comfort zone we wouldn't stay engaged. Nerves are there. I do have to speak publicly every so often and I get nervous about it, but I think there's a part of me that quite enjoys it as well."
Firth is likely to get a lot of experience of speaking in front of an audience in the upcoming awards season. It's just as well that he's comfortable with public speaking. It's listening to praise where his problems lie.
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