Mike Davies takes it easy with Colin Firth whose latest comedy outing is released this week.
Given it affords him his best, most nuanced comedic performance since the first Bridget Jones, it’s ironic to hear Colin Firth say he initially turned down the role of Mr Whittaker in the new (the last was a Hitchcock silent in 1928) adaptation of Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue.
“I’d done a film adaptation of Coward’s Relative Values before which has a similar premise, and it’s very easy to be over reverential or afraid of the material. They can be museum pieces, if you’re not careful. So I didn’t want to do another. I’d also been simultaneously shooting Mamma Mia and Genova and wasn’t ready to leap into something else.”
Aside from the start date being pushed back, what persuaded Firth to take the plunge was the involvement of Australian writer-director Stephan Elliot, creator of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, returning to film-making after five years learning to walk again after breaking his back skiing.
In his hands, this would be no museum piece. In making what he calls “a big mess on the period film carpet”, Elliott radically transformed the original, keeping characters, story arcs and the best lines but infusing the melodrama with far more comedy, rewriting the ending and rendering it more Cowardesque than Coward per se.
Not that, in its exploration of class prejudice and the decline of British aristocracy after WWI, the film isn’t without serious themes.
“Coward specialises in that,” agrees Firth. “Within the wry wit and flippancy is immense passion. He did all that champagne froth and silly songs, but he also wrote Brief Encounter and that’s up there with Casablanca as one of the great passionate love stories of cinema.”
Firth has, of course, played his fair share of lovers, from Austen’s dashing Mr Darcy to Helen Fielding’s more bumbling, well, Mr Darcy actually. Of late, however, the affable 48-year-old has found himself playing father roles, in Then She Found Me, Mamma Mia, the upcoming Genova and, of course, as Whittaker, a man whose passion for life has been drained by wartime experiences
“That’s life. That’s where I am,” he sighs. “But one of the few pleasures of aging, and there are very few, is the roles get more complex. When you’re in your 20s you really have to look for roles with any texture. Playing the callow youth is terribly, terribly difficult. I found it desperately dull being 25 as an actor. As a friend of mine remarked, the hardest role in Shakespeare is not Hamlet or Lear, it’s Ferdinand in The Tempest, the earnest lover with no sense of humour.
“But the older you get, the more they let you be jaded, or witty, maybe you’re bad, maybe you’re disappointed with layers of experience. There’s more to be had, so yeah ... dad, grandfather, bring them on! I don’t relish ageing any more than the next person, but it has brought me kids and more interesting roles.” Distanced from his family and marriage, shooting off wittily sarcastic barbs as they fall apart around him, there’s a bittersweet complexity to Whittaker with which Firth empathised.
“From childhood to having your own, family is complicated,” he offers. “There are times you want to hide and run from them. The charm of being spontaneous is all very well, but you could argue there’s something rather reprehensible about his leaving his wife stranded. She may be a snob, and they may be part of a corrupt and cruel social system, but she’s the one working and trying to keep it together. Yet, there’s also something noble about his defending Larita (his son’s new American wife) from the mob, the family.” However, Whittaker’s defence of the woman in whom he finds a soulmate wasn’t without cost to Firth. There’s a Christmas ball scene in the film when, as Larita’s rebuffed by husband and guests alike, Whittaker steps forward to ask her to dance.
If singing in Mamma Mia was a frightening nightmare that caused him to freeze on the day, having to dance was equally horrifying. Elliott recalls a horrified Firth saying ‘I can’t dance, I’ve never danced’ and they had to work on him for weeks. He eventually crossed the fear barrier, but admits such nerves are part and parcel of the job.
“They’re the enemy all the way through your working life,” he grimaces. “And they can get worse. They haven’t for me, yet, but I’ve seen older actors go through deep crises, brilliant actors, particularly in the theatre. They said Olivier suffered a bout of nerves for 10 or 15 years where he found it almost impossible to go on. Ian Holm didn’t go on stage for that same period of time. I did my first play when I was 23, the lead in a West End theatre in front of 1,100 people. That was my first job, and I didn’t have a flicker of nerves. It was the arrogance of youth that nothing could go wrong. Now everything can go wrong.
“The last time I was on stage I was paralysed. It was seven years ago with Three Days of Rain at the Donmar Warehouse. We’d only rehearsed for two weeks and it began with a monologue. It was a huge amount of dialogue and there were no prompters. I remember trying to calm myself five minutes before curtain saying ‘just be calm, think of your first line’. And I couldn’t think of it! Or the second. I was cued to go on, and walked out in the dark. The next thing I knew we were taking a curtain call and we’d got to the end. It was strange, but once I’d done it, it kind of slayed the beast. It’s weird, because it’s what we do for a living, so you’d think that we shouldn’t have to deal with that, but it can be your nemesis.
“Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I just don’t give a shit, but I feel I’ve shrugged them off a bit. But then maybe it’ll all come back and I’ll be terrible tomorrow.”
* Easy Virtue opens on November 7.