Magic in the Moonlight: Colin Firth on Acting & Pygmalion
Academy Award-winner Colin Firth is an actor’s actor; if you couldn’t tell by his many wonderful performances in films like A Single Man and The English Patient, you can certainly tell by interviewing him. Firth speaks eloquently and playfully about the art of acting on camera, the differences of interpretation between himself and his directors, and also the influence of “Fawlty Towers” on his new collaboration with Woody Allen, Magic in the Moonlight, in this exclusive interview for CraveOnline.
Fair warning: to discuss the most interesting parts of Magic in the Moonlight – starring Firth as Stanley, a stage magician trying to debunk a so-called psychic named Sophie, played by Emma Stone – the following interview ventures into Extreme Spoiler territory. We discuss the film’s climactic monologue in precise detail (Colin Firth takes us into his internal monologue in great detail, revealing the thought processes that were not elaborated upon in the film), the dramatic turn halfway through the movie and also the film’s very final moments.
Magic in the Moonlight is now playing.
CraveOnline: This movie is great.
Colin Firth: Thank you.
A big part of it is just what a great character you are. It’s so rare to have a protagonist in a movie nowadays who has such strong convictions, and that that’s the thing that defines them. They have set beliefs in the way that the world works. I feel like so much of that is relegated nowadays to supporting cast members, so they can divide the hero, and force them to make a decision. Here, you’re just strongly willed.
Well, and he’s set up to have those convictions at least called into question, if not overturned. And then overturned again. It’s playing with that strength of conviction. The story is playing with that.
The most fascinating thing for me is that halfway through he completely turns around. I thought you would save that for the end.
And then you get other twists.
Absolutely. That’s just good story structure. What an interesting thing to play, someone who has very set viewpoints and then turns around and is happy about it.
Well there are a lot more layers and concentric circles in this than met the eye when I first read it, because obviously the tone is extremely light, and I think sometimes people will confuse lightness with lack of substance and to me that is patently not the case. It revealed itself to me consistently as we went along. I thought, my God, there is so much in it or at least radiates out from it. Members of the cast, we found ourselves in conversation all the time on subjects that were related to the story, but what’s interesting to me is that… yeah, it takes up a position. One of the things that somebody questioned the other day was, the turnaround for me… my character, when suddenly I’m a believer… if that’s not a spoiler…
No, it’s fine.
Was, did that come a little too easily? But once I became familiar with what was going on I realized that was all waiting to happen. He only needed one more little push, because the thing you don’t understand about the character at first is how hard he’s longing for magic. He wants it all to be true. He would like nothing more. He even says it explicitly at one point, how much he does not want this girl to be a fake. We get the suggestion of some childhood disillusionment or fear, but there is a profound craving for magic, for the supernatural, for life to have meaning. It’s probably why he’s so strident in his judgment on it. He’s angry with it and he’s afraid of it. So we see the doubts creeping and creeping and creeping, and he just needs one more little nudge and he pops completely.
I think of Harry Houdini, who spent so much time debunking. There’s that magical element to your character. You are a stage magician, which is fun. Does that add an air of theatricality to the way you present yourself?
Absolutely! He’s a performer. He’s got a sense of himself and he’s always performing. We catch a glimpse of his magic act at the beginning. It’s high theatricality. But he makes a bit of a theatrical performance out of himself as well. He styles himself as a kind of a bon vivant with all of his witticisms, most of which are very pithy, some of which are vacuous but still clever. I didn’t know what to expect because Woody Allen doesn’t prepare you for anything. He doesn’t rehearse. There’s no preamble. But the style with which he wanted the story told had a theatricality as well.
It strikes me that you’re very lucky to get this particular role in a Woody Allen movie, because his actors only get their pages of the script and you’re in almost every single scene.
So my pages were pretty well the script!
You got the whole script! You understood the context. You knew where everything was going in every way.
I was lucky in that respect, because yeah, to give me only my pages he would have probably only had to take out about five. And so I did have an overview. I also wouldn’t have stood a chance if I didn’t have some time to familiarize myself with it, particularly as, as I said, there is no rehearsal, and also because he shoots a lot of stuff in one shot. Which means that you don’t have any room to make any mistakes. You’re doing scenes that are like a piece of theater for one camera angle, and that requires preparation. You can’t edit ‘round stuff.
Surely you rehearsed your stage show at the beginning. It’s so theatrical…
“Just get out there and make it work?”
On the last day of the shoot, deep into the night. That was a very long last day trying to get everything in, and in that one day we shot everything in the theater. We shot the dialogue scene in the dressing room with Burkan [Simon McBurney], that tantrum that I have when I come off-stage… that sort of Basil Fawlty explosion, which was somewhat in my mind as I did it actually, that rather shrill, hysterical, ineffectual rage.
That’s all I’m going to be able to think of the next time I see this movie.
But it was one shot! And that, again, is like a high wire act. There’s a lot of dialogue to get right, but everyone else has it get it right too. The camera, the Steadicam has to have got it right. There are kids involved. There are people passing across the frame. I remember thinking it will be a miracle if we ever get a take that works from beginning to end where nobody made any mistakes, where the timing of it worked, where I didn’t forget a single line. So we shot that and then it was probably about three in the morning when we got to the stage magic stuff with the elephant. Fortunately, the girls who played the assistants… there was a real magician on hand… and we didn’t have to deliver everything as stage magic because the camera does some of your tricks for you, but yeah. We snatched at it.
My favorite trick… actually, my favorite bit in the whole movie is when you turn around in the chair at the end. Oh my god, I laughed my head off at that. It was such a good set-up. Your gotcha moment, like a James Bond villain turning around…
That was a lot of fun. That is one of my favorite scenes too. I love the writing in that scene too, the dialogue. But that was because Woody Allen has some expertise in magic himself. He practiced it and clearly still does some of it. But in order to sell the misdirect, I was in on the staging of it and getting the right kind of chair that could conceivably hide him but doesn’t look out of place in the living room and that sort of thing, and the timing of the swivel.
Obviously there’s some editing, but did you talk about how he would get back there?
That’s just magic.
We just take that for granted. Well, it’s obviously not the supernatural.
Well, yeah. It’s “movie magic.”
It’s stagecraft. We’re supposed to believe that he’s enough of a magician to have stage-managed it, and we don’t question how he achieves it. I’ve seen things that look just as miraculous as that, and we all know it’s a trick. No, we didn’t rationalize the steps he went through to get himself into the chair.
The other incredible moment, I think, is when you’re praying and it goes in a very different direction than we thought. That must have been a trick.
Yes, I was both excited by the prospect and a little afraid of the prospect of getting through that scene because it is unusual that you’re on your own, with a monologue. I mean it is technically a soliloquy. I knew I had to deliver it alone, and a big change happens in the middle of it. And normally what helps you is action. Something happens to somebody to make something change. You discover something. You lift up the cushion and there’s a gun under it, or somebody says something, you get a phone call. But I didn’t have that, I had only a sort of interior monologue, or dialogue if you like, with a higher power that Stanley isn’t sure whether he believes in or not. It’s the turning point in the film, and I had it on my plate to manage that, alone. If that scene doesn’t work there’s a lynchpin that will not…
The whole movie falls apart.
Yeah, the rest of the structure will not hold. But very exciting in a way to have that. To be basically be entrusted with it. But good writing is really all you need. It made sense to me, and I was able to tell myself a story about why suddenly he does a u-turn.
I was about to ask, because it’s all interior, you’re right. What went through your head that changed you?
Well, what went through my head was, he’s adopted this new complete credulity. He’s now ready to embrace and accept almost anything. All these things he’s privately longed to believe are suddenly coming to be things he now can believe in. His universe has now become blissful because of it. There’s a higher power and meaning to life, more than we can see, and now it’s his first tentative overture to the ultimate higher power. He’s already, without processing it properly, in the grip of higher powers, which are his love for people, and the person he loves most is his aunt, and she’s in jeopardy, and he’s praying for her life.
And suddenly we see him humbled by the fact that it’s not about him, and he wants something I would say probably more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life, which is for her to survive. And that is what almost literally gets him on his knees. It’s the first time you see him, this arrogant, dismissive bully, you see him pleading. And he has to humble himself, and he’s not quite sure if he’s ready to believe in God yet, but he’s ready to humble himself and he starts to apologize and give an account of his own shortcomings. And the desperation, at least inwardly, grows as he pleads. He says, “I know I’ve been rude to people, I’ve been dismissive, I’ve ridiculed people who believe in God but I now need this. Please… Please…”
And it’s, to me, he reaches a peak of inner desperation and need, which in his terms gives the game away. That’s why people pray. They get desperate. “I’m sucked into this because I want it so badly.” That’s what made sense in my mind, and that’s what happens in the middle of that little narrative is that he suddenly encounters a trick that’s being played on him. “I’m only doing this because I need badly to believe, and that’s why everybody does it.”
He’s so observant he can’t even…
That’s right! So that rather alert, skeptical mind is awakened again, and as he says later, “Sometimes it takes a close call to clear the cobwebs.” And he then extrapolates from that. “If that’s not real, and that’s a trick, I can be sure this girl is also not what she seems, that she’s a fake and I’m being duped.” Now, you know, that doesn’t take us through all the gears but…
No, but that’s a big step.
It’s enough to get you through that monologue, and I was very relieved that Woody was pleased with it because I don’t know if we did two takes, but it was quick. In and out of there.
Was there a sense that – I was talking to a couple people as we were heading out of the theater – this was Woody Allen’s take on Pygmalion?
There’s definitely an equivalent. He was asked directly about it at a press conference the other day, because I had wondered if he had quite deliberately made use of the structure of Pygmalion. There’s the Oscar Wilde quote about, you know, the good artist plagiarizes, the great artist steals.
I’ve used that myself many times. I stole that, actually.
Yeah, you’re a great artist! [Laughs.] No, in the same way that people feel that Blue Jasmine is a reference to Streetcar [Named Desire], obviously, without it being in any way the same movie, the same story, or the same characters.
A certain inspiration.
Absolutely. I figured that he’s pretty honest about that sort of thing. He said no, he was not conscious of referencing Pygmalion, although he does consider Pygmalion, he said, to be a perfect comic masterpiece. He thinks it’s the most perfectly structured comic play ever written. It’s hard to find examples to dissent from that, really.
Very few. I’m a Philadelphia Story fan but maybe that’s it. Only one I can think of.
But no, there are characters who correspond right across the board.
Well even the end. It’s very specific.
She’s standing behind him! And maybe subconsciously that was a reference point as well. Aunt Vanessa corresponds to Higgins’ mother, obviously you’ve got Eliza Doolittle, but you’ve also got Colonel Pickering, obviously you’ve got Freddy serenading her if you’re talking about My Fair Lady, and you’ve got…
The presentation is a bit inverted though, because you’re presenting her as someone you think is real, as opposed to showing everyone a fake that you know is fake.
Oh absolutely. The meat of the story is actually completely different. What’s actually happening to these people is completely different in every aspect other than the fact that you’ve got an incredibly supercilious man, judgmental, top of his field, who doesn’t consider anybody anything other than inferior, humbled by strange and initially unwelcome feelings towards somebody that he’s dismissed as a guttersnipe, you know, in the words of Stanley.
You’re very mean to Emma Stone’s character, whether or not you really mean to be. You just feel like you’re right. Was there ever a moment where you felt like you were going too far?
Yes there was.
Yes, I questioned it. I think I even questioned it to Woody Allen himself, just wondering if, “We’ve laid this on pretty thick by now, do we really need to…?” But no, he wanted the full thing, and there were moments I thought I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret some of the later scenes where he’s still doing that, particularly when it’s clear that he’s softening to him.
And he’s clearly thankful to her, but he can’t turn it off.
Woody’s interpretation of that was that Stanley is really unconscious of it. I thought at this point Stanley was aware of having feelings and it was self-protection. That he was now on the back foot and pretending his didn’t feel anything, and so he was using this as a weapon. But no, that wasn’t it. It was that he just still hasn’t woken up.
Did you have that conversation before you gave the performance?
So in a way it’s both, isn’t it? Because you performed it that way.
Well, I don’t know what comes across. I was just talking about semi-conscious motives, semi-conscious inspirations. What came to it may have been something just from me, but I think that the intention in the writing, and certainly the directing, was that whatever feelings… I mean, the feelings are there already.
It’s just how conscious of them he becomes, and it starts to reach. It doesn’t really spill out properly into his consciousness until he’s sitting with Aunt Vanessa and she’s coaxing it out of him, and he finds himself saying this as if she’s said them. It’s a wonderful piece of writing. It’s my favorite piece of writing in the film.
Your line: “My genius must be taken into account!”
[Laughs.] That’s a classic!
That’s my favorite line.
Well that’s what brings him back to put his feet on his ground. But he finds himself saying, “What are you suggesting?” And she really isn’t suggesting anything. And he says, “You’re suggesting in spite of my better judgment I’ve come to love Sophie?” and she says, “I didn’t mention Sophie.” And he attributes suggestions to her that she hasn’t made. “So you’re suggestion is that in spite of my better judgment, whatever it is, that I tell Olivia that it’s off, that I should propose to Sophie? You’re saying that’s ridiculous?” And she’s made no such suggestion, and she has just very cleverly carried on playing solitaire knowing that he’s on brink of realization. He just needs to talk himself into it.