New York Times, Dec 02, 2009, by Sarah Lyall
He Wears a Revealing Sort of Restraint

The British actor Colin Firth at lunch was just what you might imagine from his movies: articulate, thoughtful, reserved, dryly funny. He wore no shabby-chic items of clothing, exhibited no narcissistic flourishes, made no precious culinary demands and did not look aggrieved when asked, as everyone always asks, about Mr. Darcy, the role in “Pride and Prejudice” that made him famous in Britain all the way back in 1995.

He has an understated way of putting things. Asked about his trim physique, he attributed his newfound interest in the gym to the image-conscious exhortations of Tom Ford, who directed him in (and wrote the screenplay for) the forthcoming film “A Single Man.”

“He told me I looked good, but I’d look better if I had a personal trainer,” Mr. Firth explained.

Perhaps the conversation went a bit differently. “I told him he was fat,” Mr. Ford recalled later.

But Mr. Ford’s forthright Americanness and Mr. Firth’s roundabout Englishness proved a happy marriage in the movie, which will open in limited release on Friday. “A Single Man” is the first foray into film for Mr. Ford, the fashion designer, men’s wear mogul and sometime model. It is also a breakthrough for Mr. Firth, whose best qualities as an actor—subtlety, precision, the ability to convey emotion by seeming to withhold it—have the chance to flourish in his portrayal of a gay British professor in California in the early 1960s crippled by grief over his lover’s death.

After deft, often elegant and generally unshowy performances in dozens of movies for more than 30 years, Mr. Firth is being noticed in a new way for his work in “A Single Man.” When the film made its debut at this year’s Venice Film Festival, his performance drew raves, and he won the award for best actor.

Based on a slim novel by Christopher Isherwood that was a groundbreaking text in the gay-rights movement, the movie follows a day in the life of Mr. Firth’s character, George Falconer. In the book George goes about the quotidian business of leading a life of quiet despair. In a major departure in the film, the day is meant to be his last; he plans to commit suicide at the end of it.

Perversely, the anticipation of scheduled oblivion frees him from his existential anhedonia, replacing it with a quietly ecstatic appreciation of things he is preparing to give up: physical beauty, sensual pleasure, a spectacular sunset, the company of his best friend, Charley (Julianne Moore).

“He’s seeing things for the first time because he knows he’s seeing them for the last time,” Mr. Firth said. He mentioned a famous television interview in which the British playwright Dennis Potter, dying of cancer, marveled at the flower he could see from his window. “It is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be,” Mr. Potter said then. “Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were.”

Mr. Firth was speaking over beef carpaccio and roast cod in the artsy Groucho Club in Soho. Except for a little thickening around his chin, he still looks, at 49, like the young heartthrob he was in 1984, when he played Tommy Judd in “Another Country.” He still has the full head of curls and the hint of deep emotional reservoirs beneath a smooth surface that (along with a scene in which he emerged, wet-shirted, after a dip in a lake) so thrilled viewers in “Pride and Prejudice.”

Although he claims to spend a lot of time “flat on my back, staring at the ceiling,” he said, it would seem that he is busy all the time; by his own count he has appeared in something like 14 movies in the last three years. These include “Mamma Mia!,” in which he plays a buttoned-down lawyer who finds the freedom to lust after other men (and to sing) in sunny Greece; “Dorian Gray,” in which he plays a debauched, hedonistic schemer; and “Then She Found Me,” in which he plays the repressed, prickly love interest of Helen Hunt.

He is underappreciated, said Barnaby Thompson, who produced “Dorian Gray” and has often worked with Mr. Firth.

“He is one of the best actors of his generation, and this might be a turning point in his career,” Mr. Thompson said of “A Single Man.” “The interesting thing about most films he’s in is that he’s doing not much very well, and everyone else is doing a lot.” He doesn’t “chew the scenery,” Mr. Thompson said, but has the talent of acting without seeming to.

“His principal strength is that he is incredibly truthful,” he said. “Whether he’s playing drama or farce, you always believe him on an emotional level.”

Mr. Firth came to “A Single Man” through the unusual route of a direct, unfiltered-by-agent e-mail message from Mr. Ford.

“I wanted an actor who was completely sympathetic who could project this idea of an inner life that’s self-contained and orderly and restrained,” Mr. Ford said. “Some actors fake things, but with him, whatever it is—the expression in his eyes, the subtle movement of his face—communicates what the character is feeling. He’s perfect because the character is so much about restraint, about holding yourself together on the surface.”

Mr. Ford proved to be an unstoppable persuasive force, from the eloquence of his e-mail message, to his script, to his appearance at their first meeting, preternaturally pristine despite having just stepped off a plane. “If I’d known him a little better, I would have scrubbed up a little more,” he said.

The versatile Mr. Firth has played his share of comedy, as in the “Bridget Jones” movies. He also has a healthy sideline in sneering aristocratic villains like Lord Wessex in “Shakespeare in Love” and Lord Henry in “Dorian Gray.”

“It’s much more fun playing nasty, mean characters,” he said. George, while not the least bit nasty, was particularly richly drawn, he said. “We’re talking about one day in the life of a man, in which he experiences despair, lust, hilarity, frivolousness, indignation and anger—just about every experience a human being can have.”

He liked playing a character whose inner life was so at odds with his carapace. “One of the reasons that Tom’s film is so wonderfully written is that it addresses the fact that people aren’t really saying what’s going on inside them,” he said.

In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a flashback, George hears by telephone of his lover’s death in a car accident, all the while maintaining the pretense that the two were just friends, that he understands perfectly that the funeral is for family only. He sits almost completely still as he projects the sense of a man whose world has fallen apart.

“One of the things I’ve always been taught as a drama student was not to play the emotion,” Mr. Firth said. “That doesn’t mean to say you don’t express it, you don’t have it, you don’t find it. The emotion is the obstacle. The person doesn’t want to be unhappy, and the unhappiness is the obstacle that gets in the way.”

Mr. Firth was born in 1960, the son of two professors, and spent part of his childhood in Nigeria, where three grandparents were missionaries. He was a disaffected, long-haired, existential-philosophy-reading, guitar-playing youth.

He once scored 3 percent on a chemistry test. (“The teacher gave me two points for writing my name at the top of the paper and two points for writing his name, and he had to take a point away for spelling his name wrong,” Mr. Firth said.) Scheduled to take an early-morning exam required to get into college, he rolled over and went back to sleep.

All that is in the past.

“As time’s gone on, I’ve become less interested in how bad I felt as a kid,” he said, a refreshingly un-actorish thing to say. But he leads an un-actorish life in West London with his wife, the director and producer Livia Giuggioli, with whom he runs a company that promotes environmental issues. He works on behalf of refugees and fair trade for tribal people, though he does not make a big deal about it. He has a fungible household of five boys: two stepsons in their 20s, a 19-year-old from a relationship to the actress Meg Tilly, and two younger sons with Ms. Giuggioli.

The turning point for him was drama school, at the Drama Center London. He got out of bed, chopped off his hair, cleaned up his attitude, won the lead role in a school production of “Hamlet” and went almost directly to “Another Country,” first on the West End and then on film.

At one point, Mr. Thompson recalled, Mr. Firth considered playing one of the drag queens in the movie “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” He took an alternate path as Mr. Darcy, setting himself on a wholly different trajectory.

Because he finds the ramifications of repression so interesting, Mr. Firth said, he doesn’t mind being the sometime go-to actor for handsome British characters struggling between reserve and emotion.

“I like what happens as a result of communication problems because I don’t think people communicate truly in any way,” he said. “Communication is always imperfect. Language is an imperfect instrument—so is sex, so is shouting at each other—and although you get the occasional moments when you feel truly connected, as George says in the film, they’re pretty hard to keep hold of.”

Photo for the New York Times by Jonathan Worth

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