* * * * * E x c l u s i v e * * * * *
An Englishman in Rome (part 2)
by Marco Spagnoli* (2/6/03)
translation by Antonella

What do you think of comedic actresses?
Judi Dench, for example, comes from the theatre and is very self- confident. When she arrives on set, there is a great deal of respect towards her. But she is the one who is naughty and teases her colleagues and crew members. She plays tricks and makes jokes. It is difficult to work with her because she is always laughing. Renée Zellweger, on the other hand, is impressive. Even though she is so well-known, she never demanded anything, never got angry and never made any scenes. She seemed more a saint than a diva. Our first Bridget Jones’s shots were at night. We filmed at night for three weeks. It was very difficult. Nobody is at his best working at night. We were all a bit irritated, except her. Renée was the only one who was still smiling at five o’clock in the morning. She was always very nice and disciplined. Generally, American actresses complain a lot and behave unpleasantly.

As a member of the British film industry, how do you explain that your cinema imports American actresses for leading roles and exports many actors like Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, John Hurt and so on…to play the roles of baddies or eccentrics?
There is no direct connection between these two facts. It is not a straight exchange, but it is true. The importing is due to commercial reasons. This doesn’t mean that these actresses aren’t good, not at all. Let’s say that it is a custom in the movies that an English accent denotes the baddie. I don’t know if this is the result of the historical heritage of the American Revolution, but it is also true that commercial movies consider an actor with an English accent as exotic, eccentric or aristocratic. They are not yet inclined to consider someone who has that accent as acceptable for a leading role. We English actors are all, perhaps, a bit weird. England is not full of actors like Tom Cruise. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart seem to have more depth. Our theatrical tradition doesn’t produce players like that, actors for leading roles.

We were talking about the sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary. How are things going?
There is a screenplay that is being worked on.

In the book, Bridget Jones interviews the actor Colin Firth and it was said that you would be played by George Clooney…
No, actually Bridget should be interviewing George Clooney, who is playing George Clooney and not Colin Firth.

But if anyone were to play the role of Colin Firth who, according to Colin Firth, could play the role?
George Clooney would do very nicely.

Recently you’ve done a lot of comedies. Is it a genre you favour?
No, these are the roles that I’m being offered at this particular moment in my career. Girl with a Pearl Earring is my first film in quite some time that is so completely away from comedy. In any case, comedy is a much more difficult genre than drama.

And what about the theatre?
I wish to carry on a cinema and theatre career in parallel. For me theatre is more interesting. There are rehearsals, acting in front of the audience and everything goes in sequence. And this is easier. In movies, on the other hand, because of the way films are shot, everything is different: at nine in the morning I can kill my wife; at ten I have to marry her; I have sex at noon; and finally I am introduced to her in the afternoon…It is mentally difficult to maintain a character. We might have to scrap a scene because it is raining and then we get on to something else. In the theatre it is not like that. After six weeks of rehearsal, you go on stage. That is the actor’s terrain; in that way we gain control over everything. In movies, you are in the director’s hands. If he is good, you look good too. If he is not good, your acting also risks being pitiful. Then there is music; the composer puts thoughts in your head. From the audience point of view, I go out of a door and if there is a sad tune I’m sad as well. If the music is cheerful then I am too. In the movies, there are many elements out of our control. In the theatre you cannot lie. It’s a completely different discipline.

Is it difficult to film comedies out of order?
I've never filmed anything according to the screenplay, only according to the needs of the film process.

Is there an Italian director you would like to work with?
Gabriele Muccino. I met him in London and I like him a lot.

What do you feel looking back at your career?
I think I’ve been incredibly lucky. What it is really incredible is the way all this has happened. For many people it is easy to compare in negative terms and, above all, to measure your dissatisfaction. When I look back, I can think of some limitations in my work but  I certainly can’t complain about any of the opportunities I’ve had.  Many actors try to get into their careers what I have done and can never achieve it. A lot of my fellow students had great talent, definitely superior to mine. I don’t know where they have ended up now…

For me everything is still wrapped in a veil of incredulity.  It seems impossible to me that this happened to me and, even if I had enjoyed half of my success, it would still be incredible. I consider myself very lucky. In our profession to be working is lucky.  Making ends meet is a big achievement for an actor and unfortunately it is not always such a frequent occurrence.

Do you remember anything of your childhood in Nigeria?
Strangely enough, yes I do, even though I left before I was five. I remember a colourful bird that came into our house through an open window. I seem to remember that someone took it in their hands and showed it to me up close. I remember my father used to go to work by car every morning. I would watch him drive away in an old Volkswagen.  I remember my sister as very little and most of all an African child who was the same age as myself. We used to talk a lot, over long hours, and even now I wonder how we managed to communicate as both of us we hadn’t yet learnt to talk properly. We talked the way kids do but it seemed to me a very sophisticated conversation.

Let’s talk about Vermeer…
It is difficult to talk about him. He produced only 35 paintings and we know very little about him. He was an artist who somehow manages to escape definitions. His subjects are clichés that we’ve seen hundreds of times painted by other artists. But when he painted real subjects, his work becomes inexplicable and overwhelming. He was a painter whose life is known, but his personality and his spirit remain a real enigma. On set I learnt to use brushes and colours and even though clearly I couldn't become as good as he was (fifty years of lessons wouldn't be enough), I managed to achieve some skills. The most important thing was to be able to visualise what he could see. More important than the paintings themselves was to visualise his source of inspiration.  I often dream of the images he created. It has been a very strong inner experience, on a very dark and beautiful set. The experience of the light has been wonderful. I learnt to mix the colours, to make amalgams, vermilion and lapis lazuli. I was really amazed to find out that Chinese red paint is produced from insect shit.  The so-called “Indian yellow” is made from the urine of Indian bulls who feed only on mango tree leaves which produces a deeper tone of yellow. There were strange aromas. All in all, that set was for me really magical. A very strong and unforgettable experience. I hope the film will be good.

You also wrote a short story for an anthology edited by the writer Nick Hornby to benefit a charity. What kind of experience was that?
Nick asked me to write it. One evening over dinner he told me that he was gathering together a collection of stories to raise funds to finance a research centre on autism, which also has a school for children. In fact his son suffers from the illness. The other authors are professional writers and of course I obviously felt very intimidated. In a way he was challenging me. For some reason he believed that I would be able to accept this invitation and that I would manage to write something interesting. It was January and he told me: “You’ve got until June”. He wanted a monologue and I wrote this story as if it were a sort of mission.

Are you satisfied with it?
Yes, I am happy with the story. Perhaps comparing it to the other authors’ stories might change that judgement…We’re talking about writers like Roddy Doyle, Helen Fielding and others among the foremost contemporary authors out there. I was really in distinguished company.

Would you like to write again?
Yes, I think so.

Notes on paints from The Essential Vermeer:

lapislazzuli = lapis alzuli or natural ultramarine which is made of the dust of crushed lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, is no longer used since it is extremely expensive. Only a handful of color makers in the world carry the pigment. Colin more than likely used the chemically produced ultramarine.

lacca a rubino cinese (or Chinese red) = nothing. Presumably he meant
"carmine" which in fact was first used by the Aztecs; it does derive from the body of a crushed insect (which lives on certain kinds of cactus) is not precisely the insect's "merda" (or dung).

Indian Yellow has long been outlawed since it caused great suffering to the cows which were fed mango leaves. So again, it is doubtful that Colin would have had experience with this pigment either.

©All photos by M Spagnoli
and provided exclusively to www.colinfirth.com

* Film critic for numerous Italian magazines and web sites: Il giornale dello spettacolo, Vivilcinema, Time Out – Rome & Milan, www.cinema.it


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