Colin Firth, Interviewed! Talking "A Single Man," Gay Marriage and Harvey Milk

Director Tom Ford (left) and his already award-winning leading man, Colin Firth

A Single Man, the directorial film debut of fashion magnate Tom Ford opens in NYC today. The film is based on the classic 1960s novel by Christopher Isherwood, and follows a day in life of a late 40-something gay professor longing for his late lover and trying to figure out how (and if) to get on with his life.

The film is a gorgeous, stylish and poignant portrait of a man of a certain age, with Colin Firth in the title role of George Falconer. Julianne Moore plays George's best longtime gal-pal Charley, Nicholas Hoult plays a handsome student who wants to know George better, and Matthew Goode plays George's love Jim in impactful flashbacks.

The movie bears Ford's gift for sexy visuals and sleek impeccable stylish, but it's also full of warm moments, wry humor, intense sadness and sterling performances throughout. Oscar buzz is inevitable. In fact, Colin Firth has already scored some Best Actor nods in film fests worldwide.

Earlier this week I spoke with Firth as part of a press Q&A in NYC. Here's a few things he had to say (and he likes to talk!) about the role of George, shooting a major scene as Obama was getting elected, gay marriage and about any comparison between his gay movie and that big bio-pic that starred Sean Penn last year (Got Milk?).

Firth, artfully rendered in A Single Man's fab retro-chic poster

Do think there are any comparisons between your character of George, a gay man in California in the 1960s, and with Harvey Milk?

Colin Firth:
No, not really very much in common there. Harvey Milk, is to me, a very very interesting character. I always loved the documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk, and I thought Sean Penn did a spectacularly good job of portraying him. But in some ways the characters couldn’t be more different.

It is a different era. This film is in 1962. And I think George Falconer is not particularly interested in the issues surrounding his sexuality. He does that lecture on fear and the business about the silent minority is just one of a whole list of things that he’s taking issue with. I don’t think George defines himself by his sexuality any more than Christopher Isherwood did, or any more than Tom Ford does, or any more than I do.

It’s very interesting to me, how, if a character happens to be gay, then it’s all about the person being gay in so many persons’ minds. If I randomly think of a character I played before, say a guy who’s grieving for his dad, nobody sat there at the junket and said, “So, you played a heterosexual… How does that affect what you’re doing?” George’s sexuality is there, but it’s not that important. I think that’s true of George in his life. He’s struggling with a lot of things, but I don’t think he’s struggling with that issue. I think he’s very secure in his sexuality.

This story is dealing with his feelings of love and isolation. It’s not irrelevant; it’s possible that being gay in 1962 might add to his isolation. For one, he’s not invited to Jim’s funeral. People hear that, and it’s painful to think of that. But that could arguably be something that could happen to someone who’s in any relationship that’s disapproved of by the family.

I’m not trying to trivialize it, but I think Harvey Milk ended up turning his life into what I think was an incredibly important campaign for gay rights, and I think that’s the last thing in the world that George would do.

Firth as George Falconer in A Single Man, struggling to face the day

Early in a flashback in the film, your character receives a phone call where he learns that his partner has suddenly died. Can you talk about the filming of that scene?

Colin Firth:
It was pretty straightforward. I just got into the room, and it was around 9 o’clock at night, and I remember this because Barack Obama had just been declared President. It was that day. It was also the day that Prop 8 got passed in California, which gave it even more resonance, considering the nature of that phone call, and the “you’re not invited to the funeral” bit.

And I was a little afraid of that scene. Because it takes you through the thing which can be the most troublesome for an actor, which is finding an emotion and starting a scene in one mental state and ending it another while the camera is rolling. We love to get on the set and get emotionally ready for a scene, to get “Okay, I’ve got the tears ready, roll the camera, I’m in the zone now…” or whatever emotion I’m trying to conjure. What I find difficult, and we had exercises when I was a drama student where it was about “OK, come into the room in one condition and I want you to be in another by the end of it. Something has to happen to change your mood.” And those are difficult, because you can’t pre-prepare the end.

So basically I had to start the phone call happy, get a series of shocks, allow that to percolate, and then end in a complete state of devastation—with the camera rolling. And Tom let it go on for… He let the magazine roll out; I think it was about 11 minutes. And what was wonderful was that he didn’t push in, he didn’t change lenses and try to maximize it, he just left the camera where it was. He didn’t mess around. And so I had time to develop it.

And then of course I end the scene: Devastation. And then it’s: “That’s great! Let’s shoot another one!” So then it’s back to happy place, “Action!” and then go through it again.

But I was sitting in the chair, and I remember the sound guy taking his cans off, and he played McCain’s concession speech to the room. People were kind of quiet, but I can’t say I minded very much.

Matthew Goode as Jim (left), and Firth in the foreground, in A Single Man

George and Jim have such a great relationship, which I think anyone, gay or straight or whatever can understand. Is it important to show that now, given the current gay marriage battles?

Colin Firth:
It is important. It’s very important. It shows that everybody has a right to that kind of love. Tom shows in those flashbacks of George and Jim just these simple everyday moments that such great examples of love. How they gently mock each other, and comfort each other.

And it also gets across what George has lost. You know that he won’t find that level of comfort and familiarity with anyone else; it won’t happen again. And he knows that.

That’s one of the things I admire about Isherwood’s writing. In the relationships he depicts, love is just love. And show how that is manifested in the characters everyday lives is the biggest weapon against discrimination, really.


A Single Man opens in select theaters today.

John Polly is a former editor at NewNowNext. He now makes the magic happen at World of Wonder.