In Conversation With Colin

Chiswick actor on his latest role as Dorian Gray's Lord Henry Wotton

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Ealing Studios Production of the Oscar Wilde Classic


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Colin Firth gained wide-scale public attention for his portrayal of Mr. Darcy in the highly acclaimed BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. He subsequently achieved film stardom with the international box-office success of Bridget Jones's Diary and his many film credits include The English Patient, Fever Pitch, Shakespeare in Love, The Importance of Being Earnest, Girl with a Pearl Earring and the film adaptation of Mamma Mia!

He recently starred alongside Ben Barnes in Easy Virtue, and re-teamed with the actor for Ealing Studio's production of Dorian Gray launched this week, in which Firth plays Lord Henry Wotton.

We asked him about his relationship with the book before doing the film.

"I have read it, as a teenager I believe. I had a moment about a year or so ago when I was thinking about all the Dickens stuff and whether I should re-read this or that, and how wonderful they were, and then I started to get confused as to whether I had read any of them at all. I could tell you probably the whole plot of Oliver Twist with all its characters, the whole plot of David Copperfield, and Great Expectations, but I actually can’t remember what I have read and what I haven’t, and how much is based on films and television adaptations. So it is interesting. I read Dorian just before making the film and again it was impossible for me to know whether I had read this before or whether I had heard every single quote somewhere else. It is so full of recognizable one-liners, and all his aphorisms and paradoxes, so many famous ones."

It’s not an easy film to adapt; after all there are not many cinematic versions knocking about…

"No. No. Have another look. I have found something. Double check this for me, but I found a piece of information that said there were six adaptations of Dorian Gray made before 1920. Now that may just be some weird error on something I found. I think that there was a BBC version and there was a ballet last year; it has popped up in various forms. I remember Peter Firth doing it, I think, in the 1970’s. The problem with it is that it doesn’t have a conventional protagonist. Whose eyes is the story told through? Dorian himself is almost a mythical being. He starts off as someone who is reported on by other characters as having this extraordinary angelic quality. Someone describes him as being like a Stravidavarius. How do you play that? It is very, very difficult for an actor to inhabit an ideal in that way. And then he becomes almost an ideal of the opposite. He is a monster, while looking like an angel, so you have a problem. And it is not through Dorian’s eyes, anyway. He is not really the protagonist. Lord Henry, he is the villain, if you like, so you can’t really tell it through his eyes either. You could argue that it’s Basil but Basil gets bumped off so early that you can’t follow him through to the end. Now, for its time, it is a relatively short novel, although, with the writing skills of Oscar Wilde, those things don’t matter as much. But there’s a far greater challenge when coming to do a film."

That’s presumably something that the filmmakers sought to address with the title of this version, which thrusts Ben Barnes to the fore…

"I have seen the two adaptations of this now. I hadn’t seen the famous black-and-white version before I did it. I stayed away from it because George Sanders casts a very long shadow and I didn’t want to make it any more difficult for myself. But Ben is by far the best Dorian that there’s ever been. He has got much more complexity, partly in what he has been given. He has a very interesting quality. He is clearly very beautiful. He has a lot of the right physical qualities, obviously, but he has also got these very, very dark eyes. The pupils of his eyes are about as black as anyone’s I have ever seen. And it kind of makes him rather interesting when he changes. It is something that is a rather useful visual tool for the film. And the film has been structured to try to excavate Dorian a little bit. It is not intended as an exact representation of the book, by any means, and I am sure it is going to irritate purists, but one has to live with that. It really isn’t for the purists and it employs different devices. My character has a daughter and she doesn’t appear in the book, but I think in a way, because we don’t have Basil any more, it’s good to have somebody who is not corrupt."

Henry Wotton’s daughter is there to prick his conscience, which he certainly needs…

"He does. But also I think the audience needs to have someone on their side. Because we are not behind Dorian and we are not behind Lord Henry. We have to have, to put it simply, a good person who we can root for and who has something to drive the narrative."

Your character is fuller than in the novel, by virtue of having a daughter, wouldn’t you say?

"It means that there’s something at stake for Henry. With Henry, the stakes are up for different reasons in the book. He realises that he is partly responsible for creating a monster and our film still follows that line, but the existence of the daughter means that everybody has got something they don’t want to spoil or lose. Dorian has some sort of motive for wanting to redeem himself, or at least it is one that we can focus on. In the book, he has a whole lifetime of regret, but now we have something we can specifically focus on, that makes it worthwhile for Dorian to try and forgive himself. Also, it gives Lord Henry a vulnerability that he otherwise wouldn’t have and we have got a means by which we can care about Dorian, which we wouldn’t have otherwise, because, as he says, his life is a monstrous corruption. He is fairly unredeemable, really, even by virtue of one of his crimes. You have got the problem of likeability and an identification of the character."

If the film does infuriate purists, it will be quite apt, because lots of people slated
the story when Wilde first published it…

"You are absolutely right. I think Wilde didn’t like to play to expectations and the version we did of The Importance of Being Earnest infuriated a lot of purists, as well, and I remember thinking that is as it should be. It is not supposed to be a museum piece. We all know, you probably studied this at university, and if you are writing about it the chances are that you are an English graduate. The original copy has not been harnessed on the shelf and it can be interpreted and read …"

Your version of The Importance of Being Earnest is rather good. What did people object to about that Wilde adaptation?

"It got good reviews. People still refer to it as something they enjoyed. I think it is a wonderful film and it opened up Oscar Wilde to a lot of people who normally wouldn’t read him or go to his plays. And this is a virtue of this film too; it was precisely Olly’s [Oliver Parker, the director] intention. He wants everybody to have a crack at it and everybody to enjoy the thing, rather than it to be the preserve of a few highly educated people. I don’t think Oscar Wilde necessarily has to be that. I don’t think you have to mess around too much in order to popularize it, but I think it’s fine to have fun and to reinvent and actually, I think in the case of Dorian Gray, you have to do something with it. I think it is very, very difficult. You would run into problems quite often if you tried to shoot it as it was originally written. But then maybe you can. I don’t know. I am not proscribing other ways of doing it. Whenever something gets adapted by someone else there’s always a combination of different sensibilities; it’s obviously going to be partly Oscar Wilde and partly whoever adapts it, partly whoever directs it and partly the rest of us. I think there is a great case for shooting the book and seeing what would happen. I don’t think it is impossible."

One of the great ironies must be that it’s near-impossible to find an actor with sufficient experience and yet is young enough to play the part…

"There is a paradox because Ben in the second half of the film has to play someone who has aged 20 or so years, and must be in his late forties but looks as though he is in his late twenties. Whatever time has elapsed, I can’t quite remember, but Ben is actually playing someone a great deal older than he is. I think his part becomes more interesting once he is in that phase, once he has become corrupted and he is playing someone with experience. But you are right, you have a young actor who has to play a man who is experienced, while an older actor wouldn’t be able to look young enough to play the young man."

Barnaby Thompson produced Easy Virtue and Dorian Gray. He’s found you some great dialogue to revel in, first Noel Coward, and now Oscar Wilde…

"You do revel in them, but there’s a responsibility with those lines; it’s like handling the family silver! And with Dorian Gray, there are so many lines that people know. It’s like with our version of The Importance of Being Earnest and the handbag line; do you just throw it away or do you give it them full Edith Evans. You have to forget they’re famous and allow them to come part of the conversation. I liked this script because the lines were well woven in. They didn’t sound like declarations; they sounded part of the normal conversation."

Presumably before starting on that, you shot Main Street…

"Yes, and it’s beautiful piece of writing by Horton Foote, who’s one of my favourite American writers; he’s certainly written some of my favourite films, whether it’s Tender Mercies, Places in the Heart, to Kill a Mockingbird… and wonderful plays, too. This, sadly, turned out to be his last piece, and it’s rather enigmatic. The story and the character are both rather enigmatic and rather than leaping all over it, and giving it a different interpretation, I tried to play the contradictions that I found, and hopefully, people will be as mystified by the character as I was. He’s someone who says he’s from Texas, and it’s about the economic downturn, in some ways, although it was written before our current credit crunch. It’s basically about a small town, Durham, North Carolina, an old tobacco town, and the old warehouses still loom, which are rather magnificent actually. It has a downtown that was very bleak when he saw it five years ago and in cinematic terms it really suggests a place that’s suffering hardship. Ellen Burstyn plays a woman who owns a warehouse; she needs money and wants to rent it out. A stranger comes to town and has a proposal. We find out that he works in the hazard waste business and he wants to persuade the town to let him build a hazardous waste plant. No one wants the waste plant but he starts making offers that are hard to refuse: he’s offering full employment and parks, schools and swimming pools. It also has Patricia Clarkson and Orlando Bloom in it."

And before that you did A Single Man, with Tom Ford directing?

"I am extremely pleased with it. It’s not an exact translation of the book by Christopher Isherwood; it has a lot of Tom Ford’s sensibilities in it. It’s about a college professor in LA in 1962 - very autobiographical from the novelist’s point of view - he’s a man who’s lost his lover in car accident. To say much more would probably give it away, but it takes place in a single day, featuring flashbacks to the past. It’s about a day in the life of a man who’s grieving."

What’s the deal with the script inked by Irvine Welsh?

"I can tell you now, I’m very excited about that script - I want to do it, Robbie Carlisle wants to do it, and Toni Bird wants to do it. I’d love to see it come together. It’s been around for a while and we’ve been doing other things. I’ve not been on to the imdb for a while, but in the past I have got asked about a lot of projects that, actually, I’d never heard of!"

September 8, 2009