First time director Tom Ford‘s film A Single Man will be sure to stand out as a precious gem come award season. The film is as beautiful on the surface as it is touching at its core. Not to be confused with the Cohen Brother’s A Serious Man (which is a very different film), A Single Man is the story about a homosexual teacher in the 60′s who loses his lover in an accident and is left in a world that he no longer wishes to be a part of. Instead of focusing on the “they’re gay in the 60′s” angle, the story is simply about the journey of a single man trying to find life again.
Colin Firth excels in the film. From his subtle and yet poignant gestures to his worldly demeanor, he intrigues you every moment of the way. In person, he was soft spoke, charming, intelligent, and extremely lucid on his thoughts about acting and the subject of the movie. Normally I edit down interviews to get to the heart of what people are saying, but everything he said had heart so I’m letting what he said stand as is…
Someone related to the film said that this is one of the first films relating to the lust between two gay partners that didn’t come about because of AIDS or discrimination. Is this part of the premise of this role that made it so appealing to you and did Chris and Don’s real life relationship in any way help you to portray George?
Colin: I watched a very beautiful film about Chris and Don, I watched it twice. Christopher Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy, there’s a beautiful film called Chris & Don: A Love Story. I don’t know if it helped me, it was an interest to me. Whenever I embark on a project it’s sort of an opportunity to plunge into a particular world, a different perception, to learn maybe about a time or place I didn’t know as much about. Love is love. I don’t feel that there’s anything really different to play because the partner happens to be male, the person I’ll be playing opposite is unlikely to be my partner anyway, so it’s the job description. These emotions, you fin them from somewhere, it’s the job. I think one of the things I appreciate greatly from Isherwood’s writing is that he doesn’t make the sexuality a sailing feature. Sexual love is part of it but he was writing at a time where a lot of writers were covering that up. There was no question about it, Terence Rattigan was writing about relationships that were clearly about relationships between men which he had to disguise as relationships between a man and a woman. Isherwood didn’t feel the need to do that but his characters just happen to be gay, I don’t define myself by my sexuality either. I think on of the things that George is not struggling with is his sexuality. He’s struggling with a lot of things, but he’s not struggling with being gay or not, I think he’s fairly happy in that respect.
Can you talk about your experience working with Tom Ford?
Colin: 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, at all. There were a couple of pieces of film parlance that 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 judgement that it actually relaxed people.
A film set can be a very neurotic place, it can be rampant in security. People are frightened of falling short, they’re frightened of failure, they’re frightened of miscommunication, there are all kinds of complications. A good director smooths that out and units the set and creates a unitive vision that everybody want to fulfill and he has that gift, I think he’s learned that over many, many years. Working in fashion, I think he’s always felt that fashion is something thats has something to say. It may not be a very popular thing to hear. As Tom said at the press conference yesterday, even if its, “I must make this woman wear this dress,” or “This woman must feel that she has to wear this dress,” and I have to get that across on the few seconds on the runway, you’re still using your creativity, you’re still having to get a group of people share a vision and you’re still working towards an impact.
This film is a narrative drama and it’s something very different for him and it was very clear to me that this was not a vanity project. Just his choice in material indicated to me that this was not just a chance for him to show off his sprinkle action. Yes, the clothes were beautiful and yes it’s wonderfully designed but it’s very much at the service of the story as far as I’m concerned.
The way George dresses, so fastidiously, is a sign of his desperation actually. It’s very clear at the beginning of the film when he says that it takes a long time to become George, you get the feeling that if you took off his cuff links he’d fall apart, that he’s actually getting his body armor on, that he’s hanging on by his fingernails. It’s only his exterior world that he has control over, that is ordered because inside it’s all a mess. So to me, that was the purpose if the costumes, it wasn’t just we’re all going to have a great silhouette because we’re in a Tom Ford film. The house told me about him, the bedroom, the way it was designed. When I walk into Charlie’s house, Julianne Moore’s character, you understand a lot about her the minute you walk into all that pink, orange and gold. He didn’t give us a lot of verbal instruction, so in a lot of the film things were being explained to us through the senses.
Part of that judgement you talked about was really demonstrated in recognition of the value of stillness and I want to get your perspective on creating the character. So much of what we’ve learned about George is in minute gestures that you’re given a full scene to develop where it’s not this huge amount of action happening, it’s just the slightest movement that tells us something. So how do you feel about that, about developing a character without dialect does fly in the face of a viewer even if we have an actor saying ,”I need more words, I need more lines to say!”
Colin: That’s not me, I promise you. I love a scene without dialogue. When you first get a script, a blank page is a blank page, so you’re not 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 so incredibly coherent and elegant and you feel inspired by it and 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 film, if you look at people like Bergman who can spend a very long time on someone’s face and that’s really the most interesting thing you can find in cinema, is the human face. There’s a lot of beauty in cinema but the thing that interests me the most is that, that’s what has always inspired me. One of the most dispiriting things is to see all the possibilities of all that in a quiet scene, and you get there and you got a wonderfully imaginative director that’s saying, “Okay I’m going to start on the door knob, we’re going to pan across the floor and then there’s going to be a shot of the light flashing and 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 in the corner over there,” and that may look great, actually that might be wonderful but, with special pleading here for my profession, I just feel that it’s a waste for me. And that happens quite a bit.
On the other hand you might get a director who does put a camera on your face but he decides he wants to interfere and control it and provoke it out of you and say, “Just think about the time your dog died when you were little,” and I was fine sort of with the dog thing, or they try to get effects or don’t just let you do things. The script was clear to me. By the time we were there and by the time I saw the way he set things up, it was eloquent already and so we were free and 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.
I remember doing the film and I’ll remember seeing it. I see it looking back at me if you see what I mean. There’s something very, very truthful and in the moment about what everyone was doing, the people I was watching. I’ve never had such an easy time of it as when I worked with Julianne, that relationship felt real to me. I wasn’t sure about it on the page, but the minute I met her it was there. It’s exactly the same with Matthew.
If all of those things are happening, it’s gotta 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 which often 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 he was interested in what you were doing he wouldn’t say cut just because the scenes done, you’d just stay there until you heard the sound of a magazine, “zhoo. zhoo, zhoom,” and he said, “Okay we’ll do another one of those.” Reload, role out three time in fact in once case.
One of the most difficult scenes was when you were next to Charlie, Julianne Moore’s character, and she doesn’t seem to understand you and she says, “Why couldn’t we have a real relationship?” and it’s hard in a way to watch her say well why doesn’t he storm out of the room and how do you justify that with your character?
Colin: Well I don’t need to storm out of the room, they are such old friends, he met her long before he met Jim, they were sort of lovers at one point. I don’t think it’s the first time they’ve had an evening like this, I think it’s like family, probably in the past he has stormed out. He also knows that she’s in love with him, she’s saying stuff thats got another agenda. So I think it’s fair enough, I don’t think the stakes are that high. They meet, they get drunk, the laugh about stupid things, they dance, they shout, they argue, they makeup, they cry, they have a cuddle. I mean I’m sure pretty well every time they meet it’s like that.
Especially when there’s Gin involved.
There is a large community for whom it will mean a lot that you’re portraying this gay character on screen. Do you totally take the sexuality out of the equation for your performance?
Colin: No. The sexuality is there because part of the love he experiences is sexual. There’s sex running all the way through the movie which I think is strengthened by the fact that you don’t really see anybody humping [laughs]. No, it’s great. We don’t need to go into the territory of body functions, what’s interesting about sex is it’s implications, the barriers that are broken down on the way to it and all these sorts of things are there in the film. Possibilities of it, the ambiguity, the relationship with Kenny, how sexual is it, can he have sexual feelings, the fact that it’s forbidden, the fact that George’s homo sexuality in 1960 might add to his isolation.
The speech on fear to his students, that definitely is referencing that. I don’t think it’s dependent on it. Because the character is not taking this on as an issue, it’s not a war with sexuality or the war against prejudice, it’s not the salient feature of the film, but I think the fact that he is open, comfortably open about the fact that he is gay is definitely significant, otherwise why bother to feature it at all. Tom said at a press conference recently, like I just said, he doesn’t define himself by his sexuality particularly, it’s there. If he were asked to say ten things to describe himself he’d tell you he was from Texas, he’d give you his name, he’d tell you something about his life. Yeah, probably by the time he got to ten he would’ve mentioned he’s a gay man. You know, I don’t know if in the top ten things I’d tell you I was heterosexual but it’s not irrelevant.
As I said before, it is about love, it’s about regret, it’s about gaining or losing your love of life. What I like about it is, it’s absolutely unashamedly and unassumingly there. I think that if more of a feature were made of it then it would seem as though I were somehow struggling, that I had something to prove. It is homosexuality simply as sexuality, as any other sexuality.
A couple of years ago, you said that you were confused by the attention people give to actors, how do you feel that attention is being heaped on you, very deservedly, now?
Colin: It’s confusing. (Laughter),Yeah, we are confused and we do want attention. It’s hard to judge an actor who’s having his insane and insatiable need for attention filled 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 any attention. It’s is my day job, acting, I do have a life, in a way 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 get to at the end of the day, all the ups and downs and disappointments, expectations, they come and go constantly. Disappointments don’t last unless you cling to them and neither do expectations really. 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, have friends outside the business.
A Single Man will be in select theaters starting December 11th.