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Colin Firth Talks About ‘A Single Man’

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in A Single Man

Colin Firth and Julianne Moore in ‘A Single Man.’

© The Weinstein Company

Colin Firth put himself on the short-list of possible Best Actor Oscar contenders with his starring role in A Single Man. The touching story of a man who’s just going through the motions following the death of his partner, Jim (played by Matthew Goode), is co-written and directed by first-time feature newcomer, fashion designer Tom Ford. Set in Los Angeles in 1962, we meet British college professor George Falconer (Firth) at a difficult time in his life when just the act of getting out of bed takes every single bit of his energy. Although it’s been months since Jim was killed in a car accident, the loss hits him each morning as though his death had occurred just the day before.

A Single Man was adapted from the book by Christopher Isherwood, which was loosely based on his relationship with artist Don Bachardy. Prior to taking on the role of George, Firth watched the 2007 documentary Chris and Don. A Love Story twice. “I don’t know that it helped me with the role,” said Firth. “It was interesting. Whenever I embark on a project, it’s an opportunity to plunge into a particular world, or a different perception, to learn about a time or a place I don’t know as much about. Love is love. I don’t feel there’s anything different to play because the partner happens to be male. The person I’ll be playing opposite is unlikely to be my lover anyway. It’s the job description; you find these emotions from somewhere.”

“I think one of the things I appreciate greatly about Isherwood’s writing is that he doesn’t make the sexuality an assailing feature. I mean, sexual love is part of it. He was writing at a time when other writers were covering that up,” offered Firth. “Isherwood didn’t feel a need to do that. His characters just happened to be gay. I don’t really define myself by my sexuality, either. George struggles with many things, but one of those things is not his sexuality. I think he’s fairly happy with who he is in that respect.”

Firth’s been working steady in films since the mid-1980s, but this is Ford’s first venture into the tricky world of directing. Asked how it was working with a rookie, Firth replied, “He has a great gift. He’s never made a film before, but it didn’t feel like working with a man who was a novice. There were a couple of pieces of film parlance he was unfamiliar with, but it didn’t seem to matter. He would just add them to his vocabulary and carry on. People treated him with the most enormous respect. There was such a strong sense that he could be trusted, in terms of his taste and his judgment. It actually relaxed people.”

Firth said Ford handled himself like a seasoned veteran, chalking his ability to control the set up to what Ford has learned while working in the fashion industry. “A film set can be a neurotic place, and can be rampant in security. People are frightened of falling short, of failure, of miscommunication, all kinds of complications. A good director smoothes that out, unites the set, and creates a unity of vision, which everybody wants to fulfill. He has that gift, and I think he’s learned that over many, many years working in fashion. He’s always felt that fashion has something to say. It may not be a popular thing to hear. But even as Tom said, ‘I must make this woman wear this dress,’ or ‘This woman must feel that she has to wear this dress. I have to get that across in a few seconds on the runway.’ You’re still using your creativity, still having to get a group of people to share a vision, and still working toward an impact. This time it was narrative drama, and it was something very different for him, and it was very clear to me that this was not a vanity project.”

The costumes of A Single Man are gorgeous and completely in line with the clothing of the 1960s. But just because Ford comes from the fashion world doesn’t mean he took the opportunity to show off the costumes to the detriment of the actors or the story. “Just his choice of material indicated to me that this was not just a chance for him to show off his spring collection: ‘Lonely college professor in 1960’. Yes, the clothes look beautiful, and yes, it’s wonderfully designed, but it’s very much at the service of the story, as far as I was concerned,” said Firth. “The way George dresses, so fastidiously, is a sign of his desperation. It’s very clear at the beginning of the film, when he says it takes a long time to become George, you get the feeling that if he took off his cufflinks, he’d fall apart. That he’s actually getting his body armor on, and he’s hanging on by his fingernails. It’s only his exterior world that he has any control over, that is ordered, because inside it’s all a mess. To me, that was the purpose of the costumes.”

Continued Firth, “It was the same with everything else. The house told me about him, the bedroom, the way everything was designed. When I walk into Charley’s house, you understand a lot about her the minute you walk into all that pink and orange and gold. He didn’t give us a lot of verbal instructions, so a lot of the film really was things being explained to us through the senses.”

Firth’s character isn’t much of a talker, and much of what we learn about this man we discover just through Firth’s body language. Actors often ask for more dialogue to help them explain their character’s motivations, but that’s just not Firth. He was perfectly fine with letting the audience discover George for themselves.

“I love a scene without dialogue,” admitted Firth. “When you first get a script – a blank page is a blank page, so you’re not really sure what that’s going to be. You know that’s going to come from the sensibility of your director, or whatever he’s going to allow you to do. One of the most depressing things that I think can happen for an actor is when the material is incredibly coherent and elegant and you feel inspired by it. You don’t want to go through a series of hugely demonstrative gestures, particularly when you believe in the power of just thinking things onto the screen. I love that kind of cinema.”

Colni Firth in A Single Man

Colin Firth in ‘A Single Man.’

© The Weinstein Company

Look at people like Bergman, who can spend a very long time on someone’s face,” said A Single Man star Colin Firth. “To me, the most interesting thing you can find in cinema is the human face. There’s a lot of beauty in cinema, but that’s the thing that interests me most. That’s what’s always inspired me. One of the most dispiriting things is to see the possibilities of all that, in a quiet scene, and you get there and you’ve got a wonderfully imaginative director that’s saying, ‘Stare at the doorknob. Pan across the floor, and then there’s going to be a shot of the tape recorder light flashing. Then we’re going to get a close-up of your right eye, and I want a lot of orange in the shot, and I want a silhouette of you, but way, way, way in the corner over there.’ And that may look great, actually, that may be wonderful, but I feel it’s a waste. And that happens quite a bit.”

“On the other hand, you might get a director that does put the camera on your face, but he decides he wants to interfere and control it, and provoke it out of you and say, ‘Think about the time your dog died and you were little,’ and I was fine before the dog thing. They don’t just let you do things. The script was clear to me. By the time I saw the way he set things up, it was eloquent already, and so we were free.”

In addition to heaping praise on co-writer/director Ford, Firth also had nothing but compliments for his co-stars. “Everybody in the film seems to be at the top of their game. When I close my eyes and think of the film, I tend to see Nick Hoult’s face looking back at me. It’s very hard to forget the eyes. There’s something very truthful and very in the moment about what everybody was doing, the people I was watching. I never had such an easy time as when I worked with Julianne [Moore]. That relationship felt real to me. I wasn’t sure about it on the page, but the minute I met her, it was there. I think it’s exactly the same with Matthew [Goode]. Like that scene on the sofa, there’s moments of familiarity. If all of those things are happening, it’s got to be something to do with your director. He’s cultivated an atmosphere where he’s not going to fuss around. He’s going to let people connect with each other. Or, if there’s nobody else around, and there wasn’t in my case, let your imagination take hold and just go. He would roll out a whole magazine of film. You’d be sitting there by yourself, and if he was interested in what you were doing, he wouldn’t say cut just because the scene’s done. You’d just stay there until you heard the sound of the magazine stopping and then he’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll do another one of those. Reload.’ He rolled out three times, in one case.”

A Single Man and Homosexuality

Firth believes that A Simple Man doesn’t make an issue of its characters’ sexual preference. Their choices are not what defines them and instead are simply part of who they are. “The sexuality’s there because part of the love that he experiences is sexual. There’s sex running through the whole movie, which I think is strengthened by the fact that we don’t see anybody humping,” said Firth. “It’s great, we don’t need to go through all the body functions. What’s interesting about sex is its implications, the barriers that are broken down on the way to it. I mean, all these sorts of things are there in the film. The possibilities of it, the ambiguity, the relationship with Kenny [played by Nicholas Hoult]… How sexual is it? Does Kenny have sexual feelings? The fact that it’s forbidden, the fact that George is homosexual in 1960 might add to his isolation. The speech on fear to his students definitely references that, although I don’t think it’s dependent on it. Because the character’s not taking this on as an issue, it’s not his war with his sexuality, or the war with prejudice, or it’s not the assailing feature of the film. I think the fact that he is comfortably open about the fact that he is gay is definitely significant, otherwise, why bother to feature it at all?”

“Tom [Ford] said at a press conference recently that he doesn’t define himself by his sexuality, particularly. It’s there, and if he were asked to say 10 things to describe himself, he’d tell you he’s from Texas, give you his name, tell you something about his life. Probably by the time he got to 10, he’d mention he’s a gay man. In my 10 things, I don’t know that I’d think to tell you I was heterosexual or not. The homosexuality is not irrelevant. I just think the film is about love, regret, and gaining or losing your love of life. What I like about it is it’s absolutely, unashamedly, and unassumedly there. This movie is homosexuality simply as sexuality, as any other sexuality.”

Handling the Oscar Buzz

As for the awards recognition this performance may earn him, Firth’s taking a very level-headed approach to the whole thing. Although actors always love the attention, when all the focus actually shifts to them they express confusion on how to handle it. So, how’s Firth dealing with the awards buzz? “It’s confusing,” laughed Firth. “It’s hard to judge an actor who’s having his insane and insatiable need for attention fulfilled, because he’d probably be at his best… It’s that Tom Waits line: ‘I don’t have a drinking problem, except when I can’t get a drink.’ Check in with me when I’m not getting attention.”

“Acting is my day job, and I do have a life. I think I invest more in my personal life than I do in my professional life. My wife is spectacularly good at keeping my feet on the ground. I have a home to go to at the end of the day, so all the rigors, the ups and downs, disappointments, and expectations, they come and go constantly. Disappointments don’t last unless you cling to them, and neither do expectations. Even if you get rewarded, you can’t cling to that moment. I do find that the sanest actors I know have a fairly strong home life and have friends outside the business.”

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December 15, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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