Charlie Rose: You spent a part of your childhood in Nigeria.
Colin Firth: That’s right. My parents were born and raised in India, children of ministers of the church and doctors.
I started life in Nigeria. I was born in England but my parents took me when I was a few days old to Nigeria. My sister was born there and I was there for my first four years.
My paternal grandfather had been a missionary there until the age of about 38. He joined the British Missionary Society because he heard they were building schools and hospitals. He didn’t want to evangelize. He never converted a single person, in fact. He said that quite proudly at the end of his life.
But, no, he said I’m going to be a doctor. Very few people would train a man that age. The United States was the only country that would. So he brought his family to Iowa and went to medical school for eight years, went back to India and treated people there. And he’s a hero of mine for having done that.
Rose: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Firth: Shortly after that, I was about 12, 13 then. Around 14, it hit me like a bombshell, actually. I was doing some amateur dramatics and really enjoying it. It threw into relief the extent to which I was not enjoying my daily school life. I enjoyed music and I enjoyed literature and storytelling. And I didn’t like getting up in the morning. That’s no way to live.
Rose: There’s a story about the morning you were supposed to go take an admission test, but turned over and went back to sleep.
Firth: Actually, that was probably one of the most critical turning points in my life. I’m very grateful to myself for having made that lazy adolescent decision.
Rose: When Tom Ford sent you the script for A Single Man, what was your response?
Firth: Quite a lot of things go through one’s mind when that happens, because I had to process a series of very improbable propositions. One was the idea that Tom was making a film at all. I didn’t know Tom, really. We’d had a too-brief but quite memorable encounter. He gave me that stare. Anyone who’s met Tom knows the stare.
Rose: Yes. Like, “Are you crazy?”
Firth: Yes. There’s always a feeling that the minute Tom looks at you, you start to straighten your tie and see if your hair’s in place. He explained the stare as being about his thoughts about putting me in the film. So Tom Ford makes a movie. That’s already something that took a moment to process. And Tom chose not something that was to do with what we associate him with—the world of fashion—but a Christopher Isherwood novel about a gay college professor in 1962. It felt like something very personal.
It didn’t have anything to do with showing off his spring collection. It seemed from the heart. And he was so compelling when he came out to meet me. He’s eloquent.
Rose: What did he say that was so eloquent?
Firth: He told me his vision for the film. He took me through George’s day, not telling me who George was, but telling me what George sees. That’s the most useful information an actor can have, because I’m going to be put in a subjective position.
Rose: Tom has said that what he liked about you was the ability to contain emotions but show them through your face rather than through some dramatic expression.
Firth: Oh, well, that’s a wonderful compliment from Tom because that’s the kind of acting I admire in others, and it’s critical to this particular character. Basically, the film is about George putting up a wall in order to prevent things both coming in on him and the kind of chaos he feels he’s got inside himself. He feels a sense of utter despair, and his tiepin and his cuff links are what’s holding him in place. The hair has to be right. The only control he has [is over] these external things.
Rose: Your character gets news and decides that this will be his last day. It has a liberating impact on him.
Firth: That was one of the things we talked about when Tom and I first met. He was very preoccupied by the notion of the present and the ability or inability to inhabit the present. That’s one of the greatest challenges we have as human beings. A lot of philosophy and religious and spiritual teaching is aimed at that. We don’t really succeed in being acquainted with the present moment, but it’s all we have.
John Lennon said life is something that happens when you’re planning something else.
Rose: Dennis Potter talks about the same idea in an interview, when he looks out the window and he talks about the blossoms.
Firth: That’s resonated with me for years. I can’t remember the exact quote, but he knew he was dying and he allowed these interviews as a discussion of the process of dying. They sound utterly morbid and depressing until you see them. He doesn’t hide the hardship.
He looks out of his window at flowers that he’s seen every spring. Today, he knows he’ll never see them again. He doesn’t know quite how long he’s got, but he certainly will not make it to another spring. And he said, “Today, those blossoms are the whitest, most beautiful, most blossomy blossoms that I’ve ever seen.”
Rose: I want to talk about a beautiful scene and have you reflect on it. Your character gets a phone call telling him that his lover has been killed. And we see you [move] from one emotional state to another.
Firth: It’s certainly very difficult to do in the front of a rolling camera. What we love to do is prepare ourselves before the camera rolls. If you’ve got despair and devastation, you can start that. You say OK, everybody be quiet while I get this despair and devastation going. OK, I’ve got it, despair and devastation. Roll, quickly. But here, he picks up the phone and he’s happy. And then he gets news, and he has to enter a different place. And then, of course, you have to do another take and go back to happy. You have to think your way as deeply as possible into that character’s world and set the stakes up, because you really can’t be at the end before you get there. You can’t just inhabit the beginning.
And we had drama school exercises that concentrated entirely on this very thing. This is something that’s obviously going to come up in drama. What happens when the big surprise hits? What happens when you might start a scene in a state of despair and then something happens to completely brighten everything up? How do you get from one to the other?
And I think, certainly the way I was trained, is the Stanislavsky-based idea that you excavate as deeply as you possibly can so that you are ready to react as that character at any point. I wasn’t particularly aware of doing that. I didn’t go method-y on it. I just sat in the chair and Tom pointed the camera, and there was just something about the way he communicates the tone that put us all on the same page. Whether it was the grips or the electricians or whatever, we all somehow were in the same world.
The best thing a director can do is to make his vision contagious, to make it clear and to infect you with the desire to share it and to communicate it. Some directors are very verbose and they give you a lot of detailed instructions. And if that’s good, that’s good. We talked about Pinter just before. Harold was very, very economical, you know? His direction wasn’t always kindly delivered. It was very rarely anything but technical. It would be, “Why don’t you just sit down before you say that line.” OK. I mean, I can hardly see how that’s going to make a difference. But you tried it, it worked. It solved the scene.
Rose: What film is next?
Firth: The King’s Speech, which is about George VI, the father of our present queen. The King of England gave up the throne for love. Or did he? George VI wasn’t permitted to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson because you can’t marry a divorcee, and you can’t marry an American. An American can’t be queen. The brother had a speech impediment. He had a terrible stammer that he had to seek to overcome. And this film is about his attempt to overcome that. It’s about his relationship with his speech therapist.
Excerpted from an interview conducted January 26, 2010. Reprinted with the permission of Charlie Rose.
USA Today called Charlie Rose “the best interviewer around today.” His Emmy-winning interview show is broadcast nightly on PBS.
The King’s Speech (2010)
Main Street (2010)
St Trinian’s II: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009)
A Christmas Carol (2009)
A Single Man (2009)
Dorian Gray (2009)
Easy Virtue (2008)
Summer in Genoa (2008)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
The Accidental Husband (2008)
St. Trinian’s (2007)
Then She Found Me (2007)
When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007)
The Last Legion (2007)
Born Equal (2006) (TV)
Celebration (2006) (TV)
Nanny McPhee (2005)
Where the Truth Lies (2005)
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004)
Love Actually (2003)
Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)
What a Girl Wants (2003)
Hope Springs (2003)
The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
Conspiracy (2001) (TV)
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Relative Values (2000)
The Turn of the Screw (1999) (TV)
Blackadder Back & Forth (1999)
The Secret Laughter of Womenv (1999)
My Life So Far (1999)
Donovan Quick (1999) (TV)
Shakespeare in Lovev (1998)
A Thousand Acres (1997)
Fever Pitch (1997)
The English Patient (1996)
Pride and Prejudice (1995) (TV)
Circle of Friends (1995)
The Advocate (1993)
Femme Fatale (1991)
Wings of Fame (1990)
Apartment Zero (1988)
A Month in the Country (1987)
Nineteen Nineteen (1985)
Another Country (1984)