Colin Firth: This King's 'Speech' Had A Different Ring In <em>The King's Speech</em>, Firth plays King George VI, a reluctant royal who struggles to overcome a debilitating stammer. Firth tells NPR's Robert Siegel that despite being born of privilege, the king had a  pretty painful existence.

Colin Firth: This King's 'Speech' Had A Different Ring

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Here's a bit of the speech that King George VI gave on the BBC as Britain entered World War II in September 1939.


KING GEORGE VI: In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my people, both at home and overseas, this message.

SIEGEL: And here's how actor Colin Firth, with some help from Beethoven, reads from the same words in "The King's Speech."

COLIN FIRTH: (as King George VI): Spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.

SIEGEL: Colin Firth joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.

FIRTH: Thank you. Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And the traumas that actually figure in the theory of why George VI stuttered so poorly were of, number one, being a natural left-hander who is converted to being a right-hander, having an abusive nanny who starved him and made him cry for her own reasons. The phrase tightly wrapped doesn't quite do justice to this man's personality.

FIRTH: No. Absolutely.

SIEGEL: And by my account, in the course of the film, you're playing someone who's happy in about three or four moments.

FIRTH: David Seidler, our writer, is someone who battled with a stammer for much of his life. He described it as something which really is all- consuming. It would determine what you order in a restaurant, would determine how you answer the phone. If you have a task to do that day, you'd think less about whether your task is going to be fulfilled. You only care about whether you can say what you have to say.

SIEGEL: Yeah. I'm curious about how much of a period piece playing King George VI is. That is, his manners seem incredibly out of date today and he - the way that he spoke and lived and looked. Do you approach that any differently? That is, do you have to get yourself into 1937 in a way that's different from playing somebody who is alive in the '60s?

FIRTH: Yes, actually. This is one of the first things I asked our director, Tom Hooper, as a nation, we spoke differently then.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

FIRTH: It was more clipped. Nobody really talks like that anymore. People don't behave in quite that way. My grandfather, I can remember, still spoke with a tapped R: Terribly, that's terribly, terribly good.


FIRTH: And you really don't hear anybody say that anymore. Now, funnily enough, because it's recent enough and we do have recordings, et cetera, I think we had to make more effort to observe it. But this was - I think it wasn't an exercise for its own sake. I think it was just - you realize how tight this guy was through listening to him. It sounded to me as if his jaw was locked even when he was able to get words out, you know?


FIRTH: He had the weak R: Might is right. Those things, I thought, were just useful because they informed the way I played the character in all other respects. Well, it took Guy Pearce...

SIEGEL: Who plays the man who was to become the Duke of Windsor.

FIRTH: That's right. Guy shows up from Australia with what to me was the most authentic 1930s royal sound that I'd heard from any of us. I think we, the English, have forgotten that we spoke like that.

SIEGEL: One of the questions in making this film was how much of a poor little prince, duke, king you wanted to make the hero out to be here. One could have imagined that this is someone who could also have been regarded as kind of a museum piece character whose uncles had fought the First World War and destroyed Europe and who was part of a fabulously wealthy family going from Sandringham to Balmoral and back and forth as Britain was living through the Great Depression, could have been a lot less sympathetic to him.

FIRTH: And I think that there's a universality to this, which is very hard to explain in a way because it's a pretty hard sell, you know, to go up to somebody and say this film applies to you and it's 1937, and it's about a member of the royal family and it's about somebody who has a stammer. You know, most people you say those things to won't be a member of the royal family, and here we are in...

SIEGEL: I should say so, yeah.

FIRTH: Well, Colin Firth, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

FIRTH: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Colin Firth, who plays Bertie, the Duke of York and later King George VI, in the new film "The King's Speech."

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