It’s an essential part of any actor’s skillset: to generate chemistry with co-stars they have never met or perhaps even despise (Sonic The Hedgehog reputedly did not see eye to eye with James Marsden). But there are some levels of ease, comfort and understanding that can’t be manufactured, however well-trained the thesp. It’s this quality of intimacy, trust and kinship that Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci have in spades. Having met on set of 2000s HBO drama Conspiracy, the pair’s friendship has flourished even among the demands and vicissitudes of two hugely successful careers. It’s a relationship that Supernova plays on for hugely emotional effect. A beautifully poised and played love story, writer-director Harry Macqueen’s film pitches musician Sam (Firth) and his partner of 20 years, author Tusker (Tucci), on a road trip around the Lake District as the couple come to terms with Tusker’s early onset dementia. Quiet, funny and heartbreaking, it’s a fantastic showcase for two performers at the top of their game.
Empire invited the long-time friends to get together in conversation (“You can try it at your peril,” deadpans Firth) about Supernova, friendship, movie-making and matters arising (spoiler: it’s mostly about food). Speaking on Zoom — Firth from London, Tucci from Spain — their subsequent chat is testament to that film-business rarity — a long-lasting, genuine friendship. It was Tucci who brought Supernova to Firth but, as he explains, with a significant difference from the finished film…
Tucci: I was supposed to play Sam. But I went to you and, as we sort of looked into it more, we decided that maybe the best way to do it was to switch roles.
Firth: It had clearly been in both our minds for some time. And we hadn’t gone to work yet or anything. We didn’t have rehearsals, did we?
Firth: If you remember, Harry asked us to kind of read out both roles, switch over and see how it sounded, which was an interesting experiment for all of us. I wasn’t 100 per cent committed to the idea. I didn’t want to let go of Tusker very easily. I had become quite attached, but I just kept feeling your voice in Tusker. Trouble is, I also felt your voice in Sam. It was more about what I thought I wanted to hear you do, really. I was scared of messing up either. Did you feel it was conclusive when we read it out?
Tucci: Yeah. I just felt more comfortable saying Tusker’s words. Even though Harry didn’t write Tusker as an American or anything, there was something in the rhythm of it, the humour. It just felt right.
Firth: It wasn’t as simple as it might sound. I’d forgotten there had to be a few tweaks to the script to accommodate you being American.
Tucci: I thought the writing was pure. It was without affectation. It was without melodrama. It had a beautiful simplicity and a poeticism to it. And he was not afraid of silence. Those kinds of scripts are very hard to find. It was almost like reading a Bergman script.
Firth: And whatever lines we did have were good. Harry gave us a lot of room to manoeuvre. There was a feeling that we were left to ourselves but with a fly on the wall. And because we’d known each other for so long, the shorthand comes very easily. I think whether it was us improvising or simply saying it as written, it was a very easy rapport.
Tucci: The key thing with movies like this is that when you see a movie about somebody who has a condition or is afflicted with something like this, it’ll be sort of high drama and then there’ll be the jokey bit — just so that the audience doesn’t get too upset for too long — and those two things are supposed to balance each other out. For me as an actor and as an audience member, I look at that and just see an inconsistency of tone. Whereas here there’s a complete consistency of tone. Whether there’s a lighter scene or a heavier scene, it’s all in the same tone. And that’s what makes a really good film.
It’s a sobering, almost spiritual experience to be cooked for by you.
One of the joys of Supernova is the Lake District, the stunning backdrop of Sam and Tusker’s journey. The film was shot in and around the small town of Keswick, a picturesque locale that made a huge impact on the New York-born Tucci.
Tucci: I started looking at real estate because it’s so beautiful. I mean, I couldn’t really afford anything I really wanted. I moved to the UK seven years ago, so I’ve seen parts of the UK, but I had never been there. It seems like it’s easier to get to Paris than it is to get to the Lake District. Even though it rained every day, it almost made it more beautiful.
Firth: To see your reaction gave me a kind of local pride. One of the things that’s so magnificent about it is that you can be looking at the same landscape every day and it transforms every time there’s a shift in the clouds.
Tucci: It’s a painter’s dream. Do you remember our cabins were next to each other? We had these really nice — what do they call it?
Firth: A lodge.
Tucci: I was so comfortable there. I like to cook anyway and there wasn’t really any place to go to eat, so…
Firth: It’s very difficult to say anything about you without a joke, but I can’t joke about your cooking. It’s a sobering, almost spiritual experience to be cooked for by you, which I think you pretty well did every night. I’m not sure, did you ever actually invite me? Or did I just appear at your door?
Tucci: No, I invited you but because you’re so polite, you wouldn’t assume. Even though we hung out together all day, we still had a lot to talk about. I don’t know how, but we did. We would have that wonderful wine, the Pio Cesare. And then I would make something really simple like pasta with whatever or…
Firth: Oh, pasta, risotto. It was an embarrassment of riches. You’re no slouch with the cocktails, either. I mean, the only downside for me was that I like to cook and I just didn’t dare. I was just so out of my league that I didn’t feel I could reciprocate.
Tucci: I don’t believe that. You did make a shepherd’s pie, but we never ate it.
Firth: I decided to cook about the most English thing I could think of, so I wasn’t trying to compete with your cuisine. And I cooked a shepherd’s pie and just… I chickened out.
Tucci: Shepherd’s pie is literally one of my favourite dishes of all. In fact, that’s what we were eating in the last scene. That guy thought I was vegetarian and made this completely vegan shepherd’s pie that was fucking delicious.
Firth: Audiences always spot whether actors are really eating in a scene. You’ll see actors move their food around a lot on the plate while they talk. The trouble is delivering the lines with a mouthful. How long does it take to chew and swallow? And does that affect the scene? And then there’s continuity: I was chewing in the long shot, so I must be chewing in the close-up. You get into all these traps. And before you know it, you’re bloated and you’ve had more shepherd’s pie than you could ever look at again.
Tucci: It’s true. I’m writing a book, a sort of food memoir thing. And one of the bits I wrote about was tasting on screen, what you believe and what you don’t believe. I very seldom believe cooking shows. When they take the thing, it goes up to their mouth and then before it’s even touched their lips, they go, “Oh my God, it’s so delicious.” How do you know that? It takes a while to figure out if something’s delicious. Usually on film you have spit buckets and just…
Firth: It’s one of the senses that you have to take people’s word for on film.
Tucci: When I come home from Spain, if I’m ever allowed back into the country, you can cook shepherd’s pie for me.
Firth: Alright. But no witnesses.
Prior to Supernova, the last time Firth and Tucci appeared together was in the Coen Brothers-scripted comedy caper Gambit (2012), playing rival art curators. But the pair first met on a film with a very different register: 2001’s Conspiracy, about the 1942 Wannsee Conference that determined the Nazis’ Final Solution. It was an unlikely start to a beautiful friendship.
Tucci: We made that movie 20 years ago and we stayed friends ever since. My twins were nine months old. And were you dating Livia at the time?
Firth: We were married. Conspiracy was all boys together. How many of us were there?
Tucci: Sixteen. Sixteen guys around a table for the entire shoot.
Firth: Certain individual connections formed themselves during that and somehow our relationship survived it.
Tucci: Well, you’re funny, incredibly smart, talented. What’s not to like? I mean, you’re just like a normal person. You’re not like an actor. You are a very consistent friend. I’m not saying that all actors are inconsistent, I’m not saying that. But a lot of times in this business, you have these very intense relationships in a very short period of time, but it’s very rare that something really lasts. When you think about how many thousands of people we’ve met over the last 40 years in showbusiness, it’s not that many that you really stay friends with.
Well, you’re funny, incredibly smart, talented. What’s not to like?
Firth: It’s such a mystery as to what leads to a connection. It’s not as if we were best friends from day one. I guess there was an affinity from the beginning. We ran into each other in other places. And I think it grew over time.
(At this point Empire suggests the two friends consider each other’s work. It doesn’t go to plan…)
Firth: I haven’t really seen any of your work. I’m told you’re wonderful.
Tucci: Yeah. You don’t wanna see a lot of it.
Firth: You often take me by surprise. I think Big Night must have been the first time I saw you. And I was blown away. My relationship with Italy had just kicked off. And there’s that early scene which had resonated with experiences of my own where the couple ask for — is it the risotto full of pasta or something?
Tucci: She has the risotto. She can’t figure it out and then says she would like some pasta on the side.
Firth: I’d seen that happen in Italy. I’d also seen something similar happen in a little kind of low-end café somewhere in London, an Italian place where a Canadian friend of mine had ordered spaghetti alle vongole — the vongole had come from a tin. And then he asked for Parmesan, which is absolutely forbidden with any seafood pasta.
Tucci: No. No. No.
Firth: And it’s extraordinary — that moment from Big Night kicked in. Even though it was tinned vongole, the restaurant refused. I actually found it fascinating to be caught in these things that were culturally so embedded.
Tucci: Absolutely. They’re rules. They’re there for a reason. Also, when people make a pasta [dish] and then they’ll put the salad on the same plate as the pasta. I always have to have the salad at the end. You don’t put them on the same plate, because everything goes together. It’s gross.
Firth: And just visually it’s disturbing.
Tucci: It’s just wrong. [To Empire] This is the problem. This is what we end up talking about all the time.
Chat turns to watching and making movies in a pandemic. During lockdown, Firth watched one new movie (_Portrait Of A Lady On Fire), binged two TV shows (Normal People, I May Destroy You) and some classic movies (The Thin Man _series, Spencer Tracy- Katharine Hepburn comedies) to “just escape into another era altogether”. For his part, Tucci watched Orthodox on Netflix and some documentaries on soul singer Sam Cooke and artist Julian Schnabel, but with young children and contracting coronavirus himself at the start of lockdown, he admits, “I’ll be honest, I didn’t really watch much. I was so tired.” Both men have subsequently gone back to work; Firth is shooting Mothering Sunday opposite Olivia Colman and Josh O’Connor, while Tucci is currently making adventure miniseries La Fortuna for director Alejandro Amenábar. So how is life in the new moviemaking normal?
Tucci: I’m not so afraid about working in these conditions as long as there are protocols in place. I’m working now in Spain where the cases are skyrocketing. But they’re forging ahead. And everyone’s very careful. We get tested two, three times a week. Everybody’s wearing a mask all the time unless you’re doing a scene.
Firth: It’s very strange to be working with people for two, three weeks and still never see their face. In the make-up trailer there’s plastic partitions, temperature checks and all sorts of rules.
Tucci: Right, where they’ve set up catering, everybody sits in separate sort of little areas at tables and there’s a barrier between. They’re so cautious.
Firth: It doesn’t feel anything like doing the job as normal. Both in our industry and as a country and globally, we’re trying to find the balance between keeping life going and caution. It’s a very new situation in our lifetimes.
Tucci: But I also feel like it has been around a long time. I think a lot of people are either asymptomatic and have had it or they have had it and they have antibodies. I had it at the beginning of March. I had antibodies and then, later on, subsequent tests said I didn’t have antibodies. We know that simply has to do with the way that antibodies are tested and where the bar is at a certain level. So, I’m not personally concerned. What concerns me is if people don’t put these protocols in place, then that would just be completely irresponsible. I wouldn’t be interested in working on something like that.
Firth: I feel very fortunate that we are able to go to work. And I’m glad that people are putting measures in place to try to make that possible. Things could change at any moment. What I think causes people the most anxiety really with this is what’s happening to the live performing arts. It’s desperate. And that there’s so few options really to keep that going.
One thing that seemingly will keep going is Firth and Tucci continuing to collaborate. “Every time I write a movie, I ask you to do it and you say no,” says Tucci. “So obviously it won’t be something that I’ll direct. But hopefully we’ll act together again.” Firth smiles: “I just want you to work a little harder. I can’t make it too easy for you. I’ll lose you if I do that.” If working together doesn’t pan out, there’s always that shepherd’s pie.
Supernova is released in UK cinemas on 25 June. This article originally ran in the print edition of Empire magazine.