What I believe is sure to be Colin Firth’s Oscar winning film, The King’s Speech (read review) impresses on all levels and so far is the film of 2010. The cast is led by Firth (who should have won an Oscar last year for his role in A Single Man) as King George the VI, a King with a speech impediment who has to turn to the extravagant speech therapist Lionel Logue played by Geoffrey Rush and his wife, Queen Elizabeth played by Helena Bonham Carter. Firth and his supporting cast all put in equally phenomenal performances that will stay with you for some time to come.
The film won the top prize at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival and has many more awards on its way. We were lucky enough to have a chance to speak with Firth about his performance in the film, taking on such a challenging role, the obstacles the film is facing with the important albeit foul language in the film and much more…
Taking on a Speech Impediment:
Have you ever known anyone with stuttered and did you relate any of your performance to any real life experiences?
Colin Firth: I grew up with people who stammered. There seemed to be more then than there are now, I wonder if there any any figured on that. I certainly knew people who did, yeah.
Did you know about the King’s stammer prior to this film or any of the events surrounding it?
Firth: I knew about it, and that’s it. All I knew was that he had a stammer.
Beyond the stammer is the issue about friendship and isolation, how could you relate to that as a person who is famous.
Firth:It’s funny to say about a story about a member of the Royal Family when none of us our members of the Royal Family or could possibly know what that’s like. Most of us were not around in 1937. There are all these things you could say – how could it possibly be universal? But I think, what [the film has] done, is taken an issue that applies to absolutely everybody and used this convention to heighten those things. Isolatiion is universal. It doesn’t matter how close you are to your family, how many good friends you have, how perfect your marriage is — and most people are not ticking all those boxes. There’s some level on which you which you can’t be reached – we can’t get inside each other’s minds, hearts and souls. This is taking that reality, that truth and making a very extreme case out of it. If men protect themselves behind certain reserves against intimacy, let’s take a man who not only does that – he’s protected by high walls, titles, protocols, and make a therapist work through all those things, you could almost look at them as metaphors for barriers we all put up.
In the film it shows how he overcome his stutter…
Firth: He didn’t overcome it. And I don’t think the film shows him overcoming it. I think it shows him having an arrangement with it. Where he’s not going to let it stop him from doing his job. You know, that last speech you still see him fighting, he has to have his therapist right there. He fights for every word.If you listen to the cadence (in his speech) it’s a struggle, he has to break it up. That’s the point! He was never cured – I tried to follow the cadences to some extent of the real speech. Some were more fluent than others, but you hear them very measured and broken up. You hear him going through three syllables ending on up phrases and then finding a down phrase and getting blocked again – that’s a fight. Everyone who’s sitting listening to it, The Queen, Churchill and the rest are on the edge of their seat til the end. So, he overcomes the debilitating fear of it – but he doesn’t overcome the fact that he’ll always have the obstacle.
Taking on The Royal Family:
Have you met any members of the Royal Family?
Firth: Not meaningfully. There are certain events in which you might find yourself shaking hands with a member of the Royal Family but it’s nothing that gives you any clue of about what it’s like to be that person, apart from watching peoples behavior around them.
When was that?
Firth: I was at an event where Prince Charles, who is very gracious with the people he meets, was being ushered around by his private secretary. And he was trying his best to give as much of his focus and interest –he’d known quite a lot about the people he was speaking to – but the private secretary would be making sure he didn’t get too long with that person because there was somebody else in line, and he’d make sure that was very carefully marshaled. It was interesting to see people who are otherwise composed, would actually claim not to be impressed by royalty, suddenly completely transforming and becoming very nervous. And you realize that if you are a member of the Royal Family you’re surrounded by people like that all the time and it’s probably how you see the human race.
How much of this role were you able to bass off real people or real events?
Firth: If I were playing a cab driver I’d probably want to hang out with a cab driver or drive a cab and see what it’s like. If I were playing an astronaut, I’d try to meet one. But you don’t get to meet Kings and hang around with them. Your information is secondary. As I said, you can look at the people who are around Prince Charles and say, “Wow, that’s what the world looks like to you.” You never meet a person who’s relaxed, gives you a pat on the back, and says “What’s Up?” No one does that. So you try to accumulate that kind of information. There are a lot of letters, a lot of people who have been close the Royal Family in one capacity or another and we did speak to people in those positions. In the end, you read and you listen and then you just use your imagination.
Can you talk about the monarchy not being able to and the idea of them being so distant in the past, are they more open now?
Firth: I find it very difficult to answer questions about the monarchy because I’m not a royal watcher – some people are. I just don’t know anything about them. An extraordinary moment on the death of Princess Diana – obviously there was an enormous affect emotionally. Then the palace was criticized for not lowering the flag, it took a few days for that to happen. People are emoting all over the place. I don’t know what’s happening in their real lives behind closed doors. They have the right not to exhibit it to the public just like as any other families do. I don’t want to be photographed hugging my kids either – it’s my business and my world.
Somebody made a comment around that time, a columnist, about the nature of “who the British think they are”. This idea of British repression has always been a stereotype, which is qualifiable anyway. I think the English are just as accurately represented by the Rolling Stones as they are by John Major – the Royal Family aren’t even English anyway. Phillip’s Greek, the rest of them are German. They’re immigrants. I’m being a little bit arch there, but we’re all a mixed nation. But, this guy said “we seem to have gone over night to a country who can’t talk about their emotions to a country who cannot stop.” Everybody was like holding each other and hugging each other, and the English have turned into “that”. It’s quite extraordinary how this touchy feely thing can over and “how dare the royalty not be that way!”
Problems with Language:
There have been a lot of problems with the film getting inappropriate ratings, in the UK and in the US…
Firth: We won the battle in Britain! In Britain we have a 12a, a 15 and an 18 which is your. Out here I believe it’s an R rating. Originally in Britain it was a 15, but it’s been dropped to a 12a. There didn’t seem to be much argument about it. It happened right in the middle of the London Film Festival, there’s a warning on the poster saying “there is strong language is a speech therapy context” or something like that.
What do you think is causing the problems in the US?
Firth: This can get really facile. I tried to speak in as considered a way as I could on this subject and I still got a headline that said “Firth Blasts MPAA” – I’m not blasting anybody! This isn’t a non-issue. I get that people don’t want their small children hearing these strong words — I don’t like them. One of the things that the British board said was that it was the fact that it wasn’t in a violent context, it wasn’t directed towards anyone, and it wasn’t in a sexual context. I would add, as a father of small children, that the context I would like to keep them away from is when it’s casually used. I find that as disturbing. I love football – soccer – I love to take them to soccer but I have to wrestle with myself because what they hear are things that would make a sailor blush. And certainly make that scene in the film look like something from The Sound Of Music. I don’t want to deny them the joy of a football game, but you can’t get away from it. It’s a dilemma – I don’t relish those words, I don’t relish my children hearing them. I’m not sitting here judging people who don’t like the words, but frankly, as far as the rest of public opinion is concerned, certainly in our industry, I’d be kicking in a door. Because everyone seems to be in harmony on the subject.
And this is a great film at the heart of it for young people to see, so this must be frustrating for you an the filmmakers…
Firth: Yes it is. I think this is why it’s being used as a bit of a flagship for the cause. Precisely because I think every parent has the right to set down the parameters for their own kids. I don’t want my kids thinking it’s a good way to use language – language is more beautiful than that. It should be more thought about than that. It has more powerful than that. That’s lazy and ugly – but that’s not the case in this movie. It’s not vicious, it’s not sexual, and it’s not lazy – it’s anything but. These are tools, these forbidden words have become momentary tools to get a guy to break out of extreme repression. Then he immediately gets rather sheepish and apologizes. There couldn’t be a more harmless context. It doesn’t teach your kids to sprinkle your language with these words or direct them against people. I would hate to deny kids in that age bracket, or discourage them from seeing a film which has so much to say to people that age.
Tricks Behind the Performance:
What tricks did you use to get into that speech pattern and were you able to drop it at the end of the day?
Firth: I got a bit confused in my own speech patterns. There’s very much a cult of actors telling you how deeply immersed they were and what it cost them — But, it’s muscle memory. If you do an exercise often enough, your body will train yourself to do that exercise. If you train yourself to interfere with your rhythm of speech, something in your brain remembers that and follows it – If you’re going around trying to promote A Single Man it sometimes come to haunt you. And it did, that’s not a stammer – that’s my mind playing tricks on me. That’s not a real stammer, I spoke to the head of the British Stammering Association a couple weeks ago, and he told me that the research shows now that there’s a strong neurological component. It’s not a psychological problem, there’s something happening in the brain. It’s physical. I asked if that meant that [the therapist in the film] is on the wrong track? He said “well no, because the therapy helps you come to an accommodation with the problem” – you learn not to be crushed by it, not to be disabled by it. You can find a way forward. There are wonderful, great actors who fought stammering…
James Earl Jones.
Firth: Yes! And there are a lot of others we could name. Politicians – Churchill has speech problems, really severe ones, which he says in the film. Not to mention writers, Lewis Carroll, Somerset Moore. If you’ve lost the use of your legs, or you’ve lost your legs, the people who give us the inspiring and heroic stories are the people who triumph over it – not by getting their legs back but by living their life that makes a virtue of what they’ve got and that’s why we’re so moved by it.
Can you talk about your process and how you came to that?
Firth: I cannot. I don’t know how to answer it. It was such an incremental process. In conversations with Tom, conversations with David Sidler, our writer who spent his childhood battling a stammer and still says it’s not completely gone. But, to listen to the way he talked about it and then to talk to Tom about how it can work in the context of a film… we’ve got a certain limited amount of time, scenes that have to have a certain pace. And we also have to judge it so that people can experience the agony of the stammer. Not just him – the people who are rooting for him. How do you do that in a way the people share that, but that it’s not so uncomfortable that the film becomes unwatchable or the pace grinds to a halt.
It was nice that certain scenes were left to just play and allow the stutter to take its time. How were those scenes for you?
Firth: My first scene was the first scene with Logue [Rushes character] and it was an amazing baptism of fire, really. I hadn’t really tried it out, we’d had three intense weeks of rehearsal where we were sitting there, Geoffrey, Tom Hooper, David Sidler, and myself honing that script. Really, really, really challenging every beat, finding what could be got out of it at its maximum, where the humor was to be highlighted… but I couldn’t sit in my own clothes in a hotel room with a script in my hand, really trying to go there. Film doesn’t really allow for that kind of rehearsal in my experience. It wasn’t until Tom put a camera on me, in that room that I thought, “I’m on, this is it now.”
And it’s a very interesting thing how he shot it. He just decided he was going to make a huge commitment. You’d normally, I would think, start with a master shot. You’ve established everything, then refine things – he started with a mid-shot, just a single of me. And played an entire 10 minute scene. It’s interesting, Tom will tell you, he committed to his cinematic style then and there. He had kept his options open up until that point. At the end of that day we thought, that’s 10 percent of the movie we just did. He said that at the end of that day. It’s rare that you have a scene long enough to say, we’ve got 10 weeks to go and we just shot 10 percent of this movie.
You can’t break the convention – you can’t suddenly say, “I’ll do soft focus and dark lighting”. In a way it was the same with me – I laid a character down, and it was wonderful to have that much of a run at it. It was like doing live theatre. And to have Geoffrey Rush and have his energy and his humor to bounce off gave me so much for nothing. What seemed to be an immense mountain to climb felt incredibly easy because I was in the hands not only of a director like that but an actor who energized me in every way I needed.
What’s next for you?
Firth: I’m doing a movie called Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – it’s a wonderful, wonderful novel which was a legendary, brilliant television series in the 1970’s. I am playing a spy
And the big “O” Question:
You should have won an Oscar last year and this year everyone is saying that you’ll be winning an Oscar come next year? Would it be gratifying to get that kind of attention for this performance?
Firth: It’s gratifying to get attention for a performance. I’m not going to wish any of it away, talk as big as you like. I welcome all of it. But, the film has to come out. And all I can say about it right now is that if people are talking like that from the festivals and the few people who’ve seen it already, it’s a wonderful start. It’s code for it’s a really good movie, at the moment, I completely welcome it.
Make sure to check out Colin Firth in The King’s Speech starting this Friday, November 26th before he wins all the awards he has coming his way!