This article first appeared in Attitude issue 329, December 2020.
Words: John Harris Dunning; pictures: StudioCanal
Supernova is not a science-fiction or a superhero movie. It’s a road trip. So that means sex, sleazy motels, maybe even a briefcase of drugs and a shootout, right? Wrong – but you won’t be disappointed. In fact, there’s a lot about this film that defies expectations.
Directed by young British director Harry Macqueen (Hinterland), who also wrote the script, Supernova follows a road trip in the Lake District taken by couple Tusker (Stanley Tucci) and Sam (Colin Firth) in a camper van. Tucci and Firth, both working a chunky-knit realness look here, are an astonishingly convincing couple, with a tender physicality between them.
As most of the film comprises conversations between the two men in their van, it’s a testament to their performances that the film remains hugely engaging throughout. They’re assisted in no small part by their director Macqueen’s masterfully spare script and his unerring directorial eye, which balances the couple’s intimate interactions with the breath-taking beauty of the British landscape they travel through.
VAN LIFE: Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) on their adventure
The story is deceptively simple: writer Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and his long-term musician partner, Sam, is trying to discuss their future prospects, with limited success. Supernova makes for funny, touching, and sometimes heartrending viewing, but it’s never mawkish — a note that’s hard not to strike when exploring this territory.
Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci are at the height of their acting prowess. The film is an emotional journey, and one you’ll thank yourself for joining. Tucci responded to the story immediately.
“My agent sent me the script, and said the director wants to attach you to it,” he explains. “I read it and loved it. Then I watched the first film Harry had directed [Hinterland] — which he made for a tiny budget. I thought it was beautiful. When we met, I told him I thought the other guy should be Colin Firth, which he agreed would be amazing. I slipped the script to Colin, and he read it and felt the same way…”
Being approached by someone close to him with a film idea wasn’t an unusual occurrence for Firth. “What was unusual was being interested in something that reaches me that way,” he admits. “It’s not uncommon someone says, ‘Take a look at this, let’s do this together,’ but it’s very unusual to read a good script. It felt authentic, and immediately resonated with me. It’s a very mysterious thing, and it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly why.”
ACTION: Director Harry Macqueen (centre) with Tucci (left) and Firth
As with some of the best relationships, role play came up early. “The script itself was so beautiful, I almost didn’t care who I played,” says Tucci, “but once Colin signed on, I started to wonder if I was right for my role, whether maybe I was better suited to his role…. Then one day Colin said he’d been thinking the same thing! We talked to [the director] Harry, and he kind of blanched, but he put together a few scenes and we read them, then switched. We all agreed it made sense. I don’t know why, exactly, but it just seemed to work better that way.”
Tusker and Sam are a gay couple, but their closely observed relationship is something anyone watching can identify with, from their little acts of love, to arguing over whether or not to use the satnav.
“That’s the beauty of the film,” agrees Tucci. “It reminds me of something Colin said to me: ‘The more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.’ It really doesn’t matter if it’s two women, or a woman and a guy, or two guys.”
“I fell in love with the script as it was, so it’s very difficult to imagine what might have been,” adds Firth. “I don’t want to speak on our director’s behalf, but I think Harry mentioned to me that when he first embarked on it, the couple had been a man and a woman. Then he’d questioned himself, why should it be? Maybe I should question why that’s automatically where my thoughts go?”
The glue that holds the film together is Firth and Tucci’s undeniable chemistry, an intimacy that radiates from the screen. “We’ve known each other a long time, so we’re very comfortable with each other,” explains Tucci. “I think that particularly with people our age who’ve been in relationships for a long time, there’s an ease between them.”
“These two have been together for 30 years,” continues Firth. “Stan and I have had plenty of time to get bored of each other as well. We’ve mocked each other. We’ve wound each other up. And we’ve cared for each other. We’ve been through some pretty difficult stuff in the 20 years we’ve known each other.
“I’ve come to care for Stanley as much as I care for anybody. It’s very hard to find a substitute for that — that the person I’m playing opposite is somebody that I’d happily hold in my arms and look after. There aren’t a lot of people in this profession I feel that way about — and that takes us a long way in telling this particular story.”
Firth and Tucci have both played high-profile gay roles before. “The greatest compliments I got were from the gay community, and gay friends and relatives,” recalls Tucci of his iconic role in blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada.
The One: Tucci persuaded his off-screen friend Firth to play his lover in Supernova
“They said, ‘You portrayed a gay man in the way we’d always hoped someone would portray a gay man.’ Of course, that’s down to the way it was written, and how it was directed — I certainly can’t take all the credit. But it’s important to me to be truthful, never to make fun of my character, or make him camp when there’s no need for it. It would be completely inappropriate to do that. I based his behaviour and style on people I knew, friends. I wanted to do it because it was a great role, but also because somebody else might do it and f*ck it up.”
Colin Firth played a middle-aged gay professor in fashion designer and filmmaker Tom Ford’s directorial debut, the critically acclaimed A Single Man. Although the lead character’s sexual orientation was part of the story, both Ford and Firth saw it as one of many important components.
“There were so many other factors,” says Firth. “It was about grief, it was about being a certain age and the kind of inventory you make about the value of being alive, particularly if the person you most love is gone. I knew nothing about Tom Ford as a filmmaker, because he wasn’t one — so it was a very unknown quantity. We’d met on a couple of occasions and I was quite compelled by him — but making a movie? And not a movie about the fashion scene or whatever world I associated him with; this was about a lonely professor in the early 1960s, who’s grieving. I was intrigued.
“You can get a little jaded at a certain age, and I just thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here, but I’m just going to take a leap.’ Tom [Ford] wasn’t particularly engaged in the business of gay identity when he was making the movie. I remember listening to him at a press conference saying that if someone asks him ten things about himself, the fact that he’s gay would be somewhere on the list, but not somewhere near the top.
“Christopher Isherwood [author of the novel A Single Man] wrote gay characters for decades without presenting their relationships as anything controversial or different. He was pretty ahead of his time in that respect.”
Playing a gay couple as straight men wasn’t something either Firth or Tucci took lightly; both were aware of those who may argue their roles should be filled by gay actors.
“I don’t have a final position on this,” says Firth, “I think the question is still alive. It’s something I take really seriously, and I gave it a lot of thought before doing this. Whenever I take on anything, I think it’s an insufferable presumption. I don’t really feel I have the right to play the character. That’s always my starting point. What do I know about this person’s life? How can I presume to set foot in this person’s lived experience, let alone try to represent it?
Director Harry Macqueen with Firth
“My hope is in that in the process, if one is thoughtful and empathetic — and that has to be part of the job description — you’ll find something truthful that will resonate with people. Then it’s up to your audience to decide whether or not you had the right to do it. Otherwise it’s being colonial about it — I can’t just go around marauding through other people’s experiences.”
“As a society, we’re still struggling with the fact that people can’t be openly gay,” says Tucci. “For so many years, gay men and women have had to hide their homosexuality in showbusiness to get the roles they wanted — that’s the real problem here. Anybody should be able to play any role that they want to play – that’s the whole point of acting. Everyone should just be able to be what they want to be, without judgement. Maybe someday we’ll get there — although I don’t think it’s going to be in my lifetime. And that’s tragic.”
Far more central to the film than the issue of gay identity is that of dementia, something that — with an ageing population — is becoming increasingly prevalent in the UK. All too many people have some kind of experience of the condition, directly or indirectly, and Firth is one of them. Knowing this, it’s a particularly brave performance — and an act of generosity to others who are in his position, offering them consolation by knowing they aren’t alone.
“Dementia has affected my family,” reflects Firth. “Profoundly. Over several generations. It’s ongoing. I can’t single out who. I can’t get their blessing to do so, because they have advanced dementia. It’s touched me very closely. It was one of the things I most engaged with about this project. Losing a loved one to any illness has its own particular form of torture, but there’s something very specific about losing someone to dementia because it goes to the core of identity and personality.
Tusker starts to make a speech at a family dinner
“You’re losing them in strange stages — the person’s still in front of you, and you can recognise them, but they don’t recognise you. It’s very mysterious, and painful in its mystery. It’s devastating — and it’s also ubiquitous. It’s so common. The majority of people who will read this are touched by it.”
The conversation turns to how we have been living over the past few months. The pandemic has wrought many changes, but surely none more extraordinary than the birth of Tucci as a social media star when his video of him making a negroni cocktail for his wife on Instagram went viral and shook the world. No one was more surprised than Tucci.
“I was shocked and staggered,” he exclaims. “I barely know how to use my phone! I couldn’t believe what happened. Nobody could. But it was awfully fun. Suddenly, I had liquor companies calling me up. I was sent so much booze that even I couldn’t drink it all!”
Firth shamelessly basks in the glory of the celebrated mixologist. “The only thing I can now tell people that impresses them is that I’d tried one of his negronis before he went viral. I was there first! When it comes to food and drink, I don’t question Stanley. He’s absolutely the boss.”
Supernova is scheduled for release in the UK on 5 March 2021.
The Attitude 101 February issue featuring 101 LGBTQ trailblazers is out now.