There are a number of first-time nominees in the 2010 Oscar® races—Mo'Nique, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Plummer and Stanley Tucci, to name a few. Another veteran actor who's up for a statue for the first time is Colin Firth, whose portrayal of a gay college professor grieving the sudden death of his partner in A Single Man is being called a career-defining performance.
Directed by fashion designer Tom Ford, A Single Man is set over the course of a single day in 1962 Los Angeles—the day Colin's character, George, decides to kill himself.
Colin says one of the best parts of his experience on this film was working under Tom's direction. "This was a lonely experience for an actor in a way, especially in my department because a lot of the film is spent alone," he says. "But of course then you become very intimate with your director because this is a very, very personal story. It's very personal to Tom and one of the great gifts he has. I don't know how he does it. You don't see him working really—he just sets the magic in motion and suddenly it's as important to you as it was to him."
Given all the success A Single Man has had since hitting the theaters, Colin Firth says people are surprised to hear he almost backed out at the last minute. "I was fascinated by Tom. I mean, this is not a man you easily bet against. Everything he's touched has turned to gold, really. And I just thought I didn't want to disappoint him," Colin says. "This was clearly a very personal project put squarely on my shoulders. There was all sorts of reason in my life when I thought—you know, I was fatigued, I'd been working a lot—I wouldn't go there. Then I suddenly thought: 'What an incredible leap into the unknown this will be. There's so many improbable things here. It's not a conventional story.'"
Colin says he was ready to send the email stepping down from the project when a repairman rang his doorbell to fix his refrigerator. "That was enough time for me to reconsider," he says. "It was just that pause before pressing send which can prove critical."
Colin says some of the time he spent filming is still a blur, since the entire movie was shot in just 21 days. "But Tom gives you the illusion of all the time in the world, even though you have very little," he says.
The one scene he does vividly remember shooting is the scene in which George gets the phone call telling him his partner had died. "That was the moment I'd just heard of the [2008 presidential] election results, and it's quite a moment for a visitor to be in this country for something as monumental as an election happening anyway, but that particular election with that kind of history being made, that information came through seconds before the camera rolled," he says. "I was feeling pretty uplifted, frankly. And then what Tom did, and this is his brilliance, is as I said, he will set a mood in motion, but then he got out of the room. ... He preferred spending time letting my imagination take over and develop than editorializing it himself."
Though A Single Man is a film about grieving, Colin says it is also about falling in love with life again. "It sounds like an almost absurd comparison, but one of the films it most makes me think of in terms of its subject matter is It's a Wonderful Life," he says.
Playing George has given Colin a new appreciation of his own circumstances, he says. "[It's] given me a real sense of what I have to be grateful for in my own life. The present moment, for a start, which is really all we have, is something to be absolutely cherished. And because this man thinks he has no future, the present's become a beautiful, resonant and vibrant and important thing. There's something about [George] that has haunted me ever since and gives me a kind of a tug," he says.
Though he didn't realize it during filming, Colin says his character also brings to mind his own father. "The differences between George and my dad are obvious. They're not quite the same generation, my dad's not a gay man, he's not suicidal. He doesn't have the same issues at all, but there's something about the quiet humanity and gentle, thoughtful dignity that George has," Colin says. "I recognized it in the performance, and it's a very interesting thing, to surprise yourself. I think that's what's enriching about what I do that you keep unearthing aspects of yourself that you weren't aware of."
Director Tom Ford made the leap from fashion to film with A Single Man. He directed, produced and paid for the film, but before he was the man behind the camera, he was a fashion phenomenon. He's credited with reinventing Gucci during his 10-year reign as creative director with provocative collections and ad campaigns. Five years ago, he launched his own label, and today there are 21 Tom Ford stores around the globe, making him fashion's billion-dollar man.
Tom says he was moved to make the switch because he was attracted to the enduring nature of movies. "Fashion is a reflection of where we are in contemporary culture, but it moves, moves, moves. It doesn't last," he says. "In film, you create a world that's forever sealed. It lasts forever. You can put in an old movie from the '30s and you're emoting and living and breathing with these people. And if you're someone who likes to design things, build things, create things, that's as close as you get to, you know, being God in our world, and it's permanent.
While there were things about directing a movie that Tom says were intimidating, he was never deterred. "I had a vision. I think that's the most important thing is that you have to have something to say," he says. "You have to feel that you have something you want to communicate, and then in both fashion and film you have to work with a team of people to help you do that."
Though the movie clearly isn't based on Tom's life, he says it does have autobiographical elements. "This was my midlife crisis on screen," he says. "When I first read the book, I was 20 years old and I didn't quite get the sort of—well, Christopher Isherwood who wrote the book was a student of [the Hindu philosophical traditions] Vedanta. He spent an enormous amount of time learning to be present, and I didn't pick up on that at all, and I'd come to a point in my life where I left Gucci where maybe I had let the material side of the world pull me a bit away from my spiritual side, which has always been there. And this book is about living in the moment. It's about appreciating the connections we have with other people and reminding ourselves that that's what's important in life. I needed to be reminded of that at this moment."
Now that he's a phenom in both the film and fashion world, Tom says he's embracing both equally. "I hope I'll have a parallel career. I'm working on my next film project, and I'm also about to start possibly designing women's clothes and come back to that, and it's wonderful to be able to bounce back and forth," he says. "It takes so long to set up a film that if, in between the three years that it takes to get a new [project] going, I didn't have anything to do, I would go crazy."
Critics are saying this is the film that is going to define the future for both Colin and Tom, and they're both loving the journey. "I am the most proud of this of anything I've ever created in my life," Tom says. "Other than personal relationships with people. That's what I'm the most proud of."