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The King's Speech - Colin Firth interview

The King's Speech

Interview by Rob Carnevale

COLIN Firth talks about some of the challenges of playing King George VI in The King’s Speech and the dual responsibility of portraying a real life historical figure and someone who suffers from a disability [stammering].

He also talks about working with Geoffrey Rush and overcoming his own stage fright at times.

Q. I imagine that taking on a role like this has a dual responsibility given that you’re portraying a real life character as well as someone with a disability? Does it add any pressure?
Colin Firth: Yes, I was conscious of that. Although there was a lot of pressure that we placed on ourselves to be as scrupulous as we could about accuracy while knowing that there had to be some room to manoeuvre, that was definitely something that was very much in our minds. But I would say that dealing with the stammer loomed much larger in my mind when it came to a sense of responsibility because it’s not something that is frequently portrayed on screen except to pastiche it, which I’m sure is not helpful to people who do stammer and particularly children, of whom there are so many.

I don’t want to get earnest about this but it has made me very aware of the problem. I’ve played characters twice in my past who stammer, so it’s not new to me as an issue. Although, what one has to do to achieve it has been different every time because the characters are different. But yes, I was very concerned, particularly as this is a film that focuses so much on it as an issue, and as something that needs to be negotiated and really be a blight on someone’s life, so I felt it was really terribly important not to seem inauthentic.

Q. How much research did you do into stammering?
Colin Firth: A lot. What was interesting to me was that you don’t just pull out your stammer from the drawer from your last performance. It really doesn’t work that way, and that was an education for me because I thought perhaps I could [laughs]. It’s not the same… anybody who has experienced it will be able to tell you. What you’re doing every time of course, what you’re really playing, is not stammering… that’s what you’ve got to arrive at because that’s what the person is going through.

I also spoke at length to our own writer, who was probably our best source of all really, because David Seidler had to overcome a stammer himself… I say overcome, he says it will still come back. But he was incredibly eloquent about it. And what interested me most, rather than what is going on in a man’s muscles, was talking to him about what the fears are. David would say, for instance, that when it was bad it was all you thought about. You would go to a restaurant and wouldn’t order the fish if you can’t say `f’. [Instead] you order the beef even though you want the fish. And your life can be like that, it will be dictated by that fear. It doesn’t matter what else is at stake in what you have to do that day, it’s `can I say it’?

So, those things were very helpful to me as an insight into the terror that this man felt when he couldn’t climb out of his silences. If you look at footage of him making a speech there’s a kind of little narrative to what he’s going through, or at least how I interpret what he’s going through. He hits a word where he stutters and then realises that moment where he knows that word isn’t going to come out, and you see the… whatever it is, the dismay. And then there’s another attempt, where you see him then saying: “I’m not going to attack this head on…” So, you see him going through that moment of containing himself. When you watch that, you find out about him, and to me there’s something quite heroic there… there’s an entire epic going on in those few seconds, because then you see him come back out of it and carry on with the same dignity as if there’s nothing to do but go forward. So, that actually revealed more to me about the character than anything.

The King's Speech

Q. How are you with public speaking, have you ever experienced stage fright?
Colin Firth: I do have some of those fears and I got appalling stage fright the last time I went on stage at the Donmar [Warehouse in London], on the opening night. We had only two weeks rehearsal, we hadn’t had a proper dress rehearsal, there were no onstage prompters, and I had to open with a two-page monologue. I remember I locked myself in the toilet with a quarter of an hour to curtain up. I wasn’t planning to stay there, of course, but I just told myself to take a deep breath and think of my first line and I couldn’t.

Then I thought I needed some air, and there isn’t any backstage at the Donmar, and there isn’t a stage door, so I went out of the fire door, which closed behind me. We’re now about five minutes to curtain up, so I had to go round the front, through the audience – the very people I was terrified of – with full body contact on the way. I couldn’t remember the pass-code to get back in, and had to beg to be let in. Then I was told I had to go straight on stage, and I weirdly remembered the lines and got to the end. It was like a car crash [laughs]! So, what I think does happen is there is a tension that can be debilitating and there’s a tension that, God willing, you can convert into something functional and the right energy.

Q. How difficult was it to maintain a rhythm? Was it filmed chronologically?
Colin Firth: That was very difficult because what we’re trying to do, of course, is to show you what it reveals about a person. I think what occurred to me was that this wasn’t about asking for sympathy for this character… I really didn’t want that at all. But what occurred to me is just how valiant people are who struggle with it… to do things that we all do on a daily basis. So, that was the driving force through everything that I looked for. In terms of pace, you have technical problems because the film has to have a pace, and so you have to find a way to judge an honest version of a problem which interferes with pace, and where rhythm is staggered, and yet have a film which has achieved technically.

It has to have wit and a certain dynamic, so that’s something we all worked on. Tom [Hooper] and I worked very closely on scoring it, in a way. He was very concerned that it was at maximum most of the time. He felt that it should always be at its strongest at the early stages, otherwise the stakes would be lowered. But at the same time, we needed to get through the scene. So, those were things that were scrutinised on a daily basis.

The King's Speech

Q. Were you surprised at how much physically it took out of you? I read that your arm kind of went?
Colin Firth: Yes, that was a bit weird. I don’t know how much that has to do with immersion, or just me being a rather tense actor. There were a couple of days – in fact, quite a few days – when I found it rather exhausting. I did end up with headaches and just dealing with something that has to do with a struggle with your facial muscles, it just has this effect on neck tension and all that sort of thing. There was a funny sensation which I think you’re referring to where my arm seemed to go to sleep. I think I was just locking it in a particular position, or something, but it got a bit numb and I found I couldn’t use it very well. I went ot the unit nurse and she tried to help but there isn’t really a lot of precedent for someone whose arm’s gone to sleep because he’s pretending to stammer [smiles].

Q. Are you worried about what the Royal family will think of the swearing?
Colin Firth: It’s crossed my mind. But I think it really works in our story. I possibly doubt that actually happened, nut I think it’s very unlikely we’ll get anybody to verify it as inaccurate. I just like it too much as a note in our… as a breakthrough, and it is quite a significant moment because he goes from almost a complete relapse when he’s confronting his brother to this bizarre, what seems to be a catharsis, a release of actual rage, a full expression of panic and the breakdown of this relationship.

You can’t really get that arc without this piece. So I clung to it. There was a moment when the producers came running into the room saying: “You can say that, that, but not that! You cannot finish it with that word if you want a release in certain countries.” But it wasn’t frivolous and we weren’t cocking a snoop at anybody. We actually felt it had a genuine place as part of the story and part of the therapy.

Q. What did you know about George beforehand?
Colin Firth: I didn’t know very much, almost nothing at all. My parents were children during his reign and I remember my mother talk about his reluctance to take the thrown and about what a crisis that would have been for him personally. There was some expression of admiration for him because of that and I remember her telling me about his stammer and her expressing something about the relationship between Elizabeth (the Queen) and him, as she understood it, as being a close and loving one and how young she was when she took the throne. Those are vestiges of my childhood memory and that would be about it, the rest I knew nothing at all.

The King's Speech

Q. What was it like working with Geoffrey Rush? You seem to have a wonderful chemistry, but did he ever mix the lines up occasionally to keep you on your toes?
Colin Firth: I don’t know if he actually broke from script and threw that kind of curve at me, but he didn’t really need to because things were so alive when he was there anyway. There was a sense of the unexpected about him. He has such a wonderful combination of capriciousness and warmth and quick wittedness. He has a relentlessly enthusiastic energy. He never dropped the ball. So, we’d have these very long and exhausting days, and long weeks, and time at home was precious, and yet I ended up giving it up really just to have more time being on the set with Geoffrey and Tom. You’d get released at 9pm and instead of rushing home I’d still find myself going over tomorrow’s problems. We’d spend our Sundays working together. It was a joyous process.

Q. How important is it to you to see this wonderful performance validated by a flock of awards?
Colin Firth: Well, thank you, I don’t know what is going to happen [with awards] but the fact that people are talking that way is a sign of how positively they have responded to this which is incredibly gratifying. This wasn’t a walk in the park by any means, I think we exhausted every possibility within our means… so from that point of you, yes, but this has happened to me many, many times and you just get a load of rotten cabbages thrown at you so there is no justice to appeal to in that respect, your hard work is not… people don’t owe you gratitude just because you tried very hard. So on this occasion it’s wonderful to see the fact that we cared this much about something and so far, I know it’s not released yet, but so far we are getting a lot of warmth and that couldn’t be more gratifying.

Read our review of The King’s Speech

Read our interview with Tom Hooper