With a single performance, certain actors can make an entire career.
For Colin Firth, this took place 15 years ago, when he played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The extraordinary thing about what Firth has done in 2009 — the role of George, the grieving professor in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, for which he has been awarded the SBIFF Outstanding Performance Award and nominated for a Best Actor Oscar — is that he has somehow, like his mentor Ford, managed to make an entire career again. Who says there are no second acts?
The team responsible for A Single Man have created one of the most interesting, multi-dimensional cinematic experiences of the season (without 3D), and propelled the lead actor from a film by a first-time director into the thick of the Oscar race. I caught up with Firth by phone from Paris. He accepts his award on Saturday, Feb. 13 at the Arlington.
There will be no waiting for the envelope here, because this is an award that you have already won. Other recent recipients include Penelope Cruz, Angelina Jolie, and Helen Mirren. How do you feel about joining this group?
This is all so much fun. I feel honored to be in such incredible company as these other winners of the Outstanding Performance Award.
Was the role of George in A Single Man a change of direction for you?
Yes and no. It was still mostly about performing what was written on the page, which is what I usually do, and of course it was no great cultural reach. There was however something exotic about the role. Not so much from the point of view of its involving fashion design because of Tom [Ford, the director], but rather the extent to which it was such a pure example of an acting job.
What I mean by that is that the part required a great deal of interpretation of the gaps in between the words. I really had to be present and working at the places where the sentences leave off. Words can’t say everything, and despite the fact that he is a professor of English, George doesn’t speak all that much in the film. There are only a few scenes where he talks a lot. At times it was like a silent role, and from that point of view it was a really pure job.
The other great thing about having to work with all that silence and stillness was that Tom Ford really gets that stuff and he appreciates its worth.
Roger Ebert wrote that you did so well portraying George’s interiority that you “must have been rehearsing for it since your youth.” Do you identify with that speculation?
Maybe. It’s interesting. We are in Paris at the moment — Tom [Ford], Julianne [Moore], and myself — and we are doing the publicity for the film, and it seems that when we appear together, everyone wants to claim George for himself or herself. In some ways I suppose I have spent my life trying not to be found out, and that’s certainly part of the dynamic I was playing with this role.
But it seems that all of us who worked on the film have had moments when we have wanted to say, “wait a second, he’s me” about this character. And that’s unusual, because “I want to be George” or “I am George” — those are both sort of radical things to say, because this is a man who starts out the day as a very unhappy character. I mean, he’s bent on self-slaughter, and surely that can’t be how all of us feel, so the identification must be with something else.
I suppose it comes when you think about how hard George tries to put on a mask. His suit, his accessories, and his whole manner; it’s all protective armor.
What makes George different from other protagonists?
From a dramatic point of view, what makes the whole film unusual is that there are no villains. George is different from most heroes because his antagonist is life. Ordinarily, there is some sort of enemy who is out to get the hero, but for George there has been a reversal, and suddenly it is as though even the pleasant aspects of life are somehow against him, or that he wants to leave them behind. Certainly under the circumstances that’s understandable, but it is very different from more traditional types of dramatic conflict.
There’s a lot of ambivalence in the film about seeing and not being seen, as in the moment when George makes eye contact with a neighbor while he’s on the toilet. How did you think about that aspect of this character?
Yes, I know the scene you are referring to, and it’s quite a jolt for him. To me, it shows that since his partner has died, he wishes that he didn’t live in a glass house. The house was probably [his dead partner] Jim’s idea in the first place. The whole way that George is forced to keep ducking out of sight is another aspect of his constant self-protection. Hiding and so forth is a way of not breaking.
The inevitable question for Oscar nominees: Has your nomination changed the kinds of offers you are getting?
The short answer is that I really haven’t stopped to take stock. You are just so busy from the moment the nomination comes that you don’t have a lot of time to think about anything else. Of course it would be misleading for me to say that I haven’t sensed some interest around me as well. It’s a restless process.
You have been remarkably effective in your social activism, with your work on behalf of political refugees and fair trade. Is that something that stems from your upbringing?
I’m sure it is. There is certainly a tradition of service and of global awareness in my family. I can’t imagine being another way. There’s nothing inherently useful about being famous, so I choose to be a vessel for things that I believe are worthy. Of course you can’t set up for everything and everybody, but it’s the least you can do when you’re successful to give something back.
Now that you’ve made a splash in the fashion world, should we expect a Colin Firth fragrance on the market?
I don’t think so, but I can assure you that a person standing close to me this month will likely notice a Tom Ford fragrance.
Congratulations again on the award, it’s a big one and you deserve it.
Thanks, I am very grateful for it, and I’m really looking forward to the tribute and to receiving it. This sort of campaign is a long road, and there’s no question that Santa Barbara will be a high point. Everyone I have spoken to about the festival has agreed that it is the most enjoyable stop on the Oscar trail. I have some good friends in Santa Barbara, and I’ve been visiting for years, so it will be great fun.
Colin Firth will accept the Outstanding Performance of the Year Award at the Arlington Theater at 8 p.m. on Saturday, February 13. For tickets and information, visit sbiff.org.