Colin Firth interview: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Curly Wurlys, and Oscar wins

We met with Colin Firth, the Tailor in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, to talk about his role in the film, 70s confectionery, and his recent Oscar win...

On the eve of release for Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, we caught up with Colin Firth, at a round table interview, to talk Curly Wurlys, Gary Oldman, being part of an extraordinary ensemble, winning an Oscar and why he’d be a rubbish spy in real life…

We’ve just been talking about Wimpy, reminiscing and reliving that scene in the film.

Don’t let me stop you! [laughs] The Wimpy, yes, well actually we were just talking about Sherbet Fountains, and the surprising things that don’t ever change. You don’t need to be nostalgic about a sherbet fountain because it’s exactly as it was. There are still Curly Wurlys aren’t there? Or are they gone? [Colin Firth is assured by all present that Curly Wurlys are still extant]

Can we start with an obvious question, what attracted you to the film and how did you get involved?

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Well I think it’s pretty easy… I think ‘what attracted you?’ is a no-brainer, certainly if you look at what else was around at the time, certainly at what was available to me.

I just think it’s the best project of last year, and the fact that I wasn’t carrying it added to it greatly. To work with some of my favourite actors, a fantastic director, I mean, this all sounds very… you know, it sounds like platitudes: “I always wanted to work with…” etc. but you know it’s true. I mean just the idea of doing it seemed very cool to me.

It wouldn’t have done ten years after a fantastic TV series, that would have seemed suicidal, and also it would have been too close to that time for it to be retro and far enough on for it to feel a little out of date, possibly, but I think now that we’re 30 years or so on from the series, it seemed like a really interesting time to do it. Then when I heard it was Tomas Alfredson, and then I heard it was, like, John Hurt, and Gary [Oldman], it was absolutely irresistible.

Did you come on board fairly late then, if there were already lots of actors attached?

Actually Gary wasn’t, I don’t think. I don’t know who was attached, actually. Gary wasn’t, there was still talk about who was going to play Smiley, that was just an asset, but some of the others were and the script and Tomas were enough.

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What was your knowledge of Tinker, Tailor book-wise and TV-wise beforehand?

I hadn’t read it, I don’t think. I have endlessly now. I had seen the series but I’m not sure if I ever watched it at the time in sequence. It’s rather hard to remember, because there are certain things that go so thoroughly into popular thinking that you almost can’t remember if you’ve seen it. People talk about ‘Fellini-esque’ without ever having seen a Fellini film, and everyone knows exactly what they mean, you know, and I think that’s a sign that something’s made an impact.

I do remember scenes between, was it Terence Rigby and Alec Guinness or, you know, Patrick Stewart, without knowing if I had actually sat down and watched it. I remember it being in the air, I remember my father talking about it. It was endlessly present, so I feel I sort of had a familiarity with it, but I don’t know if I ever saw it at the time. I’ve seen it now.

Was there ever a question of you playing any of the other roles or were you always going to play the tailor [codename for Firth’s character, Bill Haydon, in the film]?

No, I think this was the one they had me in mind for.

He’s got a little glint in his eye hasn’t he?

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Haydon? I think he has, yeah, I mean I think he enjoys life. He’s also vain, he cultivates certain eccentricities, it’s part of his vanity. He’s not just a spy, he’s a bit of a bohemian, he’s the artist, he’s the one who has a slightly flamboyant twist to the way he dresses and rides his bicycle into the office. He’s sexually active, let’s say, very active. I think he’s somebody who makes use of irony, which is probably very useful as a spy, being based on not saying it exactly as you mean it.

He leads a fairly lonely existence, though, even though as you say he’s quite flamboyant…

They’re all profoundly lonely. I think that’s what the film is very much about. I think to me it’s a very moving, rather tender portrait of lonely men, disappointed idealists.

I think Smiley [Gary Oldman’s character] is a study of loneliness, I mean in his idealism and his romanticism including his marriage and his view of marriage, he has a wife who betrays him, and who he forgives all the time. I think he really does believe in the patriotic values of what he does, and to see treachery in that area is heartbreaking, and I also think that these are all men in this story who have made considerable sacrifices in their personal lives in order to do what they do, and I think that puts even more emphasis on the fraternity that they have at work.

And with such high stakes, I think the sense of camaraderie is heightened, and it’s also heightened by the fact that it’s dependent on secrecy – all those things ratchet up the stakes, and to realise that one of them is betraying everybody, and might have been betraying everybody for many years, is not just a threat, it’s also heart-breaking, and you have a world where, because you don’t know who it is, it might just be any of them, and so all of their relationships are compromised.

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For Smiley to go to Control’s [John Hurt] flat and see his own face on the chess piece adds to that heartbreak as he realises that he, too, is not above suspicion. I think that’s what it’s about. I think it’s about the personal relationships between these men, whether it’s Jim Prideaux [Mark Strong] and his caravan, or the lonely little boy, or Smiley and his marriage, or Smiley at work, or Guillam’s [Benedict Cumberbatch] rather surprising scene with his partner and realising that that’s no longer tenable, Ricki Tarr’s [Tom Hardy] attempt at love, the girl’s attempt to escape, Connie’s being cut loose from the establishment, or Control.

You see that Christmas party where Control’s alone, drunk, Percy Alleline [Toby Jones] with his wife who’s fallen asleep after an argument with him, Esterhase dancing by himself… I do think it’s a very beautifully, melancholic story and I think that the thrust of it is much more emotional than intellectual really.

What kind of spy do you think you’d make?

Now, I’ve seen John Hurt on the subject. I’d have to echo him, that I think I’d be crap, really. I think it’s all very well to draw parallels with actors in terms of the fact that we might be capable of duplicity and inhabiting other roles and interpreting other people’s motives, but that doesn’t mean we’d be very good if somebody pointed a gun at us, or we had to go through any personal or physical discomfort [laughs].

When your character says something along the lines of, “It’s all become so ugly” in the film, do you see that as a superficial, vain thing or is he talking about a deeper sort of ideological shift there, in your opinion?

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I’d love to talk about this, and I know that there’s a book and a TV series out there for anybody who wants a spoiler, but I’d hate to contribute to it. We are in that zone, so I do ask anybody who’s writing about this to keep it in the general. I don’t want to pointlessly spoil the ending for people who don’t know it.

I think it’s a very, very good question, having said all that, and I think it’s the right question, and I think those are the questions that Smiley has. Those are the questions Smiley asks, and John le Carré doesn’t really answer them.

In the wake of that scene, Smiley walks away wondering what those motives are, how much of it is vanity and how much is a genuine, passionate idealism. Those questions are very much alive, as I remember they go on for a couple of pages. That’s where you get the comparison to one of those Russian dolls, you know, the doll is how he describes Haydon, as layer upon layer, and that doll was used as the motif for the opening credits of the TV series, so I think it’s something that you’re never really sure if you ever really get to the final doll in the middle.

I think people’s motives can be mixed even at the deepest level, and I would say that all of these characters’ motives have a mixture. I think they can be personally driven, they can be altruistic and narcissistic at the same time.

Do you have a similar motive for wanting to be an actor?

What, mixed? Definitely. Definitely. I think that even at best, we are driven by something that’s not entirely self-serving. I do think this desire to impart your own inspiration, to share stories and to communicate and to have somebody on the other end of that, I think that can, at its best, be important. I think storytelling is important, but I think, you know, we’re all so driven by our vision and our desire to suit ourselves, and I’m sure that’s true of politicians, campaigners, writers, journalists. I’m quite comfortable with the idea of mixed motives.

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On the theme of betrayal, is there a sense that now’s the perfect time for another adaptation, because of a pervasive sense of disappointment or betrayal in modern politics?

I think the sense of disappointment and betrayal has been around for quite a long time. I think there is a view that people were more naïve and accepting about their leaders… I don’t know, I think there’s always been disenchantment and suspicion, otherwise there wouldn’t have been dissenting political movements throughout the centuries, and there have. So I think it’s ongoing, and I think it always feels current – it always feels at its worst.

I don’t think it’s to do with disenchantment with our current establishment, and I’m sure, if you’d talked to Americans at the time of Watergate, you’d have talked about a sense of disenchantment, and whenever there’s been a time when there’s been an investigation… So, you know, I don’t think it’s that necessarily, but I do think that sense of the currency of this material is with us, but I don’t think it’s particular to now, though I do think it feels very current.

If you take the Soviets versus the west out of this, I think all the other elements are still pretty pertinent, really/ You’ve got hacking, whether it’s Wikileaks or journalists, we know that there’s industrial espionage goes on,  and we’re still just as paranoid and freaked out and jumping at shadows as we ever were. If it’s not reds under the beds, then we’re worried about, you know, who’s a terrorist, and is our intelligence any good? So I think all of those things are very much alive when it comes to issues of trust and paranoia, and a general state of neurosis.

Can I ask about playing a character that is so fully formed in an ensemble like this one?  Do you think that’s one of the things that’s going to sell it to people and is that exciting for you as an actor?

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I don’t think it’s going to be one of the things that’s going to sell it to people, I think I must have about five minutes of screen time in this film, and it’s going to be sold on a lot more than that. But the thrill of being part of an ensemble? Absolutely.

I don’t think any actor is so selfless as to really only luxuriate in ensemble work, but I was absolutely up for it and ready for it, and actually, despite the vanity that drives us to want something meaty for ourselves, it is a thrill to be surrounded by brilliant people, not just because you get to watch them and you have the experience of being dazzled, it actually lifts your own game as well.

It’s something I realised at drama school. Right at the beginning, they told us, just from a practical point of view, good actors on stage with you don’t make you look worse. It’s not like having to do a recital, and you’re not very good at the piano after someone who is good. You, on a stage with someone who is better than you, will make you better – that’s how it works. It doesn’t show you up, it just has an effect, not just at making you raise your game, but it magically makes you look better as well. There’s more authenticity in the room.

To be surrounded by this lot meant that I just felt that it was real all the time, and you know, there’s an initial moment when you walk on the set and you are faced with, whether it’s Toby Jones, or Ciarán Hinds or Gary Oldman, you think, “I might be out of my league”, but then, when the scene gets going, it just feels so real that you’re invited into that.

Talking about the joy of being in an ensemble, who are the actors out there you’ve never worked with and who’d you’d ideally love to be in an ensemble piece with?

Oh God, that, we haven’t got long enough [laughter] because then I’ll go out and then think, “Why did I say those and not those?”It’s very interesting, actually, trying to cast my mind back to getting excited about who was already cast, and then I realised that Gary wasn’t, there was nobody in the part of Smiley, but there were different actors. I’m not going to say who they were, but it was already a fine cast, some of whom were different people, and replaced by people who were just as good, but now, it was an incredibly enticing package. I mean, it doesn’t get much better than this, frankly. I mean, these people would be on my list.

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When you were on set, did you feel there was much room to deviate from the script? Was your character fully formed, or was there a lot of to-ing and fro-ing once you were in there?

Not much to-ing and fro-ing, not really. Fully formed? It’s hard to put it that way, because this character… Something that happens with good writing is that you could actually take characters who make brief appearances and feel that you could follow them into their lives, and have an equally good story.

I mean, there is another book about Westerby, is it The Honourable Schoolboy? That’s about him, he just comes to tell me in this that… and in fact he’s brilliant in his few minutes as well, this man who has to wake up in a bed and try to get somebody to take it seriously. You feel you could go into those people’s lives and get a proper story.So, is it fully formed? I don’t know. Is there enormous wealth of information about this guy that’s well beyond what I’m able to show on the screen? Yes.

The question you were asking is developed in the book – you get his background, you get something about his romantic life, you get much more about his friendships and huge surplus of dialogue that you can draw on as subtext, so you know very much who he is.

So even though we’re all offering the tip of the iceberg of each of these characters, there’s just so much source material that it really helps.

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Did they cut anything out of Tinker, Tailor?

Gosh, it’s funny. Once they’ve done it and you’ve seen the final cut, you tend to forget about what they’ve cut out and, yes, I suppose I was slightly sorry to lose it, but I could see why.

I mean, they cut a huge amount out because it’s a very long story, and it’s a big book with lots of words, but it’s still two hours. There were a couple of Bill Haydon scenes. Everyone lost a scene or two, I think.There’s a scene where… I think it’s a nice scene, but I can see where it goes and where the pace needs to go on, and it was one of the things that needed to be cut. There’s a scene where Bill Haydon catches Guillam when he’s on the top floor, you know, trying to find the documents that Smiley’s asked him for, and it is a scene from the book, where he says, “What the hell are you doing up here?”, and I think Guillam’s a bit possibly busted but you know, it wasn’t the heart of the piece.

Could you tell us about your experience of working with Tomas Alfredson? Gary Oldman has spoken of a level of almost-obsessive detail even down to choosing props, the lighter and the glasses etc. Is that something you experienced?

Well, he’s inspired by things like art and music, and he shared the music with us, with me, and I found that incredibly helpful, because there’s something very compelling… Obviously, I mean, if somebody wants to share an emotion, it’s a very, very quick way to do that, and I found that very, very helpful.

I also like the fact that he didn’t dwell on things very much. He didn’t overly shoot things, he didn’t do a lot of set-ups and he didn’t do a lot of takes, so there was always a very critical sense that you were on and he was very clear as well. He would talk in incredibly clear terms about where we were in the story, and in this case, that was helpful.

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Were you on set when you received word that you’d got that certain nomination? I wondered whether you could settle back into your role afterwards?

No, no this came well before. We did this some time back in October, I think, and nominations I think come at the end of January so…

Do you remember where you were when you heard?

Where was I when I got the nomination? I was at the Hackney Empire doing an interview for an American television programme, and I think I didn’t really want to have a camera rolling on me when the news came through, but there was a television camera, which had come down to set up a live link with American TV, either to see me not get it, or to get it, to watch the smiles or the tears…

I talked to Javier Bardem last year and he said he still has a drama teacher, even though he won an Oscar. You were talking about feeling a bit intimidated on set. Does winning an Oscar not give you absolute security as an actor, and has your career changed an awful lot in the last eight months?

No, because I’ve done one film since then. I mean, it’s far too difficult, and if it’s ever going to be possible, it’s certainly too soon to assess it. I’m sure it’s changed things in some ways, for better or worse, I don’t know. But I think everything that happens changes something, so I just don’t know yet what to say about it.

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I think you can say in terms of one’s attitude to it, you can either see it as pressure to live up to something and to choose properly, and that’s probably all bound to go wrong, or you could see it as taking the pressure off and saying, “Well, I’ve got that now, I’ll do whatever the hell I please”, and that’s a far nicer, a far pleasanter way to see it.

You know, the one film I’ve done this year is a farce, a farcical comedy [Gambit, a remake of the 1966 comedy starring Michael Caine, with a screenplay by the Coen brothers], and I took enormous pleasure in it, and I loved having it change the tone. I mean, there’s absolutely no possible way that you could do a farcical comedy in response to having that happen, it just doesn’t… you know, it’s not in the shadows of that, it’s something else, and you know, I found it quite helpful to do that, and come out of the other side.

But no, for the most part, things don’t change very much. Previous Oscar winners that I spoke to said that, you just carry on really doing what you did before, you’ll do some flops, you know.

Can you ask for more money?

[laughter] Briefly, you probably can, and it’s far more likely when the economy’s healthy, but then again there are some films that don’t have a big budget, don’t have a lot of money to pay the actors, and if you want to do those, then no, you can’t.

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Did you enjoy the lead-up to the Oscars?

Yes, I enjoyed some of it. I think you have to make a bit of a note to self, sometimes, to enjoy it, because it’s… the word that came to mind is turbulent – that doesn’t mean bad, it just means that things are operating at quite a pitch. It’s exciting, but it also can make you a bit neurotic, because there are people around you who are feeling a bit neurotic about it. But it was very exciting.

The main problem is actually taking stock and realising that it’s to be enjoyed, because it’s very active and you’re travelling a great deal, and you’re talking about yourself a lot in artificial circumstances with a microphone pointed at you in a way that you’re probably babbling and not saying anything that represents what you really think or mean, it’s just talking, and then it suddenly happens, and it’s suddenly over, and it’s very odd, it’s a slightly numbing effect. I think, when major things happen to us, whether they’re good or bad, I think there’s a slight shock.

Do you remember walking up to receive it, or is that numbed too?

No. Don’t remember. That’s extraordinary, completely numb, but I remember thinking at the time, I’ll probably wake up in July and get very excited about it. That did happen, and I did, a month or two ago, get very excited about the fact it had all happened, but it was all a bit lonely, because everyone had gone home! The party was over.

Just quickly Colin, I was reading you were displaced as Britain’s best looking man by Jensen Button.

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[laughs] You should have told me this in front of a rolling camera…

How does that make you feel?

I’m crushed [laughing]

But you are the fortieth most influential man in the world [according to a TIME magazine poll in April of this year]…

No, one of my children has pointed out to me that I’m not even the most influential person in my own household [laughs].

Are you the best looking man in your household?

By no means! [laughs]

Colin Firth, thank you very much.