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
In the book, Bridget Jones interviews
the actor Colin Firth and it was said that you would be played by George
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
Would you like to write again?
Yes, I think so.
Notes on paints from The
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"
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
by M Spagnoli
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