"It turned out that this woman who was looking after it from a fringe theater group in London, her sister or best friend lived two streets away from me," says the actor. "Against all natural protocol of going through agents, they were desperate to get the story to me. I found it fascinating."
He's speaking of "The King's Speech," the new Weinstein Co. film, which was a play by David Seidler at the time. The story revolves around a real episode in British history. As King George V was fading in health and Europe was on the brink of war, his son Edward, the heir to the throne, had no desire to become king, because it would mean not being able to marry his true love, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward's brother George, the Duke of York, known as Bertie to his family, was next in line. But his crippling stammer hindered him in making public speeches, a crucial necessity in the age of radio. When Bertie's wife, Elizabeth, finds unconventional Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, the future king is on his way to finding his voice and being crowned King George VI.
Rush's schedule did not permit him to do a play, but he saw the potential in a film, with himself as Logue. Colin Firth, fresh from his triumph in "A Single Man," signed on as the stuttering duke, and Helena Bonham Carter took the role of his supportive wife. Tom Hooper, no stranger to historical settings (the HBO miniseries "Elizabeth I" and "John Adams"), was slated to helm, and Seidler adapted his stage work for the screen. Casting director Nina Gold worked to fill in the rest of the real-life figures—including the abdicating King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), his American love (Eve Best), Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), the dying George V (Michael Gambon), and the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi).
Schedules were tight. Rush had only seven weeks to spare for rehearsals and filming in the U.K., after which he had to return to his homeland to headline the Australian stage premiere of "The Drowsy Chaperone." Bonham Carter was simultaneously playing the polar opposite of the proper duchess and future queen mother: the evil sorceress Bellatrix Lestrange in the penultimate installment of the "Harry Potter" franchise. "I was doing 'Harry Potter' during the week and 'The King's Speech' on the weekends. It was very crazy," recalls Bonham Carter. "In a way it was good for me because Bellatrix is so externalized and screaming, out there and big. It was good on the weekends just to be more contained and attempt to be a normal person."
Studying the Stutter
"Colin and I went into a fairly intense period," says Rush. "The three weeks of rehearsal were predominantly the scenes between the two of us, because we felt that trajectory was such a dramatic gift: two people from polar extremes—culturally, by class and geography—having them come together through a kind of cultural gulf which is kind of interesting. The Duke of York came from a family ruled by a lot of history and protocol, and Lionel Logue [was] the son of a brewer from what would have been a very small city in Australia then, Adelaide. The fact that Lionel's techniques were avant-garde for the time, clashing that kind of egalitarian Australian energy up against that formality of the royal family, we wanted the audience to ride that with a great deal of credibility and hopefully find a certain fascination in how these two men came together. Out of that a lot of comedy came when we were improvising and working with David Seidler on the screenplay."
During rehearsals and filming, Rush admired his co-star's ability to re-create Bertie's halting speech pattern: "I was in awe of Colin—because the difficulty of playing a kind of disability, there are pitfalls inevitably in that sort of stuff. I was just dazzled sitting a meter and a half, two meters away from him, watching the kind of detail. It was the silences, the gaps in between the words that couldn't come out, that I found so compelling."
Firth returns the compliment. "Every so often I find myself paired with someone who really does ignite me," he says. "Geoffrey was definitely one of those." The two got to know each other slightly while they were shooting "Shakespeare in Love." Rush recalls they became better acquainted during the New York press junket for that film, when they spent several days together with fellow cast member Rupert Everett. "I never laughed so hard in my life," Rush says with a chuckle.
Firth had connections with several other actors in "The King's Speech." He co-starred in "Pride and Prejudice" with Jennifer Ehle, who plays Logue's wife, and went to school with Timothy Spall. The actor has praise for all his fellow players. "I thought it was fantastic the way Eve Best inhabited those moments as Mrs. Wallis Simpson," Firth says. "You absolutely felt the power of this woman and that she was real. Tim playing Churchill, you suddenly feel how monumental history is. And Guy Pearce made me raise my game in this. The Brits have forgotten how we spoke a generation or two ago; the Americans have changed too. If you listen to old movies, we were all more clipped. Guy did it. Maybe because he's not English—he's Australian—and he'd studied it. I remember Tom Hooper was very keen that we did get that authenticity, and I thought I was doing it. But then Guy showed up and I realized I'm not coming anywhere near it. The dialect coach said the same thing. He said, 'You all have to catch up with Guy.' I think he probably had the most authentic and accurate sound that any of us had."
Pearce, who was born in England but moved with his family to Australia when he was 3, says he relied for his characterization on his lifelong fascination with accents. "I was exposed to the British accent through my mother, who was very English, and films and TV shows and going back to England, so it wasn't the most unfamiliar territory for me," he says. He also viewed film footage and listened to Edward's famous abdication speech. "The quality makes everything sound like it's coming through old-fashioned telephones and terribly high-pitched," he says, laughing. "You have to be careful so that the way you the actor wind up sounding isn't influenced by the technology of the 1930s."
Though Pearce has only a few scenes, his portrayal of Edward clearly conveys the conflict between the character's royal duty and his love for Wallis Simpson. Pearce explains, "I was playing that David [the family name for Edward VII] wanted Wallis Simpson to be more than his mistress; he really wanted to marry her. But at the same time, I find it more of a complex issue than that. David probably knew subconsciously that this was his way of getting out of becoming king, which he didn't want to be."
The actor had never worked with Firth before but says he found him "an absolute delight—charming, funny, very bright, really engaging." Pearce adds, "He's just an absolute wonderful creative entity and very enjoyable to be around. He made everything very relaxed and was really into discovering the nuances in the relationship between the brothers."
Research Pays Off
Bonham Carter had something of a head start, as her family tree contains several dukes and duchesses and she is the great-granddaughter of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith. But she also wanted to be sure the future queen mother was more than a stiff historical figure.
"I'm quite big on research," Bonham Carter says. "I'd read lots of biographies, as much as I could. The thing about the queen is she lasted so long, so all those books were incredibly thick and I had a huge amount to get through. I had a really helpful friend, Hugo Vickers, who is one of her biographers. I gathered all this information and tried to distill it. As a supporting role, you've got less time to make a point. I didn't want to be just this bland wife. I knew she was the making of [George VI]. I think that was true of the queen mother. She was sort of enigmatic. She had a very presented, expert front of sweetness and charm and grace, but underneath she was a real woman of complex substance." Rush concurs, recalling that Churchill described her as a "marshmallow with a steel center."
Rush was helped by a treasure-trove of material, provided by Logue's grandson. "When we got into that three-week rehearsal period, Tom's assistant came in and had typed out all of Logue's diaries and papers and letters and diagnostic charts," Rush says. "There were photos—which was fantastic because we got to see what Lionel and Myrtle looked like. I took a lot from the photos, because he was a very dapper man. I loved that he had a little quiff of hair and always wore bow ties and very smart pencil-stripe three-piece suits. Technically he was an impostor. He did have great success with his experience with shell-shocked soldiers in the First World War in Australia and followed through in the 1920s in the U.K. I was intrigued that this man was rather erudite compared with the internationally accepted Australian cultural stereotype. He was very well-read, highly educated, and quite playful, knew his Shakespeare, loved music, fairly refined in a funny kind of way. It was great finding those elements yet letting him have what I call that egalitarian energy, a sense of playfulness."
Rush was further aided by the actors playing his sons. "Those boys were amazing," he says. "With Colin and I, we were able to shoot everything in sequence in the therapy sessions, which was great. But the stuff with the family was, as per normal on a film shoot, all over the place. Those boys were a lot of fun, and they both found a yin-and-yang quality: There was the rather bookish fellow and the slightly more spirited boy. I thought for the scenes they had, they had a nice dimension going."
He also has praise for Ehle: "Jennifer I met 13 years ago. She was a friend of Cate Blanchett when we were shooting 'Elizabeth.' I met with Cate a number of times socially, and I'd seen [Jennifer] in 'The Real Thing' on Broadway and I thought she was astonishing. She's one of those actresses with a completely chameleon sense of dialect. When I first met her, I thought Jennifer was terribly, terribly English, not realizing she was from North Carolina. For the number of scenes she had, I think she really fleshed out that character."
Similarly, Bonham Carter enjoyed working with the young actors playing her daughters—the little girls who will one day become Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. "Ramona Marquez, funnily enough, we had already been mother and daughter in a television program," she says. "It was fun to be with her again. She's very funny. Freya Wilson, who played Elizabeth, is really an extraordinary girl, way more intelligent than most people on the set. Perhaps more intelligent than Tom."
Hooper was definitely in charge, however. His cast appreciated his openness to experimentation, allowing them to find the real people beneath the historical data. "Tom is a very good, actor-friendly director," says Rush. "A great collaborator, really open to understanding the process and fine-tuning the story, keeping it fresh and avoiding clichés. You can see that in his visual style. He's got a wonderful sense of nailing history without making it seem like a genre."
"It was a very democratic atmosphere," says Bonham Carter. "Everyone was taking responsibility for the storytelling. Obviously Tom was, because he's the director, but the actors too. So there was a lot of analysis and deconstructing the script and working out if everything was justified."
On that note, Bonham Carter summarizes the appeal of the story: "I didn't think it was necessarily a story just about royalty or the elite. It's a story about somebody who's got an affliction, a story about friendship, and an act of courage in facing that affliction. Its humanity and its humor is what drew me to it."