Actor Colin Firth
usually smoulders as the thinking woman’s sex symbol. In his latest
film he proves he’s no mere pin-up.
Colin Firth is on a
Fresh from the success of Richard Curtis’s feel good hit, Love Actually, co-starring actors
such as Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson, he appears this month in the
moving Girl With A Pearl Earring,
co-starring Lost In Translation’s It Girl, Scarlett Johansson.
Girl With A Pearl Earring is a
compelling account of the life of Griet, a 16-year-old girl (Johansson)
who appears in Johannes Vermeer’s painting of the same title. Set in
the Netherlands in the 17th century, Griet is employed by Vermeer
(Firth) as a housemaid to care for his six children, his jealous
pregnant wife and his uncommunicative mother-in-law. Tensions arise
when Vermeer’s wife suspects intimacy between the two, and reach a peak
when she discovers that Griet borrowed her pearl earrings to sit for
the portrait. We asked Firth about making the movie.
did you paint in the film?
I was going off in a little
room in the studio when I had free time, and I would paint. I didn’t
want to be some guy who’d never been near a canvas. It helps to get
used to sitting there in front of this thing hour after hour. And I did
do that, and it meant that it was second nature by the time we were
shooting the film.
you research life in the 17th century?
I went to Amsterdam and I
stayed in the old hotels, just thinking and trying to imagine myself in
his world. I tried to imagine his talent and environment. He grew up in
a pub and was surrounded by immense noise and haste. His father was
dealing in art, so he would have grown up with art.
you have done in those times?
I don’t know if anyone had
any need for my skills in the 17th century. I would imagine I’d have
probably ended up a criminal!
the hair, is it real?
It was record-speed hair
growing. No, it was provided by someone else. It’s probably walking
around on top of Johnny Depp or somebody now.
the set design influence filming?
Normally you walk up the
stairs and it’s a dead end, and the actual upstairs bedroom is a mile
away somewhere. And this was, for the same reason, a cohesive unit. I
actually don’t know why they did this, because you don’t really have to
do it. They built three floors, so it had the geographic wholeness that
the real house would have. Even the cellar in which Griet sleeps was
built as a real cellar. I remember them cursing it at the time,
thinking ‘why have we done this, there’s no room to move down here’,
you know? It’s a nice idea poetically, but it was not that practical.
But it was a very concentrated environment, because we were in a big
square ex-factory, and we were in Luxembourg. The whole experience was
very film-friendly, because it was quiet and we were undisturbed and
there were no distractions. Very rarely has the tone of a film so
closely resembled the tone of the making the film.
and Johansson silent between takes?
No, not at all. We would
shoot a scene and as soon as someone said “cut” we would start talking
ten to the dozen, because we both are like that as people. It’s quite
ironic that such a quiet and wordless film is made by such loquacious
feel there is more emphasis on the acting when there’s less dialogue
Very much so. And if you take
away the words you’re taking away one more piece of the artifice which
doesn’t belong to us. It’s a very pure feeling. We specialise in
gesture and nuance, the way people express themselves outside words.
When you’re speaking someone else’s lines, people focus on the dialogue
almost as if they were your words.
difficult to portray a famous painter?
Everything has its own
specific difficulties. But there are certain things that make this
easier. I didn’t have to conform to any physical conception of this
man, because there isn’t one. There are no portraits at all. Having
said that, the fact that we’re talking about a genius looms large. You
know, it’s not going to work if we cannot believe that this man’s
sensibilities could lead to these masterpieces. All you can play is
something that’s absolutely flesh and blood, knowing it has to read as
something perhaps a little bit more. He is a mysterious figure, the
paintings are mysterious, and the book portrayed him as mysterious. I
wanted to portray his mystery but also make him come to life for the
ambiguity of his feelings towards Griet is interesting.
I’m glad it’s left ambiguous.
I think it would certainly diminish something if it weren’t. I feel
that he got in over his head and felt very strongly for her. I don’t
think that was his intention, I think that he--not out of cruelty and not out of
arrogance, but rather from the single-minded, inevitable egoism of
creative people--was quite prepared to move on once
something else got his passion. Vermeer sacrificed people and I think
it could have happened to Griet too, had she gotten under his skin.
It must be
wonderful to work with Johansson, who is just coming into her own as an
Well, seeing her work I was
pretty convinced it wouldn’t take long before everybody noticed her.
She can keep very still and an awful lot comes across. The next person
can keep still and there’s absolutely nothing. I think at the heart of
what we call beautiful or charming and magnetic is to do with paradox.
Some people have one particular quality. It’s easy to define and move
on. But people who have some sort of contradiction mixed in them are
riveting. She’s full of those. She has the child and the adult in her,
she is beautiful but not conventionally beautiful. She can look
ordinary or she can look stunning, which is an amazing asset for an
actress to have. She can be aggressive and fearless and she can be
extremely fragile and vulnerable; those are rare and powerful
Peter Webber work?
We spent a lot of time on
preparation and art history. Sometimes Vermeer’s works are so
stubbornly reluctant to give anything away that it’s much better to
look at some of his contemporaries, such as de Hooch, de Witte and
Yaanstein, who painted satirical images. [Ed note: reference is to Jan Steen,
Vermeer, is solitude important to you?
I live in London at the
moment and certainly the older I get, the more I have an inclination to
retreat frequently. Absolutely.