Firth shows a whole different side of his acting chops in “A Single Man,” which opens Dec. 25.
Colin Firth is everybody’s favorite Mr. Darcy – both in the TV version of “Pride and Prejudice” and in the movie “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” He’s also the guy who made audiences squirm in “Shakespeare in Love,” and he had to suffer through trying to act and sing with a straight face in “Mamma Mia!” Firth, 49, turns inward and shows a whole different side of his acting chops in “A Single Man,” which opens Dec. 25.
The film is an adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, about George Falconer, a middle-aged college professor who can’t come to grips with the accidental death of his longtime younger lover. The story follows the depression that leads to what George believes will be his last day of life.
Receiving a Golden Globe nomination for best dramatic actor, Firth’s performance is being hailed a knockout, even career-defining and is generating Oscar buzz.
“The Hollywood Foreign Press have just given me a timeout from my 20-year midlife crisis.” Firth said in response to the nomination earlier this week. “A Single Man” freely trips in and out of chronology, flashing back to happier times, returning to the central depressing day that also has bursts of joy. A key moment, for the story and for fans of Firth, occurs when he’s shown getting the phone call about the bad news. It’s a long, slow sequence, and its riveting impact depends completely on his facial expressions. He plays a man who is completely shattered.
“I don’t know how the scene was arrived at,” said Firth. “I do remember that we took a long time to do it, and it was done on the night that Barack Obama was elected, so it wasn’t the easiest day to be grief-stricken.”
He also credits fashion designer and first-time director Tom Ford with establishing just the right atmosphere for him.
“The word ‘directing’ can be applied in all different kinds of ways,” said Firth. “When a director says, ‘Do this, don’t do that, do more of that,’ that’s the realm of mediocrity, and it never works. But I realized at that point how much freedom we had. For something which was being created by a man whose reputation for perfection is so wide, it was a truly exciting freedom. It was a place where an actor’s imagination could flourish. That’s brilliant directing.”
Firth momentarily shifts away from talking about his own acting, in order to heap more praise on the director, who till now was pretty much only known for his work in the fashion world.
“I think if people didn’t know what he did, they would look at the movie and think, ‘What a beautiful cinematic sensibility we’re looking at – what wonderful film grammar.’ It would be nothing to do with the decorative elements of these things. Yes, it was beautiful, but when I put George’s costume on, I didn’t feel like I had been decorated by a great fashion designer. I felt that it spoke of George’s desperation, of his need. It’s very clear at the beginning of the film that this character had a need to be fastidious, that he had to put on a kind of body armor in order to step outside his front door. And that’s what the cufflinks and the tie pin are all about. You pull away one piece of that, and this man could collapse.”
Ford returns the praise.
“Anytime I’ve seen Colin in anything, I’ve found him captivating, and his restraint as an actor has always impressed me,” he said.
“He’s also got a very subtle sense of sexiness, which is not always so subtle,” added Ford, laughing. “There are not many actors who could play George, who were the right age, who were English. It was very important to have a real English actor playing George. Colin was my absolute first choice, and our schedules shifted around to where he was free.”
For an actor to so indelibly capture the emotional make-up of a character, it’s interesting that Firth was not familiar with the source material.
“I didn’t know of the book,” he said, “even though I knew a bit about Christopher Isherwood. Like a lot of people, I knew the Berlin period” – Isherwood’s “The Berlin Stories” was the basis for “Cabaret” – but the whole Los Angeles period – Isherwood wrote “A Single Man” when he was living in L.A. – was new to me. But then I read the book quite a few times, because actors forage for what they can get anywhere. If there’s a clue, if there’s something that just might unlock something, you’ll steal it.”
The Patriot Ledger