After winning at the Golden Globe and BAFTA, Colin Firth eyes the Academy Awards. He shares the experience of ‘The King's Speech’ with Sangeetha Devi Dundoo
It was a small film — a British period drama that shows King George VI overcoming stammering with the help of Lionel Logue — that gripped UK and then the US. The King's Speech, set to release in India on February 25, has just swept the BAFTA with seven awards. Colin Firth, nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, reminisces on the work that went into essaying the part of King George VI in an email interview. Excerpts.
Congratulations on winning the best actor awards at the Golden Globe and BAFTA. What are your expectations at the Academy Awards for the film with 12 nominations?
It's gratifying to get attention for a performance. But, the film has to stand out. All I can say right now is that if the talk from the festivals and from those who've seen it is positive, it's a wonderful start. It's a code that it's a really good movie and I completely welcome it.
Stuttering is a common problem than it is perceived to be and many well known personalities have overcome it. How did you research for the role?
We had a very intense three-week rehearsal period. We were scheduled to have two, but Geoffrey (Rush) came over a week early to start the work, because there was so much to deal with and resolve. I grew up with a few people who stammered. There seemed to be more then than there are now, I wonder if there are any figures on that. I certainly knew people who did, yeah.
In an interview, you had mentioned having vocal problems in your 20s. Did that experience help you while performing?
I had vocal problems in my 20s. I had an injury on my vocal chord which had to be dealt with surgically. It wasn't a stammer but I couldn't be heard properly. I remember a voice therapist I was talking to said “don't underestimate how debilitating it is”. People appreciate the problem of being blind and deaf and so on. Not being able to speak properly to people — in the way they expect — I think the psychological damage it does is underestimated.
I like to talk, and I had a voice that sitting here, like this, I could get away with it but if there were more than three people in the room or there was music playing, I just couldn't be heard. I couldn't cut through the way I wanted to, I couldn't express myself, my identity was completely stifled. So in some ways there's an insight there I think.
This is the third time you play a person who stammers. How was enacting this role different from the previous ones?
Twice I've played a character with a stammer, but it was different each time. None of it helped, we had to start again. It's a different guy with different issues and a different way of dealing with things. We had to find a way to make this sound authentic, and have it be painful. The audience had to experience the pain and the discomfort.
But if it was inauthentic it would be catastrophe. If it was too much, too painful, the risk is it alienates people. And the film has to have a pace to it and some humour.
It's a tricky business to solve, and how we solved it, I'm not sure. It became visceral. I got headaches. I thought, wow, if this person really had to fight like that to talk, that's what they're going through. They're probably having to fix their neck and back muscles on a regular basis.
What are the qualities of King George VI that appealed to you the most?
If I were playing a cab driver I'd probably want to hang out with a cab driver or drive a cab and see what it's like. If I were playing an astronaut, I'd try to meet one. But you don't get to meet Kings and hang around with them. Your information is secondary. You can look at the people who are around Prince Charles and say, “Wow, that's what the world looks like to you.” You never meet a person who's relaxed, gives you a pat on the back, and says “What's Up?” No one does that. So you try to accumulate that kind of information.
There are a lot of letters, a lot of people who have been close the Royal Family and we did speak to people in those positions. In the end, you read, listen and then use your imagination.