Colin Firth’s work in films, television and the theatre has spanned over three decades, and this might just be the year when he wins the Oscar for Best Actor for his extraordinary performance in Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech.
Firth stars as King George VI of England, who suffered from a debilitating speech impediment all his life. With the country on the brink of war, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges for him to see an eccentric Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). With the help of Logue and his family, can the King overcome his stammer to deliver a radio-address that will inspire his people and unite them in battle?
Beyond the stammer, King George’s issue seems to be that he never had a friend.
You’re bang on, which is funny to say about a story about a member of the royal family. None of us are a member of the royal family or can possibly know what that’s like, and most of us were not around in 1937, and (people) could say, ‘How can this (story) possibly be universal?’ But isolation is universal.
It doesn’t matter how close you are to your family, or how many good friends you have, how perfect your marriage is, most people are not ticking all those boxes. There is some level on which you can’t be reached. We can’t get inside of each other’s minds, hearts and souls. If men protect themselves behind certain reserves against intimacy, here’s a man who not only does that but he is protected by high walls, titles and protocols. You could almost look at them as metaphors for barriers we all put up.
Have you ever met any member of the royal family?
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 about what it’s like to be that person, apart from watching people’s behavior around them. That interested me.
I was at an event with Prince Charles who was very gracious with the people he met. He was being ushered around by his Private Secretary, and he would try his best to give as much of his focus and his interest to each person, but the Private Secretary would be making sure he didn’t take too long with one person, because there was somebody else in line.
It was interesting to see people who were otherwise composed, and would actually claim not to be impressed by royalty, suddenly becoming very nervous. And you realize if you are a member of the royal family you are surrounded by people who are like that all the time, and probably that’s how they see the human race.
Can you talk about your approach to bringing this character to life, based on a factual person?
If I were playing a cab driver I’d probably want to hang around with a cab driver and maybe drive a cab and just see what it’s like. If I was playing an astronaut, I would try to meet one. But you don’t get to meet kings and hang around with them. So your information is secondary. You can look at what happens when people are around Prince Charles and think, ‘Wow, that’s what the world looks like to (him).’ (He) never meets a person who is relaxed and gives him a pat on the back and says, ‘What’s up?’ So you try to accumulate that kind of information.
There are a lot of letters; there are a lot of people who have been close to the royal family in one capacity or another. We did speak to people in that position. In the end you read and you listen, and then you just use your imagination.
In the film it shows how he overcame his stammering, is that based on fact?
He didn’t overcome it and I don’t think the film shows him overcoming it. I think it shows him coming to an arrangement with it where he’s not going to let it stop him doing his job. That last speech you can still see him fighting, he has to have his therapist right there. He fights for pretty well every word, but he gets through it.
What was Geoffrey Rush like to work with?
To have Geoffrey Rush, and have his energy and his humor to bounce off gave me so much. I think basically what seemed to be an immense mountain to climb felt incredibly easy just because I was in the hands of not only a director like Tom, but I had an actor who I felt energized me in every way I needed, it was like falling off a log.
In playing this part, were you able at the end of the day to speak like yourself again?
No, I got a bit confused in my own speech patterns. There is a cult of actors telling you how deeply immersed they were in their roles, it’s not just that; it’s muscle memory. If you do an exercise often enough your body will train itself to do that exercise. If you train yourself to interfere with your rhythm of speech, something in your brain remembers that and follows it. And if you’re going around trying to promote (the movie) A Single Man at the time, it sometimes comes to haunt you! And it did!