Wednesday 13 December 2017

Prince charming

With Oscar glory beckoning, could Colin Firth’s performance in The King’s Speech be just the one to upstage that enduring wet shirt scene, asksDeclan Cashin

REGAL PERFORMANCE: Colin as the duke
REGAL PERFORMANCE: Colin as the duke

Declan Cashin

Yours truly being a born-and-bred Kilkenny man, you can imagine that it's a bit of an odd thrill to hear Colin Firth waxing lyrical about his time in the county in the mid-1990s: "I had a minor role in Circle of Friends, which was filmed in Kilkenny and directed by one of my closest friends, Pat O'Connor.

"I only had a small part in the film, meaning there was no burden at all, so it was all a playground for me. I had a very young son with me, so it was a lovely countryside region to be in with a child. There were sessions every Monday night in Thomastown, and I don't want to sound like some overly romantic, Celtic Twilight-entranced Brit, but a session is a session, and it was fantastic. It was a ritual we all observed."

These kinds of musings on the joys of Irish drinking sessions seem most incongruous coming out of Firth's mouth: he is intimidatingly well-spoken and polite.

Talking to Day & Night in London's Soho Hotel, Firth is dressed in jeans, boots and a navy jumper over a checked shirt. In other words, he's wearing classic 'trendy dad' garb (Firth is married to Italian producer Livia Giuggioli and has two young sons, as well as a grown son from a previous relationship with actress Meg Tilly).

Only light flecks of grey in his dark hair betray his age -- 50-years-old as of last September. He seems all a-flutter when we first meet: his phone is continually buzzing on silent, and he's keen to track down his pal and Mamma Mia co-star Stellan Skarsgard, who is also a guest in the same hotel.

But Firth quickly settles on the sofa to discuss his new movie, The King's Speech, in which he plays Bertie, the Duke of York -- and father of the current British monarch -- who has lived his entire adult life with a severe stammer that makes public speaking excruciating both for him and his audience.

With the encouragement of his wife (and the future Queen Mother) Elizabeth -- played by Helena Bonham Carter -- Bertie enlists the therapeutic services of an unorthodox Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a professional and personal arrangement that becomes even more urgent when Bertie unexpectedly assumes the British throne as King George VI in 1936, and must rally his people with confident, fluent public broadcasts during WWII.

It's a masterful, nuanced performance from Firth, a good companion piece to his sensitive, Oscar-nominated turn last year as a suicidal gay man in Tom Ford's A Single Man. In The King's Speech, Firth appears to play George VI as a child pretending to be an adult. "You can only play things as you see them, and I detected that quality, certainly in the younger images of George VI," he explains.

"I thought he did seem vulnerable and that there was something of the child still alive in him. If you look at some of the images of him while still Duke of York, he exudes a kind of humility and a slight awkwardness that I latched on to. I do think if you struggle with something as debilitating as a stammer, and you are thrust in front of large crowds that way, the hopelessness is going to be reminiscent of your childhood fears."

Firth adds that on a purely technical level, his director, first-timer Tom Hooper, was extremely vigilant that the stammer be tackled in a serious, realistic way. "It worried all of us," Firth admits.

"It occurred to me that if this were inauthentic, then we'd have no film. There's a certain level of discomfort that we need people to recognise and share as an audience in order for the film to work, but if you overstep that there's a danger that you'll start to put up a barrier. So there was a careful balancing act.

"There is existing footage and also recordings of George VI. So, as a starting point, you could see that his stammer wasn't of a repetitive nature. It seemed to be a block. The film's writer, David Seidler, suffered from it himself, and he described that block as being something total, as in a drowning sensation, and so that started to lead me in the direction I wanted to go: to a place of terrifying silences and a vacuum you feel you'll never come out of."

He continues: "The treatment scenes -- where Bertie is swearing and doing the breathing and vocal exercises -- are speculation, of course. If Logue had documented the sessions and published details of them, he wouldn't have been much of a therapist. A lot of it was based on David Seidler's own therapy, and my own sister is a voice therapist so she came up with some of the ideas for the more eccentric physical exercises."

Though reluctant to get into a comparison game with stammering, Firth says that actors, or anyone who gets up in front of people for a living, can partially relate to the fear and sense of helplessness the condition engenders.

"I think a lot of actors feel like we're waiting to be found out because we can't really do it," he says. "There's always a fear. I've experienced terrible stage fright. I think the older you get the worse it gets. The first time I went on stage was in front of 1,100 people in the West End in a lead role, and I didn't have a flicker of nerves at all. It was just youthful arrogance. I think as you get older, you realise just how much can go wrong, and how capable you are of screwing it up."

On that note, I put it to him that one of the most touching aspects of the movie is seeing two middle-aged men form a close friendship, despite, or perhaps because of, a class divide. Firth admits that in his own life now he probably wouldn't be as open to forming new bonds or friendships as readily as these characters.

"When I was younger, I was much more exuberant about being open to connections with members of my own sex, or the opposite sex ... " He pauses before hastily adding: "We're talking about outside the romantic sphere, of course. I think I've probably grown more cautious as I've grown older. But I think that does happen quite commonly, certainly with men."

A professional actor for almost 30 years now, Firth started off in theatre and small movie roles, before searing into the public consciousness thanks to that famous wet-shirt pond scene in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

Leading-man status ensued in movies such as Fever Pitch, the Bridget Jones twosome, Love Actually, Girl With A Pearl Earring, and When Did You Last See Your Father?

Building on his award success with A Single Man, Firth is now the frontrunner for this year's Best Actor Oscar. He's already been nominated for a Golden Globe award -- one of seven nods for the film.

He's trying not to let all the hoopla get inside his head. "You've got to have other stuff going on," he says. "Being on the set of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [due next year] has been great because it's my day job. Regarding the Oscars, it's all great for the film, and it's all great, hopefully, for employment prospects, but it's absolutely futile to focus on things you can't control."

At the very least, the tag 'Oscar winner' might finally displace 'Wet Mr Darcy' in terms of instant associations with Firth. "It'll never go completely," he says. "And I would miss it if it did, frankly. It has come up a little less lately, but you know it'll always bounce back.

"I rather like the idea that I've done anything in my career that has had enough impact to be still talked about 15 years later. It's pretty cool. The only thing I would want to put the record straight on is that it seems to have taken hold over the years that I'm miffed about it in some way, and I'm not." He adds with a smile: "I have to say I rather enjoy it really."

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