Last night, I chatted for about a half an hour with the British actor Colin Firth in the green room of Santa Barbara’s Arlington Theatre, where he would later receive the Santa Barbara International Film Festival‘s 2010 Outstanding Performance Award. Firth was being feted for his portrayal of a heartbroken professor on the verge of suicide in Tom Ford‘s “A Single Man” (The Weinstein Company, 12/11, trailer), for which he also received an Oscar nomination — the first of his long career — for best actor on February 2.
As you can see for yourself in the videos below, we covered a wide variety of topics, from his mixed feelings about Mr. Darcy, the role that made him a star in the BBC version of “Pride & Prejudice” (1995) and a variation of which he reprised in the “Bridget Jones” films (2001 and 2004), to his lack of inhibition about playing gay characters on screen (“I know just as many heteros who are queens as gay guys!”). I hope you’ll pardon the somewhat shaky camera — the cameraman who I’d hired for the day eventually fainted in the middle of the interview, at which point we briefly stopped taping before Firth’s publicist took over the reins.
(Continue reading after the videos.)
In the 15 years since Firth first became a star as Mr. Darcy, he has been cast most often as dashing, witty, urbane characters — sort of a British William Powell, if you will. This screen persona has helped to pay the bills and endeared him to legions of intellectual women, but it has rarely won the approval of critics or awards groups. That finally happened this year, but not before Firth agreed to do the polar opposite of everything he’d been accustomed to doing on screen in “A Single Man”: he worked for virtually no money, on a first-time director’s indie film, with a 21-day shooting schedule, playing a gay man who says hardly a word (save for a brief classroom lecture on fear). That’s no small departure!
In my humble opinion, Firth deserves all the praise in the world, if only for the heartbreaking telephone scene that comes early in the film and sets the tone for the remainder. To me, it resembles and even rivals the mother of all telephone scenes, the 73-year-old one in “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) in which Luise Rainer is also shown in a one-shot receiving some devastating news. (Both the film and Rainer won Oscars.) What could possibly be harder than having to suddenly deliver such an emotional reaction to something that’s not there? That is acting — especially when you’re a supporter of Barack Obama and learned only moments before hearing “Action!” that he’d been elected President of the United States, as was the case with Firth!
(Back in July 2009, I spoke with Rainer — who is now 100 — about how she handled her telephone scene, and Firth — who is now 49 — about how he handled his in the third video from the top of this post.)