Colin Firth on King's Speech, Heartthrob Politics, and His Secret American Roots

Do not call The King's Speech a period piece -- at least not around its star Colin Firth. And this is a guy who knows a thing or two about labels -- an actor who has long since shed the baggage of being the fantasy of every adolescent girl who ever saw Pride and Prejudice. As Firth mentions, he's quite happy he's at an age (he just turned 50) where it's his work as an actor that's being judged -- judgment that paid off with his first Oscar nomination last year for A Single Man and what will surely be his second nomination this year for The King's Speech.

This year actor returns to the awards-season spotlight as George VI, the English king desperate to overcome a severe speech impediment before addressing his subjects in the early days of World War II. Movieline spoke with Firth about resisting period trappings, the chemistry he shared with the king's on-screen speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), living a year of his childhood in the United States and why, just maybe, it isn't the worst thing in the world to be labeled a heartthrob.

The opening scene of The King's Speech, the address to Wembley Stadium, is hard to watch.

It's like an anxiety dream. I don't know if people who aren't actors have that dream -- that thing where you go out there and no words come. I remember having dreams as a kid, which I think are common, where the monster is after you but you can't scream or you can't run. And I guess if you were that guy, George VI, it wasn't a dream. Public speaking is bizarre. I don't know whether to call it irrational or not -- and I'm talking about people who don't stammer. It's a mortal terror. I've heard this second-hand, but I think Jerry Seinfeld had said that research showed that fear of public speaking was second only to fear of dying.

I think it is actually above dying.

Above it, yes. Right. Do you remember what he said? At the funeral most people would rather be in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

One thing that struck me about The King's Speech is how it doesn't feel at all like a traditional English period piece.

It's interesting, this idea of a period piece. I mean, you can't get away from it being English, but it's funny how -- just because I've done so many different things in different periods -- I don't really ever think of that very much. And [director] Tom Hooper doesn't have anything that we normally think of as a period film feel about him. I even read something that had been written about the film as if it was to do with elegance -- it couldn't be further from that. This isn't a shrill protest against anything; believe me, we're getting so much love for this film. But it is interesting that it's easy to define it in those terms, when, actually, if you look at the film, it really isn't.

So do you think that people who love "English period pieces" are still finding what the want with this film?

Maybe they do. And maybe the people who don't like it still see it that way. I don't know. All I know is that I think most people have had your reaction. It's very, very gratifying.

It helps that there's someone in the movie who is still very much alive.

And how far back does it need to go for it to be a period piece? I mean, my mother didn't like it when I referred to a Terrence Rattigan play that I was doing as a period piece. It was set and written in 1952; that's part of my mother's life -- which is not the beginning. She was getting into her teens by then. You know, I'm doing a spy thriller at the moment which is set in 1973. It's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, about the Cold War. I remember it being out as a book; I was about 14 at the time. I remember it being on TV as a series and it was contemporary, up-to-date and cutting edge. Now, I remember sitting with the guys on the set the other day saying, "Are we doing a period piece?"

As someone who was born in the '70s, I don't like hearing anything from that decade called "a period piece."

That's my thing. So that, for me, is what would be your '80s. Are the '80s a period piece? So, 1937, my mom I think was born that year, actually, and that's when this is largely set. It's not that long ago. I was born about 15 years after the end of World War II and it still feels like ancient history, in black and white. And I think 15 years back now is nothing. This is Prince Charles's granddad that I'm playing. It's the Queen's dad. So it's not ancient history. It's not a parallel universe. I think people are extremely surprised to laugh as heartily as they do for something that they think is a period movie.

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