"It's so utterly bizarre to think of myself as a sex symbol at this age," Colin Firth says with a laugh. "I have no objection to being what you call in America 'a hottie,' but it certainly isn't what I'm going at, this stage of my career."
The 41-year-old English actor shrugs.
"I guess, if it had to happen, now isn't a bad time," he says. "When I was first starting, it would have been confusing and misdirected—I would have had a very distorted image of myself and my power as an actor.
"And I would have spent the rest of my life wondering why no one was thinking of me as sexy anymore," he adds, chuckling. "I would have looked at my body, fretting that things were falling!"
His turn as the ultra-sensitive Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones's Diary" may have made Firth an unlikely sex symbol—his line "I like you just the way you are" has misted over many a female fan's eyes since the film opened last month—but there's a lot more to him than that.
Just check out "Conspiracy," an HBO television movie that will debut on May 19. Starring Kenneth Branagh, the film casts Firth as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart in a story about the Wannsee Conference, a famous meeting among Nazi leaders on Jan. 20, 1942. Their agenda was to decide what to do about "the Jewish problem," and their decision was what would become known as the Holocaust.
"It's shockingly heavy stuff," Firth says. "We sit there and talk about 'the Jewish problem,' as they called it. At this point, the Nazis had been trying to solve it with forced immigrations and random shootings. But then a memo came down that all the Jews had to be killed.
"At this meeting," he continues, "the Nazis decided they couldn't send the Jews to America, because America would probably just send them back. And bullets were too expensive. So at this conference they decided, 'Let's just do gas.'
"Then one character says, 'Good, that's decided. Pass the wine and cheese.'
"It's chilling," the actor says, "because these men are eating and exchanging jokes while deciding to wipe out 6 million people. It's shocking."
On a lighter note, he'll play Jack Worthing in Oliver Parker's upcoming film remake of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," co-starring Judi Dench, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon and Frances O'Connor.
"We're killing ourselves to wrap it before the actors' strike," Firth says. "But it's truly a labor of love. Each day is a joy, because the material is so good."
Firth's deft performance in "Bridget Jones's Diary" was no accident. Helen Fielding, who created Bridget in a British newspaper column and then in two best-selling novels, invented the character with Firth himself in mind.
"I had just finished watching the miniseries 'Pride and Prejudice'(1995)," she recalls in a separate interview, "and, like most of London, I fell in love with his Mr. Darcy. As a wink, I named Bridget's 'Mr. Right' Mark Darcy. I described him to look like Colin Firth. In fact, part of me was worried that the actor would feel my descriptions were too close to him.
"In my wildest dreams, I never thought he would actually play Darcy in the movie," Fielding says. "But a girl can dream."
Firth was well aware of Fielding's salute, of course.
"My friends couldn't resist bugging me and teasing, 'Do you know you're in this thing?'" he recalls. "I actually refused to read the columns at first. Then I would sneak a bit here, a few paragraphs there. But then my friends told me, 'Colin, you're creeping into the column even more.'
"It was a hall-of-mirrors thing for me," he says. "Very bizarre. My mother actually thought that it was real - she thought that the column was about me, Colin, and not a character."
Born in Grayshott in Hampshire, the English actor had an unorthodox youth. Three of his four grandparents were Methodist missionaries, and his family spent his first few years living on the edge of poverty in Nigeria. Firth returned to England when he was 5, as his father took a job as a history teacher at King Alfred's College in Winchester, while his mother became a comparative-religion lecturer at Open University in Milton Keynes.
Firth recalls making his stage debut in preschool, playing Jack Frost in a Christmas play, but admits that he was hardly stagestruck.
"Acting wasn't an all-consuming passion," he says. "I don't want to pretend it was this thing I had to do. I didn't hear a voice coming from the North Star saying, 'You must act.'
"But as I got older I realized that, if I wouldn't have chosen acting, I might have ended up in prison," he adds with a laugh. "They would have arrested me for being smelly and pathetic and on the streets."
His first West End stage role, in "Another Country" (1983), earned stellar reviews and led to his playing the same role in the 1984 movie version. That, in turn, led to such films as "A Month in the Country" (1984), "Apartment Zero" (1988), Milos Forman's "Valmont" (1989) and "Circle of Friends" (1995).
Then came "Pride and Prejudice," and suddenly a respected working actor was a star, at least in England.
"Women were panting and whistling in the streets," Fielding says.
"In my book," Firth responds, "they were all too silent!"
Higher-profile roles in "The English Patient" (1996) and "Shakespeare in Love" (1998) followed, but to his fans' disappoint- ment he seemed to favor character parts. That's no surprise: Between "Pride and Prejudice" and "Bridget Jones," people may think of him as a quintessential good guy, but Firth says he's actually happier playing Nazis and other baddies.
"Sometimes the nice guys can be so tedious to play and watch," the actor says. "I think the losers are more interesting to play. I like difficulty and struggle in a character—I love instability and conflict. I know it sounds a bit thespian, but that's why I went to drama school. I don't want to just be a hunk without a problem—that's 'Baywatch' time.
"Also, I don't want my love life in a movie to be the main focus."
Offscreen, Firth had a long-term relationship with his "Valmont" co-star Meg Tilly, with whom he has a son. They broke up years ago, however, and he played the field until 1996, when he met Livia Giuggioli, who is now his wife.
"I was never the type of man who worried that I would end up alone," he says. "I haven't really been alone very much in my life. And at times when I wasn't in a relationship, I actually savored the freedom."
He met Giuggioli in Colombia, where she was the production coordinator on a television miniseries in which he appeared. He was "a goner" from the moment they met, he recalls.
"It was love at first sight—or lust," he says. "She is an Italian beauty, and the smartest woman on this planet.
"And this is as far as we're going in relation to my personal life!"
Well, maybe a bit further. For example, how does his wife feel about his new status as a sex symbol?
"It's impossible to answer that question," he says, smiling, "because she's always laughing when women approach. Neither of us thinks I'm a sex symbol.
"I guess I should be a tad insulted."
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