Colin Firth and Tom Hooper interview: The King’s Speech, Rocky IV and more

As The King’s Speech arrives in cinemas, we met with director Tom Hooper and star Colin Firth to chat about the film…

Anticipation for The King’s Speech has been steadily building since its premiere back in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. There, it won the coveted Audience Award and later in the year it swept the British Independent Film Awards, and now, at the start of the new year, it is tipped for Golden Globe, Oscar and BAFTA success.

We’re not surprised, what with the film filling many awards fodder prerequisites, being a period-set character drama that brings together themes of monarchy, disability and even a hint of World War 2 under the yoke of a brilliant cast, as Colin Firth’s Prince Albert (and soon-to-be King George VI) consults unconventional speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) for help with his stammer.

Thankfully, the film is also terrific, and the roundtable interview we attended last month, with star Colin Firth and director Tom Hooper, provided much food for thought. Both spoke eloquently about the film’s representation of stammering, the Royal family and history itself, while Hooper highlighted the differences (or lack of difference) between feature-length and television drama. And Firth, would you believe it, that elegant gent, dropped a Rocky IV reference. Priceless.

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Have you been surprised by the response the film has been getting?

Colin Firth: Day one, we thought, “This is definitely going to win the Audience Award in Toronto.” No, we spent about three hours talking about how easy it would be for us to screw this up.

Tom Hooper: The truth about this film is that it has a very fragile ecology, in that it is a film that begins with a speech and ends with a speech. I lived intimately with the fear that it wouldn’t be climactic enough, it wouldn’t be emotional enough, that somehow we’d be on the wrong side of the fragile ecology of the film. And even judging the stammer – so many pitfalls. It could be comedic. And even if you laughed at him only once, that would be completely misfiring. It could be so painful that you don’t want to stay in the cinema.

It could be so slow that the film grinds to a halt, and at the end of 100 minutes you’ve only done four scenes. Or the other risk is that you fight shy of it and you don’t have enough of it, and then the jeopardy and the stakes aren’t high enough. So, even that alone, the conducting of the stammer, the decision about how much to have, how perpetually to have it, were very delicate.

Mr Firth, your journey was almost the reverse of the film, because you had to learn how to stammer. How hard was it to get it right?

CF: I didn’t find it easy at all. Tom was part of the process of judging it, but he can’t get into my larynx and help me achieve the technique. But it’s something you do every time you act. If you’re playing someone who’s got marital problems, you have to play someone who’s trying not to have marital problems. So, you’ve got to get into the problem first.

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If you’re playing someone who’s impeded by fear, or shyness, or has whatever dysfunction your character might have, you have to achieve the dysfunction first, imaginatively, in order to play someone who is trying to negotiate their way out of it. So, in a way, it’s just the same job again.

TH: But also, the problem is that speech therapists are to help stammerers stop having a stammer. It’s hard to find a speech specialist who’s trained in giving you a stammer.

CF: There aren’t any books on how to stammer.

Did you watch A Fish Called Wanda?

CF: I think that’s how not to… And tomorrow we’ve got a screening at the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children, with Michael Palin, whose father stammered. And we can argue over the impropriety of pastiching stammering, because I think it’s probably extremely painful for people who do stammer, but it has been used a great deal.

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TH: It’s weirdly one of the few disabilities, it seems, [that] is still pastiched. Whereas a lot of that now is unacceptable in mainstream cinema, but it’s one of the few ones that people still lampoon.

Mr Firth, you spoke recently at BAFTA about actors being in awe of their writers, can you tell us what sort of input David Seidler had for you?

CF: It was multiform, because not only did we have our writer, and the creator of our characters, but he was also our authority on stammering. You ask me if I got any help. The best help I could possibly get was David. Had we not had David, I probably would have wanted to spend serious time with someone who could take me through what that was like. But he was the guy, because he had had the problem, and he was extremely expressive about it. And I was actually quite really… I was left quite shaken by some of his eloquence.

If I remember, he compared it to being underwater. That there was this panicking, drowning sensation, which seemed to have no way out. Terrible, endless silence that you can’t climb out of. He also talked about how it conditions the way you approach your day, down to the last detail. If you have an important encounter that day, the outcome of which might change your life, you’re still only focusing on whether you’ll be able to get the words out. That will loom larger over than the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve. It affects what you order in a restaurant, whether you can say the word that begins with this letter or that letter.

And it made me realise that this was not something that you could isolate. It is something which absolutely consumes you and your identity. And I think that the struggle we witness in the film isn’t about curing a stammer. It’s about managing it to the extent that that is no longer what’s happening. And that is absolutely achievable.

And David is proof of that, because you wouldn’t guess that he stammers, and he claims he still does. But you wouldn’t guess that, as a man in his seventies now. So, that’s why I think that the film can be honestly hopeful.

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If it was in the business of miracle cures, which Tom was determined it wouldn’t be, it would have been disingenuous, for a start. It would have been cheesy, and it probably would have even a terrible letdown to people who really have to face this. What it does promise is that people can reach an accommodation with this problem, where it is no longer as debilitating.

Was that more important to the character than the fact that you were playing royalty?

TH: Well, put it this way, you’re never going to have a member of the Royal family in an audience at a Q&A, commenting about how well you played them. Whereas we’ve certainly had many stammerers at many Q&As talk about how well Colin caught their condition.

CF: That was my main concern in terms of how people responded. I was sensitive to the fact that our characters have living relatives, and I didn’t completely ignore the fact that one of the characters was the reigning Queen! But I would be equally sensitive to the living relatives of the Logue family, of which there are many, and many of whom we’ve met now.

But I was more concerned with how people who stammer would respond, because any inauthenticity would be doing a terrible disservice in that direction. But it’s a mystery, and playing a member of the Royal family remains a mystery.

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I often feel I’ve played a character, and I’ve come away with perhaps just a glimpse at what that life might be. I’ve played soldiers on more than one occasion, and even though I can’t fully imagine it, I’ve got a whiff of it. Partly because I’ve spoken to soldiers, and I’ve listened to some very engaging accounts, stirring accounts of what that life is like. I haven’t had that with a member of the Royal family, and I’ve come out on the other side of this without a clue as to what it might be like.

Does that make it any less authentic, do you think?

CF: Quite possibly. It might render it completely inauthentic. We worked very, very hard for accuracy. We had people who actually do know the Royal family around us.

TH: We had a couple of the Royal biographers, like Hugo Vickers and Philip Ziegler, who between them have written some of the best biographies of Edward VIII and the Queen Mother.

CF: Plus, a lot of our dialogue were quotes from these men. Not just from the diaries, but also from written accounts. It’s full of exact quotes. The scene of George V’s death is a precise reconstruction of the accounts that we had of that death. “I hope I will make good as he has made good. Long live the King.” All accounted.

We were scrupulous in finding everything as authentically as we possibly could, but what I’m saying is, despite my efforts, I entered into an imaginary world based on all the evidence that we could get our hands on in order to make it as real as I possible could. But I still came out on the other side knowing it was an imaginative journey.

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TH: The point is, if you’re making a film about many professions – if you’re making a film about a cab driver, you can go and hang out with a cab driver, or go and drive a taxi, even. Whereas, if you make a film about a monarch, you can’t go and hang out with the Queen.

CF: Particularly a dead one! I would have loved to have control of the country for a couple of days. But you don’t get to try out the job. But my profession is full of that. It’s no different from if I was playing someone from the 17th century, which I have. I can’t bring you absolute truth in the detailed factual sense. All I can do is bring you an interpretation as I understand it. That’s all you can ever get from an actor.

The script was originally written 30 years ago, but was held back because the Queen Mother didn’t want the story told while she was still alive. Were there any approaches made this time to get permission from the Royals?

TH: I think, to be fair to David Seidler, having waited 30 years, he wasn’t about to fall into the trap of writing to the next generation…

CF: David’s in his seventies!

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TH: So, I think the respect has been paid. I did write to the Queen via the Assistant Private Secretary, as I was instructed to do, to let her know that the film was happening, and to show her the courtesy of informing her about it. But, no. Maybe you could argue that David learned his lesson from the first time he wrote! [laughs]

Regarding the audience of the film, the English trailer seems to highlight the film as more of a drama, whereas it’s actually very funny.

TH: I find that impossible to judge, because I’m so inside it. It’s difficult, because I think the American trailer is cut more for humour, and we live in a world where, when you go online, most people won’t even know which trailer they’re seeing. So, I think it’s probably good that there are two slightly different trailers out there in the world.

CF: Just anecdotally, the first responses I got when the trailer went online for the first time were from very young people. In fact, only young people, saying they can’t wait to see it, which surprised me enormously. And I don’t know which trailer they saw.

Mr Hooper, you have brought quite a few real people’s lives to the screen. What are some of the pleasures and pressures involved in that?

TH: I think, quite honestly, a lot of it has been a response to the struggle to find original, fiction screenwriting which presents me with characters as complex, and predicaments that are as extreme as the real stories that I’ve encountered. And I so like making character-driven work, and the great thing about dealing with people about whom we have historical resources, is that if the writing needs work, there’s everywhere to go to enrich it. And it’s hard to find characters of the complexity of Brian Clough, or King George VI or John Adams in original writing.

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So, it partly comes from that, but I certainly have an enduring interest in iconic personalities and what they reflect back about national identity.

In John Adams, I had this opportunity to see whether it was possible to trace this great schism in political values in America back to the personalities of the founding fathers, at a time when it was going out during the primaries in 2008. So, it was very interesting to tell the creation story at that time in America.

And in this film, I think it’s very interesting to, in a way, through this film, meditate on the monarchy, because what’s interesting is that, although there is conflict about the monarchy, it’s not under attack, at least not in my lifetime. It’s very stable. And I, in the end, feel that the source of that stability can be found in King George VI’s story, because the abdication crisis is probably the closest we came to any major constitutional crisis about having the monarchy.

And you look at King George VI’s story. The classic attack on the monarchy would be that it enshrines an idea of inherited class privilege that’s absolutely inappropriate in a modern democracy. But with King George VI, the notion of privilege is almost entirely debunked, because, okay, his childhood – abused by the nanny, neglected by the parents – that’s not privilege. Becoming king, well, that was his idea of a nightmare, so that’s not privilege. And suddenly the very thing you use to attack it seems to fall apart in this case.

And more than that, in the war, I think that because the nation knew he had a stammer, and knew he was fighting this impediment when he spoke, he did more to humanise the monarchy than probably anyone else had ever done. And also, I think that when he reached out and talked about people’s suffering in the war, this was a man who was suffering even to talk to you, so there was an authenticity about his claim to understand suffering that won him a place in people’s hearts, and probably made the monarchy much more solid.

And so, sometimes to think about why some institutions are stable, it’s interesting to go one generation back and look at the author of that stability.

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You mention John Adams there in comparison to this film. Of course, that is a television drama as opposed to a feature-length drama. Television drama as an artform has progressed a lot in the last twenty years. Do you still see a differentiation between the two media?

TH: The key differentiation, in terms of the experience, is not the making of it, which is profoundly similar and I don’t really see much difference in the creative process between the two forms, apart from perhaps the time you’ve got to tell the story. The difference is definitely this part of it, which is the level of scrutiny and marketing scrutiny and amount of work you have to do to release a film.

John Adams was a $100 million HBO show. We probably did a 10 day marketing period. And this, it will be months by the time it’s finished. So, at the moment that’s the biggest difference.

And there’s probably still, sadly, a status differential, because the world gets much more obsessed about the Oscar race than it does about the Emmy race, but that’s not something that should affect your choices about the work you want to do. I think you’ve still got to do the best work that comes in front of you. Whether it’s TV or film doesn’t matter.

I got my film education from television. The best films I’ve ever seen – the Godfather trilogy, most of Scorsese – were on TV. So, the best TV I’ve ever seen is feature films. I didn’t grow up thinking there was a way to shoot TV and a way to shoot movies, because the best movies I’d ever seen were generally on TV, and they worked great. So, I’ve never seen a huge difference.

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There is a scene in the film, where King George VI watches newsreel footage of Hitler, and says that he has no idea what he’s saying, but he’s saying it rather well. Was there any sensitivity surrounding that, as it shows the King speaking positively about Hitler?

CF: He doesn’t know what he’s saying. There are a couple of things here-  I think it’s….

TH: I think it’s quite funny.

CF: It is quite funny…

TH: It was his line, by the way.

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CF: I did make up that line! [Hooper laughs] I am responsible, I’m afraid. I think, paradoxical as it may be, that’s the situation in which he finds himself at that moment. This is my adversary, look what he can do with the power of speech. I am terrified of the microphone and he is using it to hypnotic effect. To amass people to follow him and to grab power where possible, and to commit genocide.

He’s not listening to the words. It’s not saying anything favourable about Hitler, except the fact that he can do his day job as a speaker better than I can, so to speak. It’s basically before the big fight, when Rocky goes up in front of the big Russian guy. You have to build up your enemy, and say, “That’s what I’m up against.” We’re not saying anything positive about Hitler at all, except the fact that he can speak well, which you can’t argue with.

Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st 1939. Britain declared war on Hitler two days later. This is a man who led his country into a six year war against that man, and the speech is there to denounce absolutely everything that Nazism represents. And one of the things that, as Tom said, people could believe in him when he said “I suffer with you”, because he suffered just to make the microphone, and that gave him some credibility. But they could also believe him when he was denouncing the principle that might is right.

This is the man who didn’t want to be king. He didn’t want the power, he didn’t want the limelight. He didn’t have that kind of ego. And so, he absolutely embodies everything that is the antithesis of Nazism. He just wishes he could speak better.

The King’s Speech is released on January 7th.

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