In “Arthur Newman,” a dark indie comedy that premiered Monday in Toronto, Colin Firth plays a depressed divorcee who fakes his own death and adopts a new identity to forge a new and better life. The role marks Firth’s first lead one since his Academy Award-winning turn as King George VI in “The King’s Speech,” yet despite their obvious differences (the titular Arthur Newman is a modern day Yank), the film finds Firth once again getting inside the mind of a guy at odds with himself.
[Editor’s Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. “Arthur Newman” opens in select theaters Friday, April 26.]
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Dante Ariola, “Arthur Newman” also stars fellow Brit Emily Blunt as a troubled woman who meets Firth’s character on his journey and decides to follow suit. Together the the pair embark on a cross-country spree of life-swapping and bed-hopping. Firth sat down with Indiewire in Toronto to discuss the concept of starting over, his ties to America, and living down his career defining turn in “The King’s Speech.”
Watching “Arthur Newman,” I thought, Colin Firth could never do this, could never fake his own death and switch identities.
I suppose that’s true. Although I’m an actor so, in a way, perhaps we’re doing something equivalent in hiding in plain sight. I’m not claiming that theory as my own, necessarily; that’s a spur of the moment reflection. I think a lot of people have that fantasy of a clean start, reinventing themselves completely — running away. Most people don’t follow through with that.
I was very struck when, a few years ago, I was reading Nick Hornby’s book, “A Long Way Down.” It’s about a bunch of people who meet up and try to commit suicide on the same night on the top of a building. One of the characters realizes that he doesn’t really want to — that he can’t. But it was always a comfort to him to think that suicide was an option, and the fact that that option’s gone makes him feel suffocated. This idea that there’s some kind of way out, whether it’s an extreme one or just running away from your life – I think some people have this private and secret notion that lurks somewhere. And if you become very familiar to people, that option is gone. In fact, it’s very hard to disappear, just for minutes. I think something’s lost, an awful lot of good stuff comes your way, but something’s lost.
Have you ever felt the urge to run away?
No, actually, I think I’ve spent too much of my life moving around, traveling. I’ve personally never had any of the above fantasies.
We’re always fascinated by people like Lord Lucan; a famous scandal of a murder case, and the suspect disappeared. People still speculate on him being alive — there are routine sightings of the guy. I think part of it is this idea: could you successfully pull that off? Could you fake your identity? Go and lead a new life? No, I don’t want to run away from my life; I take little excursions on a very regular basis. If I have any of that in me, it’s taken care of.
Arthur is quite the ambiguous figure. What appealed to you about the character?
I liked the ambiguity. I’ve seen quite a lot of material, and, whatever the quality of it, it observes certain conventions; not that that’s a problem, necessarily, but this one didn’t. It brushed with certain conventions but it doesn’t really follow any of the trajectories that you expect. It jumped out because it was so different and so enigmatic, in a way.
I’m interested in the notion of an awful lot of things that come up in it. The notion of feeling you haven’t made your mark, of missing your moment. Trying to have a control over your identity, trying to manipulate that. And the idea of being invisible and not wanting to be invisible — wanting to force a dream to come true. I didn’t sit down and think them through the way I’m trying to think through them now, but these are the things that swam around my mind when I was looking at it. I just thought it would be a very interesting leap into the unknown.
I liked the fact that it was kind of a risk; it was small, no notion in anybody’s mind of what it was going to do out in the market place. It was just a story with characters that got under my skin. And I found that scenes often revealed themselves as we played them; they could throw up unexpected tones and qualities — that I’ve found fascinating.
I very much believed in the existence of this man. We never quite know, until we try them on for size, what bit of yourself you’re gonna find in a character, but there was something there that chimed with me.
I don’t know. There’s an awful lot of stories to be told, and the stories being told at the moment have much to do with memory and regret. Some of the books I’ve been reading over the summer — Dave Egger’s book, “Hologram for the King,” is about a man my age, a little bit older than me, and the sense of dislocation and regretful reflection, and the failure to have made an impact, and lost opportunity. I just finished Richard Ford’s book, “Canada,” which I think has similar themes as well.
You’re a big reader.
I am, it’s funny — there isn’t really anything guiding me to it. I found that they both dealt with people in the middle of nowhere, reckoning with things that have happened in the past – trying to force a direction, a future, in some way. I think it’s sort of in the water at the moment.
This marks Dante Ariola’s first narrative feature. Were you wary of a novice handling the material?
Not necessarily, no. You take a leap of faith; Tom Ford was a first-time feature filmmaker as well. There’s no exact science to making a decision. If something feels a little different, then I think it’s worth taking a bet on it.
How does a first-time filmmaker cast you in their movie? I’m sure many of them would like to know.
Well you start off with a script that’s interesting enough. As I said, this one was different enough and mysterious enough — I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. It caught my attention just because it was different. And then, of course, I had to meet a director that I would spark to, and I got — as much as one can possibly tell — a sense that he had the honesty and the guts to take us in an interesting direction with it. I saw his reels, doing the commercials he’s done; they’re interesting, extremely versatile, showed great talent. That didn’t confirm to us that he was able to master a 90-minute narrative, but… we all took a leap of faith on each other. I had enough to go on, I found him compelling enough and bright enough. There’s a fierceness of mental energy I sense in him that appealed to me. Emily [Blunt] felt very much the same thing.
God knows a script that’s even half interesting is an oasis — everybody would love to go and write and not everybody can; in fact, it’s a miracle that films are ever good because of the number of variables. I took this one personally from an early stage.
How much do you think the locale played a part in the film? The casting of you and Emily Blunt seems a little odd in retrospect, given that you’re two Brits, playing two Americans, traversing across the American landscape.
Brits play Americans, Americans play Brits. Dante didn’t really think about it.
Really, it never came up?
No… I mean, actors play whatever. The challenge is finding the identity, the voice and all the rest.
Two voices, in this case. Your character adopts a new one as Arthur.
Yeah, and then for it not to be the one that everyone else is familiar with — I’m not as unfamiliar with it as everyone else is unfamiliar with me doing it. I was thinking just now how I was called “the Yank” at school in England, when I came back from America. My identity has always felt somewhat planted here. I realize that out there, in the rest of the world, where people’s perceptions lie, that’s not the case.
The voice you hear me more frequently use isn’t really, authentically mine at all. It’s just people got used to it, and they started to expect it, and now I get cast that way — over and over again. It’s not how I spoke at school; it’s not how I spoke growing up. It felt a little bogus when I started to play patrician Brits at first, and I thought — well, we’ll do a couple of these and then we’ll start to spread it around. And then spreading it around didn’t happen as much as I expected it to. It happened more in the theater, less conspicuously. It is something that tends to happen — as we all know, for obvious reasons. In some ways, it’ll be less familiar to people, but it’s hardly different from what I’ve been doing all of my life.
One last question: You were talking about your screen identity and how it’s tied to your spoken voice. So much of that obviously is associated to your role in “The King’s Speech.” Are you okay with that? How do you live down a role like King George VI?
You do something; you can’t complain about the fact that it has an impact. I think you’d go nuts if you tried to do battle with it. Instead of trying to live that down, just get on and do what you do. There’s a passage in “The English Patient,” of the Egyptian Pharaoh who declared war against the wind — you know, they take the army and they got buried in the sandstorm. Trying to fight perceptions that are beyond your control, I don’t even go there. That’s probably what I’m doing in this: I’m just doing what I do according to my own impulses, according to what comes up. There’s no master plan. There isn’t really a battle to be fought.