Sunday Times, Jan 17, 2010, by Ryan Gilbey

Tom Ford and
Colin Firth join forces for A Single Man


A Single Man stars Colin Firth and sees fashion designer Ford turn his hand to directing—with spectacular results 

Christopher 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 billboard.

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 party.

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 characters.

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 inappropriate lover.

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 enough.

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.

Scan thanks to PM

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