Voyeur, March 2004

Firth impressions

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 roll. 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.

How much 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.

How did 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.

What would 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!

What about 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.

How did 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.

Were you 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 people.

Do you feel there is more emphasis on the acting when there’s less dialogue between characters?
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.

Was it 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 audience.

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 actress.
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 combinations.

How does 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, 1629-79.]

Like 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.

Thanks to Carol.

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