LOVE ACTUALLY - Q&A with Colin Firth
Movie Interview by Martyn Palmer
In the weeks leading up to the start of filming on LOVE ACTUALLY, Colin Firth was having panic attacks and sleepless nights. Not, you understand that the undeniably talented and extremely experienced Colin was over concerned about his role, in this case playing a heartbroken writer, Jamie, who seeks refuge in the south of France. No, that bit was fine. Nor indeed, was he troubled about the quality of the script, which was, he says, "just fantastic." No, he was actually worried on behalf of Richard Curtis, the man who had written LOVE ACTUALLY, and for the first time, would be directing it, too.
"I was first on the schedule and just before we started I had panic attacks and actually woke up in the middle of the night thinking: How is he going to do this? How will he cope? He's got ten or fifteen stories, some very famous actors and he's going to jump in for the first time in his life and orchestrate all of that. It seemed to be an absolutely overwhelming task."
In fact, "Curtis did very well indeed," says Firth. "He was extremely upbeat, very cheerful and he expressed a lot of enjoyment in the process. And he's far too intelligent to pretend he knows things he doesn't which is something you do find with first time directors, quite understandably, when they feel the need to prove they have done their homework and yet it is very hard to have covered everything before you start."
"Richard, on the other hand, clearly had done a massive amount of homework and quite honestly, a lot of what is required for the job he already had done. He's a formidable storyteller. He has sat on film sets and watched his work unfold. It would be incredibly hard for anyone who has never made a film before to have any more experience than that."
Colin joined an all star British and American cast for LOVE ACTUALLY - Hugh Grant as a bachelor Prime Minister who falls for his Downing Street tea lady (Martine McCutcheon), Billy Bob Thornton as a hard-line American president with an eye for the ladies, Liam Neeson as a grief stricken father worried about how his young son is coping, Alan Rickman as a happily married man who is tempted by a young, beautiful colleague, Laura Linney, who is secretly in love with a handsome young man and at the same time, devoting much of her spare time to caring for her mentally disabled brother. And many more besides. The film tackles love in all it's glory and all it's heartbreakingly sad and funny guises.
Colin, 43, is one of Britain's best known actors. He starred alongside Renee Zellweger in the hit comedy BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, playing Mark Darcy the man who rivals Hugh Grant for Bridget's affections, and is currently filming the sequel. His first big break came playing another D'Arcy - in the highly acclaimed BBC adaptation of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE which won him a BAFTA nomination. Colin's numerous other films include THE ENGLISH PATIENT, FEVER PITCH, CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, MY LIFE SO FAR and PLAYMAKER. He was recently seen in the comedy, WHAT A GIRL WANTS and will be on screen in the eagerly awaited GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING soon. Colin lives in London with his family. He is a talented writer and contributed to a collection of stories collated by the author Nick Hornby.
Have you seen any of LOVE ACTUALLY?
Yes. I think it works fantastically well. As far as I'm aware Richard as something like a 100 per cent strike rate with everything he has done and you just can't believe he has pulled it off again with such an ambitious project.
Although with LOVE ACTUALLY he had to step up a gear, directing for the first time?
Yes, he did. I was first in on the schedule - it started with three weeks of my stuff. And just before we left for France I had a panic attack on his behalf and woke up in the middle of the night. I actually thought, 'how is he going to do this? How will he cope?' He's got ten or fifteen stories, some very famous actors and he is going to jump in for the first time in his life and orchestrate all of that. It seemed to be an absolutely overwhelming task and the read through seemed like a premiere or a night at the Groucho Club or something - limos, I was expecting bodyguards with earpieces (laughs). He could have taken any one of these stories and developed them into a feature film on their own. In fact, I'm led to believe that they were all stories that he had been toying with as full-length stories. And it's as if he has put them all into one and left himself with a clean slate.
When did you first hear about it?
There were rumours about it before it became definite. I remember by January (2002) hearing about this thing because there was a reading of the script which I had been invited to participate in but I wasn't able to be there. There was quite a buzz about the existence of this thing for a long time and you know a lot of talk about it, who may or may not be in it, and who may or may not play which part. I think there were quite a lot of musical chairs in casting as there often is. I knew they were umming and aahing about me and whether I was right for this or right for that. And I think it was 'well if Hugh is going to be the prime minister then perhaps I'm not right for the Prime Minister's brother-in-law or something. And it wasn't until the summer sometime that they offered it to me.
Did you talk it through with Richard at that point?
No, not very much I think it spoke for itself. I think quite often if you see something that needs a bit of work then you go into a period of debate. I just felt that it's very hard to question Richard really, when he has got it right so often. You can't really bet against him.
Why does he get it right so often?
I think he has done something which is very hard to do in film and would have been deemed impossible had he not proved otherwise, which is to write about middle class people.
As the title suggests it's a story about love, and the English are often a little wary of that emotion too...
Yes. The story reflects different kinds of love. The dark side of it is addressed, it's not really a film about the real guts of dysfunctional love and torture, it's not that sort of story. It's an
optimistic film aimed around Christmas time and it has that sort of leaning but it doesn't ignore the fact that love is painful. There is a scene between Liam Neeson and his little boy where the child has been locking himself in his room and behaving strangely and Liam's character is afraid that the boy is sick or on drugs or something. And it turns out that the boy says "no; I'm in love..." And the father says "I thought it was something much worse than that." And the boy says "worse? What could be worse than the total misery and agony of being in love?" And you can't really argue with that actually.
Talk me through your character. He starts in a bad place...
He is a man who is rejected. That happens at the beginning of the film. He is rejected by his lover and he has retreated to the south of France. He's gone away and my story feels a bit to one side as a result of that and in fact I had strong suspicions that if they needed to cut anything mine would be the first to go (laughs). So I'm in a cottage in France writing my novel and licking my wounds and the cleaning lady who is Portuguese and speaks no English is my love interest. A friendship develops and the comedy and pathos of the relationship exists in the misunderstanding. Basically you the audience get to understand what I say obviously, but she doesn't. You get the subtitles of what she says but obviously I don't understand what she says. You understand everything but we don't understand each other. And actually it's a simple love story within that convention.
Your segment in France was the first to be filmed. What was Richard like at that stage?
On a personal level he was extremely up beat, very cheerful and he expressed enjoyment at the process and he is far too intelligent to pretend he knows things he doesn't which is something you do find with directors, quite understandably when they are beginning. They need to prove they have done their homework and yet it is very hard to have covered everything before you start.
And it's hard to admit that you haven't...
Well quite. And you can probably do a multitude of films and there is still a whole bunch of stuff you haven't grasped. I mean, you can say that from an acting point of view, it's the same thing - and I've done twenty or so. Richard, on the other hand, was very, very on top of it. I mean he had clearly done a massive, massive amount of homework. And quite honestly a lot of what is required for the job he had down already. He was already a formidable storyteller. He has sat on film sets and watched his work unfold and be adapted into another medium and I had worked with Richard briefly. I had done a day on a BLACKADDER film and he was sat next to the camera and incredibly hands on in terms of changing bits of dialogue cutting bits, adding bits, and it would be very hard for anyone who has never made a film before to have any more experience than that.
I watched him on set and he is very relaxed and handles people extremely well...
Yes, he does I think that there was an awful lot he had going for him. He is a very, very diplomatic man, he has a lot of qualities which help him just deal with people. He's had a lot of leadership experience. For some people the stresses of the job are terrible and however much you are all mates, the director just can't smile anymore after a couple of weeks because there is too much pressure. And I never saw him get to that point. He was always buoyant, quick witted, approachable. Just like he always is.
It's billed as a romantic comedy. But in a way there is more to LOVE ACTUALLY than that. Would you agree?
Yes I would. I think it's a strange mixture this one. Because I think a feel good movie implies escape, fairy tale implies escape. This one I think takes a look at the kind of lives a lot of us lead. I mean these are people who look like us, dress like us, have jobs like ours. And you know that's probably not every walk of society, he is looking at urban middle class people. I mean he hasn't crossed a lot of class barriers or regional barriers here, but they are recognisable people and, I don't know, it's as if he has sprinkled magic dust over it all or something. Just to give it all a lift and give an optimistic take on some of the more stressful and distressing aspects of our lives. He is not solving the problems of the entire world but the kind of general love difficulties, which a lot of people have, the kind of the things in real life we lose our sense of humour about. This film rekindles the humour and it can kind of help to lighten one's view of those problems. And there's nothing wrong with that.
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