Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

Talking Shop: Colin Firth

By Rebecca Thomas
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Colin Firth in Genova
Firth says the town of Genoa and the Italian way of life are vital to the story

Actor Colin Firth's latest film, Genova, could not be more different from his most recent box office hit, the all-singing, all-dancing Mamma Mia!

Genova is a quiet, yet powerful meditation on the nature of grief and fatherhood.

Firth plays Joe, an academic who moves with his two daughters - Kelly, 16 and Mary, 10 - to the Italian city of the title to try to rebuild their lives following the sudden death of their mother.

The film is directed by Michael Winterbottom - the maverick British film-maker behind challenging, low-budget movies such as 24 Hour Party People and The Road to Guantanamo.

Winterbottom is not a film-maker you would automatically associate with the quintessentially British gentleman that Firth has, rightly or wrongly, come to symbolise.

But Firth explains how working with the freewheeling director came as a breath of fresh air after long, formulaic days on big budget Hollywood productions.

What was it like working with Michael Winterbottom - he has an unusual way of directing?

Michael shot on digital camera which meant the set was very intimate, either just the four walls or the street - there were no cables or lights.

It also meant there was no waiting around for people to set up, so it was just us playing around really.

And the camera seems to go anywhere...

Yes, the whole challenge is to try to suspend disbelief to the point where you are believable. So much of what happens on a film set is conspiring against that.

Michael Winterbottom
Winterbottom set the cast domestic tasks to help them to bond

The real stimuli around you are constantly shifting, and often there is so much equipment in the way that you can't see the other actors.

The way Michael works, you don't have any of those problems. Yes, he will be there, and there will be a camera and microphone, and yes, you are not really the father of these two girls and you are not really in this situation - but you can arrive at the point where you imagine you are much more easily.

Did this way of working make things easier for you and the girls (played by Perla Haney-Jardine and Willa Holland)?

Yes, it was just us on the set and so the trust was built up much more quickly. People weren't going back to their trailers and waiting.

Michael never says 'action' or 'cut' - it's sort of like blurring your real life with what goes on in front of the camera.

If you turn up to the flat where you are filming the scene, the chances are that camera will be rolling by the time you walk in, and you just start.

Sometimes, I would be just chatting with the girls and he would be filming. He makes use of a script but you are free to depart from it.

If you want to go out and get on a bus, the camera will follow you if there is anything interesting to be gained from doing that.

The father-daughter relationship is very close. Did you draw on your relationship with you own children for the role?

When you have kids you don't deconstruct what it has done to you.

But if you are a storyteller of any kind, whether it's you writing words or interpreting them, you can't be or use anything other than yourself. It's the only material you have, so it's bound to come out in some way.

Colin Firth in Genova
Joe (Firth) has to be there for his daughters despite his own grief

Willa and Perla were both very loveable, and so if you hear one of them shrieking at night [as the nightmare-haunted Mary does in the film] the sense of wanting to help and the sense of complete powerlessness... you'd feel that whether you were a dad or not.

Did you get a chance to bond with them before filming began?

Not for long as I was filming Mamma Mia!, so I was back and forth from Pinewood and Greece.

But because there was nothing else going on, like costume fittings or make-up tests, you can move quite quickly in getting to know each other.

Michael set us all sorts of exercises which were quite difficult to deal with at first. He said, 'Here's some money, now go and shop, buy food and make lunch' and no one really wanted to.

It's like when you are kid and you mum says, 'Go and play with my friend's kid, I am sure you have lots in common'.

But at the end of the two hours you are going to know each other better. Chatter happens and a trust starts to build up.

It felt very contrived, but it paid off later on the set. When you were in the moment, looking up to see the fridge magnets you bought together - it gives you a little bit of history together.

The film is very honest in its portrayal of the pain of grief isn't it?

It's a terribly difficult subject to deal with, death is the biggest taboo I can think of in our particular society.

I remember when my great grandmother died when I was about seven. I wanted to go the funeral but was kept away because they thought it would upset me. It felt as if there was a big dirty secret about it.

Not only is death something we don't face easily head on, but we also don't know the protocols for dealing with grieving people. We kind of want people to get over it and be fun again.

This family is being shown six months after the event, when it's not the immediate shock but neither is it six years on. It's still a very tricky phase.

My character is holding on to the every day as if his life depends on it, by his fingernails really. If he stops to think about how much pain he is in, he can't be there for his daughters.

No matter how much they love each other, there is no way you can take away someone else's pain.

How big a part does the city of Genova (Genoa) play in the film?

I think it's very much a character in the film. I fell in love with the town. I have seen the film several times and I am addicted to it for that reason.

I love the sound and the feeling of place - it makes you want to go back.

You see the grittier side of the town too, in the back alleys. They were quite dangerous, and we were abused and threatened. There was this mad, bald old lady holding a wig stand, shouting, 'You cannot bring children down here, it's not safe'.

Then suddenly you come out into a wonderful, burnished, clean piazza in the blazing sun and it all feels safe - the film reproduces that.

Genova is released in the UK on Friday 27 March.

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