Firth finds his voice for ‘Speech’

Learning to stammer had physical repercussions

Playing the stammering Bertie in “The King’s Speech” was one of the most intense and satisfying experiences of Colin Firth’s acting career.

It started with the three weeks spent working through the script with co-star Geoffrey Rush, director Tom Hooper and writer David Seidler before the cameras rolled.

“The process was more rigorous than anything I’ve done before,” says Firth, who is vying for Oscar noms in two consecutive years after receiving a nod last year for “A Single Man.” “There was never a line that was unexamined for its possibilities or for its authenticity or for how it was to be played or how it played with the material. I’ve never known anything like it. We used every waking hour exploring it in depth. I was surrounded by people who were almost maniacal about making it as real and as believable and as alive as it could possibly be.”

Then there was the physical challenge of playing a character whose emotional damage was expressed in such a delibitating speech impediment. Derek Jacobi, who played the archbishop in “The King’s Speech” and was the stuttering title character in the ’70s miniseries “I, Claudius,” warned Firth that stammering is infectious.

“I ended up with headaches and the strange sensation of my left hand going a bit numb,” Firth says. “Toward the end of the shoot, I couldn’t use my left arm very well. There was something I was doing to my body when I was playing the part.”

“He wasn’t acting it. He got beyond acting it,” Hooper says admiringly.

In fact, Firth’s initial instinct was to keep the stammering to a minimum, because he feared the audience would simply find it too tough to watch. Hooper, however, persuaded him otherwise.

“Colin was right to be wary, but what he didn’t realize, and why I pushed him to do more, was that the way he did it was so powerful and so moving that the audience falls in love with the character he plays,” says the director. “He underestimated his own ability to take the audience with him.”

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