British actor Colin Firth - the star of Sunday's opening gala at the Dubai International Film Festival - is pictured at Madinat Jumeirah. Firth, who plays the stuttering King George VI in The King's Speech, posed for pictures at the festival venue ahead of the red carpet gala screening of the film. Image Credit: Francois Nel/Gulf News

Walk into a crowded restaurant and shout "Cab for Mr Darcy" and I guarantee the result will be the same, whether it has a Michelin star or McDonald's arches.

The men either won't hear or acknowledge you. The women however, no matter how they try to play it down, will be unable to resist a quick scan of the room just in case it's him.

You see, inspired by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we're all looking for our Mr Darcy.

 

 

But while there was a time when women imagined their own version from the pages of the novel, or recalled the actors who have made the role their own over the years, for most there is now only one: Colin Firth.

And he was every bit Mr Darcy in person.

With the actor in Dubai to promote The King's Speech — the opening film at the Dubai International Film Festival — I found myself captivated by his good looks, extraordinary manners and the quintessential Englishman in him.

Firth had long been one of those actors who often were better than the movies they were in, until A Single Man last year.

His portrayal of a depressed, suicidal college professor unable to get over the death of his lover earned universal accolades and an Oscar nomination.

And while Firth's portrayal of King George VI in this latest film is again bringing talk of the Oscars, the subject brings out a humour you don't expect from his searching look.

Above the ground

"When you're out on an awards circuit, your feet are sort of a few inches above the ground most of the time," he says, smiling against the backdrop of the Burj Al Arab.

"One of the things which is most salient is the fact that you're jet-lagged all the time. It's not something you factor in when you watch people on television or on the red carpet but they mostly have no idea what they're saying."

Every bit the gentlemen, he waits for the laughter to die down and did not chuckle at his own joke. "They've just stepped off a plane. And the chances are the journalist is exactly the same because they've just flown in as well. It's extraordinary to reflect on the fact everything which is said about a film at a junket or on the red carpet is by someone who is struggling to remain conscious as well," he says, looking utterly surprised by the reception his last sentence receives. "And so everything we read — we have to bear that in mind — is not true. Nothing I say at the moment has any value at all," he adds dryly.

Firth spoke about the role of George VI, who had to overcome a stammer with the help of a speech therapist, Lionel Logue, played in The King's Speech by Geoffrey Rush.

"I couldn't give anybody any advice on that frankly. There are no manuals on the subject. Nobody's in the business of teaching people how to stutter. I suppose the place to start — I've done it three times now over the years in different characters and it's always very different — no two people are the same — is looking at how people deal with it. It gives you some insight into what it is they're dealing with, what they're experiencing.

"Our writer had a severe stammer as a child and that's what inspired him to write this story. And he was incredibly, powerfully..." he stops and pauses before continuing, "...expressive on the subject."

"You're blocked in a kind of silence. It's a suffocating sensation — something you never think you'll climb out of. And it's the loneliest place in the world because you can't call for help. And watching films of George VI, there are one or two moments where you can see him in that abyss, is how I would describe it."

Contagious

For a moment Firth appears to have been drawn into a place in his mind, somewhere I haven't been invited.

And then, as if he read my mind, he looks up, realised things were heading a little deep and automatically changes the tempo.

"I was told by someone who was an expert on stammering that most things are not a stammer. That me getting tongue tied or losing my fluency isn't the same as a stammer. We loosely use the term when sometimes it's just bumbling," he says knowingly, referring to many of the characters he's portrayed.

"We all got it on the set — it proved extraordinarily contagious. It was really quite comical.

"To hear Tom Hooper come out and say "I,I,I… Could y, y, yo, you" suddenly nobody could be understood. Nobody was communicating at all."

Firth eventually mastered the art of stammering but says the journey wasn't easy. Interestingly though, the art of un-mastering the stammer was even harder.

"Any animal is very susceptible to training. The way you learn to play a musical instrument is through repetition of exercises. And again, if you spend two months interfering with your speech patterns, it's going to hang around for a while. It lasted for about two months.

"I was having to promote Single Man as I was filming so I was out talking to journalists or at press conferences. At the weekends I'd be in New York or LA and have to talk. That was when it was at its worst. Sometimes I would completely seize up and forget where I was. That was to do with self-consciousness."

When asked how much about the story he already knew he says flatly, "almost nothing"

"I knew that World War II started in 1939, I knew about the abdication crisis. I might have guessed the year right and I knew that King George VI had a stutter and he was an unprepared, unwilling monarch. Anecdotes from my parents, that's it."

The film tells the story of how the king reluctantly took to the UK throne in his 40s when his elder brother, Edward, abdicated in 1936 in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

"I like that it's an unlikely story. I know that films and plays have been written about the royal family, actually since plays were written. Taking human drama and raising the stakes. This is one which is taking place about a man in the shadows, it's not another biopic about one of our great heroes. He's a man who's qualities have been obscured somewhat by the history books.

"It was easy [to accept the role] —there was nothing to think about. The fact Geoffrey Rush was doing it was enough to pay attention to it and Tom Hooper has a 100 per cent strike rate as a director and that was immediately attractive even before I read the script.

"His [King George] qualities are so unassuming, it doesn't have obvious drama. And the idea of telling a story about someone who's struggles were so personal, private and so quiet was very appealing to me."

Firth's acting advice

Colin Firth's believes his ability to capture the true emotion of a character is what has taken him so far.

"It's the same every time as an actor — it's your job description to enter into an experience, which is not your own. You take whatever imaginative journey you can into that person's point of view. And you try to own it. Try to inhabit it.

"That's acting. I think that about every role. We're having this conversation because stammering makes it very obvious. But actually that's what we're doing every time. If you're playing someone who's grieving you have to go towards grief.

You have to want to grieve. Go to a place where I know what it's like and then try not to. So you are always making the journey inwards and the journey outwards. Basically, the way to play emotion is to try not to have the emotion. People want to be happy, they want peace. They don't want to be in grief.

"They drummed into us as drama students that you never ever play the emotion. The emotion is there, you always have to play against that. The emotion is your obstacle. A character who walks on stage bursting with sadness and trying not to cry is an effective story-teller."

From Mr Darcy to Mark Darcy

The Englishman, famous for his roles in Pride and Prejudice (as Fitzwilliam Darcy), Bridget Jones' Diary (as Mark Darcy) and more recently a singing role in Mamma Mia!, really has done it all.But it was not always the case — at first Colin Firth felt trapped by public perception and considered himself a victim of period typecasting.

But while most would have thrown their toys, branding it demeaning as a thespian, Firth was patient. Having reached the heights of Hollywood starring roles and fallen swiftly backwards, he says he has now come to appreciate a success which means he never wants for work.
"I've always tried to do them [period dramas]. It's about the material you get. And then the material you get has to get lucky. There are so many ways the chips can fall. I consider myself very lucky to get work in the first place, and then I consider myself very lucky to get work that anybody saw. The odds are not good in this profession. And I wasn't the most talented person in my class at drama school. "If any typecasting came along, it was better than not being cast. I got to my mid-30s and remember thinking, ‘I suppose if I've not done a comedy by now I never will'. I remember people saying ‘why do you never do comedy?'

Fast forward 10 years later and everybody is saying why do you only do comedy? So the shifts have been slow sometimes and they are sometimes more to do with perception."And in true Mr Darcy style, Firth looks me straight in the eye and said: "There's no crystal ball."