GQ, October 2001, by Bill Prince
 





The pin-up of the Bridget Jones generation
has a confession. Women may fantasise about ironing his breeches, but the mild-mannered
Mr Darcy wants to be the bad guy

 

Colin Firth is taking the hairpin corners that lead up to the Umbrian town of Orvieto in a dust-laden, Roma-plated Nissan Micra—his wheels-away-from-wheels alternative to the permit-parked Golf at home in Highbury, north London— simultaneously grooving to African musical titan Fela Kuti and wondering how he’s come to be awarded GQ’s hotly contested Actor Of The Year.

It’s not that he’s dismissive. At 41 he says he’s no longer "queasy" about success ("I like getting points for what I do. I like being appreciated"). No, it’s just the parts he’s been playing of late. The sulky aristo Wessex in Shakespeare In Love ("a twat" according to Firth); Paul, Nick Hornby’s over-the-hill Gooner in Fever Pitch (a "scruffy, supine monomaniac"—Firth again), and most recently—and successfully—Mark Darcy, the oh-so ironic refigurement of his career-minting role in BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride And Prejudice that’s helped draw in more than £40M-worth of UK cinema goers to see Bridget Jones’s Diary since it opened last April.

None are heroes, but then he doesn’t "do" heroes. "They don’t seem to conflict inwardly," he sniffs. "And as the saying goes, ‘The greater the conflict, the greater the drama.’" Which, translated from thesp-speak into working actor-ese, means: I love the liberation of not having to win anybody. And no one can give me that fatal note that says: be sexier, be funnier. But even that’s not the main reason: it’s just more fucking interesting."

Still, cast against Hugh Grant (for the first time in a romantic comedy in contender-ish non-silly billy role as the sharkish Daniel Cleaver), Firth paid little thought to picking up an award for his work on Bridget Jones. "There was a moment when I thought I would disappear in the mix," he says. "So little of the film followed my progress in the relationship that I thought, ‘Do we care enough for it to be a happy ending that she ends up with this stuffy lawyer?’"

That we did is due to Firth’s brilliant portrayal of the mantlepiece-hugging barrister with "the giant gherkin up his arse" (© Bridget's A4 accomplice). But if, as Liz Hurley says, Englishmen are "two gin and tonics under par", nobody’s told Firth. He’s almost indecently keen to share his thoughts on the "c" word (to be used with discretion, but most definitely used); "Telegram Sam"-era Marc Bolan ("definitely sexy to an eight-year-old"); and Winchester, where he was mostly educated ("Straw Dogs"). No sign of the stick-shift emotional weirdos he plays with such élan. "Those are flaws associated with my own countrymen," he says. "But very often the person representing it is a bit of a fake."

It turns out that Firth, born in England and raised in Nigeria and America, spent a further two years secreted away in darkest British Columbia following the birth of a son, William, by actress Meg Tilly.

Following the success of Bridget Jones, the BAFTA-nominated actor concedes that he should have "gone straight to LA and bagged a few things". He didn’t, he says, because, "I’m not ambitious enough. I want it to lead to something, but I’m not going to pursue it so aggressively that everything becomes a bore."

Lunching in a hideaway trattoria, chatting away in decent-sounding Italian, you sense that Firth’s days of flying out, script- unseen, to meet Steven Spielberg ("you respond to him. He’s just terribly easy") are behind him. "I’m not going to ruin myself chasing after what I imagine might be a good life," he says. "This is why I want to be successful. So I can have this."

"This" is a summer retreat with wife Livia, their new baby, and an 11-year-old son by Tilly. His and Tilly’s relationship started on the set of Milos Forman’s Valmont in 1989, and news of a second romance—with Pride And Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle—broke after he’d met Livia, again on location. No wonder Firth has a reputation for being a bit of a Lothario.

"Much has been made of that," he says. "But there’s actually been only two examples that anyone can really come up with. It isn’t a huge record—people meet at work all the time."

The on-set dalliance is surely an occupational hazard though?

"I don’t think it’s as rampant as you might think," he says, cautiously. "But I’ve been on shoots where people have almost wanted to exploit the situation from the outset. There’s an adage I’ve heard the crew use, OLDC—which stands for On Location Doesn’t Count. I’ve seen people at the end of a long location shoot looking miserable because they have to go back and face the music."

With two new films in the can—The Importance Of Being Earnest, with Rupert Everett, and Conspiracy, an HBO production about the planning of the Holocaust ("Not fun")—GQs Actor Of The Year is in no hurry to get back to the temptation-flecked grindstone.

"Everything that’s coming in at the moment is romantic comedy," he says. "I’ve been trying to analyse it. There are so many levels of irony to everything we produce nowadays that it’s not OK to mean it any more. Bridget Jones is a quote from Jane Austen; the fact I was cast is itself a popular cultural gag. Everything is reflecting back on itself, it’s hard to imagine an earnest film.

"There are films that dare to go there, like Happiness and Magnolia—a man weeping because his father’s dying. I don’t know if I want to do it, but what I’m already being offered is the bad guy in the action movie. The pay cheques and the fun factor are very tempting. Just to be able to say, ‘To hell with it, this is fun.’ I can’t wait to play a cliché."

Photos by Kevin Foord


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