ORLANDO, Fla. — Forty-five films into his Oscar-winning career, Colin Firth worries about the same thing a lot of people who’ve held the same job forever fret over — burnout.
The Prince of Period Pieces (“The King’s Speech”), Regent of Romance (“Love Actually, “Bridget Jones’s Diary”) and Dauphin of Dramas (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy,” “A Single Man”) sees “a lot of scripts, good and bad, that feel like something from the manual, predictable, by-the-book, a formula.”
And with his Oscar in hand, a Coen brothers heist picture (“Gambit”) in the can and his pick of the best period pieces the American and British cinema have to offer, he wanted something different. “Arthur Newman,” opening in some cities Friday, was that movie, a tale that “did not feel by-the-book. It forever subverts your expectations.”
About a man who loses his job, fakes his death, buys a new identity and flees Orlando for Terre Haute, Ind., and his dream job — teaching pro at a golf club — “Arthur Newman” puts Firth’s man reinvented on the road with Mike (Emily Blunt), a woman fleeing her past just as surely as he is.
“If it had been more of a genre piece, there were moments in the script where you’d expect to see ‘Here’s where the tender-beginning-the-romance starts.’ And that never quite happens. Or, ‘Here’s the moment where he wakes up to himself.’ It feels true to life NOT to have a story that takes a person’s life down that predictable path. Real life is a winding path, not a series of dramatic effects along a nice, straight line.”
And Firth likes that. In real life, he’s had a career with its own twists and turns. One of the actors in the 1980s “Brit Pack” who followed Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Kenneth Branagh into the limelight, Firth burst on the scene with the TV movie “Tumbledown,” and experienced the flush of stardom with the 1995 TV version of “Pride & Prejudice.” Years of solid supporting roles in films such as “Shakespeare in Love” and poorly received leading roles (“Hope Springs”) followed, with 2009’s “A Single Man” earning an Oscar nomination, and 2010’s “The King’s Speech” winning him the honor.
But “Gambit,” his Coen brothers followup, flopped in the UK and has yet to earn a U.S. release. It’s enough to make a fellow want to get away from it all, which is what “Arthur Newman” is all about.
“A lot of people nurse a fantasy of escape, of one sort or another,” he says.”Everyone turns that idea over in their mind at some point, because there are people who have really done this and created new lives. Is it possible to erase your life? Maybe. I don’t think the movie carries any message about such things. To me, it’s more of an explanation of what it’s like to feel like you’ve failed, to feel that everything you’ve amounted to actually has no value. In this case, it’s to do with middle age, but that can hit you at any age. You do an inventory of your achievements and your actions and feel that it comes up short.”
Firth had to get a handle on an American accent for the film and he had to become a convincing golfer who’d harbored delusions of going pro.
“You try and get a golf game that could stand up, in just a general sense. No way I could turn into an expert in the sport in a short rehearsal time. I just had to be believable in the moment. If trying to achieve a golf swing that lofts a ball out of a bunker sells a moment, then that’s what you work on.
“And an American accent, developing that, is like building a stammer. You don’t say ‘This is a stammer or an accent that belongs to this particular guy.’ You draw on what you know, and in this case, I channeled someone I know. I let him dominate the vocal side of the character because I heard his voice in Arthur.”
Reviews for “Arthur Newman” have been indifferent, with Reelfilm declaring that “the movie’s ability to stave off total mediocrity is due primarily to Blunt and Firth’s expectedly compelling work.”
“It’s very human, and should be taken on its own terms,” Firth says, brushing off reviews.
He’s off in search of the next “unexpected” thing. It won’t be the Barbra Streisand-directed period romance about writer Erskine Caldwell and photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Firth has long been rumored to play Caldwell, who wrote “Tobacco Road,” with names such as Oscar winner Rachel Weisz suggested to play Bourke-White. And “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is not on anybody’s calendar in the near future, Firth says.
But he’s never done a Hollywood comic book movie, and he lets on that he’s about to work with Matthew Vaughn (“Kick Ass”). Vaughn is doing the comic book adaptation of “The Secret Service.” It’s about a secret agent of iconic, James Bond status, and the young “street punk” nephew he mentors in the spy game.
“Too early to talk about now, but it’ll be unlike anything I’ve done,” Firth teases.