In Woody Allen’s new film “Magic in the Moonlight” (opening Friday), Colin Firth plays Stanley Crawford, a world-famous magician who is the toast of Europe in the 1920s. The Oscar winner phoned earlier this week to chat about his first experience working with Allen, his personal skills as a magician and one aspect of his character that perfectly matched his own abilities — when it comes to fixing cars.
Q: You’ve worked with so many great directors. What was the experience like being in a Woody Allen film for the first time?
A: You submit completely, because of his reputation and his output and what he’s accomplished. Since I was 15 years old, or something, he’s literally made a favorite movie of mine, followed by another one and another one. I’m a fan of his short-story writing, the recordings of his standup stuff, as well as his films.
When you commit to work with someone like that, it’s a luxury of completely giving yourself over to how he wants it done. That’s not always the best way to approach things — not always the way you want it. Some directors invite a tussle — a different kind of collaboration.
But Woody’s incredible flexible. He’ll play it how you want. If you have a better way to put it. If you have a better line, he’ll say, ‘Do it. Say whatever you want.’ But usually what he’s written is the best option you have. Sometimes, he’s more prescriptive and he’ll guide you. There’s a myth that he doesn’t really direct actors. That proved NOT to be the case. He’s a very proactive director.
I remember thinking, ‘Isn’t this a little too theatrical?’ Under some circumstances — in the past — I would have questioned it. But in this case I didn’t. It’s his 49th movie or something like that. This is why I was doing it. To be part of his process.
Q: Woody loves magic. Magic is in the title. You play a magician. Did you pick up some magic skills making this film?
A: I have picked them up over the years. I was quite close friends with a professional magician for awhile. He taught me a couple of things. But actually quite strictly. If they were serious tricks — because of the magic circle of magicians and their professional courtesy — he insisted that I go to the magic store and buy it properly, if it was patented. That’s part of the deal. Magicians patent a trick and should benefit from that. So I did it by the book.
As for the performing of magic tricks, it’s all dependent on the skills that you have to pull it off. There’s a very thin line between looking like you have supernatural powers, and acting like an idiot.
If somebody sees something. If they see a thread — or something up your sleeve — you are worse than nothing.
Q: You have done many contemporary roles, but obviously you’ve also played period characters. Your father was a history professor. Did growing up in that environment make you more in tune with playing historical or period characters?
A: Yes, probably. History — even the word history — implies ‘story.’ It’s to do with narrative, it’s to do with interpretation. It’s to do with how you make an account of events and experiences. They can be interpreted a million different ways. That was in the air in my upbringing. I was surrounded by books and reflective conversations and that sort of thing. We traveled a lot and we were encouraged to look at things from different points of view. So definitely. I’ve never seen history as a dead thing. I think unless we get some sense of where we are in history, we’re in trouble. It’s always going on. We’re in it. I think we’ll be completely and utterly doomed if we get locked into the orthodoxy of the present when it comes to our thinking.
Q: You have said this character of Stanley Crawford was one of the most unsympathetic characters you’ve ever played. Did that make him more of a challege?
A: No! I’m afraid it’s all too easy. [Laughing]. It doesn’t happen that often, but somehow when you play someone who has to win someone over or be especially charming — you feel more challenged, I believe. Because, what if I don’t have the charms to do that? I think most people don’t feel all that secure to be particularly pleasing or appealing or charming.
Being outright unsympathetic is downright liberating! It also helps if you have some witty dialogue to do it with — as written by Woody Allen.
Q: There’s a scene with you and your co-star Emma Stone — when that lovely vintage sports car breaks down. It made me wonder, are you a better mechanic in real life — than your character portrayed in that scene?
A: My mechanical skills are precisely in line with Stanley’s. That was one scene that could have been me!
Q: What was it like working with Emma Stone in this film?
A: Occasionally you meet somebody where your friendship hits the ground running. That happened here with Emma. We both agreed after just a couple of days, that we felt like we had know each other forever. We had an incredibly easy rapport.
It helps to have that rapport, particularly when you’re working with a director that you’re somewhat daunted by, and who doesn’t give you a lot of preparation or rehearsal time or interaction with the other actors. With Woody, there’s no table read [of the script], you don’t rehearse, you’re not briefed on how he’s going to do it. There’s no discussion of what his intentions are. He just says, ‘Action,’ and you start acting.
So, it was incredibly helpful to have a fellow actor so easy-going and approachable and just so much fun to have around. That really appied to the entire cast.
Q: Separately, I see that you’re going to be playing Maxwell Perkins — the famous editor at Scribner’s for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe — in “Genius,” co-starring with Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, based on the award-winning biography written by A. Scott Berg, with a screenplay by former Chicagoan John Logan. What are you thoughts about that?
A: Perkins is utterly, utterly fascinating. I can honestly tell you right now — and, of course, I don’t know how it’s all going to come out — but I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by, and felt so warm towards a character as Perkins. It’s really very much due to Scott’s book. I find Perkins as somebody who did so much to allow talent to flourish, while keeping in the background himself. Having this extraordinary talent for cultivating other people and his own modesty and brilliant judgment. We start filming in October.