|At a sedate
I mention to a poised mother of two that I'm going to interview Colin
"Oh, God, that shirt, those trousers," she moans, sitting back into a
of assorted nuts. A friend says: "Something deep in my soul is moved by
the man." (Her wedding is soon.) Another friend e-mails a request:
he sleep with me? But in Mr Darcy garb? I'd hate to get off with Nick
Poor Colin Firth. Will he ever be free of that shirt, those trousers? The "pond scene" of 1995's Pride and Prejudice (intense, sullen Mr Darcy douses his quietly scorching desire for Miss Bennet, then bumps into her) recently made it into Channel 4's Top 100 TV Moments, between Death on the Rock and the Gulf war. Firth, 40 in September, got rave reviews last year for Three Days of Rain at the Donmar; has appeared in A Month in the Country, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love; played any number of aristocrats ("I have never been inside a stately home in any other circumstances," he tells me) plus Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch). Yet in most minds – female ones anyway – he is still striding towards Pemberley, clutching a riding crop and half his clothes: damp, magnificent.
We meet in a dark, panelled room in Soho House, the London media haunt that could easily double up for a spot of costume drama. Unlike Mr Darcy, Firth lopes in, tanned and casual, though the sideburns remain impressive. He is perfectly polite but has been doing interviews all day; the words "under" and "duress" hover in the gloom (outside the sky is bright blue), and the publicity woman is holding her watch like a stopwatch. Also, Arsenal are playing in the Uefa Cup on telly in a couple of hours, and Firth, I later discover, is going to watch the match round at a friend's house. I plan to avoid the D-word for at least 10 minutes.
He is here to promote Relative Values, an adaptation of Noël Coward's play shot last August in an old nunnery on the Isle of Man. The comedy is needlessly hammed up, though Sophie Thompson is a revelation, and Firth, as the twinkling, camp Cowardy character, manages to sit around smoking, reading the paper and getting the best lines. He chased the part. "I wanted to occupy that position," he says in that well-groomed voice, "as a kind of impish commentator and schemer." The opposite of intense and sullen, in fact.
His co-conspirator in the film is the long-lost, radiant Julie Andrews, as his aunt. "She was fantastic," Firth says, possibly not for the first time today. "She was a company leader in the traditional sense. She wanted people to be comfortable. If there was a birthday, she would celebrate it in style. There was this sense that we were working with a legend."
Ten minutes are up. I will have to mention Mr Darcy. Not least because the next morning, Firth is to start filming Bridget Jones's Diary, in which he will play the "v. eligible bachelor" Mark Darcy, the Helen Fielding character inspired by the Jane Austen character as played by Colin Firth. "I'd read the columns in The Independent," he says. "There are certain things that I didn't identify with – weight and boyfriends – but I did think it was very funny and I think the script's very funny as well. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't. And it's got a very good cast [notably Hugh Grant]. I wouldn't have done it just to be symmetrical about the Darcy thing."
Unsurprisingly, he is not ecstatic about discussing the Darcy thing or, more sinister still, "the Darcy business". But somehow he cannot stop himself: "I do feel that I am talking about something which I know nothing about," he explains, sinking further into his small, battered armchair. "It honestly doesn't mean anything to me." And later: "I don't have anything to do with anything I did six years ago. I don't know if you remember how you spent your summer of '94, but that's how I spent my summer of '94, and that's about it."
He protests too much: the Darcy business is karmic; there is no escape. For her Bridget Jones sequel, The Edge of Reason, Helen Fielding "interviewed" Firth over lunch (he could always have said no). She pretended to be Bridget filing for The Independent; he pretended to be "a rather serious actor", a cross between himself and Mr Darcy, someone impatient to finish an interview. The resulting transcript is one of the best bits in the book. And now, to prepare for his current Darcy incarnation, Firth has tapped into the Austen original.
"I actually went to look at a bit of Pride and Prejudice for the first time in five years," he owns up; "partly because of the Bridget Jones thing. I'm not playing Mr Darcy but I am aware there's a reference involved and I was just curious again to see if I could understand what the fuss was about." And can he? "Not really. It's an intoxicating story. The language is wonderful. I think it's [big intake of breath] very romantic, beautifully structured, and the actors do a good job." Chiefly Jennifer Ehle, whom Firth fell for off screen, too. Though people don't think Jennifer Ehle: Elizabeth Bennet. "No. She won a Bafta for it. [He didn't.] Darcy is the romantic destiny. She's the one you're meant to identify with."
Given that he's the role model, does he feel any responsibility towards Darcy II? "Yes, in a way." He pauses. "No, I think I've had to create him as something specific in my mind, as unique as possible. He's based on lots of people I know." Playing the Ur-Darcymaniac Bridget is the Texan actress Renée Zellweger, a controversial choice (Fielding is said to have been furious) for a character who hails from Northamptonshire.
"Renée, yes. Well I've been in that situation too, in A Thousand Acres, where I had to be an American in front of American actors. It's er, yeah, it is, it's mortifying." It's hard to know if he is being tactful.
Given that he is so famously English, America is "a very big part" of Firth's life. His mother grew up there; his sister married an American. He spent a miserable year in Missouri as a boy; five more in the wilds of British Columbia with Valmont co-star Meg Tilly, where they had Will, now nine, who lives in LA. Firth is an assiduous transatlantic dad, but, otherwise, Hollywood holds no appeal: "I feel more connected to London. I like the multiculturalism, the fact that it's accepted here, despite the attempts to make it less so – Hague wanting to lock 'em all up, and unfortunately the Home Office not far behind."
As for the work: "Here you can have a wonderful career without being in the big time. It's just not where the emphasis lies." He hastily adds that obviously it's all right for him to say that; he's never been out of work, a fact he puts down to luck and being "sort of down the middle". As in: "I'm not enormously fat, I don't have gigantic ears, or a bizarre, squeaky voice or an incredibly rich, boomy voice. And I come from a family background [both parents are academics] that means I've got the education and articulacy to argue my way into things."
I ask which young actors he admires, now he's nearly 40 ("I feel like a bizarre genetic experiment that's gone wrong – it's all happened far too quickly"). He perks up. "I've been thinking about this constantly recently," he says. "Joaquin Phoenix is one – River's brother. I noticed him right from the start and I think he's absolutely brilliant. I think River was brilliant, too. And I'm not using his first name because I know him," he adds, editing himself, "but because we've already used his surname." He then says: "I do know Joaquin, actually," and, head back, obligingly tries to reel off Joaquin's movies: "Gladiator, To Die For, Return to Paradise, Inventing the Abbotts..."
Firth's other favourite is better known: "I think DiCaprio's fantastic; I think he's got incredible skill in front of the camera. I just think he's very real. The thing I admire most is when you just look at someone's eyes and you're convinced, far more than the pyrotechnics. It's what you see here", he says, pointing to his own famously eloquent eyes, "that's impressive."
When in Rome, home town of his wife, Livia Giuggioli, Firth does as the Romans do. "This," he says, hitting the inside of his elbow with the side of his hand, "means, 'Let's get out of here'. That [brushing his hand under his chin] means, 'Who gives a shit?'" I suspect he may have been thinking as much for the past 40 minutes. So you wave your arms around? "Well, yeah, I quite like that." His voice brightens. "I'm not necessarily so restrained in my life. That's just something I've been asked to do as an actor, on film." He starts eating nibbles, warming to his theme now that our time is up. "I mean, the first theatre job I ever did, Another Country, was Guy Bennett, who was about as flamboyantly gay as a character could get. I can still remember my performance being called 'elasticated'. It's not my condition to be restrained. You do it once and you get asked to do it again, and off we go..."
'Relative Values' is released 23 June
To Bridget Jones's Diary Page
Return to Article Index