Firth is probably best known for playing two not terribly different incarnations of a Jane Austen character: ultimate 19th-century heartthrob Mr. Darcy in the beloved 1995 miniseries 'Pride and Prejudice' and his 21st-century counterpart, Mark Darcy, in 'Bridget Jones's Diary' and 'Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.' But he's also shown his range via diverse roles in movies such as 'Where the Truth Lies,' 'Mamma Mia!' and 'Nanny McPhee.' His screen personae tend to be intelligent, understated and dryly witty, and the man's no different in real life. He chatted with Moviefone about 'A Single Man,' 'Bridget Jones' and playing bad guys, among other other things. One of the most talked-about film performances of 2009 is Colin Firth's starring role in 'A Single Man.' The British actor's beautifully sensitive portrayal of George Falconer, a gay college professor whose longtime partner dies suddenly, has put him on the shortlist for a Best Actor Oscar nomination. The film, based on the 1964 Christopher Isherwood novel of the same name, was written, directed and produced by Tom Ford, the American fashion designer previously known mainly for helming the houses of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent. 'A Single Man' premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival, at which Firth won the Volpi Cup (best actor award).
Firth is probably best known for playing two not terribly different incarnations of a Jane Austen character: ultimate 19th-century heartthrob Mr. Darcy in the beloved 1995 miniseries 'Pride and Prejudice' and his 21st-century counterpart, Mark Darcy, in 'Bridget Jones's Diary' and 'Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.' But he's also shown his range via diverse roles in movies such as 'Where the Truth Lies,' 'Mamma Mia!' and 'Nanny McPhee.' His screen personae tend to be intelligent, understated and dryly witty, and the man's no different in real life. He chatted with Moviefone about 'A Single Man,' 'Bridget Jones' and playing bad guys, among other other things.
Did you need any convincing to take the role of George?
Not really; Tom and I had a conversation. It was really a bit of a mystery in some ways; the script was poetic and compelling but quite sparse. What's most powerful and poignant in the film is silence; everything's not dialogue-based. So the script had a lot of those spaces, which were to be filled by someone I didn't know yet and who'd never made a film. Tom is really unique (laughs); there isn't anybody quite like him. I'm saying that in the good sense: there is nobody like him. For someone who is such an enigma and has such a reputation for brilliance and success, there is a very strong sense of sensitivity that comes out of him. You realize he's very complex. I thought there was an awful lot to explore and whatever else was going to happen, this would not be mundane. I knew it was certainly not going to be boring.
He placed his trust in you.
Yes, I think there's something infectious about trust. You take a leap of faith together, there's something that bonds you when that happens. I think the trust we put in each other and the risk we put on each other was in equal measure. I had a lot to go on. He may never have made a film before, but I very quickly understood that he had an extraordinary ability to communicate his ideas and his vision.
Had you worked with a first-time director before?
Yes, probably quite a few. Some of them have been very, very good and some of them have been absolutely catastrophic; I can say that about people who've made more than one film as well. You never know quite what you're going to get. A lot of it is just personal; it's like any relationship in anything, you hope it's going to gel. You really hope it's going to gel when you're making a film because personality is what it's all about; it's what's on the screen in the end. If you're uninspired, the camera is a fairly unforgiving witness to what you're going through. So if you're not comfortable, that's clear.
You play a profoundly grieving character. During filming, were you able to sort of snap out of it at the end of the day?
No, not really. I mean, I was functional. I haven't quite snapped out of it yet. There are some stories that really do haunt you, and the same way that George haunted Tom when he read the book, he stayed with me. I know he doesn't exist, he's a fictional character, but I still feel a great tenderness about the idea of him. It's hung around; I've found it very hard to shake off.
'A Single Man' Showtimes & Tickets
With Tom in charge of the wardrobe, were you conscious of how fabulous your clothes were?
Of course, and I would have found that an encumbrance had it not been so in the service of the character. If it hadn't been so much about George using that fastidiousness as a kind of body armor, I would have thought, why are we dressed so nicely? I'm just a college professor going about my day. There was nothing gratuitous. The man keeps himself together by means of his tie clip; he's not going to step out the door unless he has the right socks on. It's a necessity; his interior world is collapsing and he's hanging on by his fingernails really. This is something he can control; it gives him just enough structure to get through the day. So the clothes and the way they fit and the way they're put together, the need for them to be clean and pressed and perfect, and his house, his office, the way he lays out his desk are beautiful but I think are also a sign of neurosis. They express desperation.
This is really the first time you've experienced Oscar hype. How's that going?
Oh [laughs]. The Venice festival was so fantastic, I remember saying to someone at the time, "This is as good as it ever gets." But not because I don't hope the film goes forward and is celebrated and festooned with all kinds of things; I'd love to see that, I think it deserves it and any buzz it gets will help the film. But Venice was such a wonderful moment, no one had seen the film until then, it came out of nowhere, there had been no campaign attached to it, no expectations, no buzz, nothing. It was quite wonderful. Anything else that comes in the future is just icing on the cake really. It's already been great.
Any news about 'Bridget Jones 3'?
I only know what you know. That might not be believable to you, but I honestly don't know. I'm not in regular touch with the Working Title people, and I know there was an announcement in one of the trades a few months ago that they would like to get into a third one at some point. I don't see why not! I think it would be well worth having a go. I like the idea in some ways now because I think enough time has gone by; we're not just sort of trailing the other two. We've all grown a little older; I think there's more fun to be had with that. I'm not adverse to the idea.
So you'd be game.
Yeah, it depends. Good script -- yes. Bad script -- no.
You've played a variety of roles, from a much loved Jane Austen character to Paulie Walnuts from 'The Sopranos' on 'Saturday Night Live,' which is not an easy image to forget.
[Laughs] I'd never seen 'The Sopranos' before that. I've seen the show since and became a huge fan after that, but I wish I'd seen it before I did 'Saturday Night Live.'
Is there any type of character you would not play?
No, not in principal. There are characters I would not do if I felt the character didn't have his heart in the right place. I'm not into moral lectures or messages, but if there was really something that didn't sit well with me ... It would have to be broader than just the person, it would depend on what the film was about. If I felt that the film's center was something that conflicted with any of my own views, then I would have a problem, but no ... I can play the worst person you can imagine. In fact I think it's very interesting to try to find the humanity in anybody. I've played some fairly despicable characters. I think that Henry Wooton in 'Dorian Gray' [not yet released in the U.S.] is as close to unredeemable as you can imagine. He takes a young man, destroys him and sets him on a path of hideous obscenities. He's a mass murderer and a rapist. He's probably about the most depraved character you can imagine. If you can find the human in that, it's really interesting for an actor. I've played a Nazi, a man who drew up the Nuremberg laws [in the 2002 HBO movie 'Conspiracy']. He believed that what he was doing was right and important. If I'm prepared to play two guys like that, I don't think it gets much worse.