Colin Firth studied stammer for royal role in 'The King's Speech'
An interview with Colin Firth, who plays King George VI in "The King's Speech," directed by Tom Hooper.
Seattle Times movie critic
'The King's Speech'With Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Tom Hooper, from a screenplay by David Seidler. Rated R for some language. Opens at several theaters on Dec. 25. For showtimes and a review, pick up a copy of MovieTimes on Friday.
TORONTO — Some moments in history are recorded in books and taught in schools; some aren't. "The King's Speech," opening in several Seattle-area theaters on Christmas Day, tackles both.
It's well-known that, after the death of England's King George V in 1936, his son Edward abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson ("the woman I love") and that Edward's brother Albert unexpectedly became King George VI. Less remembered is that Albert, known as Bertie in his family, suffered from a devastating speech impediment, and that it was only through the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue that he was able to overcome his stammer enough to make the radio speeches required of a king during wartime.
Colin Firth, who plays Bertie in the film, said that he's yet to meet anyone who already knew about Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) before seeing the film. "But I remember my mother referring to this poor man [George VI] who had to take over unprepared," he said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this fall. "I remember her referring to the stammer and his battle against it, and I think she spoke with affection toward him, as did most of her generation."
For Firth, and for director Tom Hooper, the film's biggest challenge was getting the stammer right. Firth studied some existing early recordings of the king's voice, pre-therapy, but says that he was ultimately less interested in imitating the voice than in learning how it sounded. "I wanted to make it my own," he said, noting that George VI was hampered both by his stammer and by "the tightness that so many members of his class and across the system suffered from, that terrible reserve." The king, he said, couldn't pronounce his R's properly and struggled with a variety of sounds — in the recordings there was almost no word that was free of the stammer. "I thought, let it be my voice trying to get out," said Firth.
The recordings, of course, captured the king on formal occasions. Firth said it was a source of much discussion in rehearsals as to what Bertie sounded like at home with his wife and young daughters Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret. "There was an argument for saying that he barely stutters at all with his family," said Firth, "and then Tom felt that lowered the stakes too much. If there's ever a time when he's free of it, it makes Logue's struggle a lot easier. I think you have to feel like there is no time he can escape, even a time when he's at his most secure."
In one of the film's sweetest scenes, the king tells his daughters a bedtime story; his stammer is less pronounced but still present despite his relaxed mood. Firth made up the story himself — about a penguin who can't fly, "a bit of a parable for himself" — based on stories he's told his own children. "I just needed that one to be personal," he said.
And Firth was fascinated to learn the real-life details behind the movie's story, much of it aided by the discovery of a trove of unpublished diaries and letters from Logue, just weeks before filming began. ("It was like the Dead Sea Scrolls for us," he said of the find.) For the king's crucial speech on the eve of World War II, Firth listened to recordings of the broadcast and carefully marked up his script, noting pauses and inflections.
"I did that for myself," he said, but screenwriter David Seidler told the actor that he'd seen the actual marked copies that Logue created for the king, "and they looked just like that."
Firth, who received an Oscar nomination last year for "A Single Man" (and will surely notch another for this film), was asked in a Q&A in Toronto how to play a stammer. He answered that the key was not to play the stammer but to play trying not to stammer. He elaborated further in our interview: "You have to find the state first. You can't act that, you just have to find it. The only thing you can act is not having it, because that's human behavior." You can't play trying to cry, he said, but trying not to cry; not drunk, but trying not to seem drunk.
Classically trained for the stage, Firth described acting as having an intention — something you're working toward in a scene.
"In the process of achieving it, you have to have an obstacle, an inner obstacle. The constant thing — almost a mantra — of my instructors was, don't play the obstacle," he said. "You're climbing over the wall, you can have the vertigo, but don't play it. Play that you don't have it, play the courage, play the need to get over it. That's what drama is."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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