TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Colin Firth, received an Oscar nomination yesterday for his starring role in the film "A Single Man." It wasn't a surprise. This year, he was nominated for all the top awards. Firth is perhaps best known for films like "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually" and "Mamma Mia" and for his role as Mr.�Darcy in the British TV adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."
Our film critic, David Edelstein, called his work in "A Single Man" the performance of the year. The movie is set in 1962 and is adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, who is best known for writing "The Berlin Stories," which was the basis for the musical and film "Cabaret." "A Single Man" is the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford.
Firth plays George, a gay, middle-aged British man who is now a university professor in California. His long-time partner has been killed in a car crash. Unable to deal with his grief openly, George numbly moves through his life, questioning whether it's even worth living.
In this flashback from early in the film, George gets the bad news. He's alone at home. His partner is away visiting family. The phone rings.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Single Man")
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
Mr.�COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As George Falconer) Finally. You know, it's been raining here all day, and I've been trapped in this house waiting for you to call.
Mr.�JON HAMM (Actor): (As Hank Ackerley) I'm sorry. I must have the wrong number. I'm calling for a Mr.�George Falconer.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) I'm sorry, I was expecting someone else. Yes, sir, you have indeed called the correct number. How may I help?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Ackerley) This is Harold Ackerley. I'm Jim's cousin.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh, of course, yes. Good evening, Mr.�Ackerley.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I'm afraid I'm calling with some bad news.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) There has been a car accident.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Accident?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) There's been a lot of snow here lately, and the roads have been icy. On his way into town, Jim lost control of his car. It was instantaneous, apparently.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) It happened late yesterday, but his parents didn't want to call you.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) I see.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) In fact, they don't know that I'm calling you now, but I felt that you should know.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Thank you.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I know this must be quite a shock. It was for all of us.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Yes, indeed. Will there be a service?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) The day after tomorrow.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Well, I suppose I should get off the phone and book a plane flight.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) The service is just for family.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) For family, of course. Well, thank you for calling. Oh, Mr.�Ackerley?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Yes?
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) May I ask what happened to the dogs?
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Dogs? There was a dog with him, but he died. Was there another one?
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Yes, there was a small female.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I don't know. I'm sorry. I haven't heard anyone mention another dog.
Mr.�FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Well, thank you for calling, Mr.�Ackerley.
Mr.�HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Goodbye, Mr.�Falconer.
(Soundbite of dial tone)
GROSS: That's my guest, Colin Firth, in a scene from "A Single Man." And Mr.�Ackerley, the person on the telephone, was played by Jon Hamm. So you might have recognized his voice.
Colin Firth, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me just describe for our listeners who have not seen the movie what's going on during that phone call and after the phone call in terms of how you are reacting.
You're in shock, and you're in grief, and it's starting to register on your face. As you get the news, you're breathing deeper. You slightly grimace, you facial muscles tighten, your eyes start to tear, but you're still holding in your emotion.
And you're alone in your home. You could let loose without anybody seeing. You could really erupt. You don't. Everything is still pretty held in. Can you talk a little bit about how you decided to play that scene?
Mr.�FIRTH: I don't think it really came from a decision. I think it was something that seemed natural because of the way it was written, because of the speed with which I felt such news would be processed.
You know, there's nothing in the script that says George, you know, breaks down. What I read was what you heard, which was oh, Mr.�Ackerley, there was another dog in the car. I suppose I should book myself a ticket, and will there be a service.
He's operating as a man still socialized, still observing the rules of courtesy and protocol. Now to me, looking back on it, I think there's something rather heartbreaking about that because I think he's hanging on to the world as it was a few seconds ago, when everything was okay, when that's how you behave, and that's how you talk.
Everything's actually falling apart completely inside. But I think if he gives in to hysterical misery, then it'll become real. And he's not ready for that. So I didn't really see it as containment. I saw it as just not having got there yet.
And something comes to mind here. To me, it echoes some of the observations that Joan Didion wrote about in "The Year of Magical Thinking." You know, her husband dies. She records the time of his death. She identifies his body at the hospital. She signs a form, and she's ready to acknowledge the fact that she knows that he's dead. She knows full well that he's gone, but she's not ready to have it announced in the newspaper the next day because then somehow, if everybody knows about it, it concretizes it in a way that she's not ready for.
So I think that something as monumental as the death of somebody very close and very loved isn't something that you react to in a way that's quick or simple.
GROSS: So much of your acting in "A Single Man" is about your face. I mean, you have dialogue in it, but there's a lot of silence in the film. There's times when people are talking to you, and we're watching you react.
So it's about your face and mostly about your eyes. And your eyes are so interesting in this movie because they're so penetrating. Your eyes look like they can see through other people, but at the same time, you have this kind of shield on your own face so that people can't see through you.
Mr.�FIRTH: Well, I think that a lot of what the film deals with is the body armor that George puts on. I'm sure Tom talked about this. This was something that I think was very much in our minds when we made the film.
He has to get through a particular day, and he has to put something in place which is a both a protective mask. In other words, it's something that prevents the rest of the world from seeing how broken he is and how chaotic his true world is, and at the same time, this has to act as a protection against the world trying to come in on him from the outside world, penetrating his very, very vulnerable sensibility.
And I think this is where he gets his need to dress perfectly from. This is why he needs to make sure his shoes are shined and that his cufflinks and his tie pin are in place and all of these.
I think maybe these are very much acts of desperation. These are things that his life depends on on this day. And I think if the eyes are doing anything, it's because it's his day of seeing through that mask.
Tom was there to photograph what I was doing. So it gave me a great deal of freedom, gave me a lot of freedom to be silent. As you heard in our phone call, I wouldn't have thought that scene would work on the radio, but it was interesting to listen to how heavy those silences hang.
And I think Tom has great faith in stillness and in what the human face can do without a lot of histrionics and without being very, very demonstrative. And for someone whose approach to acting is not that demonstrative, this is a great gift. I felt he played to my strengths.
GROSS: Well, you know, you were talking about how that character has to dress perfectly, how that's in a way part of his body armor. Let me play you what Tom Ford had to say about dressing you for the role and how he picked the clothes. So this is Tom Ford, the fashion designer who directed "A Single Man."
Mr.�TOM FORD (Fashion Designer; Director, "A Single Man"): I wanted to dress Colin Firth's character in a way that would be appropriate to who he was as a personality. So I thought, okay, this is a guy who is not dependent on his salary as a teacher. This is a guy who comes from a fairly wealthy background. In England, he went to, you know, private schools - or public schools they're called in England - and he's teaching at a public college because he feels this is the right thing to do.
So this guy probably has his clothes made, you know, when he's home in London, and he probably gets them from Saville Row, from the same tailor that his father went to. He is a professor, so what's he wearing? He's going to be wearing brown tweed. He's not going to be wearing gray. He's not going to be wearing, you know, navy blue wool serge. He's a professor.
So I also tried to calculate when would he have had these suits made? You know, the English are quite - even still to this day - I think thrifty with their clothing, at least the old-school English. And so I thought okay, when did he have this suit made? I calculated he probably had it made maybe, let's say, 1957, blah, blah, blah. In fact, I even sewed a label inside Colin's suit, as one would get at a Saville Row tailor with his name and the date that the suit was made.
And so I really gave a lot of thought to who this guy is. This is a guy who, as I said, really holds himself together by his outer appearance.
GROSS: Okay, so that's Tom Ford, the director of "A Single Man," talking about dressing my guest, Colin Firth, for the movie. So, Colin Firth, did having that fake Saville Row labels sewed in the back of your shirt with your name on it or maybe it was the suit jacket with your name on it and the date that it was made, was that helpful to you?
Mr.�FIRTH: Yes, it was, not by itself, and if Tom had been an inadequate director, and we didn't have a good script, it would've been an utterly futile gesture. So it was a part of the way Tom approached things.
He didn't direct me by trying to manipulate me, telling me exactly what to do, how he wanted things to sound, how he wanted me to walk. He directed me through that kind of stimuli. And so he's going to sew your name into your jacket, and he's already thought through what textures and material it's going to be and when you ordered it and from where you ordered it.
You can be pretty sure he's also thought through the chairs you're sitting on, the cups you drink out of, the house that you live in, the office that you inhabit. It was all extremely eloquent to me of George's world. And George is defined, really in this film, by what he sees and how he deals with what he sees.
GROSS: I just want to get back to the phone call for a second that we open with. So the actor who is on the phone with you in a scene that we just heard is Jon Hamm, who plays the leading role in the AMC series "Mad Men," and he has such a distinctive voice. I kind of recognized it immediately.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I think he wasn't quite as famous when he made that scene as he is now. Did you know who he was, or was he just like a voice on the telephone, or did you just meet him? Was he in another room on the set, or was he, like, someplace altogether, and you were never you never met?
Mr.�FIRTH: I never met him. I didn't speak to Jon. I spoke to Chris Whites(ph), who is one of our producers who was in the next room on the other end of a phone line. So Jon came in to do that voice later.
GROSS: You mean, you weren't you didn't even shoot the scene with him, with that voice?
Mr.�FIRTH: No, no.
Mr.�FIRTH: So that was done on different occasions. So you have him to credit for that, really, because he was, you know, he sounded very much as if he was there.
GROSS: Was Chris Whites the director good enough to give you what you needed in that scene? It's such an emotional scene for you. You'd think you'd want, like, the real thing and not a stand-in.
Mr.�FIRTH: You know, Chris was pretty good.
Mr.�FIRTH: Yes, it wasn't entirely different from what you hear. You know, we were both haunted by the moment. So I think Chris was very sensitive, which is what he had to be.
But there are a lot of things that didn't help. I mean, that was the day just before I shot that scene, the soundman took his headphones off and played John McCain's concession speech to the room because that was the day that we were shooting that. And now, you know, I don't know what your politics are, but hearing John McCain conceding defeat was not conducive to tragedy in that moment for me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So you were elated, and then you had to be, you know, get the tragic news and respond to that.
Mr.�FIRTH: Exactly. I mean, if we think ourselves back to that moment, it was quite, quite extraordinary. And it was it felt very special to be in America when that moment happened.
GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. Yesterday, he received an Oscar nomination for his starring role in "A Single Man." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "A Single Man." When we left off, we were talking about working with the director of the film, Tom Ford, who until now has been best known as a fashion designer.
I found it so interesting that in "A Single Man," you're directed by a fashion designer who has picked every article of clothing you're going to wear, has sewn in the Saville Row label to make it more authentic because the clothes are so important to this man.
When you went to school, when you went to acting school, what I read about this is that there were no mirrors in the school except in the restrooms because this school discouraged the kind of external acting that depends on having a costume or the clothing or the right look. They didn't want you to be looking at yourself in the mirror or to be thinking in that kind of way.
When you played was it Lear? you weren't allowed to wear a beard.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�FIRTH: That's right. That's right, yes. It was ghastly. Ive been very exposed.
GROSS: So it seems like this film, in some ways, is the opposite of what you were taught because those external things, including the coffee cup and the house, the glass house that you lived in were just so important to you getting into the character and to the character himself.
Mr.�FIRTH: Let me flip that around because actually, funnily enough, it's not the opposite. It's precisely the same. If Tom had taken me if he was the kind of director that said in this scene, I want you to look this way, and in this scene, I want you to look that way, and I want you to tilt your head slightly to the right, and I want you to do this face, and I want you to cut this figure in this scene, and I want this silhouette of you against the backlight, and I want you to look this way none of it was about that.
He took care of that, and therefore, he took it out of the equation for me. That was dealt with. I never had to think for one second how I was being photographed, whether I was going to look good or bad. All I had to think about was what I had to think about, you know, was what the character was thinking about or what the character is seeing and the effect.
GROSS: Are there times in the movies where you have had to think about or worry about if you were looking good or bad, if you were being photographed in a good way? And I don't necessarily mean in a flattering way. I mean in an interesting way.
Mr.�FIRTH: Well, because of the way I was trained, I try never to do that anyway. I think if you're working with well, let's say if you're working with an incompetent director, or if you're working in an environment which makes you basically insecure about the work and makes you feel that, you know, you can't trust the process, and you can't trust the outcome, then you suddenly become conscious of all kinds of things that you otherwise wouldn't be because you're not sure somebody's in control.
When you have the luxury of having such complete trust that the external stuff is taken care of it, it frees you up completely to inform the rest of it with your own stuff. And Tom didn't seek to interfere with the interior life of the character. He and I understood one another quite well.
GROSS: You know, watching "A Single Man" and seeing your face, and your face is so important in the movie, I kept thinking your face looks so 1962, and it's in part because of, like, the thick, dark thick, like, black eyeglass frames that you're wearing, and of course, you know, the clothing that you're wearing. But there's something about your face, it just struck me as early '60s.
And I was starting to think, like, who in particular is it I'm being reminded of? And you know who I think it is?
GROSS: Okay, you're going to think I'm crazy, probably: early George C. Scott.
Mr.�FIRTH: Now that hadn't occurred to me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�FIRTH: I'll take that. I think that's wonderful.
GROSS: Your faces aren't really similar. There's just something about the tension in your face for this movie that reminded me of him because he has...
Mr.�FIRTH: Interesting, yeah.
GROSS: He has a lot of tension in his jaw, I think.
Mr.�FIRTH: Yes, I was in fact, for some reason, I was reflecting on "The Hustler" today, which is one of my favorite films because I got that ghastly question, name your favorite films of all time. It's definitely got to be one of them.
So he was in my mind this morning. It was very odd that you should say that because that's about probably the period you're talking about, isn't it?
GROSS: Yeah, it's probably about the yeah.
Mr.�FIRTH: Now, I think I mean one of the two people that you have said it's often that well, it's interesting that you don't associate that with glasses, I don't think, because a lot of people have said Harold Pinter or Michael Cain, which I think is largely to do with British, glasses and that look.
One of the people that comes most to my mind is my father because he is a professor and was probably I mean, he would be younger than George. He would have just been beginning his career in 1962. But the glasses, the hair and because he is my dad, obviously there's a facial similarity, called to mind my dad.
You know, he would have worn the brown tweed suit. It wouldn't probably have fitted him quite as immaculately as this one fits George. But I think in some ways, in terms of I don't know how conscious I was of this when I was playing it, but I think that certainly the quiet, thoughtful dignity of the character I think is something that on some level was inspired by my dad.
GROSS: Is your father still alive?
Mr.�FIRTH: He is, yeah.
GROSS: Does he know that this character, the way you played him, was inspired in part by him?
Mr.�FIRTH: I don't think he does, no, no. I think he's going to know now.
GROSS: Colin Firth will be back in the second half of the show. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "A Single Man." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross, back with Colin Firth, who starred in the films "Mamma Mia," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually" and the British TV adaption of "Pride and Prejudice."
He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "A Single Man." His character, George becomes a single man when his long-time partner, Jim, is killed in a car crash. George numbly moves through his life, rarely revealing his emotions, and continues teaching literature at a university in California.
In this scene, he's teaching a book by Aldous Huxley. In an answer to one of the student's questions, he starts talking about why people fear minorities. It's just about the only scene in the film in which he speaks for an extended period of time.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Single Man")
Mr. FIRTH: (as George) Minority is only thought as one when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority - a real threat or an imagined one. And therein lies the fear. And, if that minority is somehow invisible, then the fear is much greater. And that fear is why the minority is persecuted. And so, you see, there always is a cause. The cause is fear. Minorities are just people, people like us. I can see I've lost you a bit. So I'll tell you what, we're going to forget about Mr. Huxley today and we're going to talk about fear.
Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is being used as a tool of manipulation in our society. It's our politicians who pedal policy. It's our Madison Avenue, who sells us things you dont need. Think about it: The fear of being attacked, the fear that there are communists lurking around every corner, the fear that some Caribbean country that doesnt believe in our way of life poses a threat to us, the fear that black culture may take over the world, the fear of Elvis Presley's hips. Actually, maybe that one is a real fear. Fear that our bad breath may ruin our friendships. Fear of growing old - being alone. Fear that we're useless and that no one cares what we have to say. Have a good weekend.
GROSS: In "A Single Man" you play a gay man, a man who seems to be comfortable being gay, but he knows he can't be out to a lot of people - for instance, where he teaches. But there are scenes in which we're seeing other men through the eyes of your character, George, and he's focusing on some of these men in a very erotic way. And so I'm wondering if in playing the role - since youre not gay, but you were playing a gay man - if you had to start looking at men in a different way and seeing them through the eyes of George.
Mr. FIRTH: Interesting question. I don't know. I think that, you know, I dont find it to be something that's so very distant. I, you know, I think you can be very comfortable in your sexuality and find people of both sexes attractive and appealing. So I dont think, you know, in the scene where I'm having to look at the tennis players - and I wasnt looking at tennis players, really. I was looking at some electricians, probably.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Yeah. This is the scene where everything seems to - someone's talking to you about the threat of nuclear war or something, and youre gazing at these two men playing tennis, and youre gazing at them with some amount of awe and longing because they're so beautiful as they play.
Mr. FIRTH: That's right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FIRTH: Well, that wasnt what I was looking at on the day. And I can tell you, I did not find the electricians attractive at all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FIRTH: I actually think - now its coming back to me. I think Tom had a couple of the guys playing tennis players sort of stand in, you know, in tennis. You know, they were there to shoot their scene, so he thought we might as well have them standing there for an eye line. But I remember thinking: Now, is this helping? I'm looking at guys.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FIRTH: I'm looking at guys, and the electricians didnt work. And I'm not sure the guy in the tennis gear works, anyway. Now I'm beginning to get confused. So I dont know. It's an interesting question to ask about acting, generally. I mean, if youre playing someone that is obsessed with collecting stamps or is power-crazed or, I dont know, is determined to, you know, climb Mount Everest, I dont have to have those particular passions in me in order to be able to play that part. I have to find passion from somewhere, and somehow I have to make that translate as that passion. So I think it, you know, whatever youre doing, it's never going to be entirely you, and the character's preoccupations and, you know, orientations are never going to have to be exactly what yours are.
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Colin Firth, who's now starring in the film "A Single Man." Now, you grew up in a bunch of places: Nigeria, the United States, several places in England. You were India for a while, too?
Mr. FIRTH: I didnt go to India.
GROSS: You didnt go to India. But your parents grew up in India.
Mr. FIRTH: My parents were born and raised in India. I still haven't been, which is increasingly peculiar - if you know my family - because I really am the only member of the family that hasnt been. I'm nearly 50, and I still own that trip.
GROSS: And it was the fact that I think that your grandparents were missionaries that...
Mr. FIRTH: Yes.
GROSS: ...led to your parents living in India, and then Nigeria?
Mr. FIRTH: That's correct. My paternal grandfather started as a missionary. He joined the British Missionary Society because he heard that they were building schools and hospitals in India. He was not evangelical. He didnt go around converting people. In fact, he was very proud of the fact that he never converted a single person. His wife was also an ordained minister. He then took the decision to train as a doctor and came to the United States and took his family to a medical school in Iowa for eight years and then returned to India as a doctor specializing in osteopathy and would go off for six months around into the mountains and cure as many people as he could.
GROSS: And what about your parents?
Mr. FIRTH: My parents grew up there. My mother, I think, didnt come to England at all until she was about 16. Because of what her father was doing, she spent eight years of school in the United States in Iowa in a place called Ankeny. And they - my parents knew each other since they were very small, you know, because they grew up together in South India. My father became a history lecturer, and my mother has taught and lectured in all sorts of things, comparative religion and the study of other faiths. She's a person who I think has a great belief in a contemplative lifestyle. She practices meditation. She, I think, is a real searcher.
GROSS: Did you practice meditation?
Mr. FIRTH: No. Not seriously. I've just sort of tried to learn to be quiet a little bit. I actually went to a monastery - this is a Buddhist monastery - to learn something about meditation, and I have never practiced it with any great discipline. But I did find it to be, even it its probably shallowest and least-disciplined form, I did find it to be somewhat helpful, because however fortunate my lifestyle is, it's not always the most restful.
GROSS: What made you go in the first place to the Buddhist monastery? What did you want?
Mr. FIRTH: Restfulness. I suppose it was this sense that I've always been very attracted to the randomness and the unpredictability of my profession. I enjoy not knowing what's next. I enjoy the passionate commitment to something which is going to be gone soon. It's a strange creative promiscuity, if you like, where I'll move on to the next thing and commit myself with equal, you know, emersion and delight in something as if the one before just never existed. And I think that its very exciting, but it can create a kind of upheaval, because there's no continuity. And however thrilled I am by what I'm doing and however stimulated I am by it, I think it's - it can be quite difficult to get back to a sort of a core.
One of the things youre doing is taking on different people's lives. Youre changing character. Youre changing personalities. Youre, you know, youre not - I find its not always easy to shake them off. And before youve shaking one off, youre taking another one on. And I think just for an actor, just to get back to a sense of who you are without all of that I think can be quite a challenge. This is quite some time ago that I'm talking about, but I think that's what I was thinking.
GROSS: How long ago? Where were you in your life?
Mr. FIRTH: I was - it's about 15 or so years ago, and I - there was quite a bit of upheaval on a personal level.
Mr. FIRTH: I was single at the time, and it seemed that I was always at my happiest when I was employed or, you know, I think that's something perfectly healthy about that. But I was always at my happiest when I was engaged in something that was distracting me. And I think it was - I felt it was time to, you know, to discover how to celebrate life or to take joy in life when I wasnt distracted.
GROSS: I hate to end here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much and...
Mr. FIRTH: Thank you.
GROSS: ...I should say, we're recording this interview a few days before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, but I know by the time our listeners are hearing this, the nominations will have been announced. So I hope congratulations are in order.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FIRTH: Well, I hope I can thank you for that. Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: All right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. Colin Firth, thank you so much.
Mr. FIRTH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Colin Firth was recorded last week. Yesterday, he got the Oscar nomination, so now I can give him an official long distance congratulations.
Coming up: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Spoon.
This is FRESH AIR.