Actor Colin Firth plays the role of Jack in the new film version of "The Importance of Being Earnest." He says Oscar Wilde's comedy could be killed if it were analyzed too much. The script requires a certain ability to go with the flow. He talks with Robert Siegel about this new version of Wilde's play and the challenge of performing the musical aspect of it.

The Importance of Being Spontaneous

an interview with Colin Firth on NPR's "All Things Considered"

May 24, 2002

Robert Siegel: That’s Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen and Colin Firth as Jack, pretending to be Ernest in The Importance of Being Earnest. Colin Firth’s acting credits include The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love and Bridget Jones’s Diary. As Bob Mondello said Colin Firth is mainly a straight man in The Importance of Being Earnest, but that doesn’t preclude his singing a duet with Everett. Firth talked with us about that and about the virtue of making a movie that’s been made before.

Colin Firth: I had two conversations within about a day of each other. One with a girl of 17, who thought that the idea was very cool and said that other friends of hers were looking forward to seeing The Importance of Being Earnest, and my dad, instead, said ‘Oh, they’re not doing that again, are they?’ [Siegel chortling] And so I think these things go in cycles, you know. A 50-year interlude is respectable. I think it’s a new interpretation for a new generation.

RS: When did you first encounter this play? In school? Did you read it or see it as a kid? Did you see that film or not?

CF: I didn’t see that film and I must have encountered it in school and I do not remember a time before which I knew about Oscar Wilde. And actually, I would say the same about Noel Coward. I just grew up with him. I can remember being a very small child and their names having a fascination for me: Coward and Wilde. You know, they were so odd. I thought it spoke of their stature somehow and, of course, Wilde wrote fairy tales so . . . I can’t remember whether I grew up with those either. I know that this was an important, witty man who was eminently quotable.

RS: Tell me about where you grew up and when theater at all started to figure in your life.

CF: I was born in England but, within a very few weeks, I was taken to West Africa where my father was teaching history in Nigeria. It could well have started then. My mother went to see Judi Dench in a tour of, I believe, Twelfth Night, so I funnily enough grew up with her name in the family as well. And we moved around England quite a bit. I had one year in the United States, in St. Louis, where I was in the 8th grade. I saw films like everybody else. I wanted to be on stage. I don’t remember being taken to much theatre.

RS: What do you remember of your one year in America, in St. Louis?

CF: It was such a staggering experience. The cultural difference was so enormous that I’ve never forgotten it. In the summer, we spent three months touring the rest of the country, really . . .

RS: Going out west and the . . .

CF: I have never forgotten the moment when I first saw the Rockies. We were stopped somewhere, I suppose, it must have been Colorado. I had never seen mountains like that. It took my breath away. I remember standing there. It was in the evening. It was sunset. I found it absolutely overwhelming. I could understand why people climb mountains or want to paint them or write about them or something, but . . .

RS: You have very, very vivid impressions of America from when you were an adolescent. . . 

CF: Absolutely, yeah.

RS: And then back to England for the rest of. . .

CF: For the rest of my life.

RS: Yes.

CF: Well, yes, I went back to England and I had a very conventional schooling in England and then . . . Yeah, the acting thing. The travel has always remained a part of my life.

RS: But you say, ‘and then the acting thing.’ I’m wondering whether there’s some moment when it’s clear to you that you’re going to be an actor and not a—not a historian or not a dentist or something else at that moment?

CF: Well, I do. There is a moment I can mark, about a year after I came back from America, where I don’t know how serious I was in making the announcement, but I did announce to myself and everybody else that I was going to be an actor.

RS: Well, at that time, this would’ve been in the early or mid-1970s?

CF: Yes.

RS: Was there somebody who, in your mind, when you thought of becoming an actor was The Actor as you’d become an actor like? Fill in the blank.

CF: I do certainly remember very young watching Spencer Tracy. I noticed Hopkins very young. Anthony Hopkins when I was still very young. But the one who I think probably captivated me more than any other that I can think of was Paul Scofield in A Man For All Seasons. I don’t know what age I was when I saw him but this was something new because there was a paradox to what he was doing in that. It was so utterly true. It was so unadorned. And how can it be true? It’s acting. It’s false. I know we’re all trying to be true, but there was something so expressive of integrity in what he did. He was portraying a man that didn’t have an acting bone in his body. And that was the thing that gripped me the most. It’s not in anything he seemed to be doing physically. It’s not in anything one might—in the crudest sense—call acting. It’s just in there, in his eyes. It’s there in his voice. It’s there in his stillness. And I think that was the thing I most wanted to pursue.

RS: And to this day, when you do a piece like The Importance of Being Earnest, are you still striving for that kind of naturalness in what is, after all, a period piece. It’s a comedy. It’s a . . . you guys do mug it up a little bit throughout the movie.

CF: Of course, I mean, I’m not playing Thomas More. Of course, he was playing a character who, you know, it’s required that kind of understated humanity. But however, whatever convention you’re working with and whether it’s pantomime or however broad the comedy, it’s still important to look for a core of truth and reality. It doesn’t have to be Truth with a capital T but you are representing a human being in whatever you’re doing. If it’s comedy, it’s going to be funnier if it’s rooted in truth. I find it much more difficult than drama. I think that The Importance of Being Earnest, as soon as you analyze it, is dead really. [grunting acknowledgment by Siegel] So you’ve got to kind of. . . it’s a bit like playing jazz or something. You’ve got to find a current, hop on it and let it carry you.

RS:  Tell me about your singing performance in The Importance of Being Earnest.

CF: [laughing] Is there really anything to be said about the singing?

RS: [ha ha ha] Well, tell us first about the song.

CF: Well, the song is a poem written by Oscar Wilde. I’m actually not sure what its origin is, but its words are by Oscar Wilde, music by Charlie Mole, who is our composer. And it's used to serenade Cecily and Gwendolen during the sequence in the play where they reject us. [Song is played] I did study the guitar part, hoping that some kind of ability on the guitar might make up for the shortcomings, the vocal shortcomings. But I’m afraid it all added up as one big shortcoming.

RS: [continues laughing] You saying you’re not planning a crossover album of some of the things you’re going to sing now?

CF: Whether I was planning it or not, I think it’s immaterial. I’m not sure anyone is going to have me.

RS: Well, Colin Firth, thank you very much for coming to talk with us.

CF: Thank you.

RS: Colin Firth, actor and sometimes singer, stars in The Importance of Being Earnest.

 Return to Articles/Interview Index