Colin Firth, the British actor who wooed Bridget Jones in two films and who somehow managed to retain his dignity while singing an ABBA tune in Mamma Mia!, looks a bit bleary-eyed, as if he’s been standing before his hotel-room mirror and splashing cold water on his face, cajoling himself to keep going. The night before, Firth had attended a Mann’s Chinese premiere of his new film, A Single Man, and then dashed to Century City to receive a humanitarian award from BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. “I wish I’d been a little more compos mentis to enjoy it,” Firth says. “So many of the wonderful things that happen around a film — celebrations, awards, all that — happen to jet-lagged people who are strung out on coffee or self-medicating on sleeping pills, and God knows what else. So much of what gets quoted is uttered by the barely conscious.”
Firth, 49, is destined for a few more late nights in the months to come. With the Best Actor award from the Venice Film Festival already on his mantel, Firth is considered an awards-season front-runner for his performance in A Single Man, fashion designer–turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s revered 1964 novel. Firth plays George, an L.A. college professor grieving the death of his longtime lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), in a car accident. As with the novel, the film follows George over the course of one day, beginning with the moment he opens his eyes in the morning. “Waking up begins with saying am and now,” the novel famously begins. I’ve brought my old hardcover edition of the book along to our interview, and Firth thumbs through it, saying, “Such a magnificent opening.”
George is the role of a lifetime, and even though Ford always wanted him for the part, it’s one that Firth almost didn’t get. The two men are represented by the same talent agency, CAA, but when Ford was told that Firth was booked solid, the first-time director cast another actor. Still, Firth lingered in his mind. “I was scheduled to start shooting in two months with this other actor, when I saw Colin at the Mamma Mia! premiere in London,” Ford recalled during a recent phone call. “And I’m standing there talking to Colin, looking him up and down, hanging on his every word, and afterward, when I got into the car with my boyfriend, Richard, I yelled, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck! I can’t believe he’s not going to be George. I just can’t believe it.’ ”
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Perhaps the movie gods were equally dismayed because the original actor soon bowed out of the project, prompting Ford to take a plane from his summer home in New Mexico to London — and a meeting with Firth. “I wasn’t completely convinced at first,” the actor admits. “It was a beautiful script [written by Ford, in a rewrite of an earlier draft by David Scearce], but Tom was a fashion designer, not a director. But when we talked, his vision of the film became clear, and the fact that he’d chosen this material already said something to me. This isn’t a story about beautifully dressed people. It’s about grief and isolation.”
In a daring departure from the novel, Ford has George planning to commit suicide at day’s end, a choice that gives the film shape and propulsion. “Bringing in a potential suicide intensifies what would otherwise be ordinary about the day,” Firth says. “George sees the child next door every morning of his life, but on this day, his last maybe, she becomes a precious piece of earthly matter; the face of a beautiful young man an angel; the sunset rich and overwhelming. The movie’s about a man being reintroduced to the life he’s decided to say good-bye to.”
All of this may sound overly serious, but the film is filled with surprising humor. At one point, George tries to find the right place in which to shoot himself — in his bed, inside a sleeping bag, in the shower — but he can’t get comfortable; he can’t find his spot. Zipped inside the sleeping bag, gun in hand, George flops around like a trapped fish. Although the theater remained absolutely silent, as if audience members weren’t sure laughter was appropriate, the scene made me laugh out loud. “I don’t think desperation and humor are mutually exclusive,” Firth declares. “I think George knows that he looks a bit ridiculous. He has a wryness about his fate and his decision. I love it when Charlie (played by Julianne Moore) asks him what his New Year’s resolution is going to be, and he says, ‘I’m going to give up the past completely.’ ”
Firth smiles. “I really like George. I haven’t been able to shake him. I keep thinking he’s out here in the world, for real. I’m hoping I run into him.”