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Colin Firth: By Anyone's Measure, A Leading Man.

Yesterday Colin Firth received a Best Actor nomination for his starring role in A Single Man, the Tom Ford adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel. Today Firth talks to Terry Gross about playing professor George Falconer, a gay professor navigating Southern California in 1962.


Other segments from the episode on February 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 3, 2010: Interview with Colin Firth; Review of Spoon's album "Transference"; Review of the television show "Lost."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Colin Firth: By Anyone's Measure, A Leading Man


This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Colin Firth, received an Oscar nomination yesterday for his starring
role in the film "A Single Man." It wasn't a surprise. This year, he was
nominated for all the top awards. Firth is perhaps best known for films like
"Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually" and "Mamma Mia" and for his role as
Mr. Darcy in the British TV adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice."

Our film critic, David Edelstein, called his work in "A Single Man" the
performance of the year. The movie is set in 1962 and is adapted from a novel
by Christopher Isherwood, who is best known for writing "The Berlin Stories,"
which was the basis for the musical and film "Cabaret." "A Single Man" is the
directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford.

Firth plays George, a gay, middle-aged British man who is now a university
professor in California. His long-time partner has been killed in a car crash.
Unable to deal with his grief openly, George numbly moves through his life,
questioning whether it's even worth living.

In this flashback from early in the film, George gets the bad news. He's alone
at home. His partner is away visiting family. The phone rings.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Single Man")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As George Falconer) Finally. You know, it's been
raining here all day, and I've been trapped in this house waiting for you to

Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (As Hank Ackerley) I'm sorry. I must have the wrong
number. I'm calling for a Mr. George Falconer.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) I'm sorry, I was expecting someone else. Yes,
sir, you have indeed called the correct number. How may I help?

Mr. HAMM: (As Ackerley) This is Harold Ackerley. I'm Jim's cousin.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh, of course, yes. Good evening, Mr. Ackerley.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I'm afraid I'm calling with some bad news.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh?

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) There has been a car accident.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Accident?

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) There's been a lot of snow here lately, and the
roads have been icy. On his way into town, Jim lost control of his car. It was
instantaneous, apparently.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Oh.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) It happened late yesterday, but his parents didn't
want to call you.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) I see.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) In fact, they don't know that I'm calling you now,
but I felt that you should know.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Thank you.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I know this must be quite a shock. It was for all
of us.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Yes, indeed. Will there be a service?

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) The day after tomorrow.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Well, I suppose I should get off the phone and
book a plane flight.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) The service is just for family.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) For family, of course. Well, thank you for
calling. Oh, Mr. Ackerley?

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Yes?

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) May I ask what happened to the dogs?

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Dogs? There was a dog with him, but he died. Was
there another one?

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Yes, there was a small female.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) I don't know. I'm sorry. I haven't heard anyone
mention another dog.

Mr. FIRTH: (As George Falconer) Well, thank you for calling, Mr. Ackerley.

Mr. HAMM: (As Hank Ackerley) Goodbye, Mr. Falconer.

(Soundbite of dial tone)

GROSS: That's my guest, Colin Firth, in a scene from "A Single Man." And
Mr. Ackerley, the person on the telephone, was played by Jon Hamm. So you might
have recognized his voice.

Colin Firth, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me just describe for our listeners who
have not seen the movie what's going on during that phone call and after the
phone call in terms of how you are reacting.

You're in shock, and you're in grief, and it's starting to register on your
face. As you get the news, you're breathing deeper. You slightly grimace, you
facial muscles tighten, your eyes start to tear, but you're still holding in
your emotion.

And you're alone in your home. You could let loose without anybody seeing. You
could really erupt. You don't. Everything is still pretty held in. Can you talk
a little bit about how you decided to play that scene?

Mr. FIRTH: I don't think it really came from a decision. I think it was
something that seemed natural because of the way it was written, because of the
speed with which I felt such news would be processed.

You know, there's nothing in the script that says George, you know, breaks
down. What I read was what you heard, which was oh, Mr. Ackerley, there was
another dog in the car. I suppose I should book myself a ticket, and will there
be a service.

He's operating as a man still socialized, still observing the rules of courtesy
and protocol. Now to me, looking back on it, I think there's something rather
heartbreaking about that because I think he's hanging on to the world as it was
a few seconds ago, when everything was okay, when that's how you behave, and
that's how you talk.

Everything's actually falling apart completely inside. But I think if he gives
in to hysterical misery, then it'll become real. And he's not ready for that.
So I didn't really see it as containment. I saw it as just not having got there

And something comes to mind here. To me, it echoes some of the observations
that Joan Didion wrote about in "The Year of Magical Thinking." You know, her
husband dies. She records the time of his death. She identifies his body at the
hospital. She signs a form, and she's ready to acknowledge the fact that she
knows that he's dead. She knows full well that he's gone, but she's not ready
to have it announced in the newspaper the next day because then somehow, if
everybody knows about it, it concretizes it in a way that she's not ready for.

So I think that something as monumental as the death of somebody very close and
very loved isn't something that you react to in a way that's quick or simple.

GROSS: So much of your acting in "A Single Man" is about your face. I mean, you
have dialogue in it, but there's a lot of silence in the film. There's times
when people are talking to you, and we're watching you react.

So it's about your face and mostly about your eyes. And your eyes are so
interesting in this movie because they're so penetrating. Your eyes look like
they can see through other people, but at the same time, you have this kind of
shield on your own face so that people can't see through you.

Mr. FIRTH: Well, I think that a lot of what the film deals with is the body
armor that George puts on. I'm sure Tom talked about this. This was something
that I think was very much in our minds when we made the film.

He has to get through a particular day, and he has to put something in place
which is a both a protective mask. In other words, it's something that prevents
the rest of the world from seeing how broken he is and how chaotic his true
world is, and at the same time, this has to act as a protection against the
world trying to come in on him from the outside world, penetrating his very,
very vulnerable sensibility.

And I think this is where he gets his need to dress perfectly from. This is why
he needs to make sure his shoes are shined and that his cufflinks and his tie
pin are in place and all of these.

I think maybe these are very much acts of desperation. These are things that
his life depends on on this day. And I think if the eyes are doing anything,
it's because it's his day of seeing through that mask.

Tom was there to photograph what I was doing. So it gave me a great deal of
freedom, gave me a lot of freedom to be silent. As you heard in our phone call,
I wouldn't have thought that scene would work on the radio, but it was
interesting to listen to how heavy those silences hang.

And I think Tom has great faith in stillness and in what the human face can do
without a lot of histrionics and without being very, very demonstrative. And
for someone whose approach to acting is not that demonstrative, this is a great
gift. I felt he played to my strengths.

GROSS: Well, you know, you were talking about how that character has to dress
perfectly, how that's in a way part of his body armor. Let me play you what Tom
Ford had to say about dressing you for the role and how he picked the clothes.
So this is Tom Ford, the fashion designer who directed "A Single Man."

Mr. TOM FORD (Fashion Designer; Director, "A Single Man"): I wanted to dress
Colin Firth's character in a way that would be appropriate to who he was as a
personality. So I thought, okay, this is a guy who is not dependent on his
salary as a teacher. This is a guy who comes from a fairly wealthy background.
In England, he went to, you know, private schools - or public schools they're
called in England - and he's teaching at a public college because he feels this
is the right thing to do.

So this guy probably has his clothes made, you know, when he's home in London,
and he probably gets them from Saville Row, from the same tailor that his
father went to. He is a professor, so what's he wearing? He's going to be
wearing brown tweed. He's not going to be wearing gray. He's not going to be
wearing, you know, navy blue wool serge. He's a professor.

So I also tried to calculate when would he have had these suits made? You know,
the English are quite - even still to this day - I think thrifty with their
clothing, at least the old-school English. And so I thought okay, when did he
have this suit made? I calculated he probably had it made maybe, let's say,
1957, blah, blah, blah. In fact, I even sewed a label inside Colin's suit, as
one would get at a Saville Row tailor with his name and the date that the suit
was made.

And so I really gave a lot of thought to who this guy is. This is a guy who, as
I said, really holds himself together by his outer appearance.

GROSS: Okay, so that's Tom Ford, the director of "A Single Man," talking about
dressing my guest, Colin Firth, for the movie. So, Colin Firth, did having that
fake Saville Row labels sewed in the back of your shirt with your name on it or
maybe it was the suit jacket with your name on it and the date that it was
made, was that helpful to you?

Mr. FIRTH: Yes, it was, not by itself, and if Tom had been an inadequate
director, and we didn't have a good script, it would've been an utterly futile
gesture. So it was a part of the way Tom approached things.

He didn't direct me by trying to manipulate me, telling me exactly what to do,
how he wanted things to sound, how he wanted me to walk. He directed me through
that kind of stimuli. And so he's going to sew your name into your jacket, and
he's already thought through what textures and material it's going to be and
when you ordered it and from where you ordered it.

You can be pretty sure he's also thought through the chairs you're sitting on,
the cups you drink out of, the house that you live in, the office that you
inhabit. It was all extremely eloquent to me of George's world. And George is
defined, really in this film, by what he sees and how he deals with what he

GROSS: I just want to get back to the phone call for a second that we open
with. So the actor who is on the phone with you in a scene that we just heard
is Jon Hamm, who plays the leading role in the AMC series "Mad Men," and he has
such a distinctive voice. I kind of recognized it immediately.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I think he wasn't quite as famous when he made that scene as he is now.
Did you know who he was, or was he just like a voice on the telephone, or did
you just meet him? Was he in another room on the set, or was he, like,
someplace altogether, and you were never – you never met?

Mr. FIRTH: I never met him. I didn't speak to Jon. I spoke to Chris Whites(ph),
who is one of our producers who was in the next room on the other end of a
phone line. So Jon came in to do that voice later.

GROSS: You mean, you weren't – you didn't even shoot the scene with him, with
that voice?

Mr. FIRTH: No, no.


Mr. FIRTH: So that was done on different occasions. So you have him to credit
for that, really, because he was, you know, he sounded very much as if he was

GROSS: Was Chris Whites the director good enough to give you what you needed in
that scene? It's such an emotional scene for you. You'd think you'd want, like,
the real thing and not a stand-in.

Mr. FIRTH: You know, Chris was pretty good.

GROSS: Yeah?

Mr. FIRTH: Yes, it wasn't entirely different from what you hear. You know, we
were both haunted by the moment. So I think Chris was very sensitive, which is
what he had to be.

But there are a lot of things that didn't help. I mean, that was the day – just
before I shot that scene, the soundman took his headphones off and played John
McCain's concession speech to the room because that was the day that we were
shooting that. And now, you know, I don't know what your politics are, but
hearing John McCain conceding defeat was not conducive to tragedy in that
moment for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you were elated, and then you had to be, you know, get the tragic
news and respond to that.

Mr. FIRTH: Exactly. I mean, if we think ourselves back to that moment, it was
quite, quite extraordinary. And it was – it felt very special to be in America
when that moment happened.

GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. Yesterday, he received an Oscar nomination for
his starring role in "A Single Man." We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring
role in "A Single Man." When we left off, we were talking about working with
the director of the film, Tom Ford, who until now has been best known as a
fashion designer.

I found it so interesting that in "A Single Man," you're directed by a fashion
designer who has picked every article of clothing you're going to wear, has
sewn in the Saville Row label to make it more authentic because the clothes are
so important to this man.

When you went to school, when you went to acting school, what I read about this
is that there were no mirrors in the school except in the restrooms because
this school discouraged the kind of external acting that depends on having a
costume or the clothing or the right look. They didn't want you to be looking
at yourself in the mirror or to be thinking in that kind of way.

When you played – was it Lear? – you weren't allowed to wear a beard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: That's right. That's right, yes. It was ghastly. I’ve been very

GROSS: So it seems like this film, in some ways, is the opposite of what you
were taught because those external things, including the coffee cup and the
house, the glass house that you lived in were just so important to you getting
into the character and to the character himself.

Mr. FIRTH: Let me flip that around because actually, funnily enough, it's not
the opposite. It's precisely the same. If Tom had taken me – if he was the kind
of director that said in this scene, I want you to look this way, and in this
scene, I want you to look that way, and I want you to tilt your head slightly
to the right, and I want you to do this face, and I want you to cut this figure
in this scene, and I want this silhouette of you against the backlight, and I
want you to look this way – none of it was about that.

He took care of that, and therefore, he took it out of the equation for me.
That was dealt with. I never had to think for one second how I was being
photographed, whether I was going to look good or bad. All I had to think about
was what I had to think about, you know, was what the character was thinking
about or what the character is seeing and the effect.

GROSS: Are there times in the movies where you have had to think about or worry
about if you were looking good or bad, if you were being photographed in a good
way? And I don't necessarily mean in a flattering way. I mean in an interesting

Mr. FIRTH: Well, because of the way I was trained, I try never to do that
anyway. I think if you're working with – well, let's say if you're working with
an incompetent director, or if you're working in an environment which makes you
basically insecure about the work and makes you feel that, you know, you can't
trust the process, and you can't trust the outcome, then you suddenly become
conscious of all kinds of things that you otherwise wouldn't be because you're
not sure somebody's in control.

When you have the luxury of having such complete trust that the external stuff
is taken care of it, it frees you up completely to inform the rest of it with
your own stuff. And Tom didn't seek to interfere with the interior life of the
character. He and I understood one another quite well.

GROSS: You know, watching "A Single Man" and seeing your face, and your face is
so important in the movie, I kept thinking your face looks so 1962, and it's in
part because of, like, the thick, dark – thick, like, black eyeglass frames
that you're wearing, and of course, you know, the clothing that you're wearing.
But there's something about your face, it just struck me as early '60s.

And I was starting to think, like, who in particular is it I'm being reminded
of? And you know who I think it is?

Mr. FIRTH: Who?

GROSS: Okay, you're going to think I'm crazy, probably: early George C. Scott.

Mr. FIRTH: Now that hadn't occurred to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: I'll take that. I think that's wonderful.

GROSS: Your faces aren't really similar. There's just something about the
tension in your face for this movie that reminded me of him because he has...

Mr. FIRTH: Interesting, yeah.

GROSS: He has a lot of tension in his jaw, I think.

Mr. FIRTH: Yes, I was – in fact, for some reason, I was reflecting on "The
Hustler" today, which is one of my favorite films because I got that ghastly
question, name your favorite films of all time. It's definitely got to be one
of them.

So he was in my mind this morning. It was very odd that you should say that
because that's about probably the period you're talking about, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah, it's probably about the – yeah.

Mr. FIRTH: Now, I think – I mean one of the two people that you have said –
it's often that – well, it's interesting that you don't associate that with
glasses, I don't think, because a lot of people have said Harold Pinter or
Michael Cain, which I think is largely to do with British, glasses and that

One of the people that comes most to my mind is my father because he is a
professor and was probably – I mean, he would be younger than George. He would
have just been beginning his career in 1962. But the glasses, the hair and
because he is my dad, obviously there's a facial similarity, called to mind my

You know, he would have worn the brown tweed suit. It wouldn't probably have
fitted him quite as immaculately as this one fits George. But I think in some
ways, in terms of – I don't know how conscious I was of this when I was playing
it, but I think that certainly the quiet, thoughtful dignity of the character I
think is something that on some level was inspired by my dad.

GROSS: Is your father still alive?

Mr. FIRTH: He is, yeah.

GROSS: Does he know that this character, the way you played him, was inspired
in part by him?

Mr. FIRTH: I don't think he does, no, no. I think he's going to know now.

GROSS: Colin Firth will be back in the second half of the show. He's nominated
for an Oscar for his starring role in "A Single Man." I'm Terry Gross, and this

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Colin Firth, who starred
in the films "Mamma Mia," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually" and the
British TV adaption of "Pride and Prejudice."

He's nominated for an Oscar for his starring role in "A Single Man." His
character, George becomes a single man when his long-time partner, Jim, is
killed in a car crash. George numbly moves through his life, rarely revealing
his emotions, and continues teaching literature at a university in California.

In this scene, he's teaching a book by Aldous Huxley. In an answer to one of
the student's questions, he starts talking about why people fear minorities.
It's just about the only scene in the film in which he speaks for an extended
period of time.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Single Man")

Mr. FIRTH: (as George) Minority is only thought as one when it constitutes some
kind of threat to the majority - a real threat or an imagined one. And therein
lies the fear. And, if that minority is somehow invisible, then the fear is
much greater. And that fear is why the minority is persecuted. And so, you see,
there always is a cause. The cause is fear. Minorities are just people, people
like us. I can see I've lost you a bit. So I'll tell you what, we're going to
forget about Mr. Huxley today and we're going to talk about fear.

Fear, after all, is our real enemy. Fear is taking over our world. Fear is
being used as a tool of manipulation in our society. It's our politicians who
pedal policy. It's our Madison Avenue, who sells us things you don’t need.
Think about it: The fear of being attacked, the fear that there are communists
lurking around every corner, the fear that some Caribbean country that doesn’t
believe in our way of life poses a threat to us, the fear that black culture
may take over the world, the fear of Elvis Presley's hips. Actually, maybe that
one is a real fear. Fear that our bad breath may ruin our friendships. Fear of
growing old - being alone. Fear that we're useless and that no one cares what
we have to say. Have a good weekend.

GROSS: In "A Single Man" you play a gay man, a man who seems to be comfortable
being gay, but he knows he can't be out to a lot of people - for instance,
where he teaches. But there are scenes in which we're seeing other men through
the eyes of your character, George, and he's focusing on some of these men in a
very erotic way. And so I'm wondering if in playing the role - since you’re not
gay, but you were playing a gay man - if you had to start looking at men in a
different way and seeing them through the eyes of George.

Mr. FIRTH: Interesting question. I don't know. I think that, you know, I don’t
find it to be something that's so very distant. I, you know, I think you can be
very comfortable in your sexuality and find people of both sexes attractive and
appealing. So I don’t think, you know, in the scene where I'm having to look at
the tennis players - and I wasn’t looking at tennis players, really. I was
looking at some electricians, probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah. This is the scene where everything seems to - someone's talking to
you about the threat of nuclear war or something, and you’re gazing at these
two men playing tennis, and you’re gazing at them with some amount of awe and
longing because they're so beautiful as they play.

Mr. FIRTH: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: Well, that wasn’t what I was looking at on the day. And I can tell
you, I did not find the electricians attractive at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: I actually think - now it’s coming back to me. I think Tom had a
couple of the guys playing tennis players sort of stand in, you know, in
tennis. You know, they were there to shoot their scene, so he thought we might
as well have them standing there for an eye line. But I remember thinking: Now,
is this helping? I'm looking at guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: I'm looking at guys, and the electricians didn’t work. And I'm not
sure the guy in the tennis gear works, anyway. Now I'm beginning to get
confused. So I don’t know. It's an interesting question to ask about acting,
generally. I mean, if you’re playing someone that is obsessed with collecting
stamps or is power-crazed or, I don’t know, is determined to, you know, climb
Mount Everest, I don’t have to have those particular passions in me in order to
be able to play that part. I have to find passion from somewhere, and somehow I
have to make that translate as that passion. So I think it, you know, whatever
you’re doing, it's never going to be entirely you, and the character's
preoccupations and, you know, orientations are never going to have to be
exactly what yours are.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Colin Firth, who's now starring
in the film "A Single Man." Now, you grew up in a bunch of places: Nigeria, the
United States, several places in England. You were India for a while, too?

Mr. FIRTH: I didn’t go to India.

GROSS: You didn’t go to India. But your parents grew up in India.

Mr. FIRTH: My parents were born and raised in India. I still haven't been,
which is increasingly peculiar - if you know my family - because I really am
the only member of the family that hasn’t been. I'm nearly 50, and I still own
that trip.

GROSS: And it was the fact that I think that your grandparents were
missionaries that...

Mr. FIRTH: Yes.

GROSS: ...led to your parents living in India, and then Nigeria?

Mr. FIRTH: That's correct. My paternal grandfather started as a missionary. He
joined the British Missionary Society because he heard that they were building
schools and hospitals in India. He was not evangelical. He didn’t go around
converting people. In fact, he was very proud of the fact that he never
converted a single person. His wife was also an ordained minister. He then took
the decision to train as a doctor and came to the United States and took his
family to a medical school in Iowa for eight years and then returned to India
as a doctor specializing in osteopathy and would go off for six months around
into the mountains and cure as many people as he could.

GROSS: And what about your parents?

Mr. FIRTH: My parents grew up there. My mother, I think, didn’t come to England
at all until she was about 16. Because of what her father was doing, she spent
eight years of school in the United States in Iowa in a place called Ankeny.
And they - my parents knew each other since they were very small, you know,
because they grew up together in South India. My father became a history
lecturer, and my mother has taught and lectured in all sorts of things,
comparative religion and the study of other faiths. She's a person who I think
has a great belief in a contemplative lifestyle. She practices meditation. She,
I think, is a real searcher.

GROSS: Did you practice meditation?

Mr. FIRTH: No. Not seriously. I've just sort of tried to learn to be quiet a
little bit. I actually went to a monastery - this is a Buddhist monastery - to
learn something about meditation, and I have never practiced it with any great
discipline. But I did find it to be, even it its probably shallowest and
least-disciplined form, I did find it to be somewhat helpful, because however
fortunate my lifestyle is, it's not always the most restful.

GROSS: What made you go in the first place to the Buddhist monastery? What did
you want?

Mr. FIRTH: Restfulness. I suppose it was this sense that I've always been very
attracted to the randomness and the unpredictability of my profession. I
enjoy not knowing what's next. I enjoy the passionate commitment to something
which is going to be gone soon. It's a strange creative promiscuity, if you
like, where I'll move on to the next thing and commit myself with equal, you
know, emersion and delight in something as if the one before just never
existed. And I think that it’s very exciting, but it can create a kind of
upheaval, because there's no continuity. And however thrilled I am by what I'm
doing and however stimulated I am by it, I think it's - it can be quite
difficult to get back to a sort of a core.

One of the things you’re doing is taking on different people's lives. You’re
changing character. You’re changing personalities. You’re, you know, you’re not
- I find it’s not always easy to shake them off. And before you’ve shaking one
off, you’re taking another one on. And I think just for an actor, just to get
back to a sense of who you are without all of that I think can be quite a
challenge. This is quite some time ago that I'm talking about, but I think
that's what I was thinking.

GROSS: How long ago? Where were you in your life?

Mr. FIRTH: I was - it's about 15 or so years ago, and I - there was quite a bit
of upheaval on a personal level.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FIRTH: I was single at the time, and it seemed that I was always at my
happiest when I was employed or, you know, I think that's something perfectly
healthy about that. But I was always at my happiest when I was engaged in
something that was distracting me. And I think it was - I felt it was time to,
you know, to discover how to celebrate life or to take joy in life when I
wasn’t distracted.

GROSS: I hate to end here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much and...

Mr. FIRTH: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I should say, we're recording this interview a few days before the
announcement of the Oscar nominations, but I know by the time our listeners are
hearing this, the nominations will have been announced. So I hope
congratulations are in order.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FIRTH: Well, I hope I can thank you for that. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Colin Firth, thank you so much.

Mr. FIRTH: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Colin Firth was recorded last week. Yesterday, he got
the Oscar nomination, so now I can give him an official long distance

Coming up: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Spoon.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Transference' Adds Layers To Spoon's Sound


The Austin, Texas quartet Spoon has just released its seventh album, called
"Transference." Spoon is an indie band on a small record label that has gained
widespread familiarity by having its songs played on TV shows like "Bones,"
"Scrubs," "Chuck" and "How I Met Your Mother." Rock critic Ken Tucker says
their new album "Transference" should help make this band - which has been
together now for 15 years - an even bigger success.

(Soundbite of song, "I Saw the Light")

SPOON (Rock Band): (Singing) Whenever your love can find me, it breaks through
the walls to find me. It's breaking the walls to find me. I go out in the
world. I made my case to the world. I saw the world and to the world. It asked
me back again. It caused me love, hold me tight.

KEN TUCKER: Spoon's lead singer Britt Daniel likes to hear the sound of his own
voice. I don't intend that as a criticism. When he enunciates the syllables
that form his intentionally vague lyrics, he lets his vocal cords strain and
fray. The result is a pleasing emotionalism - self-conscious, to be sure, but
what indie rocker worth his salt isn't? And after 15 years of Spooning and
pushing 40, Daniel knows what works for him. Yammering vocals that add grit to
sleek guitar hooks and precise drumbeats - that's not a formula. That's an

(Soundbite of song, "Mystery Zone")

SPOON: (Singing) Picture yourself set up for good in a whole other life in the
mystery zone. Make us a house, some far away town where nobody will know us
well, where your dad's not around. And all the trouble you look for all your
life, you will find it for sure in the mystery zone. Times that we met before
we met (unintelligible). Times that we met, we'll go there to the mystery zone.

TUCKER: For a band that started out in the era of Nirvana, the alternative-rock
style advanced by Spoon has moved into the mainstream. And that's without the
band doing much to tinker with its sound, other than creating ever-more-
tightly-wound songs, dense in the best sense. This is music that catches your
ear immediately and then continues to give up new layers and meanings the more
you listen. I'm thinking of a song like this, the ferociously obsessive
"Trouble Comes Running."

(Soundbite of song, "Trouble Comes Running")

SPOON: (Singing) I was in a functional way and I have my brown sound jacket.
Queen of call collect on my arm. She was my calm-me-down. She was my good-luck
charm. She was my good luck. Here it come running. Here it come running again.
Trouble come running. Here it come running again. Well alright.

TUCKER: For me, the high point of "Transference" is the Spoon equivalent of a
rock opera. The song "Written in Reverse" is a lengthy rant in musical form.
It's a great showcase for every member of the band: Rob Pope's strong bass-line
giving the slinky melody a spine; the keyboards of Eric Harvey providing a nice
Jerry Lee Lewis-style hammering that alternates with Jim Eno's drumming. Britt
Daniel lets loose with the sort of one-chord eloquence that punks and early
period Elvis Costello fans can admire as much as anyone else listening. And
Daniel's raw singing shreds the phrases about a light bulb going off when his
narrator confronts his lover's "blank stare."

(Soundbite of song, "Written in Reverse")

SPOON: (Singing) I'm writing this to you in reverse. Someone better call a
hearse. I can see it all from here. From just a few glimpses, now that light
bulb's gone off and it's pulling my wincing and now the light bulb's gone off.
I've seen it in your eyes. I've seen you blankly stare and I wanna show you how
I love you but there's nothing there. I'm not standing here. Oh I'm not
standing here. And I'm writing in reverse. You know it could be worse. I'm not
standing here. I'm not standing here.

TUCKER: On "I Saw The Light," the song I played at the start of this review,
Britt Daniel sings, I make my case to the world. On songs like that, "Written
in Reverse" and "Trouble Comes Running," Spoon bolsters its case: Accessibility
comes wrapped in bleakness; the catchy arrives with a coating of romantic
frustration. As he sings on yet another good song here, "Got Nuffin," quote,
"Got nothing to lose but darkness and shadows." Don't you believe that for a

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
Spoons' new album "Transference."

(Soundbite of song, "Got Nuffin")

SPOON: (Singing) When I'm with you, all my brothers, oh I feel like a king. It
feels like I'm dreaming. When that blood goes rattling through my veins, my
ears start to ring. I notice what matters. And I got nothing to lose but
darkness and shadows. Got nothing to lose but bitterness and patterns.

GROSS: Coming up, our TV critic David Bianculli reviews last night's season
premier of "Lost," and he considers the whole "Lost" phenomenon.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Watching 'Lost' Later Spoils Some Of The Fun

(Soundbite of music)


Last night, ABC presented the two-hour season premier of "Lost," a mystery-
shrouded drama series in its final year. The network was so secretive about the
show's contents, it made only the first five minutes available for critics to
preview. So our TV critic David Bianculli is here the day after with a review,
but before that, with a larger look at the "Lost" phenomenon.

DAVID BIANCULLI: The Catch-22 with discussing the super-secret final-season
premiere of "Lost" is this: If you're a TV critic, and you preview it the night
before it airs, you really, truly don't know what you're talking about.

And if you wait until the next day, then everybody who cares, either has seen
it already, or doesn't want too many details because they're waiting to see it
on their own time, on their home recordings or, later, as part of a DVD box

But the way I see it, TV critics in the golden age of TV used to review
everything the day after — because television was live. Reviews were for the
record, for posterity. And sometimes, as in the case of the drama "Patterns,"
by a young writer named Rod Serling, after-the-fact reviews could make a
reputation overnight and eventually call for the live drama to be mounted

With "Lost," one of the things worth talking about, even the day after, is the
whole idea of time-shifting. In fact, it's perfectly appropriate, because time-
shifting turns out to be one of the show's central plot gimmicks. Characters
spent last season popping in and out of various time lines, victims of a
mysterious remote island whose unstable core somehow was able to play with
time, and even with space. The island itself, with all the people on it, was
here one minute, gone the next.

Now think of that, if you will, as a fitting metaphor for the entire series.
"Lost" the TV series, like the island, has vanished and reappeared on its own
peculiar timetable. The last episode we saw was eight months ago – and because
of both a demanding production schedule and the recent writers' strike, "Lost"
has gone from a fall TV staple to a midseason relief pitcher. And as the time
between seasons has stretched out, and as plots and characters become more
unpredictable and complicated, viewers have begun to vanish, too.

Last season's cliffhanger season episode of "Lost" — the one where the
islanders successfully set off a nuclear device that was supposed to detonate a
time shift and return them to a safe place before the plane crash stranded them
there — was seen by an estimated 10 million people. By today's broadcast-TV
standards, that's a lot, but it's only about half of what "Lost" was pulling at
its peak. Where, to use another "Lost" parallel, did the others go?

Some got bored or confused by so many questions and so few answers. And some,
while still loyal fans, have decided to wait until each season came out on DVD,
to enjoy them at their own pace — and without commercials.

Either way, this does not bode well for the chances for broadcast TV to
continue making deeply textured shows such as "Lost." But "Lost" is something
ABC should be proud of, and viewers should be supporting. When the show finally
winds up this May, its finale will be, in broadcast-TV terms, a big deal. And
except for the crowning of the next "American Idol," how many of those are

My answer is "Not many." And "Lost," last night, began its final year by
answering its own questions for a change. And this is the point where I'll
start talking about the contents of last night's show, specifically.

The five-minute opening sent to critics was a tantalizing tease. It started by
recapping that fade-to-white nuclear explosion that ended last year's finale;
then the white faded back to reveal clouds, seen through the airplane window by
Jack. Along with everyone else, he was back on the doomed flight, but this time
it wasn't doomed. They made it through the turbulence and began their descent
into the Los Angeles airport. That's what ABC showed critics in advance — but
the very next moment, shown last night, depicted Jack, back on the island,
waking up, after having lost consciousness from the underground nuclear
detonation. Oh, man: Was it all a dream? Was the time-shift explosion a

As it turns out - yes and no. The explosion split the timeline into two
alternate realities. In one, our heroes are still on the island, convinced the
escape attempt failed. In the other, they land safely in L.A. and we follow
what would have happened to them had they not crashed. And already it appears
that they're better off on the island than off it.

That's one mystery you can put in the "Solved" pile. Another is whether John
Locke, whom we saw killed by Ben yet subsequently living on the island, was
dead or alive. John Locke the good guy apparently is dead. But there's someone
or something taking his place, and his shape, on the island. It might even be
that strange Smoke Monster that pops up from time to time.

And in this scene from last night's show, Ben, played by Michael Emerson,
confronts John Locke, played by Terry O'Quinn, after Ben kills an island leader
name Jacob because Locke told him to. Except that Ben suddenly realizes it may
not be Locke after all.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Lost")

Mr. MICHAEL EMERSON (Actor): (as Ben) What are you?

Mr. TERRY O'QUINN (Actor): (a John Locke) I'm not a what, Ben. I'm a who?

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) You’re the monster.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) Let's not resort to name calling.

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) You used me. You couldn’t kill it yourself so you made me
do it.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) I didn’t make you do anything. You should know. He
was very confused when you killed him.

Mr. EMERSON: (as Ben) I seriously doubt that Jacob was ever confused.

Mr. O'QUINN: (a John Locke) I'm not talking about Jacob. I'm talking about John
Locke. Do you know want to know what he was thinking while you choked the life
out of him, Benjamin - what the last thought that ran through his head was? I
don’t understand. Isn't that just the sadist thing you ever heard?

BIANCULLI: When John Locke said he doesn’t understand, believe me, I know how
he feels. I can't make sense of a lot of this yet, and, to be honest, I'm not
spending a lot of energy trying. It's like watching "Twin Peaks," after a
while, you either roll with it or you don't, and no final explanation will be
as satisfying as the ride itself.

That's why I think people who are hoarding these episodes and waiting to watch
them later are missing most of the fun. "Lost" is best enjoyed fresh. It's the
only time, with a shared sense of excitement, you can talk about it — or review
it — the day after.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for and teaches TV and film
at Rowan University. He's the author of the new book "Dangerously Funny: The
Uncensored Story of "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site at And you can follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook at

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: At the Super Bowl Sunday, on the sidelines, frantic coaches will be
sending their quarterbacks messages like:

Mr. BRIAN BILLICK (Former NFL coach): Tiger personnel, I right, Z short, 22
zone, X crack, backside chip.

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Super Bowl-winning former coach Brian Billick
translates the language of football.

Join us.

(Soundbite of music)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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