Bal­anc­ing elo­quence and si­lence

Bri­tish ac­tor Colin Firth dwells on the virtue of re­straint in a wide-rang­ing con­ver­sa­tion with

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE -

Colin Firth joked that he was look­ing for of­fers in Chi­nese films, adding that he hoped to work with Chi­nese direc­tors Zhang Yi­mou, Feng Xiao­gang, Chen Kaige, Lou Ye and Jia Zhangke, to name a few.

The light-hearted rev­e­la­tion came at the end of an hour­long talk, mod­er­ated by yours truly, which was de­signed to en­com­pass the high­lights of an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer of the much hon­ored Bri­tish ac­tor.

Ti­tled “A Colin Firth Ret­ro­spec­tive”, the con­ver­sa­tion was, in turn, part of a pro­gram for the 2016 China-Bri­ton Film Fes­ti­val held in the Bei­jing sub­urb of Lang­fang.

Firth re­ceived a life­timeachieve­ment award at this fes­ti­val when it opened on Dec 12.

The 2010 Acad­emy Award win­ner for best ac­tor (for The King’s Speech) did not ran­domly pick a few big names from China’s boom­ing film in­dus­try to please the host coun­try. He did his due dili­gence.

He was im­pressed by how seam­lessly Amer­i­can ac­tors Tim Rob­bins and Adrien Brody fit­ted into Feng’s epic tale on the 1942 famine. He liked Lou Ye’s 2012 movie Mys­tery and, when I ex­plained that Chen’s Farewell My Con­cu­bine is widely viewed as the best Chi­nese film in his­tory, he chimed in, say­ing it was one of the best in world cinema.

And he was plugged in to the lat­est in Chi­nese showbiz, aware of the pub­lic­ity blitz whipped up by The Great Wall, Zhang’s epic tale of fight­ing mon­sters on the best-known Chi­nese land­mark, which would pre­miere in China in a few days. It is a Sino-US co-pro­duc­tion that stars Matt Da­mon.

Asked about ideal projects that re­quire the pool­ing of tal­ents from both China and Bri­tain, Firth cites a story by Ja­panese-Bri­tish author Kazuo Ishig­uro, set in 1930s Shang­hai and cen­ter­ing on a group of dis­placed ex­pa­tri­ates, as the per­fect ex­am­ple for cul­tural fu­sion that lends it­self to big-screen treat­ment. The White Count­ess, made by the TheKing’sSpeech multi­na­tional team of James Ivory and Ismail Mer­chant, was re­leased in 2005.

“I don’t think I would have any chance of de­liv­er­ing di­a­logue in Man­darin con­vinc­ingly with­out un­der­stand­ing what I was say­ing,” he says re­spond­ing to my hy­po­thet­i­cal question that his role in a Si­noBri­tish co-pro­duc­tion would re­quire him to speak some lines in Chi­nese.

“I can’t just lis­ten to the pho­net­ics. When I read words on a page, writ­ten by some­one else, my job is to own them. I have to make sense of them emo­tion­ally, men­tally and psy­cho­log­i­cal-

ly. I have to take the words you gave me, be told how you say them mu­si­cally, which would be a huge chal­lenge, and then own them.”

The art of si­lence

With solid train­ing from Drama Cen­tre Lon­don, Firth dis­plays a mas­tery of di­a­logue that ranks him with the best of his Bri­tish peers. Iron­i­cally, his most piv­otal roles did not re­quire him to speak long Shake­spearean lines as if let­ting pearls roll off satin sashes.

For his break­out per­for­mance in the 1995 BBC adap­ta­tion of Pride and Prej­u­dice, he spent a lot of time star­ing out of the win­dow, he says. “And I was on screen only about 20 per­cent of the time,” and the script usu­ally spec­i­fied lit­tle more than “star­ing”.

Chi­nese fans still scream at the men­tion of the name Darcy even though the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, am­ply rep­re­sented in the au­di­ence, was only born in the years when the six-part se­ries made its first splash on TV, in­clud­ing the Mid­dle King­dom.

“I would be curious to see what the fuss is about,” Firth says, ex­plain­ing that he had not watched the se­ries in two decades.

In A Sin­gle Man, Firth, in the role of a gay Bri­tish univer­sity pro­fes­sor liv­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in the 1960s, re­sorted to si­lence rather than lan­guage to con­vey the per­va­sive sense of loss and grief.

He re­counted that he did not know fash­ion or Tom Ford, the fash­ion designer who wanted to make his di­rec­to­rial de­but with Christopher Ish­er­wood’s novel of the same name. Firth took a risk and it paid off hand­somely, win­ning him a Bri­tish Acad­emy of Film and Tele­vi­sion Arts award for best ac­tor in a lead­ing role and an Os­car nom­i­na­tion.

He did not play up the gay­ness of the char­ac­ter. “The fact he was gay was prob­a­bly num­ber eight out of the 10 qual­i­ties of this char­ac­ter,” he ex­plains.

Give your roles dig­nity

“Never play the emo­tion,” Firth says that’s how he was taught in drama school. “You find emo­tion. You ex­pe­ri­ence it. But don’t act the emo­tion be­cause that’s not real life. No­body walks into a room with the in­ten­tion to be sad or an­gry. What you usu­ally see peo­ple do­ing is to man­age that emo­tion. If they don’t man­age it, that’s be­cause the emo­tion is too big for them. We are usu­ally much more moved with an ac­tor strug­gling with his tears than just ex­hibit­ing tears. The same is with rage or sad­ness. That’s the chance to play the dig­nity. You should have some man­aged re­la­tion­ship with your emo­tions. It sounds con­vo­luted, but it’s a crit­i­cal thing with act­ing. I see it with ev­ery great ac­tor.”

That was ex­actly the ap­proach Firth took to­ward the tit­u­lar char­ac­ter in The King’s Speech. He pre­pared by lis­ten­ing to the speeches of Ge­orge VI, but “rather than try­ing to sound like him, I tried to sense what he felt. I could hear the dif­fi­cul­ties.” He was es­pe­cially moved by one par­tic­u­lar mo­ment “that wasn’t the pain of the stam­mer, but the dig­nity with which he fought the stam­mer”. There were a few sec­onds of ter­ri­ble si­lence that was “very elo­quent to me about what he was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing”.

Even af­ter film­ing had ended, the stam­mer still in­ter­fered with the ac­tor’s speech pat­terns. “When I think about stam­mer­ing, I start to lose my rhythm and fall over my words.” It was a “phys­i­o­log­i­cal thing” that Firth had dis­cov­ered while re­search­ing the char­ac­ter.

For­tu­nately he had been warned and helped by Derek Ja­cobi, “one of our great­est ac­tors in Bri­tain”, who had fa­mously played Claudius in I, Claudius, a real-life char­ac­ter with a stam­mer. The speech im­ped­i­ment stayed with him for about six months and then went off. “It was a nor­mal thing, so don’t panic,” Firth was told by his pre­de­ces­sor.

Firth sees act­ing as “a jour­ney of imag­i­na­tion”. The ac­tor does not re­ally go through the things the char­ac­ter does, but in his mind he does, which is like “dis­ap­pear­ing into the world of a book or a movie or a play and feels it’s still part of your liv­ing af­ter it’s done”.

Be­hind the scenes, Firth was also a per­fect em­bod­i­ment of the English gen­tle­man, which he por­trays so vividly on screen, punc­tual to the minute and cour­te­ous to ev­ery­one. When asked about the se­cret for­mula for this im­age, he laughs it off: “It’s just the suit.”

Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@china

You find emo­tion. You ex­pe­ri­ence it. But don’t act the emo­tion be­cause that’s not real life.” Colin Firth, Bri­tish ac­tor, on the se­cret of act­ing


Colin Firth wins Acad­emy Award for best ac­tor for in 2010.


Firth’s ap­pear­ance in China-Bri­ton Film Fes­ti­val in Bei­jing at­tracts a large num­ber of fans.

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