Set in Los Angeles in 1962, A Single Man is the story of a British professor (Colin Firth) who is struggling to find meaning in his life after the death of his long-time partner. The film follows George through a single day, where a series of encounters, ultimately leads him to decide if there is a meaning to life. It is a beautifully rendered movie, directed by famous fashion designer Tom Ford. Buzzine’s Izumi Hasegawa gets the the inside story from the film’s star, Colin Firth.
Izumi Hasegawa: This is one of the first films relating to loss about two gay partners that didn’t come about because of AIDS or discrimination. Did that attract you to the role? Did the story about the real life couple, Chris Isherwood and Don Bachardy, help you with your role?
Colin Firth: I watched the very beautiful Chris and Don: A Love Story twice. I don’t know that it helped me with the role. It was interesting. Whenever I embark on a project, it’s an opportunity to plunge into a particular world or a different perception, to learn about a time or a place I don’t know as much about. Love is love. I don’t feel there’s anything different to play because the partner happens to be male. The person I’ll be playing opposite is unlikely to be my lover anyway. It’s the job description – you find these emotions from somewhere. I think one of the things I appreciate greatly about Isherwood’s writing is that he doesn’t make the sexuality an assailing feature. I mean, sexual love is part of it. He was writing at a time when a lot of writers were covering that up – Terence Rattigan was writing relationships that were clearly between men which he had to disguise as being between a man and a woman. Isherwood didn’t feel a need to do that; his characters just happened to be gay. I don’t really define myself by my sexuality either. George struggles with many things, but one of those things is not his sexuality. I think he’s fairly happy with who he is in that respect.
IH: What was it like to work with Tom Ford?
CF: He has a great gift. He’s never made a film before, but it didn’t feel like working with a man who was a novice at all. There were a couple of pieces of film parlance he was unfamiliar with, but it didn’t seem to matter. He would just add them to his vocabulary and carry on. People treated him with the most enormous respect. There was such a strong sense that he could be trusted in terms of his taste and his judgment. It actually relaxed people. A film set can be a neurotic place and can be rampant in security. People are frightened of falling short, of failure, of miscommunication…all kinds of complications. A good director smoothes that out, unites the set, and creates a vision of unity which everybody wants to fulfill. He has that gift, and I think he’s learned that over many, many years working in fashion.
IH: There isn’t a lot of action in this film, and a lot of what we learn about George is through minute gestures that you’re given a whole scene to develop. What do you think of the method of character development without dialect? It does fly against the image we have of actors saying, “I need more words! I need more lines to say!”
CF: That’s not me, I promise you. I love a scene without dialogue. When you first get a script, a blank page is a blank page, so you’re not really sure what that’s going to be. You know that’s going to come from the sensibility of your director or whatever he’s going to allow you to do. One of the most depressing things, I think, that can happen for an actor is when the material is incredibly coherent and elegant, and you feel inspired by it. You don’t want to go through a series of hugely demonstrative gestures, particularly when you believe in the power of just thinking things onto the screen. I love that kind of cinema. Tom just let you do things. The script was clear to me. By the time I saw the way he set things up, it was eloquent already, so we were free. Everybody in the film seems to be at the top of their game. When I close my eyes and think of the film, I tend to see Nick Hoult’s face looking back at me. It’s very hard to forget the eyes. I see him looking back at me, if you see what I mean. There’s something very truthful and very in-the-moment about what everybody was doing, the people I was watching. I never had such an easy time as when I worked with Julianne [Moore]. That relationship felt real to me.
IH: How did you figure out what to do in the scene where George and Charly are lying on the floor of her living room and she doesn’t seem to understand that they could never have had a “real relationship?” Why didn’t you have the character storm out instead?
CF: I didn’t think of storming out. They are such old friends. He met her long before he met Jim. They were sort of lovers at one point. I don’t think it’s the first time they’ve had anything like this. It’s like family. Probably in the past he has stormed out. Not to put spoilers out there, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s his last night alive. He is there to say goodbye to her. Even if she says something which is so belittling to his relationship, she’s going to regret it and burst into tears at any second and he’ll know that. He also knows that she’s in love with him and that she’s saying stuff that’s got another agenda. Also, he does not want to walk out and shut that door and be dead next time she hears about him. I think it’s fair enough. I don’t think the stakes are that high. They get drunk, they laugh about stupid things, they have a dance, they shout, they argue, they make up, they cry, they have a cuddle… I’m sure every time they meet is like that.
IH: There is a large community that appreciates your playing this gay character. Do you totally take the sexuality out of the equation for your performance?
CF: No. The sexuality is there because part of the love that he experiences is sexual. There’s sex running through the whole movie, which I think is strengthened by the fact that we don’t see anybody humping. It’s great — we don’t need to go through all the body functions. What’s interesting about sex is its implications, the barriers that are broken down on the way to it. All these sorts of things are there in the film: the possibilities of it, the ambiguity, the relationship with Kenny, how sexual is it? Does Kenny have sexual feelings? The fact that it’s forbidden… The fact that George is homosexual in 1960 might add to his isolation. I just think the film is about love, regret, and gaining or losing your love of life. What I like about it is it’s absolutely unashamedly and unassumingly there. I think if more of the feature were made of it, then it would seem as if I have something to probe. This movie is about homosexuality simply as sexuality, as any other sexuality.
IH: Most actors say they’d like attention but express confusion when they start to receive a lot of it. How do you feel about all this attention being heaped on you now?
CF: It’s confusing. It’s hard to judge an actor who’s having his insane and insatiable need for attention fulfilled because he’d probably be at his best. It’s that Tom Waits line, “I don’t have a drinking problem, except when I can’t get a drink.” Check in with me when I’m not getting attention. Acting is my day job, and I do have a life. I think I invest more in my personal life than I do in my professional life. My wife is spectacularly good at keeping my feet on the ground. I have a home to go to at the end of the day, so all the rigors, the ups and downs, disappointments, and expectations, come and go constantly. Disappointments don’t last unless you cling to them, and neither do expectations. Even if you get rewarded, you can’t cling to that moment. I do find that the sanest actors I know have a fairly strong home life and have friends outside the business.
IH: You also did a voice for Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture A Christmas Carol, which came out earlier this month, in addition to this role. Can you talk about the differences between these two types of roles?
CF: They are completely different. I found motion-capture to be an exciting process. I think people are very suspicious of it because they imagine that storytelling is suffocated in technology. I think one is very aware of technology when you watch motion-capture, partly because it’s so spectacular, but it’s a remarkable thing. For an actor, it’s surprisingly liberating. I mean, you’re covered in dots and you’re wearing a dreadfully unflattering spandex suit. I curse DVD featurette extras. You actually do things in sequence, from beginning to end, without stopping and starting, without cameras rolling out, without lights being changed, without repetition. You just get onto the set and you stand where you’re supposed to stand, and every other actor is where they’re going to be in the movie. Scrooge knocks on the door, and you see people inside the window — somebody’s cooking, someone’s dancing, the actors are all right there, doing all those things in that relationship, in that geography that you see on the film, in real time. That’s pretty amazing for actors, actually, because the degree to which we have to suspend this belief varies. In the theater, you have the advantage of doing everything in sequence, once you’re up and running. You have the disadvantage of having a big black space in front of you and an exit sign in the back. It’s a fourth wall, not the wallpaper.
Film is probably the most artificial convention of all, just because of the fact that it’s out of sequence and the stopping and starting, etc. Motion-capture actually takes all of that away. There isn’t even a point of view. There are no cameras, no audiences — you’re just with each other, so I think it has immense possibilities. It reads faces now! They weren’t very interested in my face, as I’m just yelling “Merry Christmas!” to people, but in terms of what Jim Carrey was doing, you get close-ups which show extraordinary nuances and every twitch.
The Weinstein Company's 'A Single Man' is in theaters now.