For His Next Trick, Colin Firth Appears in Woody Allen Comedy
Left to right: Simon McBurney as Howard Burkan, Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa and Colin Firth as Stanley in MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. ©Gravier Productions. CR Jack English.

Left to right: Simon McBurney as Howard Burkan, Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa and Colin Firth as Stanley in MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT. ©Gravier Productions. CR Jack English.

Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Filmmaker Woody Allen was determined to have Colin Firth star in his ‘20s-set romantic comedy “Magic in the Moonlight,” even though the Oscar-winner was unavailable because he already was committed to do another project. Perhaps the Wood-man conjured a spell because Firth’s other project was delayed, freeing the Oscar winner to star in the luscious flapper-era comedy about a skeptic who falls for a beautiful young psychic.

“Colin was the perfect person to play this,” the legendary and prolific filmmaker explains at a press conference. “It requires a certain savoir faire, and you want an elegant, good looking person who can do the wit and can have that attitude, without getting on your nerves, and someone you’d like to watch for the whole movie.”

The 53-year-old Englishman can play elegant like nobody’s business, having established himself as the quintessential Jane Austen heartthrob Mr. Darcy earlier in his career. He subsequently has made the fairer sex swoon in such romantic fare as the “Bridget Jones” movies, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “Love, Actually.”

Tall ( 6’2”), erudite and charming, the handsome actor is alas, happily married to Livia Firth, an Italian film producer, with whom he has two children. He also has an adult son from a prior relationship with actress Meg Tilly.

Dressed formally in a suit and tie and wearing black-frame glasses, he recently spoke about working with the Allen, and playing a snooty magician who falls under the spell of a supposed psychic while attempting to expose her during a trip to the South of France.

Q: Playing an arrogant Englishman from the ‘20s—was that a challenge for you? How do you make him different from other characters like this that you’ve played?

Firth: The arrogance, it’s quite fun to play somebody who’s just nasty all the time just because… I don’t know, it’s liberating. It feels like a bit of a test to be appealing and to just be mean. Plus, we’ve got some rich dialogue with it.

Q: Your character is the smartest man in the room and he knows it. He has some unlikable traits. Should he be admired? Chastised? What’s your sense of Stanley?

Firth: All of the above, I suppose, because I don’t think he’s a single-faceted character. The trouble with being the smartest person in the room and knowing it is that you’re probably missing something. One of the themes that comes up is absolute certainty is a rather precarious position. However much I might sympathize with his skepticism, I also sympathize with Sophie who thinks he’s foolish to be so damned sure of himself. One of the wonderful things about making a film or any drama is that you have dialogue, you can take up a position or you can take up a completely new position, and put them together and see how it argues out. Oscar Wilde said that’s why he liked writing dialogue because then he could argue with himself. It’s part of the fun of it. If you just want to say something about your position, then you can just say it. You don’t have to spend 90 minutes of screen time. So I think his less appealing qualities are largely set-ups for a fall, which is part of the entertainment.

Q: You’ve managed to avoid the pitfall of trying to play the stand-in role for your writer-director Woody Allen with his mannerisms and delivery. Was that a challenge for you?

Firth: (joking) I was trying to imitate Woody but was spectacularly unsuccessful. It wouldn’t have been a fit. It didn’t call or that. It was a wonderfully specific character that belonged absolutely in the culture where it was aimed. I don’t know how he did it. I found myself, for interest sake, while I was preparing, I was reading Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse and George Bernard Shaw, just to refresh myself how people (back then) sounded. We don’t sound very much like that anymore. I might a little because I’m a relic. It’s disappeared to a very large extent. But it struck me how remarkably he hit it and so I play it as I see it or hear it. When dialogue is good and when relationships are good so much of the work is done for you. It just comes to life. It’s telling your how to do it. If I misjudged that, I had Woody to make it clearer what was intended. Good writing just takes you a long way towards it.

Q: Did you have any magic skills coming into the film?

Firth: Magic, that would have been a lost cause for me. Genuine close up magic is an art form, which is very hard to achieve. I noticed that the script very wisely had not provided that challenge. If you used trick photography it’s pointless because we all know what you can do with a camera. I might as well have done a crash course in being a brilliant concert pianist. You can’t do it. To achieve it, you have to practice every waking hour of your day. There was a moment when I was asked to do the simplest card trick. It was the closest I feel we came to see Woody’s patience threshold. It was only a little sigh at my eighth attempt to do this very simple thing with one card, which he could do brilliantly but I couldn’t. It didn’t make the final cut. The rest was stage magic, a set piece, which is much easier to achieve. But I am endless fascinated with it; it’s a gift I’d love to have.

Q: How did you like working with Emma Stone? What was the best day working with her?

Firth: I don’t know what my day was with Emma. Sometimes you feel you’ve nailed a scene. It could be the best day for that reason, but it may not have been the most pleasant way to get there. One of my favorite scenes in the movie was being wet in the observatory and there was great satisfaction that we were doing something worthwhile, but we were wet. Right at the beginning, and I think it was probably a little dull for the director, but driving that car for miles along that road with that landscape, we didn’t have to do any acting. Talk about escape, the world could just wait. I was in delightful company so there were times that I felt like I was getting away with something.

Q: Woody wrote, “We all know the same truth. Our lives depend on how we choose to distort it,” which was said by the title character in his 1997 film “Deconstructing Harry.” Do you agree with that?

Colin: I think the quote Woody offered is absolutely perfect. Particularly if you’re in any creative practice, whatever the facts are, you interpret it or distort it. It’s your take, your twist and I also think it’s interesting what Woody said about the filmmaker who provides escapist entertainment is, perhaps making a greater contribution than the one who makes us starkly confront things. I think levity, lightness, escapism and diversion are misjudged and often undervalued as an art form. Comedy is saying, for a start, don’t take me seriously and so the kind of people who hand out awards and write essays on people’s work, take that at face value. They are less inclined to take it seriously even though we know it’s an awful lot harder to pull off. Life would be unthinkable without it.

Q: How was it working again with veteran actress Eileen Atkins, who plays your wise old aunt?

Firth: She became a great friend since the first time. There is no better actor. I saw her in the play she wrote, “Vita and Virginia,” on Broadway with Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s a delight. She brings her intelligence to it. In some ways, I like to think the relationship you see between us in the film is not a million miles away from the relationship I have with her in real life.

Q: Are you working on something now?

Firth: No, not right now. I just finished a film called “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (playing a secret service agent) back in January. The next thing I’ve got coming up is “Genius,” by John Logan, which is about (Hemingway’s book editor) Maxwell Perkins.