In his newest film, Empire of Light, when the audience is introduced to Colin Firth’s character, he is getting a handjob. But it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s uncomfortable, because his character is a manager who is harassing his employee, played by Olivia Coleman. Firth admits the role is a departure for him, since he usually plays charmers.
“I can't say it was necessarily in anyone's comfort zone,” he remarks delicately. “You're looking at the experience of this woman's life, and the ordeal that she goes through is a significant contributor to all that.” He then adds, with honesty, “Sometimes you kind of relish the villain and everyone loves to hate the villain and everyone thinks it’s kind of rather cool. He's not one of those. You don't relish this villain.”
Empire of Light is set in a movie theatre in the ’80s, located in a seaside town. And it follows a woman named Hilary, who suffers from mental health issues (which the film never names, though it resembles borderline personality disorder and depression). She forms an intense connection with a new employee named Stephen (Michael Ward). The film is a sensitive look at two outcasts finding a connection, with the help of cinema, but it is also an exploration of contemporary racism and sexism. Empire of Light is written and directed by Oscar- and Tony-winning director Sam Mendes.
Firth saw his role in the film, which was minor, as helping support the complex and challenging story. “The group of people we were working with was diverse. And there had to be quite a lot of discussion, a lot of listening, and feeding back and forth,” he says of collaborating on the film. “It was in the spirit of trying to understand rather than coming up with declarations, answers, bromides, and having an authoritative view on things.”
Audiences might assume that because the film is set in the ’80s, it’s a period piece with no relevance to today. But Firth cautions against that assumption, and that there’s “a danger of letting yourself off the hook because it was so long ago, those things were different. But realizing that doesn't take you off the hook, because things aren't really that different.”
But beyond being a probing portrayal of race and gender, Empire of Light is also a tribute to the magic of cinema. Firth plays the manager of Empire Cinema, while Olivier-winning actor Toby Jones plays the theatre’s projectionist Norman—who arguably has one of the most profound lines in the film, when he explains how a film reel works and how a film is created: “It’s just static frames with darkness in between. But there’s a little flaw in your optic nerve, so if I run the film at 24 frames per second, you don’t see the darkness. It creates an illusion of motion, an illusion of life.” Norman is also a confidante and friend to both Hilary and Stephen.
To Jones, that monologue was especially profound because it’s not just about how film is created, it’s also a metaphor. “That's a kind of mission for life: If you can go at a certain speed, if you can keep moving forward at a certain speed—it's not that the darkness isn't there, but you can somehow dance over it and find a way to survive,” he explains with a small smile. “And that's just one of many examples in the script where there’s kind of a profound philosophical and therapeutic idea buried in a sort of technical description.”
Thought both Jones and Firth play supporting roles in the film, in stark contrast to the lead roles they've played in other projects (such as when Firth sang in the Mamma Mia! films or when Jones played Uncle Vanya on the West End), both of them joined the film because of their respect for director Mendes and their love of the script.
"The truth is, you might get a bigger role in something, and it might pay you more, but it might actually be not nearly as rewarding as doing something really good for not very long," says Jones. "Each of the minor characters, however minor, has a journey to go on."
To the two longtime actors, working on Empire of Light has brought back memories of a time when going to the movies was an event. Recalls Toby Jones, “I remember, as a very young child, for a birthday treat, we all went to The Aristocats. And I remember that, we kept singing the song ‘Thomas O'Malley Cat’ as we left the cinema. And we kept singing it because we thought that if we didn't keep singing this song we'd all loved, it would disappear.”
The film is about the ability of art to bring people of different backgrounds together. And when it’s in a theatre, they’re together in one room. Firth admits he doesn’t go to the movies as often as he used to, and that, “life's the poorer for it in some ways.” To him, there’s something special about witnessing art in a crowd of strangers, explaining: “You're all in and sharing: If there was a tear jerking moment, there would be a lot of sobs around you. And if there was a jump-scare, the whole room would be jumping in there. So you have that commonality. And there's an intensity and a vividness to it all. And it sticks in your mind.”