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Fri July 25, 2014
Movie Interviews

In Which Colin Firth Debunks Some Myths About Working With Woody Allen

Originally published on Fri July 25, 2014 7:40 pm

In Magic in the Moonlight, a new film from Woody Allen, Colin Firth plays a 1920s stage magician who is also an expert at debunking spiritualists. Stanley, Firth's character, takes on the case of a young woman, played by Emma Stone, who is a supposedly adept medium.

Firth tells NPR's Robert Siegel how some of the more well-known myths about working will Allen checked out, and why he's been appearing in fewer comedies.


Interview Highlights

On appearing in nearly every scene of Magic in the Moonlight

When I first read the script, there was an awful lot of ink under the word "Stanley." And it was a little overwhelming, actually, because it was the first time I'd been approached by Woody Allen, and then to see that I was going to be carrying an awful lot of what he'd written was flattering and daunting. ...

On how the stories about what it was like to work with Allen checked out

I had heard all sorts of stories about Woody Allen's directing — directorial approach. And some of them turned out to be myth, but one of them was that he doesn't rehearse, and another was that he doesn't really direct. If he doesn't like it ... he cuts it out of the movie or even replaces you. And he doesn't talk to you.

You know ... we had a very brief phone conversation — which I thought he'd asked for and he thought I'd asked for, which became apparent as we spoke — and it lasted all of two minutes, I think. So there was no discussion about what the convention of the film was going to be: whether this was theatrical or naturalistic; whether it was going to be big, small; how he was going to shoot it. So I tried to build what I could just in the homework that I was doing.

Because another thing you hear is that he only lets you see certain pages — but that wasn't true, he let me have the script. And I just thought, "Well, I must come on as best I can and have as much up my sleeve as I can, which at least means really knowing the lines." I don't normally like to learn lines in advance. I find my choices and decisions get a little bit too set. ... Of course I'll learn them, but I don't want to embed it too much. [I] couldn't afford to do that with this. There was just too much.

And then I got onto the set and, you know, the first word he said to me was probably "action." ... And it was not just action, it was, "Actually, we're going to shoot this whole scene in one shot." And then what you find is that those takes are the rehearsal. ... He rehearses on camera. And he did direct, that was another thing that turned out not to be the case. He was a very, very involved and meticulous director. So that came as a great relief.

On why he's been appearing in fewer comedies

The comedies are coming less thick and fast than they used to. ... It's partly choice. I feel more comfortable in drama. Comedy is a high-wire act. I find it stressful. It's a precision science, in a way. And when you're filming, the thing that comedy depends on ... is spontaneity. In filming, you're waiting — you're waiting for lights, you're waiting for people to set things up — and when you're not waiting, you're repeating. And neither is conducive to spontaneity. You know, comedy makes you very, very neurotic.

On the kind of roles he's been getting as a middle-aged actor

I've been fascinated at how much more interesting the roles have been for me in the last few years. ... Films like A Single Man or King's Speech or even this one, there's one thing that they have in common. ... They're about a man who has made up his mind about life in a certain way, or has made up his mind about himself, and something gets overturned. And I think that is fairly specific to someone in middle age. And then something happens to you or you find yourself in an unlikely encounter or an unusual relationship, and something revolutionizes. Now, you know, being in middle age means that you hopefully still have a significant enough future for that to really count. ... I don't think those [parts] would have been available to me in my 20s. And it won't be the same story if I'm, you know, 98.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audi Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the new Woody Allen movie, Colin Firth plays a 1920s stage magician who's also an expert at debunking spiritualists. And during filming, Firth ended up debunking some myths about Woody Allen. Firth's character in Magic In The Moonlight is named Stanley. He takes on the case of young woman, played by Emma Stone, who is a supposedly adept medium.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's all phony. From the seance table, to the Vatican and beyond.

SIEGEL: Spoiler alert - the dead do not really show up at séances.

Colin Firth joins us now NPR West. Welcome to the program, once again.

COLIN FIRTH: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

SIEGEL: First of all, there is, I believe, one scene in Magic In The Moonlight in which two characters talk about your character. But apart from that, is there any moment when you are not on screen, or about to be on screen this film?

FIRTH: I think there are very few. It's very much from my point of view.

SIEGEL: It's all you, all the time.

FIRTH: Yeah. There was a lot of - when I first read the script, there was an awful lot of ink under the word Stanley. And it was a little overwhelming actually because it's the first time I'd been approached by Woody Allen. And then to see that I was going to be carrying an awful lot of what he'd written was flattering and daunting.

SIEGEL: Daunting, but you also say flattering. It sounds like something that would make a project attractive.

FIRTH: Well, it did. I had heard all sorts of stories about Woody Allen's directing - directorial approach. And some of them turned out to be myth. But, one of them was that he doesn't rehearse and another was that he doesn't really direct, if he doesn't like it...

SIEGEL: He just cuts it out of the movie?

FIRTH: ...Yeah, he cuts it out of the movie, or even replaces you. And he doesn't talk to you. You know, we didn't have - we had a very brief phone conversation, which, I thought he'd asked for and he thought I'd asked for. It became apparent as we spoke and it lasted all of two minutes, I think. So there was no discussion about what the convention of the film is going to be, whether this was theatrical, or naturalistic. Whether it was going be big, small, you know. How he was going to shoot it. So I tried to build what I could, just in the homework that I was doing. Because another thing you hear is that he only lets you see certain pages, but that wasn't true. He let me have the script and I just thought, well, I must come armed as best I can and have as much up my sleeve as I can. Which at least means really knowing the lines. I don't normally like to learn lines in advance too much; I find my choices and decisions get a little bit too set.

SIEGEL: Hm. You mean, the alternative is to learn them day by day, shot by shot? You rehearse what you do that day?

FIRTH: Yes, well, I tend - you know, I, of course I'll learn them. But I don't want to, sort of, embed it too much. I couldn't afford to do that with this. There was just too much. Then I got onto the set, and I - you know, the first word he said to me was probably Action.

SIEGEL: (Laughing). It's all business, is what you're describing.

FIRTH: It's very much business, yes.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

FIRTH: But - and it was not just action, it was - Action, we're going to shoot this whole scene one shot. And then what you find is that those takes are the rehearsal. He rehearses in front - he rehearses on camera - and he did direct, that was another thing that turned out not to be the case. He was a very, very involved and meticulous director. So that came as a great relief.

SIEGEL: We spoke several years ago, when you were in a remake of The Importance Of Being Earnest. It struck me that this is the first comedy you have done a few years, isn't it? You've been doing some pretty serious parts, of late.

FIRTH: Yes, the comedies are coming less thick and fast than they used to.

SIEGEL: Why is that?

FIRTH: It's partly choice. I feel more comfortable in drama. Comedy's is a high-wire act. I find it stressful. It's a precision science, in a way. And when you're filming, the thing comedy depends on becomes a much more difficult commodity. The thing you depend on is spontaneity.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

FIRTH: In filming you're waiting. You're waiting for lights. You're waiting for people set things up. And when you're not waiting, you're repeating. And neither is conducive to spontaneity, you know. Comedy makes you very, very neurotic because you think, I - but did I nail it?

SIEGEL: In your character, by the way, in Magic In The Moonlight, there were moments, I felt, moments of Henry Higgins coming out. Did that resonate at all with you?

FIRTH: Very much so. It's interesting actually because I was - I didn't talk to Woody Allen about that because I - again, we didn't have any conversations about why the - or any conversations.

SIEGEL: (Laughing). Or of the extensive preparation you went through, with him. That's funny.

FIRTH: No, my preparation was a somewhat lonely experience. But he mentioned Henry Higgins once, in that very, very brief phone call. He said it obviously has something of a Henry Higgins about it. But listening to him at the press conference in New York, he said he wasn't conscious of referencing that, even though he considers Pygmalion to be possibly the most perfect comic play ever written. That's not what he was interested in pursuing. It was - it came from somewhere else for him. And there are themes we've seen over the years, as, sort of, motifs that come up; his interest in the need for escape from reality, the pondering of death.

SIEGEL: Love, death - the basic Woody Allen themes.

FIRTH: Yeah, very much so. They're kind of agonizing about, you know, existential hopelessness, and that sort of thing. And making it very funny. And, I think lifting the angst a little bit, you know, laughing off things that otherwise torment us and keep us up at night.

SIEGEL: Well, I have one other forward-looking question for you, which is, when I interviewed Jonathan Teplitzky, who made The Railway Man with you, I pointed out that while this isn't a documentary. It's a film based on a true story. But one of the liberties which he took was to take events that unfolded in Eric Lom - in the real Eric Lomax's life, when he was in his '70s, and have them played by you in your '50s.

FIRTH: Yes.

SIEGEL: And he said, well, you know, he gave me an answer about real life in the movies. And I'm just curious, do you think they're going to be lots of parts for men of an older age coming up over the next 10 or 15 years, for you?

FIRTH: I really can't see ahead. I don't know. I will say that I've been fascinated at how much more interesting the roles have been for me in the last few years. And I don't know whether it's films like "The Single Man" or "The King's Speech" or even this one; there's one thing that they have in common - are that they are about a man who's made up his mind about life in a certain way. Or, has made up his mind about himself. And something gets overturned. And I think that is fairly specific to someone in middle-age. And then, something happens to you, or you find yourself in unlikely encounter, or an unusual relationship and something revolutionizes.

Now, you know, being in middle-age means that you hopefully still have a significant enough future for that to really count. So it's a very interesting time. And there have been several times when that's happened, and I don't think those things would have been available to me in my 20s. And it won't be the same story if I'm, you know, 98.

SIEGEL: (Laughing) I think one is pretty well - pretty well made up at that point.

Colin Firth, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FIRTH: It was a great pleasure. Thanks.

SIEGEL: Colin Firth stars in "Magic In The Moonlight," which opens this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.