The cuddly Brit beloved for his dual Mr. Darcys in Bridget Jones’s Diary and BBC's Pride and Prejudice, Colin Firth is earning the best reviews of his career for A Single Man, Tom Ford’s directorial debut, which opens December 11 in limited release. In the film, which Ford adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal 1964 novel, Firth plays George, a gay college professor in Los Angeles dealing with the sudden death of his longtime life partner. Over coffee at Manhattan’s swanky Carlyle Hotel, the Mamma Mia! star defends Ford’s desexualizing descriptions of A Single Man yet denounces the film’s “deceptive” marketing campaign.
Advocate.com: Though he adapted it from Isherwood’s novel, Ford has called his film “extremely autobiographical” and has admitted to grafting much of his own personality and experience onto the character of George. Did it ever feel like you were playing a Tom Ford proxy?
Colin Firth: No, that doesn’t describe it at all. At its best, any interpretive process draws on the sensibilities of all the interpreters. This is why the people who are going to be fastidious about fidelity to the book are going to — well, they’re just going to have to live with it, really. To do anything with heart, you have to take over and bring yourself in. However passionate Tom is about the original material and however much he reorientates it to his own life, he then has to relinquish that to the actor. And however far we’ve strayed from Isherwood, he’s still in there.
A Single Man is about a gay character based on a story by a gay author and directed by a gay man who grafted parts of his own life onto the story, but Tom Ford has repeatedly said that “this is not a gay film,” a statement which has understandably disappointed some members of the gay community who hunger for the next Milk or the next Brokeback Mountain.
I know. But as militant as you can get on this issue is to actually say that it’s incredibly important that we get to a place where we don’t care one way or another. The world is full of battles where a minority is struggling for its rights, so of course I certainly get that you need a militant front. I’m not saying that all gays should be depicted in a way where it doesn’t make an issue of it, but it should be considered a triumph when you finally have a character whose sexuality is secondary to the plot. It’s just about human feeling, and I think that’s wonderful.
But consider for a moment how this film will resonate with the generation of gay men who lost their lovers to AIDS. Consider the neighbors like George’s who still use disparaging words to describe the gay couple next door. And thanks to marriage inequality, consider especially how many gay people have received a phone call like the one George receives telling him he’s not welcome at his deceased partner’s funeral because it’s “for family only.” It’s hard to argue that’s not inherently a gay experience.
Well, Tom didn’t take that scene out; he left it there, and I do think that adds to George’s isolation. But that moment hits home with everybody. If you want to call it a gay experience, this film brings it into the realm of recognition for everybody, which should be the ultimate purpose. This story conducts itself in a way that recognizes human feeling as equal, so it doesn’t have to be marginalized. Having said all that, I couldn’t help notice the irony of the fact that the day I shot that scene where the funeral is mentioned was the same day Prop. 8 got passed in California. I was driven to work past a group of demonstrators in favor of Prop. 8, and they looked like the family who live opposite George with their blond kids and their placards — happy-faced, middle-class, good Christians out there fighting to keep America in the 1950s. Suddenly, you couldn’t look at George’s situation and say, “well, that was just the ’60s.” So I realize I’m speaking in contradictions here to some extent, but this is a love story that should be given the same status as any other love story.
How might Isherwood have felt about his novel, which is practically synonymous with the early gay liberation movement, being adapted into a film that its director and star equate with any other love story?
Isherwood was very much about not differentiating between the human feeling in a person of one sexual orientation and the human feeling in a person of another. He wrote in an era where his contemporaries were hiding their sexuality in their writing. If you read the volumes of Noel Coward’s autobiography, which I’ve done, there’s a conspicuous absence of any mention of that. Terence Rattigan wrote about very messy, complex relationships that were based on his own experiences as a gay man, but he had to dress them up as heterosexual relationships because he was afraid of the consequences. I don’t know the rules Lord Chamberlain was imposing at the time, but it was scary. So there was something very courageous about how Isherwood just came out with guns blazing and characters who say, “Here’s me, here’s my professional life, here are my issues, here are my neuroses, and my sexuality is just a part of that.”
How much did George’s sexuality inform your performance?
Almost not at all. If the character I was playing was struggling with his sexuality, then I would’ve had to make that a part of the performance, but that’s not an issue here. Besides, I have too many friends of various sexual orientations to ever fall into any kind of stereotype, so it would never occur to me to “play gay” or “play straight.” If I were playing a character who flaunts his sexuality in a particular way — whether he’s a screaming queen or so insecure about his sexuality that he’s got a macho thing going on — then I’d look at that character trait and how it comes out. But that’s not George, so there was nothing to play in that respect. It was just about love and isolation.
There’s been some controversy over the “de-gaying” by the Weinstein Co. of the film’s new one-sheets and trailers, which focus less on the gay love story and more on the platonic relationship between George and Julianne Moore’s character, Charley. Do you think that does a disservice to the film?
Yes, I do. It is deceptive. I don’t think they should do that because there’s nothing to sanitize. It’s a beautiful story of love between two men and I see no point in hiding that. People should see it for what it is.
Has anyone ever encouraged you to steer focus away from the film’s central gay content when speaking to the press?
No, I haven’t had that yet. I’m sure I will at some point, but if I do, it won’t come from Tom.
Whether you’re flirting at a bar or just reading together on the sofa, you appear so comfortable on-screen with Matthew Goode, who plays George’s partner, Jim, in flashbacks. Because you don’t share the same sexual experiences with men in real life, is it any more challenging to achieve that truthful level of intimacy with a man than it is with a woman?
No, I didn’t find it difficult. Matthew’s a good kisser, for a start, but there’s not that much of a difference, quite frankly. If you really dislike or aren’t attracted to your acting partner anyway, it doesn’t make much difference if it’s a man or a woman. I’m still channeling something that comes from myself about what it is to ache for somebody or want to have sex with somebody, so you use your imagination regardless.
You’ve since played gay or bisexual characters in films as varied as Where the Truth Lies, Relative Values, and Mamma Mia! but your first professional role was gay student Guy Bennett in Another Country on London’s West End in 1983. Did you have any hesitations in taking a gay part so early in your career?
It didn’t cross my mind for a second — no more so than if the role had been French or a waiter. I’ll play anything. I’ve had the most extraordinary, rarefied, exciting training anyone could have at a place called the Drama Centre, where almost all my tutors were gay men. They opened up my world to such an enormous degree that I came out with a new center of gravity to my life and a view on sexuality that was so much wider and more complex than when I came in at 19. But I’ve grown up all around the world, and a lot of friends from my early childhood would fall into the category of one minority or another. I’ve had the great blessing of growing up fairly color-blind and without prejudices, so that’s the world I want to see — not the world where militant voices have to stay militant.
On a lighter note, I couldn’t help but notice that you’re in terrific shape for a man of 49. Are you always that fit, or did you spend extra time in the gym once you saw that Tom’s screenplay required nudity?
Oh, I spent a little extra time. [Laughs] It ebbs and flows the older I get, but gravity is increasingly the enemy. Tom’s probably done me a favor there, so I’ve tried to keep it up.