Colin Firth health: ‘I couldn’t express myself’ – star’s ‘debilitating’ vocal condition

1917: Dean-Charles Chapman praises Colin Firth's role in filming

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The actor, who has had a hugely successful career over the years, being appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2011 as well as receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the same year. Yet a health problem as a young actor posed to end his career imminently as damage to his vocal cords meant that the actor “couldn’t be heard properly”. The “debilitating” problem not only affected the star physically, but also mentally as he was unable to express himself the way he wanted. It was at this point where the star was left with no other option but to have surgery on the area.

Reflecting back on the issue and the effect it had on him, Firth once said: “I had an injury on my vocal cord which had to be dealt with surgically. It wasn’t a stammer but it meant I couldn’t be heard properly.

“I remember a voice therapist said: ‘Don’t underestimate how debilitating it is.’ People appreciate the problem of blindness and deafness and so on.

“The psychological damage of not being able to speak properly to people – in the way they expect – is underestimated. I couldn’t express myself. My identity was completely stifled.”

It was due to his past experience with a vocal problem that made the role of George VI, or Bertie, even more intriguing to Firth. But after three times of playing someone with a stammer, Firth went on to explain the challenges he took home with him even after filming.

He added: “It had an effect on my body – headaches. I had to learn to stammer and then play someone trying desperately not to.

“It put my left arm to sleep – it was very peculiar. I must have been locking something, pinching a nerve. It was a semi-paralysis that would last for three or four days.

“Derek Jacobi said to me: ‘You could find it affecting your speech patterns for some time afterwards. When the job’s over, don’t worry, it will go away.’”

True to Jacobi’s words, Firth found moments where the stammer was “quite infectious” which became worse when he thought about not doing it. He added: “I can’t really go too much into what the technical thing was, and I don’t want to frankly.

“I’ve got myself to a place where I was really trying to speak and sometimes it felt that way.”

Studies suggest that around one in 12 people go through a phase of stammering, with around two out of three growing out of it. For those that do not, stammers still affect approximately one in 100 adults, with men three times more likely to stammer in comparison to women.

The NHS explains that there are two types of stammer: developmental stammering and acquired or late-onset stammering.

The first, developmental stammering, is the most common and develops during childhood when speech and language skills are developing quickly. The latter, acquired stammering is relatively rare but occurs in older children or adults as a result of head injury, stroke or a progressive neurological condition.

It is still not possible to explain why stammering begins in the first place, but experts believe that both developmental and inherited factors play a part. Along with this, individuals that stammer may also have small differences in how efficiently areas of the brain that control speech are working.

Stammer, a leading charity, adds that the condition is not caused by anxiety or stress, but a stammer may get worse when an individual is anxious. About 60 percent of people who stammer have another family member who stammers, making inheritance one of the main known causes.

How to spot a stammer

Stammering varies in severity from person to person and depends on a certain situation. For some, situations that fluent speakers find easy can be really tricky, for example like ordering a coffee.

The most common signs that someone has a stammer include the following:

  • You repeat sounds or syllables – for example, saying “mu-mu-mu-mummy”
  • You make sounds longer – for example, “mmmmmmummy”
  • A word gets stuck or does not come out at all.

Research from Stammer found that around 75 percent of individuals tried to hide their stammer by searching ahead in their mind for potentially difficult sounds and then ignoring them or avoiding certain situations completely.

Internally this coping mechanism can be extremely exhausting and damaging. It can leave people:

  • Constantly on edge and stressed by the need to avoid stammering
  • Constantly worrying that people will ‘find them out’
  • Feeling deeply ashamed of their ‘secret’ stammer, and as more time passes, unable to share this secret.

Similar to the approach seen in the film The King’s Speech, therapy is often used as a way to help people with a stammer speak more easily. An individual will work with an individual and create strategies that increase fluency and develop communication skills.

John Hopkins Medicine explains that there are multiple other ways in which an individual can damage their vocal cords, which may leave them struggling to speak as effectively as they once did. These include the following:

  • Laryngitis
  • Vocal nodules
  • Vocal polyps
  • Vocal cord paralysis.

Firth was able to overcome his vocal cord issues, and continues to act today. Catch him in one of his latest films Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, playing on ITV2 tonight at 6:45pm.

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