Talk of the town
Academy Award nominee Colin Firth discusses his role in The King’s Speech
By Ivor Davis 02/03/2011
Last year he may have lost to Jeff Bridges, but this year, the British star looks fair set to go home with the gold statuette for his role in The King’s Speech. Low budget — by Hollywood’s standards — the movie has Firth playing Albert, George, the man who became King George VI (the current Queen of England’s father), who is afflicted with a terrible stammer. Along comes a quirky speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush, aided and abetted by George’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), and the stuttering royal dramatically overcomes his handicap. After his father dies and his older brother abdicates the throne, Albert becomes George, King of England, who finds the steady voice to inspire his country as it marches into World War II. Firth turns in yet another powerful and memorable performance that has already earned him a Golden Globe award and a Screen Actors Guild top honor.
VCReporter: Growing up in England, how did you view the British monarchy?
Colin Firth: Anything that felt like establishment or authority was not my friend as a kid. Some people are royal watchers and love it. Some feel it’s very, very important to their identity and to what it means to their sense of nationhood and all of that stuff. I’m not one of those people or that kind of patriot.
Did playing this part change things?
No, it didn’t alter any political or social views. It’s about a man caught in the crossfire of the history of circumstances with pretty high stakes. I think that the reason why royalty is used for drama is because of those stakes. It heightens things. And it’s interesting that this seems to have such a universal appeal.
Can you elaborate on your character?
This is a man whose problems with communication are so very, very extreme that he’s written himself off. It’s not uncommon for people in midlife to just think, “Well, I just never amounted to enough. I reached this age and, you know, if it’s not fixed by now it never will be.” Problems between men and intimacy. Notorious, you know.
This happens to be man revealed as vulnerable. It’s a story about one man trying to reach another through those barriers we put up. So let’s exaggerate those. And make him royal.
And isn’t he isolated from real life?
He literally lives behind high walls. He has to. In order to be greeted, you have to get through a whole bunch of titles, about five names, before you’re even allowed to talk to the guy. He has to hold his hand out first before you get to shake his hand. So you’re building up all these protocols that we hide behind on a daily basis. Universal things that have been beefed up. And it’s a human story.
Were you familiar with the story?
I knew that he existed and about the abdication crisis. I had never watched any of the dramas about it. I wasn’t even quite sure whether he was George the fifth or George the sixth. I remember my mother telling me that she had great sympathy for him because of the stammer. So I knew about that. I knew he died relatively young and that the queen came to the throne very young. We all know that because that was 1952 and she’s still here. I always understood that she was very close to her father, and it must have been very tough to take that job on while you were still grieving. As I said, I’m not a royal watcher.
So you started from scratch.
Yes. I think it’s interesting to follow what history might pronounce as the minor characters offstage and see where they go. It interests me turning a minor — an ostensibly minor — character into a protagonist. Realizing they’re not that minor at all. And also, I think, different versions of heroism. I like stories that reflect on human virtues, not in the superhero realm.
How did you and Geoffrey Rush get along?
I didn’t know him well. We had met 15 years or so ago in Shakespeare in Love. We hadn’t really worked much together on it but we did the promotional stuff together. You don’t get to know somebody when you’re on junkets and you’re unwinding. He’s a lot of fun. And I found him such easy company. He loves ideas, to talk and find the humor in things. He loves to turn things around in ways that are interesting. Like, [director] Tom Hooper, he’s never banal.
There’s nothing obvious in his thinking. There’s always a fascinating twist. And I found him stimulating company and exhilarating.
Are you now in the prime of your career? Have you reached your stride?
Well, it’s a great moment. Stride — I think it’s too random to call it a stride. If I keep getting roles as good as this, I would like to think it could be a stride. This is a profession which notoriously trips you up. I felt there were moments when I had my mojo, I just didn’t have the scripts. I feel I’m at an age which is making the stories interesting. I don’t relish the deteriorization process, but I do find it interesting to play characters where the past counts. I’ve lived long enough to actually have one now.