Colin Firth’s latest role explores the beauty of life from the depths of grief. Alison Jones spoke to him.
Colin Firth cuts an elegant figure as he stands up to greet us in the equally well styled surroundings of a Soho Hotel.
He is taller and slimmer than might expect from his screen work, standing more than 6ft 1in tall. His leanness flattered by the incomparable cut of the Tom Ford suit he is loyally wearing to promote the fashion designer turned film director’s debut project.
“I even wear them for my phone interviews,” he says drily.
Getting a new wardrobe courtesy of the creative brains behind the revival of Gucci was an unusual, though perhaps not entirely unexpected, perk of agreeing to work with the impeccably presented Ford – who would often wear a three piece suit to film in.
As well as directing A Single Man, Ford also co-adapted it from Christopher Isherwood’s novel, acclaimed when it was published in 1964 as “one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement” and self-financed it.
Colin, 49, admits that he was warned against taking the film, lest it be seen as some kind of vanity project.
“It had its doubters,” he confirms. “There were people advising me who were adamant I shouldn’t do it, that it was a dangerous thing to take on and if it was a catastrophe it would be a very noticeable one. There was this idea that there’d be big parties at the festivals and everyone would turn up but it would just be an embarrassment.”
With a Best Actor Award from Venice, not to mention BAFTA and Oscar noms, Colin is glad that he paid no attention to the naysayers and instead went with his instincts when presented with what has proven to be the role of his movie career.
“Tom is not the only first-time director I have worked with. Some of them are brilliant, some are competent, some are terrible, as are some experienced directors.
“He had enough going for him to not really treat him as a complete novice. I knew what his reputation for brilliance was. He had some attributes that contribute to being a good director, not just the fact he had good visual sense. It was also that he could marshall people to share his vision and give him their best, and that he had come up with this narrative and this choice of material and could speak about it so eloquently.”
Colin plays George, an English professor teaching in an American college in the 1960s who is wrestling with the death of his long-term partner Jim (Matthew Goode) eight months earlier.
Intent on committing suicide, the film follows him through his last day as he meticulously makes his preparations. The closer he gets to death the more vibrant everything around him becomes as he sees them for the final time.
Colin had been credited with giving substance to this undeniable stylish production, designed by the team responsible for the TV series Mad Men. However, he says that thanks to its economy of plot and dialogue, it is this visual richness that clues the audience in to the character’s emotional turmoil.
“The appearance of the film is absolutely critical. I think the beauty of the world he sees is because this is a day in which everything is more beautiful than it otherwise would be. His fastidiousness is a sign of neurosis. Even the way he dresses is a sign of his desperation.”
Though Ford has a reputation for micro managing, Colin reveals the shoot was surprisingly unstressful.
“We shot this in 21 days. There was no reason we should have felt a sense of space, it should have been hasty and fraught and panic stricken. I have been on sets for six months where it has been like that. One of the great gifts Tom has is that he creates the illusion you have got all the time in the world.”
There is one particular scene which is a masterclass in reigned-in emotion. George is on the phone to Jim’s relatives as they tell him the funeral is for family only. As they believe he is merely a friend he is not allowed to say goodbye to the man he has shared the last 16 years of his life with.
“It was just two pages of dialogue in which George is very polite. It didn’t say ‘it hits him here’ or ‘he reacts this way’. It was a very simple shot. Me sitting in a chair, cameras in front of me, the producer Chris Weitz in the other room doing the other voice. I put the phone down and Tom didn’t say cut so I stayed there until the magazine ran out.
“They were all in a different room looking at the monitor. I went in to say ‘how was it?’ and they were passing the Kleenex round.”