"I think I've been saying all the time: 'It's all right. It's fine.' How convincing can you be when you say, 'I'm not het up'?"
The thing Firth is fine about (so we can all stop feeling guilty) is being a Sex God. He doesn't mind the tight breeches thing, or having to talk in detail about That Pond Scene for the past six years, or knowing that millions of women fantasise about the way his wet shirt clung to his chest, or the way his bushy sideburns fluttered outside Pemberley. "If I spent 20 years training to be an astronaut, the headlines would still say Darcy Lands On Mars!," he says, laughing. But, to be honest, he looks pissed off.
It really is six years since Firth was Mr Darcy in the television adaptation of Pride And Prejudice (indeed, he is probably the only person to whom it feels like six years). More than 13 million of us were glued to the BBC on those autumnal Sunday evenings, and the way Firth glowered and brooded, and looked intense, hurt, horny and, at times, as if someone had just farted. . . well, it was all too much.
By the time he blurted out to Miss Bennet, "My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you," millions had welled up into one collective wobbly bottom lip.
Six years on, Firth is far removed from that small series. He is living in an Islington town house with his Italian wife, Livia Giuggiolo, 31. Their wedding, in 1997, was a blow to women everywhere, and now—I'm sorry to break this to you—Firth is excitedly awaiting the birth of their first child together (he has a son by a previous marriage), due any day now. If he fails to show up for any of the glitzy premieres for his latest film, Bridget Jones's Diary, it's because he is preoccupied with other things in a maternity ward. "I'm absolutely over the moon. It's about to pop, and no one has sussed it," he says, revelling in the way he and his wife have ducked the tabloids. "Ever since I met Livy, people have been speculating that she's pregnant and it's never been true. Now she's enormous and she's been in public but, weirdly, people stopped pursuing it."
It is unlikely, then, that they'll be inviting Hello! into their "fabulous home". Firth is a reluctant star, to say the least. His career, he admits, has had "no clear trajectory": he loathes publicity and seems to fluctuate wildly in his work, between prominence and obscurity. More than anything, for so prolific an actor (at only 40, he has more than 30 films to his name), Firth has had a singular difficulty in being anyone other than Darcy in the nation's consciousness.
Since Pride And Prejudice, he has appeared in high-profile productions such as Shakespeare In Love and The English Patient, but these supporting roles rendered him strangely forgettable. Another Country, with Rupert Everett, kick-started his career in 1984, and he achieved national prominence five years later in BBC1's controversial Falklands drama, Tumbledown. But his CV is peppered with questionable choices, such as My Life So Far, a rambling, directionless period piece, the likeable but amateurish Secret Laughter Of Women, and the absurdly hammy Relative Values.
There are overlooked successes as well, such as his small but flawless role in A Thousand Acres, with Michelle Pfeiffer. Most people, however, would name him in Fever Pitch, the 1996 adaptation of Nick Hornby's book about football obsession that may have appealed to Firth as very unDarcyish but that owed much to the repressed-with-a-lot- going-on-beneath-the-surface Englishman that he plays so well. Essentially, though, tell anyone you're meeting Colin Firth and the response is the same: "Ooooh, Darcy. Lovely." And what's wrong with being famous for something you were good in? Nothing, except Firth has a certain contempt for Darcy, his silly, heart-throb younger twin. The older, more serious Firth has stretched himself in far bigger roles: "Pride And Prejudice wasn't the most rigorous or challenging thing I've done," he says. He told one interviewer he would "not do that again. No, I'd be bored shitless." He tells me that Darcy "was somebody else's party. I'm still trying to think it all through." It brought him fame for something he wasn't quite proud of: a sudden, bright, intrusive spell as public property.
The global love affair with Pride And Prejudice (it was huge in the US) brought with it persistent press attention, not least when it emerged that he had been romantically involved with his leading lady, Jennifer Ehle. "They only discovered it after it was over. Livy and I had started up a serious relationship for quite some time. They get your number and phone up, pretending to be BT, then ask, 'Are you and your leading lady in love?' You let them write about it, and all this invented stuff comes out. It's astounding, breathtaking, what gets invented."
Firth gets panicky about the paraphernalia of stardom: he may be a contemporary of Hugh Grant and Ralph Fiennes, groomed to be the foppish love interest, but his ambivalence shows. Too reticent, too twitchy. And perhaps we love him all the more for it.
Given all this, his latest career move seems decidedly odd. Firth is Mr Darcy again, except this time he's a big, celluloid, tear-jerking Mr Darcy; a larger-than-life Darcy, shunted forward with all the might of Universal Pictures and Miramax. He plays an ironic spoof of himself as the brooding romantic lead, Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones's Diary, tipped to be one of the biggest films of the year. This is Darcy with bells on.
The film, which opens in Britain and the US in two weeks, has all the shameless, blockbuster-manufacturing of Notting Hill and Four Weddings And A Funeral, and is based on Helen Fielding's bestselling novel about the loneliness, anxiety and aspirations of the urban, single thirtysomething female. Richard Curtis and Fielding have come up with a galloping script. Hugh Grant gets top billing as the rakish seducer Daniel Cleaver, despite playing a secondary character to Firth's (he's a bigger star, so has to be on the poster). There's even the requisite US lead, Renee Zellweger, as Bridget herself (brace yourself for some rictus English vowels, somewhere between Dick van Dyke and Camilla Parker Bowles).
But there are a few imaginative twists, too, in the big-screen debut of director Sharon Maguire, a documentary-maker who is close to Fielding and was one of the models for Bridget's friend, Shazzer. In one scene, a soirée held by the publishers where Bridget works, there are cameos by Salman Rushdie, Sebastian Faulks, Alain de Botton and Jeffrey Archer, all as themselves.
And, in the midst of it all, is Firth, our national treasure, as faithful to his character in the book as it is possible to be, in part because Firth is Mark Darcy. It is the book that is faithful to him: Fielding was as captivated with Pride And Prejudice as everyone else, and was instrumental, via her Bridget Jones newspaper column, in establishing Firth in female folklore. She created the character Mark Darcy to become Bridget's paramour: a brooding, diffident human rights lawyer who stands silently beside bookshelves a lot and has trouble expressing himself. The novel, which sold 4 million copies worldwide (1.5 million of them in the UK), was a loose reworking of Pride And Prejudice in much the same way that the film Clueless reworked Emma.
Bridget is a spirited, more accident-prone Elizabeth Bennet. Her mother, a shrill and tactless suburban housewife, is as mortifyingly vulgar as Austen's Mrs Bennet. There is no eloping Lydia; instead, Bridget herself falls prey to her flirtatious boss, Daniel Cleaver (aka, George Wickham). She is naive, and believes Cleaver's smears against Mark Darcy, wrongly turning against him just as he is warming to her. Darcy appears in turn awkward, supercilious, arrogant but eventually kind and, ultimately, Bridget's rescuer.
The casting directors must have needed only one number when casting Darcy. Early in the book, Bridget makes her first observations about him at a Christmas turkey curry buffet held by mutual friends: "The rich, divorced-by-cruel-wife Mark—quite tall—was standing with his back to the room, scrutinising the contents of the Alconburys' bookshelves: mainly leather-bound series of books about the Third Reich . . . It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It's like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting 'Cathy' and banging your head against a tree." It's pure Firth. At least, it's pure Firth-as-Mr-Darcy. The man standing by the bookshelves definitely has curly hair, dark eyes, a slightly down-turned mouth and a look of childish vulnerability on his face. And he definitely takes himself too seriously.
We meet for the first time in a private drawing room at a London hotel, all leather armchairs, halogen downlighters and bowls of lilies. We sit at either end of a vast white sofa, in front of a fake log fire, engulfed in tension. I ask how he feels about the film, about the hoohah that is about to burst all around him. "I'm not confident about the film," he says bluntly. "I've no reason to be confident about the film. We all did our best."
Did he enjoy making it? "Yee-es." That's a no then. "I found it intriguing that this thing seemed to be reflecting back on itself. I was aware of it when making the decision and thinking, 'Is this going to make things worse?' If the film's a success, then I'll be back in it again—and, yes, I've thought about that. If it makes me more of a household name than Darcy did, then I don't know how I'll deal with it. But it might just go away."
Go away? He's already "back in it". Earlier, when he walked into the foyer, he looked sheepish, embarrassed by the small circus whipping up around him. He had come from a photo-shoot at a women's magazine where he had to be "styled". When posing, he was asked to look "more gangster", but didn't know how, so they suggested he look at his cuffs. "I don't mind it," he mutters, "but I feel a bit silly."
Firth has talked often about looking ordinary, about having a malleable face that is easily transformed by make-up and expression. He is one of those celebrities you have to stare at good and hard to be sure it's him. I can't remember exactly what Firth was wearing on that first meeting: something dark and jeansy, in a sort of sixth-form teacher way.
Remember, he may have smouldered as Darcy, but he was suitably lumpen as the woman-averse fan in Fever Pitch and innocently plump in The English Patient. (Though many asked who on earth would leave him for Ralph Fiennes?) His opening gag in Bridget Jones centres on exactly this cuddly-uncle-versus-sex-symbol split. Darcy stands alone beside some French windows at the buffet. The camera pans down to show him wearing an absurd reindeer sweater of the Christmas present variety.
Cut to our second meeting, a week later at his local watering hole, the Almeida Theatre bar, in Islington, and it's a different story. He wears a leather jacket, he seems slim and tousled. He laughs a lot; his cheeks dimple. We talk about ordinary things: giving up smoking, when to have children, favourite books. He is warm and open and, frankly, to die for. It strikes me that this was part of the strength of the original Darcy, and other parts Firth has done well: he emits a slow-burning magnetism that reveals itself in stages.
Not a Brad Pitt rush-to-the-head, rather a repressed, diffident warm-up. This may be as much of an acting achievement as anything else, no less powerful because it comes naturally to him. When I suggest that Darcy was a triumph in this sense, he takes umbrage: "Whatever achievement was there, I prefer to think of it as an acting one." It seems he is forever fending off accusations of sexiness.
There must be something about being a pin-up that jars with Firth's schoolish upbringing. His parents, retired teachers, are staunchly leftwing, well-travelled and concerned about the social issues of the day. His mother completed her PhD six years ago and has long fought for the rights of asylum seekers imprisoned in the UK. His brother, six years younger, is also an actor, and his sister, two years younger, is a speech trainer: "We're not close-knit: months can go by without hearing from each other, but there aren't any feuds."
Firth was born in Nigeria, where his parents were teaching. Some have commented on his faintly colonial speech, but I find him accentless. Every now and then, a strange, wide vowel crops up, but it could as easily be American as Winchester, where the family later settled. His memories of Africa are scant, but in them he seems a rather vulnerable child: "I can remember very clearly my father driving to work in a Beetle. There was a dirt road that went perpendicular to the house and I would watch him go. I could still see him when he parked the car outside the school—it wasn't far, but an unpleasant walk in the African sun. He was a little dot. And I remember thinking: 'What's he got better to do there than hanging around with me?' "
There are other sensory memories, of the house or a toy, "and an African boy who I spent a lot of time with, called Godfrey, and him trying to persuade me to come round to his place, and me being scared to go". It's a vulnerability often visible on the adult Firth's face—a sort of troubled, slightly teary look, that makes him look nowhere near 40. After Africa, there was a long spell in England, where fitting in at school was a problem. Like many middle-class parents, the Firths had an aversion to television's vulgar newcomer, ITV, and the children were not allowed to watch it. They found it difficult, as a result, to join in some of the playground banter.
As an adolescent, Firth and his family spent a year in St Louis, where his parents were on a teaching exchange. Fitting in at a US school was even worse: Firth described himself as the English geek among throngs of earring- wearing, long-haired rockers. At least, so the mythology goes.
"I find myself volunteering a lament for my school days, and I've never done that," he says. "It starts to look as if Colin Firth wants to talk about his school days, and it's just bullshit. You know, we all have our memories and our own version of history which helps us explain ourselves, but we don't all get asked about it. It does put you in a strange relationship with it, because a sort of mythology that you've created about yourself to yourself grows up, and it's compounded by having it put in print. I didn't like school—I don't really want to weave yet another quote about that."
It's hard to imagine Firth on a movie junket, where stars are installed in a suite and journalists queue to question them for a maximum of around seven minutes, timed by a PR with a stopwatch. He is singularly unable to sugar himself with frothy chatter and would be far happier sitting in an armchair, harrumphing over the papers. "If I could distinguish myself at those parties and chat shows, it might be easier," he once lamented.
Soon after Pride And Prejudice, he was called by Spielberg's "people", and had a meeting in Hollywood with the man himself. "It was weird to find that someone who is such an enormous figure in the business was so chatty and informal and unassuming. He had his feet up, and was wearing a baseball cap and sipping a McDonald's Coke." I imagine Firth didn't do a very hard sell. "He didn't invite me to do his films."
Firth has no particular allegiance to low-budget British films—he would love to do a Hollywood blockbuster, he says, but good scripts are thin on the ground. The problem with today's films lies not in production, but in the writing. Couple that with his natural uncertainty (he turned down Pride And Prejudice several times), and the halting aspect to his career starts to make sense. He has described himself as a "passive resister", and agrees there is something particular in him that makes him retreat. "I think it's a survival instinct, putting the brakes on, not wanting things to get out of control. There's an adage about the fear of success being as great as the fear of failure. I think most people have that, and I don't think it's entirely self-destructive or unhealthy. It may be that you really can get into dangerous territory—the normal things in my life are very important to me.
"It's not just that the threat of egomania and narcissism are always looming [though I suspect they always are], it's just that the things I value happen to be much more to do with the things that everyone else values: friends and family and having a life. I like the real world, I like going to the supermarket. I don't want to drift so far from that that I have a life of bodyguards and a house on Mulholland Drive.
"I'm scared of setting myself up in frightening projects, but I don't think I'm controlled by that fear. I usually take it on. I think it's more to do with the profile and the trappings than the fear of extending myself."
He took retreating to an extreme in the late 80s, when he disappeared into the wilds of Canada. In 1988, while making Valmont, a totally ignored version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he fell in love with another co-star, Meg Tilly. They had a son, Will, now 10, and lived a reclusive life in British Columbia, where he did nothing but change nappies for a couple of years. There were times when it snowed so hard, they couldn't even go out for a walk.
"I wouldn't recommend it as a career move." The relationship with Tilly petered out in 1993, but they remain on good terms. "My son is triple national," he says proudly. "My son is born Canadian, took American citizenship quite recently, but he's also English. Because of the complications of my life, any free time goes to him. I fly to see him [in California] whenever I have a moment. That's the only place where I really hang out."
After Pride And Prejudice, he met Livia, a producer's assistant, on the set of Nostromo in another remote setting, South America. She had no idea who he was. "I remember saying to Livia and her family in Italy, 'You know, I'm a heart-throb.' And they all threw their hands up and said, 'Get outta here.' Someone sent some tapes of the series to Italy and they didn't get it. They don't find reserved very sexy. They watched it and said, 'So, do people in England find John Major sexy?' "
Livia lived in Rome throughout their courtship, but still suffered the indignity of having her family telephoned by the Express. "People might think it a bit precious to be bothered," he says earnestly. "The real problem was they were trying to find out where my wedding was going to be, and that was the bottom line. It was in the Italian countryside and they would have spoiled it. Having people trying to trick you into telling them where it's going to be—it makes you very protective."
So Firth is finally over his wanderlust: he has married, sold his Hackney flat, upgraded to Islington, joined Amnesty and begun campaigning for the rights of asylum seekers. He talks books with Nick Hornby, eschews the company of actors, and now and then plays piano and guitar. And he hopes to carry on this anonymous existence, despite appearing in cinemas nationwide. "The attention might not focus on me. I mean, there are two actors in it who are far more famous than I am, they'll soak up most of it." He may be right. Bridget Jones might prove more of a showcase for Grant, who for once has been cast in a role with some bite. "He's very witty company," says Firth. "I've always found him bright, and he's a fantastic raconteur: he's wicked. He's not like his Notting Hill persona at all."
And Firth's decision to do so high-profile a film may have as much to do with pragmatism as with a readiness to step into the mainstream for a spell. He is providing for his new baby at a time when impending strike action by the Screen Actors Guild, of which he is a member, threatens his earning power over the next year. In the immediate future, however, Firth is back in dress shirts, in Oliver Parker's The Importance Of Being Earnest, in which he plays Jack. Beyond that, projects will have to be child-friendly: "I'll be a dad who goes to work. I do intend to be a dad. If I do do something in the summer, it'll have to be something where I can have my kids around me."
The baby may well have another effect on the anxious, brooding, Darcyish side of Firth's character. His concerns about success, being populist, selling out or losing his privacy may seem less tumultuous: "All that stuff pales into insignificance next to the things you really care about in your life."
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