Colin Firth admits he felt uncomfortable reciting some of the lines required of him in the new movie Empire of Light.
He stars alongside Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward in the new movie, written and directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes. Set in a coastal British town in 1980s England, Empire of Light follows the lives of a group of people working at an aging cinema.
The movie deals with issues of race, mental health, workplace harassment, adultery and more. Ahead of its release in theaters on Friday, December 9, Newsweek spoke to the creator and members of the cast of Empire of Light.
Explicit Language From Firth
Known to millions around the world for his portrayal of charming British characters in the likes of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, Pride and Prejudice and The King’s Speech, Colin Firth takes on a meaner demeanor in Empire of Light.
In early parts of the movie, Firth’s fragile Mr. Ellis uses explicit language during intimate scenes involving one of his employees at a cinema.
Newsweek’s Jamie Burton suggested we’re not used to hearing such filth from Firth — “How little you know me,” he quipped.
“Yeah, it doesn’t make my heart sing,” Firth told Newsweek. He even tried different approaches when it came to reading the dialogue for the first time.
“How am I going to do it? Do it this way? Maybe the phrasing? Not every aspect of the job is the thing you dreamed of when you say ‘one day I shall tread the boards.’”
When it came to shooting more sexually explicit scenes which involved the lead Olivia Colman, Firth and Mendes were glad that there was a professional intimacy coordinator on set that day.
“In the context of it, there’s Olivia, there’s Sam, there’s a coordinator, there’s a purpose. You know where the camera is going to be, and suddenly there’s a structure where it doesn’t become quite as starkly difficult as it does when you first read it on a page.”
No ‘Bangs’ in This Movie
Firth was also quick to sing the praises of the writer and director Mendes, best known for his movies American Beauty, Skyfall and 1917.
“One of those remarkable things is how many things a film director has to be good at to be the absolutely perfect film director,” Firth said. “You’ve got editing, pace, text, actors, lighting, lenses, personnel, the list is actually infinite. If you feel covered on about three of those you might probably be a really good director. Sam does seem to be across every aspect.”
Toby Jones, the voice of Dobby in Harry Potter and Dr. Arnim Zola in the Marvel movies, also stars in Empire of Light as Norman, the cinema’s perfectionist projectionist.
“Sam is strikingly articulate and eloquent, and he seems to know what each actor needs to hear.” Jones went on to explain Mendes had a pitch perfect manner when talking to every person on a film set. “I haven’t seen a weakness in his skill set for being a film director,” he told Newsweek.
Empire of Light is the first movie Mendes has written on his own, and he admitted it’s a story that came to him during the COVID lockdowns.
“To be honest with you, I’d set off writing something completely different,” Mendes said, suggesting it was an “unconscious reason” that compelled him to make this comparatively “smaller, personal” movie.
“I suppose after the big, much more technical and big canvas of 1917, I think it was natural that I would want to come back to something small and human,” Mendes told Newsweek. “I made three giant movies on the trot, because two Bond movies, and 1917 constitutes a lot of people moving, and a lot of explosions, and I think maybe something didn’t go bang was what I wanted to do next.”
Writing Outside Your Race
The heart of Empire of Light is carried by young actor Micheal Ward, the winner of the BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2020.
After landing the role, he collaborated with Mendes in forming the character of Stephen. They did this because Mendes, a White man, felt he wasn’t best placed to write dialogue for a Black character.
“He was very inquisitive and very open to hear what I had to say about the character and the script, and the stuff that I connected with and what I didn’t,” Ward told Newsweek.
“I just felt like the fact that he was even asking me those questions was really special, especially because a lot of the stuff I was saying, and the subtlety of it, really had an impact on me. I felt like I was being listened to which was amazing especially from someone like Sam who doesn’t really need to listen to me.”
British actress Tanya Moodie plays Ward’s onscreen mother in Empire of Light. Acknowledging the collaboration Mendes used when creating a Black character, she said it shouldn’t stop other writers from creating characters with a different experience to their own.
“I’m reticent to speak in any absolutes. Like, ‘oh yes, they must do that. You’re absolutely not allowed! Not allowed to write anyone outside your gender or race! Stop it! No, you must ask! Do you know what I mean?” she told Newsweek. “I think just write. Make art. Write what’s in your heart. If the character’s journey is truthful, and if you’re open as an artist, and if you want that feedback from actors, […] then go for it.”
Empire of Light tugs at the heartstrings, and even from the trailers we see Colman’s character Hilary welling up from the seats of the cinema.
Newsweek asked each cast member what movie makes them cry the most.
“I just remembered Jean De Florette which killed me. It’s an amazing, beautiful film,” Colman told Newsweek. I watched that in the cinema, but there are hundreds of films that have absolutely broken me.
“Films make me cry on planes,” Firth said. “Dumbo definitely made me cry.”
“The Toy Story films,” Jones added, to which Firth agreed, suggesting Toy Story 3 got to him. “3 is absolutely heartbreaking, Jones said.
“The Father,” Moodie said, referencing one of Colman’s recent movies, which co-stars Anthony Hopkins. “I saw it as we were going back into cinemas after lockdown, and my dad had just died of COVID. I just fell to pieces. My family at the cinema, they just left me there.”
“Only The Brave, directed by Joe Kosinski,” Ward said. “There’s a scene where Miles Teller comes into the sports hall where all the families are, after the firefighters had passed away, and it just got me because I saw it just felt so real to him. I just started blubbering.”
“I always cry when Don Corleone is told that his son is dead in The Godfather,” Mendes said. “I can’t take it, I have to pause and walk out of the room. It’s the most incredible piece of acting from both Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando. It just gets me every time.”
Empire of Light will open in theaters on December 9, 2022.
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