The Telegraph, Sept 22, 2007, by Sheila Johnston

Colin Firth: 
portrait of a young   writer 


Three faces adorn the poster for And When Did You Last See Your Father?, the forthcoming film of Blake Morrison's bestselling memoir about his relationship with his cantankerous, charismatic dad.
One, gazing down in a characteristically moody pose, is Colin Firth, playing the writer. The second, equally familiar, is a duffle-coated, apple-cheeked Jim Broadbent, raffishly beaming as Arthur, the brash elder Morrison.

But the third, the one in the front of the poster image, locking eyes with us in a glance of amused and rueful complicity, the one whose name is buried in the tiny type under the title – who is he?

"It's a bit strange seeing your head plastered on a wall," says the face's 18-year-old owner, Matthew Beard. "It's not natural, is it?"

He'd better get used to it. Beard has garnered rave reviews for his portrayal of the teenage Blake, blazing through the '60s aflame with hormones and resentment. His is not a fleeting flashback cameo, but a role that enjoys equal, possibly greater screen time than that of his fellow actors.

And thus he finds himself sitting now, endearingly star-struck, in a trendy Soho media watering hole. "When you're in London, that's where all the celebrities live," he says. "In Sheffield you don't expect to see them walking down the high street."

The casting director, Priscilla John, discovered Beard
who has been acting since he was four, entirely for televisionduring a blitzkrieg raid on Yorkshire drama workshops. "Matthew has got an old-fashioned feel to him. A Northern, natural quality," she says. "He wasn't someone who's had highlights put in his hair and wears groovy gear and does that walk. He was gentle and innocent, and had a great stillness."

For Anand Tucker, the director, "Seeing Matthew was one of those lightning-bolt moments. Matthew's brooding, hurt intensity was absolutely how I imagined Blake to be."

Morrison himself has spoken self-deprecatingly about his dashing screen avatars. "When I tell people who's playing me, the laughter generally lasts about five minutes," the writer has said.

Tucker demurs. "Actually, Blake's a bit of a dashing fox," he says. "A bit of a hit with the ladies at Hay-on-Wye."

Yet the choice of Beard was not an obvious one. At auditions, he had eyed up a phalanx of rival mini-Firths convinced that he, who looks nothing like the older actor, stood no chance at all. "Casting is never about looky-likeys," insists Tucker. "As soon as you do that, you're screwed. You're casting on a fake thing."

Token efforts were made to create a continuity. "Colin has very, very dark brown eyes and mine are light green," says Beard, whose father, happily, is an optician. "He brought home eight shades of brown contact lenses, and we held them all up next to the Bridget Jones DVD case to see which one was right."

And, while it's not given to many young actors to ask Firth which hand he masturbates with, Beard did, in the pursuit of authenticity: both were called upon to perform the deed on camera. "It was one way of bonding," Firth recalls.
Anyway, as Firth points out, "If a film succeeds in weaving a spell over you, you won't really question it." When he was shooting Girl With a Pearl Earring, everyone was sceptical about the choice of Scarlett Johansson. "By the time it came out, there was endless talk about how uncannily like the girl in the painting she was."

And, Firth adds, what about the forthcoming Dylan biopic which has everyone from Cate Blanchett to an 11-year-old black boy playing the singer? "You can get away with almost anything if you decide not to be literal about things."

Did he give any tips to Beard or to little Bradley Johnston, who plays Blake at seven? "I always think there's something a bit presumptuous about advising other actors. I've increasingly found I learn more from them than they do from me. It can be a chastening experience to watch the brilliance of a very young actor. Their inexperience means they haven't learned bad habits or put on the protective masks that we develop as we grow."

What next? Beard is currently shooting Hippie Hippie Shake, based on Richard Neville's memoirs of the Oz obscenity trial; he plays a small role based on Charles Shaar Murray, who edited the magazine's infamous "Schoolkids" issue.

"He's a very different character from Blake, much more outspoken. There's a lot of shouting and heckling the court and discussing what we're going to put in the magazine. Anarchy rules, and all that stuff."

He has a place to read English at York University but has decided to take a gap year, "to mess around being an actor. I definitely want to go to uni. To be normal for a bit rather than doing glitzy things that are great fun but could easily warp your brain. But, when this film comes out, I don't want to be tied up with Freshers' Week. At the moment I'm just enjoying meeting these huge directors for projects I could never dream of working on."

# 'And When Did You Last See Your Father?' is out on Oct 5.

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