In Helena’s latest big screen role she plays Queen Elizabeth, against Colin Firth’s King George VI as he struggles to overcome his stammer in The King’s Speech.
Together with director Tom Hooper and her on-screen husband, played by Colin Firth, she talks about the movie, which is a hot favourite to sweep the board at this year’s awards ceremonies. Read the interview below.
Helena, have you ever met the Queen Mother when she was alive and did that inform your role?
HBC: I did meet her. I met her because she came to the premiere of A Room with a View when I was very young, all those centuries ago. I got what most people perceived as great grace.
She was great at being gracious and had that cloud of charming vagueness. I think underneath it, having read about it, she had a huge amount of inner strength. Cecil Beaton said that she was a marshmallow but made by a welding machine and he was a great friend. I thought I could try and get that duality…
Colin, it’s a wonderful performance and a wonderful movie – how important is it on a personal level and collectively for the film to see it validated and rubber-stamped by a flock of awards this year?
Colin Firth: Thank you. I don’t know what is going to happen this year. The fact that people are talking that way is a sign of how positively they have responded to this, which is incredibly gratifying.
This certainly wasn’t a walk in the park by any means. I think we probably exhausted every possibility within our means, so from that point of view, yes. But that has happened to me many many many times; you just get a load of rotten cabbages thrown at you.
So there is no justice to appeal to in that respect. People don’t owe you their gratitude because you tried very hard. So on this occasion it’s wonderful to see the fact that we cared this much about something and so far we are getting a lot of warmth. Yes! It couldn’t be more gratifying.
What did you know about King George VI before you took on the role, and do you think he is kind of lost and underrated?
CF: No I didn’t know very much, almost nothing at all. Obviously my parents were children during his reign. I remember my mother talking about his reluctance to take the throne and about what a crisis that would have been for him personally. There was some expression I think of admiration for him and of that.
And I remember her telling me about the stammer. I remember her expressing something about the relationship between Elizabeth and him, as she understood it to be a close and loving one and how young she was when she took the throne. Those are just vestiges of my childhood memory and that would be about it. I really knew nothing else at all.
How much research did you have to do in order to achieve your portrayal of the King and his stammer?
CF: A lot! I’ve done a lot in my life because it’s the third time that I have played someone with a stammer.
What was interesting to me was you don’t just pull out your stammer from the drawer from your last performance. It really doesn’t work that way and that was an education to me because I thought perhaps I could.
HBC: You’re so lazy! All that hard work! Oooh stammer, I’ve done that!
CF: Little did I know…No! It’s not the same. Anyone who has experienced it will probably be able to tell me, it’s not going to be the same for everybody. It won’t feel the same.
What you are really playing is not stammering. That is what you have got to arrive at because that is what the person is going through.
At different times in my life I have researched it as an issue and spoken to people who experience it, including our own writer, who was probably our best source of all really because David Seidler has overcome a stammer himself. He says that it will come back if he talks about it, but he was incredibly eloquent. It wasn’t so much what was happening physiologically that was interesting to me. I had to try and find that in my own way and apply it to the way this man appears on the page and timed according to the way that our director cared.
Tom sculpted it to a great deal. He scored it: “How much do we need at this point in order to show this much recovery?” and that sort of thing. So there was an awful lot of deliberate, technical plotting of it. But then you have to do something far more instinctive than that.
What interested me the most, rather than what’s going on in a man’s muscles, was talking to David about what the fears are. David would say for instance, when it was bad, it was all you think about. When you go to a restaurant you don’t order the fish as you can’t say “F”, you order the beef even if you want the fish. And your life can be like that, it can be dictated by that fear. It doesn’t matter what else is at stake that day, it’s “can I say it?” and those things were very helpful to me for the insight into the fear that that this man felt when he couldn’t climb out of these silences.
If you look at footage of him making a speech, there is a kind of little narrative to what I think he is going through and at least how I interpret what he is going through. He hits a word, you realise that moment has come when he knows that it isn’t going to come out. You see the dismay. You see another attempt. You see him then think I can’t attack this head on, so you see that moment of him containing himself. When you watch that you find out about him.
To me there is something quite heroic there, there is an entire epic going on in those few seconds…and then you see him come back out of it and carry on with the same dignity as if there is nothing to do but move forward, and that actually revealed more to me about the character than anything else. I found that out through the stammer as much as anything else.
Tom, you have recreated real lives before, with everything from Cloughy to Longford via a long dead president (John Adams). When you are dealing with a royal subject, do you have any extra concerns, especially as some of the people in the film are, of course, still alive?
Tom Hooper: I wanted to be hugely careful about the accuracy of the film. I did a lot of research, and so did the actors…and history does matter to me and facts do matter to me.
At the same time it’s always a balancing act between verifiable historical truth and dramatic shape and that relationship is one that we constantly discussed whether we were taking any liberties. The actors will tell you how much I care about not diverting where possible. The great excitement about this film was the discovery, nine weeks before the shoot that Lionel Logue’s grandson had all these papers in his aunt’s attic which were never before seen and unpublished diaries, fragments of autobiographies, even King George VI’s medical report card, describing his rather weak diaphragm.
To have this insight into this relationship was a really incredibly exciting gift to get from nine weeks out from shooting.
Did your views of the British monarchy change at all during the course of making the film?
HBC: Put it this way, I would say that I was unaware. I kind of vaguely knew that he had stammer. I was unaware to the extent and how chronic it was, so what I think this film shows is a whole completely new angle or fresh angle on a very famous period of history for us: the abdication. The abdication came very close to a proper crisis in the monarchy, so the pressure on this man and the personal crisis was totally new to me. I also think it’s interesting. It’s a story about the most reluctant king, someone who doesn’t actually want to be king. I suspect Edward VIII didn’t want to be king either. It’s the duty, the responsibility, the sheer hugeness off the job. I certainly would never want to be royal, even though I effortlessly am at times. In fact that was partly why I did play it because I knew that I could indulge in being queen.
CF: Same here!
HBC: And he was king. King, queen, Mr King, and we could behave outrageously and it would be accepted. I feel I have played a few queens lately and they are really enjoyable. I just do queens. It’s enjoyable just to put it on and pretend but then you can take the crown off and sling it across the room. You don’t have to be the nice smiling queen. She – the Queen Mother – was extraordinary because she was a professional public figure, an expert at it. But she had the character and the confidence. I think she married a man that was not born to be king and really wasn’t constitutionally meant to be king, just in the way he was built.
So you get that and you have to do a job that you are not suited to, but luckily I think he drew upon her confidence where he lacked it. It was a really true partnership and a sort of symbiotic thing going on. She was the classic woman behind the man. Sadly it wasn’t called The Queen’s Speech, it was The King’s Speech and it’s about the man behind the man.