Colin Firth -- the thinking woman's heartthrob -- is now 50 and earning some of his best reviews (and a likely second straight Oscar nod) playing a stuttering monarch

By Dave Karger
November 12, 2010 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

Colin Firth enters his favorite West London hangout right at the appointed hour for an interview, but it’s immediately obvious that something is wrong. As soon as he opens his mouth, the problem reveals itself. ”I have no voice,” he says with an arrestingly rough rasp. ”We went to this party last night for the London Film Festival, and you had to talk just slightly above normal.” Translation: He was approached by so many well-wishers that the poor man talked himself hoarse.

Apparently, being Colin Firth these days means being the most popular guy in the room. The veteran British actor is following up his Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s A Single Man with another career-capping achievement, this time in The King’s Speech (rated R, out Nov. 26). In the comedic drama, Firth plays King George VI, the 20th-century British monarch (and father of the current Queen Elizabeth) who was plagued with a crippling stutter until he sought the help of an eccentric Australian speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush).

Firth’s performance has already received such acclaim that he is destined to earn back-to-back Best Actor nominations, a feat accomplished in the past decade by only Russell Crowe and Johnny Depp. Now 50, the man best known as a heartthrob from such projects as the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice and two Bridget Jones movies is continuing to turn in the most complex work of his 25-year film career. ”The stories about men my age are rather interesting,” the actor says a few days after our first meeting, his voice almost fully recovered. ”They have a past. Maybe I’ve been given an opportunity which has perhaps invited me to raise my game.”

To prepare for The King’s Speech, Firth pored over archival video footage of George VI (informally known as ”Bertie”) delivering painfully awkward public addresses to crowds as big as 100,000. ”You see first an expression in his face of ‘I can go on,”’ says Firth. ”Then he realizes he can’t. I remember him closing his eyes and just trying to gather. One of the things that brings tears to your eyes is the fact that he gets on with it. You start to get very moved by the dignity. It was incredibly painful to watch, but there’s something beautiful there, too.” Once shooting began, Firth fretted over getting the monarch’s stutter just right. ”Colin was terribly afraid that he was going to stammer too much, that he was going to misjudge the level of Bertie’s affliction,” says director Tom Hooper (HBO’s John Adams). ”I remember pushing him for the stammering to be more violent. I wanted him to be fully in the agony of it.” Firth also consulted his sister, Kate, a speech therapist. ”I am quite concerned about how people who actually do stutter are going to take it,” he says. ”Any smack of inauthenticity and you’ve lost the battle.”

So far the reception has been excellent for The King’s Speech, which has racked up prizes on the festival circuit (most notably the audience prize at the Toronto Film Festival, previously won by eventual Oscar favorites Precious and Slumdog Millionaire). Firth’s castmates certainly hope that the Academy takes notice of his performance. ”They would get it right if they gave it to Colin,” says Rush, a Best Actor winner for 1996’s Shine and a shoo-in for a Supporting Actor nod for The King’s Speech. ”A role of this scale, it is like climbing an Everest. And to not do it riddled with showy clichés, but to find a humanity and a depth and a layer that really empowers an audience’s imagination and draws them into something quite complicated? He’s good stuff.”

But Firth — who’s currently filming the spy thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Gary Oldman — isn’t popping open the champagne just yet. ”They say a week is a long time in politics,” Firth says. ”A lot can change in terms of what people’s sentiments are.” He learned that lesson the hard way last year, when Crazy Heart‘s Jeff Bridges entered the awards race at the last minute and won every major American acting prize. Firth, who lives in quiet West London with his wife, Livia, and their two young sons (”I’m all about the kids, really — look at the widths of the sidewalks here”), doesn’t foresee his life changing much even if this ends up being his year at the Oscars. ”Come end of February,” he says, ”whether I’ve been invited to the party or not, I’m still going to be taking out the trash.”