Colin Firth: A Leading Man In 'A Single Man' Colin Firth received a Best Actor nomination for his starring role in A Single Man, the Tom Ford adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel that was just released on DVD. Firth talks to Terry Gross about playing professor George Falconer, a gay professor navigating Southern California in 1962.
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Colin Firth: A Leading Man In 'A Single Man'

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Colin Firth: A Leading Man In 'A Single Man'

Colin Firth: A Leading Man In 'A Single Man'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Tom Ford's feature film debut "A Single Man," came out this week on DVD. We've already heard from Ford himself. Now, let's listen back to Terry's 2009 interview with the star of the film Colin Firth.

Firth is best known for his roles in the films "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually," and "Mama Mia!," and for his role as Mr. Darcy in the British TV adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."

For his starring role in "A Single Man," Colin Firth received an Oscar nomination. Our film critic David Edelstein called Firth's work in "A Single Man" the performance of the year.

"A Single Man" is adapted from a novel by Christopher Isherwood, best known for writing "The Berlin Story," the basis for the musical and film "Cabaret." The movie, directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, is set in 1962. Firth plays George, a gay middle aged British man who teaches college in California. His long-time partner has been killed in a car crash.

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 phone ringing)

(Soundbite of movie, "A Single Man")

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 Hank 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) An 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, your 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 behaved, and that's how you talked.

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 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: I just want to get back to the phone call for a second that we open with.

Mr. FIRTH: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: 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?

I never met him. I didn't speak to Jon. I spoke to Chris Weitz, 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 Weitz 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: You know, Chris was pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah?

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. 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.

BIANCULLI: Colin Firth speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2010 interview with actor Colin Firth, star of the movie "A Single Man," which came out this week on DVD.

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 you're 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 don't 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 don't think, you know, in the scene where I'm having to look at the tennis players - and I wasn't 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 you're gazing at these two men playing tennis, and you're 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 wasn't 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 didn't work. And I'm not sure the guy in the tennis gear works, anyway. Now I'm beginning to get confused. So I don't know. It's an interesting question to ask about acting, generally. I mean, if you're playing someone that is obsessed with collecting stamps or is power-crazed or, I don't know, is determined to, you know, climb Mount Everest, I don't 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 you're 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 you're 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 didn't go to India.

GROSS: You didn't 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 hasn't 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 didn't 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, didn't 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 was 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 it's 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 you're doing is taking on different people's lives. You're changing character. You're changing personalities. You're, you know, you're not - I find it's not always easy to shake them off. And before you've shaking one off, you're 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.

GROSS: I hate to end here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much.

Mr. FIRTH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Colin Firth, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. His movie, "A Single Man," co-starring Julianne Moore, came out on DVD this week.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new movie co-starring Julianne Moore, "The Kids Are All Right."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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