In the film Gambit, released next week, Colin Firth stars as Harry Deane, a downtrodden art expert, who plans a daring heist with the help of a forger (Tom Courtenay) and a game rodeo cowgirl (Cameron Diaz). He talks to Siobhan Synnot about working with a live lion, and enduring ‘leg fatigue’.
SS: Were you worried about this being a remake of a Michael Caine film?
CF: I don’t flinch at the idea of a remake. Once you’re past the initial conceit of the heist in the first act, all we’ve used the name of two of the characters and one line of dialogue that I stole from the original film and gave to Cameron.
SS: We’ve seen you endure comic indignities before in the Trinians movies, but did Gambit bring you a new respect for farce and broad comedy?
CF: It didn’t have to be a new respect for the craft because I already knew that it puts a lot of people off.
It’s the saying of the dying actor: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard”. On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun plunging into a bit of physical comedy and abandoning all dignity. No one can really hurt you after that.
SS: A large section of the film involves you appearing around the Savoy Hotel with no trousers. Given that the hotel was open to the public during filming, did you feel exposed?
CF: It was appalling. I felt that Cameron Diaz, being the kind, sweet and supportive colleague that she was, would assure me that I had nothing to worry about, and that my legs were magnificent specimens. Instead she burst into a spontaneous belly laugh, and pointed at my knees.
SS: How did the guests at the Savoy react?
CF: Well understandably the Savoy did not advise every single one of its guests that there was a film taking place, or that a man without his trousers was in their lobby. So guests would be on their way out for the evening, and the lift doors would open, and they would see a somewhat over-familar English actor standing there with his trousers off for no particular reason. One lady was a little bit drunk, and met me in the revolving doors. She didn’t know anything about the film going on, so we had this whole intimate moment of “Why are you here, and where are your trousers?” But it wasn’t just one day. It was days and days and days of no trousers. People got leg fatigue.
SS: Have you ever conned your way into something by claiming to have a skill you didn’t necessarily have?
CF: Acting! And for one film I was in a car, and having taken about three lessons in a crash course, I was unable to produce any motion whatsoever.
SS: You share a scene with a lion. Was it a big fan of your work?
CF: Well instead of things like guns or metal doors, the protective measures amounted to a rather unconvincing filament of little wires, two feet above the ground, which was apparently enough to deter the lion. And that was all there was between you and this enormous beast. It’s a gorgeous thing to watch in motion - provided it’s only interested in the little bits of flesh that were deposited to guide it from A to B. But there was a particular moment where it seemed to lost its interest in the little bits of flesh and take an interest in me. There was the eye contact moment, when I nearly lost control of some essential muscles. It was pretty startling to be focused on.
SS: Apparently the lion didn’t appreciate the painting of a lion that was hanging behind you on set.
CF: Yes, the lion tamer said to the director, ‘I don’t know if I’ve got complete control of the lion just now’. This was not expressed to me at the time.
SS: In your next film the Railway Man, you pay tribute to Eric Lomax, who survived building the Burmese railway as a prisoner of war, and passed away recently. Have you been thinking of that at all?
CF: I thought a great deal about it. It’s an immense story, in the sense that this man had every reason to expect that he was going to die in 1942, and instead he died in 2012, having shared his story to immense effect. We’ve all felt his passing very deeply. In some ways his whole story is a triumph. The last conversation I had with him, I understood from him, that he wanted to help people like himself. His initial focus was on his own generation, and of course I’m the generation behind him and we reflected on the fact that there is a generation younger who have heard it and care, and that will go on in all the countries and cultures.
SS: How has the Oscar changed your life?
CF: Cameron is certain that all I do is have dinner with the Queen.
• Gambit is in cinemas from Wednesday 21 November.