It was, as The New York Times called it, “a moment as indelible in its way as the one in which Marlon Brando shouted ‘Stella!’ in his undershirt.” When aloof Mr. Darcy, played by a relatively unknown British actor in his mid-thirties, emerged from that sparkling lake 15 years ago, his white linen shirt just moist enough to hint at what lay beneath, only to encounter a surprised—and more than slightly aroused—Elizabeth Bennett, Colin Firth’s star was born.
Ever since that fateful scene, Firth’s career has been punctuated by various riffs on the Darcy persona. Whether it’s playing the repressed romantic victim to the brothers Fiennes—Ralph in The English Patient, and Joseph in Shakespeare in Love—or his meta-portrayal of the exact same character in the Bridget Jones films, the press has continually depicted Firth’s Darcy-like dalliances as a hungry ghost haunting Firth’s career.
“I’ve been hearing that for 15 years!” exclaimed Firth, who, at 50, hasn’t aged much since his career baptism. “I’m not trying to shake off Darcy!” His tone gets serious. “Never.”
In director Tom Hooper’s highly acclaimed new film The King’s Speech, Firth plays a fictionalized version of George VI—formerly Duke Albert, and great grandfather to the recently engaged Prince William—who is suddenly elevated to the throne when his brother abdicates, but struggles mightily to overcome an embarrassing stutter that’s plagued him since his early childhood. In order to fix his speech impediment, the then-duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) enlists the aid of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush, in what is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“We call it ‘the bromance,’” said Firth. “It follows the dynamics of a love story that is becoming increasingly intimate; it’s one man trying to reach another man.” He pauses, before adding, “Goodness knows men put up barriers and are uncomfortable with intimacy, let alone men in 1937. Certainly the Australians and the English are not known for their comfort with opening their hearts as males and sharing their private grief.”
Preparing for the role of a royal is no simple task. One can’t just shadow the notoriously private royal family. It took a great deal of secondhand research and speculation on Firth’s part to capture what it was like to be the king of England, but still, nothing truly prepares you for it, not even being a celebrity heartthrob.
“I understand that stuff that’s been more visible has definitely associated me with characters who are a little more buttoned-up,” said Firth. “In order for fortune to play to your advantage, you have to play the game, too, and that usually just means knowing when to take a risk.”
“I had a sensation—there were certain scenes where I walk down a corridor and everyone bows,” said Firth. “It’s freaky to see that! And to think that’s your life if you’re of that status is extraordinary. Nobody does that to me! I might walk down a corridor and flashbulbs go off, but there’s no respect there. Quite the opposite.”
When told that quite a number of British women would indeed bow at his feet, Firth blushed, let out a big smile, and said, “They’ve never done it!”
Firth’s characters have, as of late, displayed a newfound sense of vulnerability, epitomized by his performance last year as George Falconer, a gay, melancholic, middle-aged English professor who is grieving over the death of his ex-lover. Firth’s performance earned him numerous critical accolades, including an Oscar nomination for Best Actor—his first. It’s a far cry from the brooding, repressed characters he’s played that dominate his filmography.
“I understand that stuff that’s been more visible has definitely associated me with characters who are a little more buttoned-up,” said Firth. “In order for fortune to play to your advantage, you have to play the game, too, and that usually just means knowing when to take a risk. In a way, one of the reasons I did [ A Single Man] was I thought, ‘This doesn’t feel ordinary to me. Whatever it is, it’s not going to be like everything else.’”
For his role in The King’s Speech, he first sought advice from his father, a history lecturer at the University of Winchester. “I remember him telling me quite a lot about the politics of World War II when I was a kid,” said Firth. However, since his father specialized in American history, he wasn’t much help. So, Firth then turned to his sister, a voice therapist.
“I just said to her, ‘What do you think an unorthodox therapist in 1937 might do that would seem really eccentric—and very mechanical?’”
What resulted is one of the film’s more humorous moments—a montage where the future king, at Logue’s behest, rolls around on the floor, shouts vowels, swings his arms, bows repeatedly, and jumps up and down, all to destabilize the rigid royal in order to confront his fear.
All of Logue’s training builds up to the moment when, on the eve of his country’s entrance into World War II, King George VI must deliver a crucial address to his people, warning them of the sacrifices that lie ahead. Firth summoned the king’s paralyzing fear by channeling his own frightening experience in the recording studio while laying down tracks for the film musical, Mamma Mia!, under the watchful eyes of ABBA members Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.
“I knew they were hard taskmasters, and knew they didn’t have time for anyone who they felt couldn’t sing their songs,” said Firth. “It didn’t have to be a musical theater voice, but fortunately, they just loved it. And it was a breakthrough. But standing in front of the microphone in front of these guys was, yeah, there was pressure!”
Toward the latter part of The King’s Speech, there’s a brief, playful scene where King George VI pays a visit to Logue’s home to ask for his help one last time. As the queen sits at the dining table, the two men huddle in the living room, toward the rear of the apartment. All of a sudden, the front door bursts open. It’s Logue’s wife, Myrtle, home from running her daily errands, and unaware of her husband’s clandestine arrangement with the king. She takes one look at the queen sitting at her dining table, and looks stunned. Then, out comes the king, and Myrtle’s jaw drops.
The entire incident would seem terribly de rigueur, if it weren’t for the fact that the actress who plays Myrtle is none other than Jennifer Ehle, who last gazed at Firth through the adoring eyes of Elizabeth Bennett.
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and is a masters degree recipient from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial dept. of Blender Magazine, as an editor at Amplifier Magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.