Colin Firth knew as much about George VI - father of Queen Elizabeth and the ruler of the British Empire during World War II - as the next guy.
Which is to say, not very much.
"I knew nothing," says the actor, who happens to play King George - called Bertie by his intimates - in the exceptional, heart-stirring The King's Speech. "My mother told me about the stammer and the fact that he wasn't groomed or prepared for the role of monarch, but that's all. My generation of British probably know as little about him as the average American would."
But The King's Speech, which opened Friday at the Ritz Five and Rave Motion Pictures at the Ritz Center/NJ, should change all that. George, it turns out, suffered from a severe stutter, an affliction from childhood. Public speaking - one of the prerequisites for a 20th-century royal, thanks to the ubiquity of radio - was a waking nightmare. And yet, because his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to run off with American divorcee Wallis Simpson, George was installed as king. And then along came the Nazis.
"It must have felt like a perfect storm," says Firth, whose performance as George is more than likely to win a second consecutive best-actor Oscar nomination - following last winter's for A Single Man. "You know, for your one great demon to be speech, and then for that to become your job, and for it not only to be your job but for it to be your job with the stakes being that high, and then . . . to have adversaries like Hitler and Mussolini who are the best in the business when it comes to exploiting that medium - a lesser soul would probably have wanted to take a different way out.
"But what is quite extraordinary, and I think what universalizes this story, and what I think people do find so moving, is that he did it all anyway. He just did it. To me, there's no heroism more moving than the untold story - people who are quietly heroic. And the fact is that I think he discovered virtues which, had he not been up against all that stuff, he perhaps never would have discovered."
The King's Speech, directed by Tom Hooper from a screenplay by David Seidler (who was himself a stammerer), tells how George overcame his chronic, crippling splutter, with the aide of an eccentric (and uncertified) Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush plays Logue. The improbable friendship that developed between the men - from a relationship that began as speech therapist-to-patient, and then turned psychological therapist-to-patient - is at the heart of The King's Speech.
"This is a man who does not want to be approached psychologically," explains Firth. "The idea of personal questions is completely forbidden, it's not to be contemplated. And you don't have to be royalty for that to be an issue - I think it's just men of that generation, and that time, and I would say that the stigma isn't gone altogether today. But Logue really felt that this man could not be healed without psychological help, and so I think a lot of the mechanical exercises he takes Bertie through are actually psychological by stealth."
Oscar pundits and prognosticators should note that the last time - the only other time, in fact - that Firth and Rush appeared together onscreen was in 1998's Shakespeare in Love, the little Elizabethan romp that went on to win seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Don't be surprised if the Firth-Rush combo has a similar effect at the 2011 Oscars. (Both men were nominated this week for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.)
Firth, who made his screen debut in 1984's Another Country and has worked since in pictures big and small, popular and forgotten, will not venture to say whether the attention garnered for A Single Man changed the way Hollywood viewed him.
"Fair question, can't comment," he says. "To talk about other people's perceptions of me, I'm just not in that business. I was thrilled with what happened with A Single Man, and I daresay it took me somewhere people didn't expect me to go to. . . . But I feel that the work I've found most satisfying over the years has often gone unnoticed. I don't mean that in a spirit of lament. . . . But [A Single Man] is one where I thought, well, you know, the experience was amazing, I value the result enormously, and everyone else seems to get it too."
Among the pictures that Firth felt wanted for recognition: Where the Truth Lies, Atom Egoyan's 2005 fictionalized riff on a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis-type showbiz duo (Kevin Bacon was Firth's foil). Another was Trauma ("a quite courageous piece of work, I think"), a grief-struck psycho-thriller with Mena Suvari.
Firth's King's Speech director, Hooper, has another - the film that made him think the actor would be right to play an emotionally wounded royal.
"Actually, it was something my casting director pointed me towards," Hooper says in a separate interview. "Tumbledown, a BBC film about the Falklands War where Colin played a veteran involved in a horrific incident and who suffered tremendous posttraumatic stress and injuries to the head. Of all the performances that I looked at, that was the one that most connected with what I was looking for in The King's Speech.
"And then . . . King George, from what I can gather, was nice to his core, and gentle and humble and had a great humility. I think Colin shares that. . . . He also has great humor, and I felt that connection between the two men was quite strong.
"Where the two men are not connected," Hooper adds, laughing, "is that Colin is perhaps the most enthusiastic anecdote-teller I've ever worked with. At rehearsal, I had to impose a strict two-minute anecdote rule. And during the shoot it came down to a 30-second anecdote rule, or else we would have got nothing done.
"So the irony doesn't escape me that one of the great raconteurs I've ever met is playing a man who can't speak."
"Tiny" film, big career. When you cast yourself in the lead of your film, and cast your sister and your mother to play your sister and your mother, and you shoot in the family house, you're inevitably going to get the old How much of this is autobiography? question.
And Lena Dunham, the 24-year-old writer/director/star of Tiny Furniture - a painfully funny, funnily painful study of a college grad's meandering, anxious, awkward, sex-filled search for herself - is ready with the answer.
"I never think it's wrong for any viewer to assume anything," she says on the phone from L.A., where she's editing Girls, her pilot - another story about messy, messed-up girls - for HBO. "I know it always enhances it for me when I think I'm watching something that's autobiographical. Maybe it's the gossip in me, but I love watching something when I feel like somebody's really bared themselves in a way that might be uncomfortable. . . .
"I love confessional poetry, I love confessional music, I like things that feel honest - someone 'fessing up to darker areas of their own life.
"But at the same time, while there are some things that are logistically really close to me - she has my same house, she has a mother and a sister who look remarkably like mine - I always want to stress how much everybody in the movie was really playing a character. It's not like I'm saying 'Oh, I'm such an incredible actress!' but it wasn't like I just walked on camera and conducted myself in the way that I would in the world.
"She was pretty markedly herself, and pretty markedly different from me, but she was parts of me. Some of my least favorite parts of myself are stretched and molded into an entire human."
Tiny Furniture opened Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse.