In his latest film, The King’s Speech, Colin Firth plays George VI, the reluctant British monarch who overcame a debilitating stammer with the help of unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.
Here, Firth talks about the challenges of depicting a stammer on screen and the mystery of playing a royal.
Q: Your journey was almost the reverse of the film because you had to learn how to stammer rather than how to stop stammering. How hard was it to get it right?
Firth: I didn’t find it easy at all. Tom [Hooper, director] was part of the process of judging it, but he can’t get into my larynx and help me achieve the technique!
Tom was very responsible for most of the decisions I made in it. He was the one who decided how much we were going to experience of it, which was basically every single line which was a bit of a shock when he first told me that!
But I think actors are always having to achieve the problem before they can express overcoming the problem. The stammer emphasises that. But if you’re playing someone who’s got marital problems you have to play someone who’s trying not to have marital problems but first you have to go to where they are and get into the problem.
If you’re playing someone impeded by fear or shyness or has some dysfunction – and I’ve played a lot of dysfunctional characters – you have to achieve the dysfunction first imaginatively in order to play someone who’s trying to negotiate their way out of it. So, in a way it’s just the same job again.
Q: The input of the film’s screenwriter David Seidler, who used to stammer himself, was particularly important, wasn’t it?
Firth: Yes, not only did he create our characters, but he was also our authority on stammering. Had we not had David I probably would have wanted to spend serious time with someone who could take me through what stammering was like, but David was extremely expressive about it.
I was left quite shaken by his eloquence. He compared it to being underwater. There was this panicking drowning sensation which seemed to have no way out. A terrible and endless silence you can’t climb out of.
He also talked about how it conditions how you approach your day, down to the last detail. If you have an important encounter, the outcome of which might change your life, you’re still only focusing on whether you’ll be able to get the words out. And that will loom larger than the bigger picture of what you’re trying to achieve.
It made me realise that stammering is not something you can isolate. It absolutely consumes you and your identity.
Q: How would you describe the film’s portrayal of overcoming a stammer?
Firth: I think 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 he stammers.
That’s why I think the film can be honestly hopeful. 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 been a terrible let down to people who have to face this. What it does promise is that people can reach an accommodation with this problem where it is no longer debilitating.
Q: Did accurately portraying someone who stammers take precedence for you over playing an historical character?
Firth: 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 them is currently ruling this country.
I would be equally sensitive to living members of the Logue family, many of whom we’ve met now. But I was more concerned with how people who stammer would respond because any inauthenticity would be a terrible disservice in that direction.
Q: How did you find playing a member of the royal family?
Firth: It remains a mystery. I often feel when I’ve played a character that I’ve come away with a just a glimpse of what their life might be.
I’ve played soldiers more than once and, even though I can’t fully imagine it, I’ve got a whiff of it, partly because I’ve spoken to soldiers and listened to very stirring accounts of what that life is like.
I haven’t had that with the royal family and I’ve come out the other side of this without a clue what it might be like.
Q: How authentic would you say the film is in terms of the historical events it portrays?
Firth: A lot of our dialogue is quotes from these men, from Lionel Logue’s diaries and written accounts. ‘You still stammered on the W,’ ‘I had to throw in a few so they knew it was me,’ that’s a quote from Logue’s diaries about an exchange he had with George VI after a speech.
The scene of George V’s death is a precise reconstruction of published accounts. We were scrupulous in finding everything as authentically as we possibly could.
But despite my efforts, I entered into an imaginative world based on all the evidence we could get our hands on, to try to make it as real as I possibly could.
I would love to have had control of the country for a couple of days. [Laughs] But you don’t get to try out the job. But my profession’s full of that. It’s no different than if I played someone from the 17th century, which I have.
I can’t bring you absolute truth in the detailed factual sense. All I can do as an interpreter is bring you an interpretation as I understand it. That’s all you can ever get from an actor.
The King’s Speech is in cinemas from 7th January.
By Jan Gilbert, Freelance Film Journalist.