"If you can't
beat them join
them," he laughs. "I just thought I'd get in on the act now. And in a
there's something quite satisfying about being a part of it again. The
problem with the Darcy thing before was that it's always very difficult
to have anything new to say about something you're not doing any more.
But now I sort of am doing something that at least has a connection
it, so at least something I'm doing is relevant to it."
The new film—inspired by Helen Fielding's popular newspaper column, and the best-selling book that came about as a result of them—introduces hapless 30-something singleton Bridget (Renée Zellweger), drinking, chain smoking and dieting her way towards reluctant middle age, watching those around her pairing off and settling down.
For her part, Bridget cannot seem to find Mr Right, but will occasionally settle for a frenzied thrash about with Mr Wrong, in the form of her boss, the caddish Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). But could there be a flame, a spark, or some, small smouldering feeling between the eternally romantic Bridget and the reserved but sometimes rather charming Mark Darcy? We shall have to wait and see. At the time of the interview even Colin Firth had not seen the film, but he held out high hopes for it.
"One has to be a bit careful of something that has been so well designed to be a hit," he says, tentatively. "But I think this film has been done properly. If there is a problem that British films tend to suffer from—and this is not true of most American films—it’s that we get very hasty in the script development stage. We rush things into production that really aren't ready to go. But that's not true of this film. They've worked very hard on making this script work and they even brought Richard Curtis in, and he's the genius who knows how to pitch this kind of territory. But the script is always so important."
The fact that Hugh Grant and Colin Firth are actors who are quite familiar to American audiences will surely not hurt the film's chances of success in America. And the two heart-throb actors do get to indulge in one of this year's more memorable screen fights.
"Oh, that was great," Firth smiles. "We just decided to fight like a couple of wallies, which is probably how we would fight if we did it for real. No big cowboy punches for us. The whole thing probably took two or three days, and while it was very tiring it was terrific fun."
And yet despite the involvement of home grown talent such as Firth, Grant, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Sally Phillips, Honor Blackman and Celia Imrie, there were still some indignant muttering that Texan-born Renée Zellweger was cast in this high-profile very English film project.
“I got a little bit impatient with that”, Firth adds. “I mean, I’d give up acting now if I was told I wasn’t allowed to change my accent for a role ever again. Renée didn’t really need any help form us, she had it so well in the bag by the time she turned up at the first read through. I had enormous empathy with what she was doing, having played an American character myself on A Thousand Acres. Most often it isn’t the accent that’s the problem anyway, there were always a few things that gave away how culturally different we are, just in terms of how we might interact with each other. That’s what you have to get right.”
The question of nationality has an uncanny echo for Firth. While he seems so utterly English in so many things—from his screen début in the public school-set Another Country to the period grandeur of Pride and Prejudice—he is well travelled, and looks far beyond national borders for a sense of himself.
When he was a child Firth lived in America for a year because his teacher father was working there as part of an exchange system. Even back in Britain the Firth family lived all over the country, but the actor is not convinced that cod psychology alone can link his youthful travels with his decision to become an actor.
“I think it was all useful for what I do now,” the 40-year old star explains, “but I don’t think that’s why I decided to act. I think I was interested in it before I travelled anywhere. I certainly enjoyed it when I was very young. I enjoyed storytelling, I enjoyed the attention and I enjoyed watching other people do it. So I can’t put it down to any very complex or profound psychological reasons, it was something that I enjoyed doing more than other things.
“But my mother grew up in America, and in a lot of ways I feel quite American, which is interesting because people tell me an awful lot how English I am. I think I can see why. I think it’s possibly because I’ve lived away, and that’s often true of people who’ve been out of England. It’s more noticeable when you don’t move with the times, and the times do actually move very rapidly in terms of those little cultural nuances. I do think that as an actor you very often represent something you’re not. I’m interested in Englishness, in what that is, and I’m interested in portraying it in my work.”
Firth was certainly not a football fan, by his own admission, when he was chosen to play the central character in Fever Pitch—the tortured tale of a life-long Arsenal supporter. Writer Nick Hornby felt, at the time, that Firth was closer in many ways to the central character in his next book, the record shop owner in High Fidelity. So would the actor rather have traded his Goonershirt (and boxer shorts) for the chance to play in en English version of the film that John Cusack Americanized so successfully?
“I would have loved to have done High Fidelity,” he nods, “but John Cusack was so good in it. Even though I was one of those sceptics who wanted the story to be kept English, I thought he translated the whole story brilliantly. I wouldn’t have preferred doing that film to Fever Pitch though, because it was more interesting to play someone so different from me. The kind of person that Paul the Arsenal fan was had always baffled me a little bit. As a schoolboy I wasn’t one of the football crowd; they were the kind of people who thought I was a bit of a ponce, really.”
There must, at some early stage, surely have been a discussion about transposing Bridget Jones’s Diary to an American setting. What you lose in edge you often gain in making your film accessible to a potentially huge audience who are historically quite reticent about non-American films. There are exceptions of course. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and The Full Monty spring to mind, but there is still a risk with releasing those films onto thousands of US screens. But there is still the question of whether politically correct American commentators will approve of Bridget’s love of Chardonnay and ciggies.
“Let them criticize,” Firth snorts. “I mean, learn to live a bit. Those are the same people who write in complaining because someone said ‘fuck’ when that character has just been disembowelled in the scene. That [the drink and fags] are what’s it’s about. It’s about someone’s struggle with that stuff, it’s about their weakness. It’s not a morality tale about the demon drink—which might be what upsets some people who are so earnest and frightened of that.
“But I am glad it was kept English. I think you often get very interesting results when you do surprise casting, when you get outsiders to do things like Renée. For instance, it was very interesting to see Ang Lee comment on Englishness in Sense & Sensibility. And just look at America, Hollywood was formed by people who are immigrants, and great directors have gone there over the years from Fred Zinnemann to John Schlesinger to Wim Wenders.”
If it was true once that you had to go to Hollywood to make your name, then it seems more and more possible to do good work, satisfying work, in all sorts of films around the world. Firth’s film career seems a perfect example. If you have yet to see him in films like Valmont, The Hour of the Pig and Wings of Fame, you’re missing a treat. He was certainly there best thing about Relative Values, and delivered eye-catching supporting roles in The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love.
Contrary to tabloid myth Colin Firth had a busy, diverse and successful career before he was ever offered the ruffled shirt and riding britches on Pride & Prejudice, and has continued to have one long after that notable TV hit.
“Life has basically been exactly the same for me after Darcy as before,” he shrugs. “In fact, I thought I was doing really well before that, but when Darcy came along there was this assumption that I hadn’t been doing anything. You see this happen to a lot of actors, where suddenly they categorize everything that went earlier as part of a rather unsatisfactory career.
“When I did Another Country,” says Firth, “I can remember thinking that it didn’t get any bigger than that. From where I stood it was an enormous success, just to be in a film at all. Then the TV drama Tumbledown caused probably the biggest furore of anything I’d ever been involved in. It goes like that, though. I think the media has a very short memory. I don’t think the Darcy thing will go away. If I brought about world peace the headlines would read, ‘Mr Darcy solves world peace’. But as far as I’m concerned the thing is to keep trying my hand at different things."