Guest of Honor

Actor Colin Firth on Assuming New Identities

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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images News
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images News

Colin Firth shot to the top of imaginary-husband lists everywhere with his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which he followed with similarly-charming roles in films like “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Love Actually,” and “A Single Man.” He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for “The King’s Speech” – and he can wear a sweater.

In his newest film, “Arthur Newman,” he portrays a man who fakes his own death and hits the road to start over as someone new. Colin chats with Rico about identity crises and unanswerable questions, then dissects our brains.

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Rico Gagliano: It should be noted that assuming new identities is what you do for a living.

Colin Firth: Yes I’ve noticed. In fact, I think it’s quite a common thing to fantasize about, you know, shedding your old life, entertaining the question as to whether you can reset your life completely.

Perhaps actors have that a little bit less, just because we take those excursions on a regular basis. To me there’s a lot more than meets the eye in what this guy is doing. He leaves behind this failed version of himself in order to go and manufacture a new one.

Although I find myself meditating on the idea that the old identity perhaps wasn’t that authentic, you know, that he’s not shedding the real self in search of a manufactured self, but the old one was pretty manufactured anyway, and trying on different identities, which is what he subsequently does with the woman he meets on the road.

Rico Gagliano: Over and over again.

Colin Firth: Oh indeed, you know, they break into people’s houses, try on different identities, and have sex. And actually it’s by putting that mask on that they are able to have the intimacy that they’re afraid to have as theirselves, or their apparent selves.

Rico Gagliano: But let me do the dime store psychology I sort of buried in this question, which is how much are actors doing that?

Colin Firth: Well we are doing it. You know, in one way we’re telling lies, pretending to care about things that aren’t real, and we don’t care about, and none of what you’re seeing really happened, and even if it’s a factual story it didn’t happen with these people, like this.

Rico Gagliano: You’re not actually the king? This is horrible.

Colin Firth: Right, it’s smoke and mirrors. But on the other hand, there’s something truthful there, and I think there’s a way in which putting a mask on can actually free you up to express something very authentically and very truthfully.

Rico Gagliano: Well let me ask you kind of a reverse question. How hard is it to take off that mask? I can imagine, you know, there are certain roles where it would be very intoxicating being somebody who is, for instance, a heartthrob or something like that. Have you found yourself in that kind of situation?

Colin Firth: It’s a very, it’s a very strange and anti-social thing to do. I mean, even if you’re playing characters who are compose and well-behaved, it can be a little bit of a wild zone you go into. This is why a lot of actors don’t fit very well with the rest- you know, with social norms.

Rico Gagliano: I’ve noticed.

Colin Firth: I go to work and I might be expected to cry, scream, take my clothes off and you know, get physical with somebody I’ve only just met, male or female, and that’s not a day in the life of most people at the office. It can be a challenge. You do have to be able to come home from it.

We are by no means at the sharp end of that problem, you know, I mean, I’m sure if you’re a firefighter or a soldier or an emergency room doctor, you have much bigger issues that follow you home. But nevertheless, it is something that doesn’t just clock off because it’s 6 o’clock automatically.

Rico Gagliano: Can you give an example? Is there a role that you felt was particularly hard to shake off?

Colin Firth: Gosh, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes there’s an interaction with a character, and you can get this just anybody finds this when they read a book sometimes. You feel particularly drawn to a character, and it- you find you acutely can have a hard time with the fact that character isn’t out there somewhere. You think, I know this guy, I think I could run into him somewhere, I want to meet him.

I think the hardest one for me, this is probably cheating a little bit because you might not know the work, but this was back in the mid-80′s and I did a film about the Falklands War called “Tumbledown” and I played a guy who was not any real person, he was my exact age, and he had a very severe injury, and I got to know him very well, and I got almost out of my depth in how involved I felt. And you- it can affect the way you- things you dream about, and that went on for more than a year after the thing was over. And then more recently I think actually “Single Man.”

Rico Gagliano: That’s the Tom Ford film you were in.

Colin Firth: Yeah, I didn’t- I haven’t shaken it off in a way, but that wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to shake off. I actually felt very, very drawn to that character in a way that I find entirely comfortable.

Rico Gagliano: What remains of that character in you now?

Colin Firth: Well I don’t know if I, like- you know, he’s someone who has reached a certain age, and thinks what happened in his life, and he’s written himself off. And in doing so, he finds life strangely calling him back. And I drew a lot from that. There was something very moving to me about a man who’s broken that actually conducts himself with decency and gentleness and dignity. It stays with me.

Rico Gagliano: We have two standard questions we ask everyone in our show. The first one is, if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you? What’s the question you’re kind of like tired of being asked?

Colin Firth: Well anything that begins with, I have a standard question.

Rico Gagliano: I can’t help it, it is, it’s standard.

Colin Firth: No, no, no, I’m not saying, don’t take it personally. You can just feel your muscles tense when that happens.

No, I have to say actually, any question that begins with the words – and I noticed this years ago, and once I identified it I found it quite liberating, and this doesn’t just apply to people being interviewed, this applies to anybody – any question that begins, “What’s it like… ” is actually almost impossible to answer. People try to come up with answers.

Rico Gagliano: Cause how do you know what it’s not like?

Colin Firth: What’s it like to be American? What’s it like to be a journalist? I mean, where do you begin and end that, you know?

Rico Gagliano: Here’s our second question, sort of the reverse of that one. Tell us something we don’t know, and this can be- it’s more of an order really. And it can be about anything, about yourself, something you haven’t said in an interview, or a piece of trivia that would blow people’s minds.

Colin Firth: I’m an open book, you know it all. I’m sorry.

Rico Gagliano: In case you said that, there’s something that I’d hoped you would talk about, and I hope you still will. You, I found out, are the co-author of a scientific paper about the neurological differences between people who have differing political views?

Colin Firth: See, that could have been a good answer, but you do know that.

Rico Gagliano: But nobody else does.

Colin Firth: No, no, no, I am a neuroscientist. This is true, but I thought people would assume that.

Rico Gagliano: Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Colin Firth: Yes, well, this started semi-flippantly. I had this wonderful engagement to guest edit radio show in the UK called the Today programme, and I think it’s one of the best things, not only on British radio, but in British culture actually.

I love the Today programme. It’s current affairs, it’s discussion, it’s news. And one of the things I thought would be interesting was to make a study of people’s political preferences, but make it a clinical study.

You know, I said at the time, “I basically want to find out what’s biologically wrong with people who don’t agree with me.”

Rico Gagliano: Well what was it? What turned out to be the case?

Colin Firth: It probably poses more questions than it answers, but what they found were that the right amygdala was enlarged in people who call themselves conservative, in an overwhelming percentage. The amygdala is something that is studied in studies of the way the brain reacts to fear.

Now, you know that is simplistic, and there have been people who have taken it and really run with it and saying, I told you conservatives were full of fear. I don’t think that is, you know, it probably does the whole study a whole disservice just to reduce it to that.

Rico Gagliano: In the risk of not starting a political war, maybe we should let people just read this paper.

Colin Firth: They can read what they want. The other thing is of course, we don’t- brains change according to nurture. So we don’t- they would have to do what they call a longitudinal study, which means they’re gonna have to take a baby, look at the brain, and then look at them again in 30 years, find out what happened to them in the meantime, and see if the brain changed.

So, whether it’s cause of effect, whether it’s because you’re- this bit of your brain is born, you know, enlarged determines your politics, or whether it got enlarged because of your politics, we don’t know.

Rico Gagliano: We’ll talk again in 30 years.

Colin Firth: Yeah.