“If you don’t have a life, get someone else’s,” is the tagline on “Arthur Newman,” a black comedy about identity from first-time feature director Dante Ariola.
It stars a couple of people with lots of history inhabiting other people’s lives: Oscar-winner Colin Firth as the title character, a middle-aged man who fakes his own death so that he can give himself a different name and a different life, and “Looper” star Emily Blunt as a fragile young woman with her own secrets.
The film premiered at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and is being released on Friday by Cinedigm — with an unusual tie-in with the peer-to-peer site BitTorrent, which made the first 10 minutes of the movie available to users.
TheWrap spoke to Firth and Blunt in Toronto, only minutes after a seriously exhausted Firth arrived at his hotel straight from a trans-Atlantic flight.
What was the appeal for you in this project?
EMILY BLUNT: Definitely not Colin Firth. [Laughs] I think it's quite hard to find a script that seems to be carving out new space for itself, and it just felt reminiscent of '70s films I've seen, and it felt European and not formulaic of anything. It was so sort of subversive and intimate and strange.
COLIN FIRTH: If I were compos mentis, I would have said that.
BLUNT: You concur?
FIRTH: I do. I think a lot of films pose under a kind of indie banner, which can mean all sorts of different things. It can genuinely mean it's independent of the studio system, which is what it used to mean and what it was supposed to mean before it became a brand.
But I think this is not just financially independent, but it also doesn't conform. We both see quite a lot of material, but it's very hard to find something that doesn't conform. And this didn't, quite. I use the word subversive – it seemed to subvert itself a lot of the time. You think this is about how they're going to find out all about each other, and it's going to get confessional, and it doesn't. I think it takes little right angles all the time.
BLUNT: It has a really clear point of view, though.
FIRTH: A clear point of view, but never banal. When you've been doing it as long as I have, even the good material has got something of a formula. And although this brushes with genres we've seen, I think it evades most of them. You've seen road movies, but I don't think you've quite seen this thing at work.
BLUNT: It's the most unconventional love story ever, really.
FIRTH: We weren't even sure how much of a love story it was.
BLUNT: We kind of found out after. People said, “Oh, it's very much a love story,” but we didn't really know that. Because it's so unsentimental and cruel, it never really felt that way. So maybe I'm using the word unconventional because I'm relating it to everything else you read, which seems to be derivative of everything else you've seen.
FIRTH: It's so much about dislocation. I find that it's a film about identity, which sounds like the kind of banality that the whole film's trying to avoid. But it is dealing with that in ways that I think are not particularly resolved or finite or easy to pin down.
BLUNT: I think everyone at some point in their life has wanted to escape, or be someone else. Everyone's felt that in a very real way, and I think that in that way I guess you could say it's about identity. But it's about the yearning for something else, as well.
Were there scenes in the film that particularly stand out for you?
BLUNT: The scenes in the script that we thought were good scenes, every time we played them out, something surprising would happen. You thought you knew what the scenes were, and then you do them and they would be something altogether different. That first scene where we first get together and we’re playing Hilda and Eugene, we thought was very comedic. And when we started to play it out…
FIRTH: We just weren’t funny.
BLUNT: But it became something really moving and lonely and just so poignant. and I remember thinking that the air shifted in the room during that scene. I thought it was going to be funny, but Colin’s just not very funny.
FIRTH: I agree. I’m a comedy black hole.
Would it be too easy to look at the life of an actor, where you’re always assuming new identities, and say that you understand these characters’ impulse to disappear into different lives?
FIRTH: One could spend a fortune in therapy trying to really dig for whatever led me to become an actor. But I have a very peripatetic background. My brother and I are the only members of my extended family born in the U.K.
My family has lived in India, West Africa, my mother grew up in Iowa, I lived in St. Louis. My sister married an America, I lived in Canada for years. It can’t be chance that I’m making a tour of other people’s lives and characters as a profession. It’s probably all connected somewhere.
What’s interesting to me is not the urge to escape — I think everyone has some of that — it’s the ways in which you keep running back into the things that are lying in wait for you, that you thought you were getting away from. But yeah, I think that sense of having a slightly fractured sense of identity or ego is in a lot of actors. I think to be any good at it, or even to want to do it, something has to be dislodged.
BLUNT: I started to get interested in acting because I had a really bad stutter as a kid, and I had this great teacher when I was 12 who asked me if I wanted to be in the class play. At that stage it was at its absolute worst, and I had become somewhat of a mute because I found it just so embarrassing.
The teacher said, “Do you want to be in the class play?” And I begged him not to make me do it. And he said, “But I’ve seen you with your friends doing silly voices and mimicking people, I’ve seen you do me. You never stutter when you do that, so why don’t you do it in a voice, why don’t you be someone else?”
And it was miraculous. I remember my mom just weeping in the audience. It was a terrible class play that some student had written. And I did it in a terrible Northern accent, but I spoke fluently for the first time in years.
That was a big sign to me — that desire to be someone else, or trick your brain into thinking you are someone else, completely detached me from me to the point where I actually could speak properly in a way that I hadn’t been able to you for years. So I’m a big believer in that I understand why actors want that kind of escape.
FIRTH: But it’s not always an escape. I think the mask can often weirdly reveal you. You had a protection, you had a script, you had a character, and suddenly the way you wanted to speak was made free.
I think that is true an awful lot. You can be very confessional about your emotions if you’re pretending to be someone else. It’s a perpetual sort of alibi.