When 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' star Colin Firth was eleven years old, he spent a year living in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo. It's a bit of trivia that I -- as a native of the St. Louis area -- feel compelled to bring up anytime that I speak with the Oscar winner. (Which has been twice.) This time, that topic drifted us to a conversation about baseball -- a sport that Firth finds "aesthetically beautiful." Beyond that bit of St. Louis reminiscing, however, here's also this more important aspect of Firth's recent life: the British actor won an Oscar back in February for 'The King's Speech,' a win that he never looked at as a foregone conclusion -- even though everyone else did.
In 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,' the reigning Best Actor winner plays Bill Haydon, the deputy to the chief of British Intelligence. The film, based on a seminal spy classic by John le Carré (which was turned into a seminal spy classic miniseries by the BBC starring Sir Alec Guinness), is the tale of intrigue and deception, as it's discovered there's a mole among the ranks -- leading ousted former deputy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to investigate. Moviefone spoke to Firth about his small but important role, his trek through Oscar season and St. Louis baseball.
(Take heart, fellow St. Louisans; on this day that Pujols leaves the Cardinals, at least you now know that Colin Firth still somewhat pays attention.)
(Also, be warned of some spoilers.)
Before we spoke last time, friends of mine from St. Louis had no idea that you used to live there.
Is that right?
They now refer to you as Florissant's own Colin Firth.
[Laughs] Oh, OK. I should go back sometime, see if I can find anybody I know.
And if you didn't know, the Cardinals won the World Series.
I did notice that, actually. I mean, I don't follow any American sports, obviously -- any more than Americans follow British sports. But it's funny; it's the only team whose name I would recognize.
It's a hard city to live in and not like baseball.
You know, I was taken to baseball. It's Busch stadium, isn't it?
I'm impressed that you remember that.
I was taken to a couple of games. Yeah, the first baseball that I ever saw was in St. Louis. I loved it. I still love baseball. It's not a game I'm very well acquainted with -- so I don't see it very often and I don't understand it fully -- but it's something that you can take pleasure in without being an aficionado. I think something like your football; it's very much harder to appreciate unless you understand what's going on. It's very intricate, and because of all of those plays and strategies -- if you don't know what they are, you don't know what to look for and you don't know what to invest in. It's much more difficult for an outsider. Baseball is just an aesthetically beautiful thing. The basics of it, you don't have to know anything. You know, you watch someone pitch and you watch someone hit and you watch someone run. That is something you can enjoy whether you know all of the complex rules behind it or not.
I feel we should probably talk about your new movie.
Were you a fan of the book or the Alec Guinness series?
I'd never read the book. Obviously, I've read it now, more than once. The series is one of those things that had such an impact that you were aware of it even if you weren't watching it. It was just in the air. You know how when a TV series is important, you just hear people talk about it?
'Seinfeld,' 'The Sopranos,' 'The Wire' -- you know, if you haven't watched it, you feel left out. Because people are referencing it, people are talking about it. 'The Office,' you know. People are quoting it. And 'Tinker Tailor,' was just being discussed all of the time. And I did watch some of it. I can't remember if I watched all of it, but I remember being taken with the aura of it. But it's different to do it now, When it was done in the '70s, it wasn't a period piece. It was a stat-of-the-art, cutting edge, up to the minute piece of drama.
There's a lot going on in this movie. I'm not saying that I'm the smartest guy in the world, but I was confused during a lot of this movie.
Everyone's confused. I'm still confused.
OK, I feel better.
No, no, I think confusion is part of the mystique of it. I think you have to tread very carefully if you're going to use confusion or if you're going to bamboozle people a bit. Because you don't want to frustrate and alienate them. If you are going to do that, you have to magnetize them. My view, and what has been borne out so far where the film's come out, is that it's worked. People are very drawn to it. You know, if you do a cryptic crossword, you have to be confused or there's no point in the game.
You filmed this before you won the Oscar, correct?
But now that you are the reigning Best Actor winner, and your role is smaller in this movie, is there any concern that might make people question too vigorously what you're doing in this movie, plot wise?
Maybe something like that. I don't know, but we have to be careful of spoilers here. But how much does this movie depend on not knowing who it is? How much does enjoying the movie?
And, like you said, the story is out there.
It's been out there for 40 years. And a lot of people who have enjoyed this movie the most have either read the book or seen the series. So they know exactly who did it. And that releases you into focusing on other things, which is really what's being written about. Obviously, yes, we like a mystery. And if we can keep the "Whodunit?" factor going, great. But this actually isn't Sherlock Holmes. It's actually, I think, a portrait of loneliness and isolation and disappointed idealism. I think Smiley is one of the most beautiful drawn figures of dignified melancholy. He loves and trusts his wife, despite all of the betrayals. He loves and trusts his country, despite all off the betrayals.
In the book, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) are gay. Why isn't that relationship fully addressed in this film?
We don't have time. We don't have time. The movie is only two hours. Every single one of these characters ... Roy Bland: much more important in the book. You could actually make a whole movie about any of them. Particularly, you don't want to cram this with information and [director] Tomas Alfredson knew this film had to breathe. There are great stretches in the movie where there's no talking under circumstances where it's critical that we get as much information as possible. That was a very bold way to go. And thank God he took that.
The way awards season is set up with so many awards leading up to the Oscar, you had to know that you were going to win.
No, no. You can't know. It's too nerve wracking, the whole process, to go walk around with a certainty. It's foolish. There are too many upsets.
That's fair. But you were on quite a streak.
Yeah, but I've seen those streaks fall apart. Look, 'The Social Network' was on a streak until up to the Golden Globes. You know? And it was a brilliant film. And that's the trouble with competition; it's pretty hard to measure the just desserts. It feels ... [long pause] Being considered the frontrunner is a very precarious feeling -- just ask anyone in a political campaign. Things change very, very quickly. You know, you feel like you're on a high wire most of the time. Even if you're feeling serene and comfortable, there's always someone next to you always making sure you don't. You're surrounded by nerves -- everyone's got something at stake.
Is there an immediate specific change to the roles you're offered after winning?
No. Not specific and certainly not immediately. I think one would have to look back at everyone's life and see if things changed. It's very hard to measure a change because "a change" as opposed to what.
And it's not like you weren't getting good roles before.
Yeah, I mean, they were haphazard before and they can still be haphazard. Some pay and some don't and that's still the case. Some films get off the ground and others fall apart.
Like something like 'Main Street,' which was released after your Oscar win. And I believe it was shelved for awhile.
Yeah. And, you know, it's a hit-and-miss process. And whether it's your own limitations or circumstances or the fact that the collaboration just didn't come out -- or the fact that it did -- you're going to be taking a risk each time you step into the arena. So, certainly, one piece of good fortune like that does not guarantee that everything's great. It doesn't turn the world into better writers, either. So the material is still going to -- you know, you have to choose as well as you can, given what you've got.
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