Tom Ford and
Colin Firth join forces for A Single
A Single Man stars Colin Firth and
sees fashion designer Ford turn his hand to directing—with spectacular
Isherwood’s 1964 novel A Single Man
concerns George, a gay, English, 52-year-old professor in California,
who is bereft after the death of his lover. As he ponders the
possibility of suicide, he starts to see the world afresh,
transforming this into a story of beginnings as well as endings.
It is fitting, then, that the men who have been instrumental in
reimagining Isherwood’s book for cinema should find in the process
their own kind of rebirth.
Not that either wants for success. The 49-year-old Colin Firth, who
plays George, is cherished for the poignant and humorous understatement
he brought to hits such as Mamma Mia!
and the Bridget Jones films, although his versatility is demonstrated
well in less familiar works such as Where
the Truth Lies, in which he played an unsavoury singer, and the
Falklands drama Tumbledown.
His performance in A Single Man
is one of stunning range: he brings to life George’s
merry-cum-melancholy friendship with a colourful English
divorcée, Charley (Julianne Moore), his cautious fascination
with a campus dreamboat (Nicholas Hoult) and the contentment of life
with his late lover (Matthew Goode). Firth took home the best actor
prize from last year’s Venice film festival; the forthcoming Oscars
will surely be a laughing stock if his name is not among the nominees.
While Firth is at the top of his game, the 48-year-old designer Tom
Ford is jumping disciplines. This colossus of fashion brought Gucci to
its current prominence (he joined the company in 1990 and began his
decade-long tenure as its creative director in 1994). Ford, who now
presides over his own eponymous fashion house, had long had his
antennae out for the ideal film project. The confidence he exhibits in A Single Man, which he directed and
co-wrote, makes it clear he found it: every detail is right, from the
lush score and the 1960s costumes and architecture to the vision of a
sun-baked Los Angeles, watched over by Janet Leigh from a vast Psycho
Actor and director joined me in a London hotel room to pick over the
details of their collaboration. Firth came dressed for comfort in
jeans, trainers and a baggy grey sweatshirt. Ford, on the other hand,
wore a charcoal suit, a grey tie and glinting cuff links. With his
short hair like black ash, and a beard trimmed so close, it could have
been pencilled on, he exuded wealth. (One splash of his cologne would
probably cost more than the entire hotel.) What became apparent during
our conversation was that the men enjoy an easy rapport and harbour a
genuine love for the film they have made together.
Ryan Gilbey: Colin, did you receive your prize at
Venice with typical British embarrassment?
Colin Firth: Actually, I
didn’t at all. I had a particular connection with Italy anyway, as my
wife is Italian, so that added to the joy, the charm, of the moment. It
didn’t just feel like any old gong, put it that way. My wife’s family
took me on trust 15 years ago, so for them it was a special moment. I’d
shown up as this very, very dodgy commodity, attached to their darling
daughter. When we got together, she told them, “I’ve got this English
chap now”—one strike against me. “He’s an actor”— hmmm, oh, dear. “He’s
nearly 10 years older”—oh, boy. “And he’s got a kid with someone else.”
I had a mountain to climb to win everyone over. So to be standing there
with the award—well, everyone in Italy knows what that award means. And
I had enough of the local lingo to express how I felt; there’s no other
non-English-speaking country in the world where I could have done that.
Was Colin your first choice for
the part, Tom?
Tom Ford: Absolutely. But
when we were first supposed to be shooting, he was tied up making Dorian Gray. I remember talking to
him at the Mamma Mia!
premiere. It was so frustrating, because I’d had to cast another actor,
and here I was, talking to my first choice. I got in the car afterwards
with Richard [Buckley], my partner of 23 years, and I just said, “F***,
f***, f***. Goddammit.” Then our shoot got pushed back, Colin became
available and things magically came together.
If you swear enough, you often
get what you want.
Firth: You can swear them
into place, that’s right. I remember Tom staring at me at the premiere.
Ford: I think you thought
I was flirting.
Firth: [Laughing] It wasn’t that kind of
stare, it was much more enigmatic. What was great was that Tom had this
personal and complex story he wanted told, and to have him put that
whole thing in my hands was a chastening responsibility. It’s the sort
of thing that makes you think, “Okay, I’m going to have to raise my
game for this.”
Ford: I knew the
perception from the outside world would be that I was a risk.
Firth: But Tom’s not got
a record of screwing things up.
If you’re successful at what you do, and you’re gainfully employed, the
risk can be that any sense of the unexpected flies out of the window
and the whole thing becomes a treadmill. It shouldn’t be like that. The
privilege of having a profile, of getting to work as we do, shouldn’t
be allowed to be squandered. And this came at a moment when I
absolutely needed something bracing and refreshing. For it to be Tom
excited me. The script wasn’t ordinary, either.
In what way?
Firth: It was clearly
highly intelligent. There was an emotional potential that wasn’t
explicit, which was exciting to me, because I’m there to fill in the
gaps. I remember early in the shoot, I was glancing through another
script I’d received. A perfectly good script, but it just felt —
ordinary. That’s when I realised, “This one’s going to be special.”
Tom, it’s interesting that
Colin mentions the “gaps”. Some of the most powerful moments, I felt,
simply involved him staring into space.
Ford: Yes. There are so
many points in the film where George is internalised; we needed to see
on his face, in his eyes, what he’s feeling and thinking. Colin is
amazing at that. It was often hard to say “Cut”.
What are you thinking in those
moments, Colin? Are you thinking George’s thoughts?
Firth: [Thoughtful] Yes. I mean, as much
as that’s humanly possible. If someone shouts “Fire!”, then I’m out of
the building. But as much as that subjectivity is possible, absolutely.
And I think the relationship between actor and director is critical
here. If you work with the wrong director and you’re my sort of
actor—well, you’d miss it, really. I don’t enjoy highly demonstrative
stuff, and for me to be thinking George’s thoughts, and for Tom to be
able to read it, meant that the relationship was working. I felt quite
quickly that Tom wasn’t cutting when I expected him to cut. So I could
sense someone on the other end. I knew it was getting through.
How did that feel?
Firth: It was kind of
galvanising, motivating, inspiring. It made me think, “Right, there’s
more to go for now. I can see the world in a certain way, and he can
see what I’m seeing.” Also, I’m feeding off what Tom’s set up. The
eloquence of the design, costumes and locations was so helpful. And we
had that house, which told me a lot of the story. It’s a cosy wooden
structure surrounded by trees, but it’s also glass, so it’s exposing. I
walk on set and I see where the camera is. It’s outside, looking into
the house, and it’s just going to be me at that table with a coffee,
and the phone will be ringing. That, for me, is already resonating: I
know it’s not going to be a scene about a happy guy setting off for a
Ford: George is destroyed
inside, so he’s holding himself together, clinging to these physical
things—the house, the clothes. He probably had his suits made on Savile
Row. So we had those made, and we had the name “George Falconer” sewn
inside. You never see the inside of the suit, but it’s all there. I
think those things are incredibly important to an actor. Yes, it’s a
beautifully cut suit, but it’s brown tweed because he’s a professor.
Firth: That’s the sort of
thing I was driving at. The suit told me who George was. There’s
nothing like unspoken communication in any collaboration. And on this,
thankfully, there were no executives in the background. There was no
machinery behind it. What happens when there’s a lot of money at stake
is that the producers get involved. They won’t come to you, but they’ll
speak to the director. I’ve had that. Absurdly—and I’m not normally the
one to bring this up voluntarily— when I was playing Darcy [in Pride and Prejudice], some
executives were alarmed that I wasn’t brooding enough. But we’d been
shooting the later stages first, when Darcy sort of lightens up. I knew
we still had to shoot episodes one to four, in which I was going to do
nothing but smoulder and look out of windows. It was ridiculous. I
mean, I’d read the damn thing.
Tom, I liked the way George’s
situation is mirrored in the other people in his life. Everyone’s at a
crossroads here, aren’t they?
Ford: Yes, all the
characters are going through change. Charley, for instance, can’t see
her future, just as George can’t imagine his. That’s why they’re drawn
to each other. They’re book ends of the same character. A lot of women
I know today, they play by the rules, they do what’s expected of them,
then they end up stranded, like Charley. Men have this well-publicised
midlife crisis—leaves his wife, buys a fast car, dates a blonde—but
nobody addresses what happens to women in our culture.
There’s clearly great affection
in the film for all the characters. It has been said that a director
looking through the camera at an actor can feel something like love.
Did you find that, Tom?
Ford: Of course. You have
to have a crush on every single one of your actors. But they’re also
portraying a character— which, in this case, I wrote—so I had a crush
on the characters anyway. I said to Colin, “I have such a crush on
you.” Now, I have a crush on Colin in real life. Who doesn’t? But
that’s not the crush I was talking about. I had a crush on Colin as
George. I felt the same way about Julianne. You need to love your
Were you conscious of avoiding
the archetypal portrait of the gay man as victim?
Ford: I never wanted him
to feel like a victim. Besides, it’s not a gay story, he just happens
to be gay.
Firth: It was very little
in my mind. I could almost say that, while we were filming, I’d
forgotten that “gay” was one of the epithets you could apply to this
character. It’s about solitude. And if you change the love interest to
a woman, you could still make the same film. The moment when he’s asked
not to come to his lover’s funeral—that could be any secret or
Ford: It could be an
English actor with an Italian family.
Firth: [Laughing] Well, quite. There was a
whole big fold that was closed to me until I got hitched and was
wearing the ring. There are other things aside from being gay that can
isolate you. George makes a big speech about fear, and he identifies
that as an invisible threat in society. He’s right. Fear is a useful
commodity. Get enough fear out there and you can do what you like—set
up a Guantanamo Bay, invade any country.
Ford: You can feel the
fear every time you open a fashion magazine. You look at the models and
the clothes, and you feel you're a disaster, or you’re not up-to-date
But don’t you perpetuate that
fear, Tom, by working in the fashion industry?
Ford: Of course, and
that’s something I’ve had to deal with and justify. I think if you keep
it in perspective and realise that, yes, we may have a soul and an
essence that are not of this world, but we still feel things and touch
things, then you can allow yourself to enjoy those things. They add
value to the physical side of your life. But you’re right. I don’t know
how to justify it. I get an enormous amount of pleasure from visual
things. I come into a room like this and I immediately want to
rearrange the furniture. That’s what the film is about for me—getting
lost in the physical world and losing touch with the spiritual, which
is certainly something I’ve experienced.
Firth: What’s strange, to
me, is that George has haunted me since I stopped doing the film. I
feel he’s around somewhere. I have this slightly irrational thing that
happens when you fall for a fictional character—I keep thinking I’m
going to run into him somewhere. I want to check in on him, wherever he
is, and make sure he’s okay.