Colin Firth On The Thrill Of 'Saturday Night Live' & The Price Of Fame

Actor Colin Firth arrives at the premiere for "Arthur Newman" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept.
Actor Colin Firth arrives at the premiere for "Arthur Newman" during the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday Sept. 10, 2012 in Toronto. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

When I met Colin Firth at his hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival, he immediately apologized for being, in his words, "fried" from jetlag. From this point forward, if I ever interview Colin Firth again, I'd like to request that he be "fried" from jetlag. I've interviewed Firth twice before, and he's always been extremely polite and cordial. This time, however, I met a Firth -- the "fried" Firth -- that I had never met before: The very candid Colin Firth.

Firth is at the festival in support of "Arthur Newman" (originally titled "Arthur Newman, Golf Pro") a movie about a man who changes his identity, just seeking a blank slate in life. (In the movie, the goal of Firth's character is to work as a golf instructor in Terre Haute, Indiana.) The theme of the film led to a discussion about Firth's own fame and if he ever fantasized about giving that up for a taste of anonymity. His answers paint a picture of celebrity that doesn't sound particularly appealing. We also discussed what Firth admits is one of his favorite achievements: Hosting "Saturday Night Live," of all things. Something he'd love to do again. (And if someone from "SNL" reads this, maybe that will happen again.)

Hello, sir.
I know you, right?

I've interviewed you twice before. We've discussed you living in St. Louis for a year.
Oh, yes. Yeah, I just got off the plane, too. You have me at a bit of a disadvantage. You know what I realized, is that almost everything we get that's written about film or spoken about it is by people who are all completely fried.

That's true.
The actors and the journalists have all flown in. People who read about film should be aware of this. Should we be listening to these words, reading this stuff?

That's what we're here to do. We're here to break that wide open. Take the veil off that, as we do this, we don't know what we're talking about.

I feel it's hard to make a golf movie. I don't know why. And I know it's not really a golf movie.
No, it isn't. I mean, it's two fleeting moments when you see someone take a golf swing.

It's certainly not "Tin Cup."
No. In fact, it's got almost nothing to do with golf at all.

Is that why "Golf Pro" was taken out of the title?
Well, there was wrangling over the title. I mean, I liked the title, because I read a lot of material, and I thought that the title, in some ways, was so strange and off-putting that the script had to be interesting. It couldn't just be about the life of a golf pro. And indeed, it is not. He's every bit not the golf pro. It's a lose-lose situation. I mean, this film, it's not exactly generic.

Have you ever felt like Arthur? You're very famous. Have you ever wanted to be a different person and just go away for a while and do something else?
Well, not really.

But being famous has to get old sometimes. Or, maybe it doesn't.
I don't think an uncommon fantasy that people have fleetingly, is -- you know, could I just have a clean slate? Is there somewhere where I could start again. Just the idea that could I start again, you know? If there's such a thing as starting again? Some version of a self-imposed witness protection program? Just even contemplating that possibility, I think, could be reassuring. The thing is, I don't think I have it much myself, partly because I make a living out of it. I make excursions away from my own identity and my own reality all the time. Even characters that I've become associated with are a pretty long way from me or my background. And so, I think if I have an impulse to evade the banal realities of my life, it gets taken care of by what I do. The thing about anonymity, I think, may have fascinated me a little bit, because after a certain amount of time in this profession, if your face is on the screen, you forfeit complete anonymity. And I think there's a cost.

That's interesting. Did you ever wish you had that anonymity?
I do.

At what time?
Any time with my children, probably.

That makes sense.
I was listening to an interview with an actor who's much more famous than I am. The way he answered the question was, "I can't take my kids to the mall." And there are an awful lot of benefits to my situation. But I think obviously everything comes at a cost. Every perk you have, it's balanced off with a price that's paid somewhere -- and one doesn't spend a great deal of time complaining about it, but I think it would be bogus to not acknowledge that it can be quite a heavy price to pay.

I always get the impression for someone in your position that it would be nice to have an on-off switch.
Well, if you think what Arthur Newman does -- or what Wallace Avery does -- if he decides to, he's going to have a clean slate. He really doesn't have a lot of friends. There aren't a lot of people in his life. Not a lot of people are paying attention.

It's a sad story.
It is sad. He's not going to go and make a mark. And it's very easy for him to do that -- he thinks, anyway. But if you're a very well-known person, you not only can't hope to do that, you can't start fresh with anybody you ever meet again.

I've never even thought of that before. That's interesting. Because people already have an opinion of you?
You have forfeited the clean slate forever. You might have a person in front of you who's a clean slate, but you can't be a clean slate, as well. Now, how much of a misfortune that is can be debated. I don't know. But it's just a fact. That where the person knows you ‑‑ and they don't, actually, but they might think they do. Or they have a preconception or your face will be familiar, or this stuff they know ‑‑ they'd have seen you in action. They'd have heard your voice, so you're not two complete and utter strangers coming together for the first time. And I think there's something quite wonderful about the unexpected, with two complete strangers meeting. Now, a very well-known person can never really have that, because it's one-sided. And I'm not even putting an interpretation on it; it's just a fact that that's how it has to be.

Are those your favorite interactions, when you happen to be talking to someone who doesn't know who you are?
As I said, I'm not trying not to put too much of a value judgment on it.

Even if you're just in idle chitchat with someone and they don't have any idea who you are.
I do like it. Yes, I do. I do value that when that happens. And yeah, it's a very liberating feeling. But, as I said, you've got the upside to things, but I think that pursuing recognition to the reckless extent that people do ... people just don't think through what comes with it. And I think it's actually completely irrational.

Do you just look at that and shake your head? As in, "You don't know what you're getting into?"
Yeah, I guess I do. I mean, I don't think most actors are really doing that.

I was referring more to reality stars who want to be famous.
Oh, some people want attention at all costs. Some people ‑‑ the one I really don't understand is the confessional impulse that people have. People will go on daytime television and confess things that they wouldn't tell their wife or their priest or their shrink. And, yet, they'll tell 55 million people. And there's a kind of strange urge towards exhibitionism that I think people have. And there's a kind of voyeuristic exhibitionist dynamic going on, whether it's the way people exhibit themselves online or TV or do something to try to get attention. I do understand the desire for attention. Of course I do.

Well, it's good to be recognized for something you're proud of. You won an Oscar. That's a nice recognition and attention.
Absolutely. No, a pat on the back is a different thing, though. I think people confuse the two and think they're looking for one thing when they really want the other. I mean, if people just want to be appreciated or loved or thanked or something, those are all, I think, completely valid, if not entirely healthy impulses. For many years, in fact, I felt I was in a pretty good place where I kept getting the work, which is obviously recognition in our business -- currency for getting employed. And one wants to stay in work. And so, I had enough to keep going, but without my life being substantially different --my social life or my personal life. But, I don't think it's sustainable forever. I think you either disappear or it expands.

Oh, that's interesting. Which one do you want to do?
I want it both ways.

But you just said it doesn't work that way.
No, well, that's right. So it's unrealistic. I'd also want to be able to have world peace, as well. This is what I'm saying. You make a choice: You take something and you have to be prepared to pay whatever cost it comes at. Otherwise, you're just infantile.

Are you doing the next Bridget Jones movie, "Bridget Jones's Baby"?
I hope so, I hope so. There's nothing to say yet. I don't think we're much closer than we were when you last asked me that question. It hasn't gone away. It has not gone away.

Actually, I didn't. I asked you about "Oldboy" -- and then it didn't happen.
Oh yes. Yeah, yeah.

How does that work? Why doesn't something like that happen? I was really excited when we all thought that might happen.
Well, there are all sorts of reasons why it doesn't happen. I mean, it could be in the structure of financing or just a piece of it disappears or a key element drops out or someone's schedule changes. I mean, it's a very, very unwieldy thing. I sometimes find it a miracle that a film can ever get made, let alone a good one get made. The odds are against it all. So I think just getting anything into production is a minor miracle. And then having it come out well in the wash is another one.

So when you're at the premiere for any of your movies, do you think about that? Like, "I can't believe this actually happened"?
Yeah, I think I do. I think I'm always sort of rather amazed that this thing came into shape. When I first entered the industry, I thought films came ready-made. Somehow, there were a bunch of grownups there who made them happen. That by virtue of there being an industry, these things somehow were in place and you got offered them if you were lucky and you went and did them and then they came out. I wasn't particularly interested in their fate in the old days. Like, once it was done, I was on to something else -- and it either did well or it didn't.

Why do you care more now?
It's not that I care more now, it's just I notice more now for some reason. Well, I think you should notice what you do.

I would assume it would be the opposite.
No, I don't mean I take it more to heart how it works out. I was just was so enthralled to even be in movies at all ‑‑ I was 23 ‑‑ or to even be employed, that I don't think my expectations were high enough to think and the movie also has to be a hit, or something. We got one made, we got it out.

"I'm going to win best actor for this one."
Yeah. Obviously, as you go along, you pretty quickly learn where the nuts and bolts of it all are and the fact that they don't come prefabricated and they're not predestined to do one thing or another. You have no control over them, but you're more aware of the forces that act upon what you do -- some of which deal with your own skills and limitations.

I think I'm going to start an online campaign to get you to host of "SNL" again.
[Laughs] I'd love to do it again. I mean, we must have talked about it this last time, did we?

Yeah. The sketch with the soldier.
Oh, and the accent, yeah.

I want to see you host again. You were so good the first time. I think you did great.
It was utterly thrilling.

There's nothing like it, right?
Nothing like it. In fact, I was talked into ‑‑ I was a little scared doing it.

Most people are, though. That's a good thing.
That's precisely why I wanted to do it and I wasn't as aware of it ‑‑ we'd imported almost everything the United States has made in the entertainment industry, but we never really got "SNL." It just never appeared on our screens in the same way, or if it did, it was marginalized. People aren't as aware of it in the U.K. as we are of so many of the major institutions.

Probably because it couldn't run live -- and watching it live is what makes it so exciting.
That's entirely why. Everything that's come on out of "SNL," we're aware of. The actors it has produced and the spinoffs like "Wayne's World" and the "Blues Brothers," we've seen -- and so on and so forth. So, it's made its mark. But, I didn't quite know what it was. It had to be explained.

So you didn't know quite what you were getting into? It's quite a commitment.
They had to send me tapes that this is what "SNL" is.

And it's not just showing up on Letterman or something for a few hours, it's a week-long commitment.
No. You take a real white-knuckle ride with people who are pros and, if I had it to do again, I would arrive a week ahead and turn around on the jetlag, for a start, because that's intense. It's only a five-hour turnaround from England, but it's another turnaround again, because they live at night. They're nocturnal creatures.

And Tuesday night, they do all night writing.
That's right, because they have to be turned around for the midnight show. And I think Lorne Michaels said something along the line ‑‑ I may have quoted you this before ‑‑ but, you know, we go out live at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night, not because you're ready, but because it's 11:30 p.m. And by that time, you're going to be on live TV doing sketches that have not even been thought up yet. And it was like extreme sports or something. I don't do extreme sports. That was my version of it.

Is this up there on the list of "Things I've done"?
Yeah, I think it is. I mean, I remember a few days later, I had a terrible, deflating decompression. And I missed it and I realized I was missing the adrenaline rush. I wanted to go back there. And, also, I was just left with huge admiration for these people, this team of people that just keep taking that risk all the time. They fly by the seat of their pants.

I hate it when people dismiss it. The people who are like, "Oh, it hasn't been funny in years." They probably haven't watched it in years. Also, it's so hard, what they do.
I think it's the nostalgia syndrome a little bit. People always seem to be mourning the last generation of people. But, I remember a news item had come in. We were just about to go out live, and they quickly wrote something up because news had just broken.

Do you remember what it was?
I think it was Martha Stewart.

Oh. It happened that quickly?
Yeah. And I think the news had just come in, so they quickly wrote up a thing with Tina Fey.

When "Hope Springs" came out, were you like, "Hey, I did a movie with that title in 2003"?
I never thought that.

Do you ever think, 'Now people are going to forget the one I did?"
I don't think about old work at all, actually.

Not really. I mean, I have to when we have these conversations, but no, I don't ‑‑ there are one or two things that I've done in my life that stay with me as a precious thing. But it's usually not the finished product. It's usually some memory of doing it and I don't really think about it. And with our "Hope Springs," there was some wrangling over the title. And it was based on a novel, a delightful novel by Charles Webb, who also wrote the novel of "The Graduate." Oh, I'm so jetlagged.

You've done very well for being jetlagged.
No, but anyway ... we filmed in Hope, British Columbia, for a part of it --and then Hope became part of an idea for a title. And then there was something about spring water in the movie, if I remember now. But I never thought the title was particularly suited to our particular movie. It's a little weird, but I think it's a testament to how thoroughly obscure our "Hope Springs" has become .. that no one seemed to think there was a problem using that title.

Mike Ryan is senior entertainment writer for The Huffington Post. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.

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