Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan 17, 2010, by Barbara Vancheri

Colin Firth proud of 'Single Man'


After four changes in the time of the phone call and three disconnects, Colin Firth's distinctive voice finally crackled over the line.

He apologized, in advance, for any inarticulate moments to come. It had been a long day, and he had just come off the set of "The King's Speech" in London, where it was 11:30 p.m. and he was now doing phone interviews with reporters in the States.

But you could hear him rally as he said, "I'm very happy to be talking to you," and proceeded to be gracious, insightful and articulate about his profession and the movie "A Single Man."

It earned him the Best Actor honor at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, nominations for a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award and—just maybe—his first chance at an Oscar.

"I thought, this is not in the stars, the Academy Awards. I love their existence, but they're things that happen to other people, and that may still be the case. I'm busy with my day job right now. I'm on a film set, I've been on a film set since the beginning of October. I'm completely immersed in it."

But he is interested in the fate of "A Single Man," the Tom Ford film set in 1962 Los Angeles and now playing at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.

Firth plays a gay 52-year-old college professor struggling to find the will to live—or die—after his partner (Matthew Goode) is killed miles away in a car accident.

"I love the film. I'm devoted to it enough to do whatever I can for it. You know it depends entirely on this kind of buzz; it was a tiny film, it was a 21-day shoot, it had a tiny budget and it doesn't have a studio behind it or a big promotional machine," he said.

"It obviously has been bought up for distribution now and there is some buzz accumulating about it. ... It's not going to be pushed by a huge amount of money; it's going to be pushed by word of mouth and film festivals and people saying nice things about it and people relaying their personal responses."

A friend told Firth it left him speechless, and he would have to send him a letter with his thoughts. Firth moved the crew to tears during a scene in which his character, George Falconer, receives the call informing him that his partner of 16 years is dead.

It's a heartbreaking moment in which we witness the emotions wash over and slice through George. Firth credits its power to Ford, the fashion designer and former creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent turned first-time director.

"It's a piece of exquisitely brilliant directing because I think Tom Ford understood something which a lot of very experienced directors don't understand—I mean, some do, but too many don't—which is the power of letting an actor have complete freedom."

Nothing in the script said George puts down the phone and the audience watches what happens next. Ford and Firth filled in that gap.

"When I looked at the scene, it worried me a little because one of the hardest things for an actor to do is to start a scene in one emotional state and be completely transformed in front of a rolling camera into another."

George answers the phone as a happy man, thinks he's talking to Goode's character and then realizes it's not just someone else but the bearer of terrible news. "He has to process that news, and by the end of the phone call, he realizes what he's just been told is the end of his world."

Firth initially thought the tears would come later, but it didn't work out that way.

"Tom didn't say cut. ... He wasn't going to say cut until he wasn't interested anymore, and as long as he stayed interested, I stayed interested and I just stayed involved and he actually allowed a whole magazine of film to roll out."

He guesses that could have been 10 minutes. When Firth went into the next room to see how it went, crew members huddled around the monitor were sharing tissues and dabbing at their eyes.

"I thought, I guess something worked, and then Tom said, 'Do you feel like doing that again?' So I went back to happy and the same thing happened again, he rolled out the magazine again," and then they repeated the exercise a third time.

Although it might seem like a gamble for an actor with 25 years of experience to appear in a first-time director's movie, Firth didn't see it that way.

"Tom will tell you I was his first choice—I'd like to believe that's true," he said. "I think the first conversation I had with my agent was he said people are taking this very, very seriously and you should be flattered that he's interested in you because he's very picky ....

"However much people might watch this movie and think they see Tom's fashion history in it, this is not an obvious marriage of sensibilities. This is about a lonely, suicidal college professor in 1962, this is not about the catwalk or the fashion industry," and that appealed to Firth's sense of adventure.

Its portrait of what a man might make of possibly his last day on Earth is poignant, he suggests. Correctly.

The 49-year-old Brit, whose reputation as a thinking woman's heartthrob was cemented with such projects as "Pride and Prejudice," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Love Actually," had read the Christopher Isherwood novel that inspired the movie.

He also was familiar with Isherwood's other writings but, on the subject of preparation, said ruefully, "I think most people don't need to read about grief, I mean, if we haven't experienced it, we're going to.

"You are either going to die before all your loved ones or you're going to lose some of them first, there's no getting around it," he said. "I don't think there's a person alive—an adult alive—who hasn't experienced loss of one kind or another."

The movie has reminded Firth what it means to be part of a project that is real and personal, although he clarified, "I don't think there's anything wrong with cheap entertainment, by the way. I think it's perfectly legitimate to lift people's spirits or give them a bit of Christmas escapism or help them indulge in a bit of silliness."

"A Christmas Carol" in 3-D or "Mamma Mia!" anyone?

"I think it's all appropriate but when you realize you've stepped into territory which connects with people in a way that is too painful for them to speak about it, it's very sobering."

Director Ford had kept "Single Man," shot in late 2008, under wraps until the Venice Film Festival in September 2009.

"He didn't show it to distributors, he didn't show it around. The very, very, very few people he did show it to got excited about it, and a kind of underground ripple seemed to grow."

In Venice, Ford and Firth were greeted by applause at a press conference ("I mean, I'm not used to applause at a press conference") and a standing ovation after the premiere. The next night, Firth received the Coppa Volpi for best actor.

"It was the first time I'd even been to the Venice Film Festival and to come away with that, was to me as good as it could get in a way," said Firth, who is married to the former Livia Giuggioli and speaks Italian.

"It wasn't the result of a campaign, I wasn't surrounded by rivals and there was no bitterness or anything kind of hanging on, it was just pure in that way. I was also able to give an acceptance speech in the only language in the world, apart from my own, that I'd be able to do that.

"It was an incredible moment."

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