The Observer Magazine, 9 April 2000
 
True
romance

by William Leith

Fame has come full circle for Colin Firth. He won the heart of every woman in the country as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Now he's set to play Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary. A case of art imitating art… but without the sideburns

Colin Firth! Mr Darcy! You cannot mention one of these names without the other following immediately. Both have been changed immeasurably, in the public eye, by their relationship with the other. Before the Firth treatment, Mr Darcy was seen as a dour, mildly unpleasant, if misunderstood character in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Before he was Darcy, Colin Firth was a tall, well-built English actor with an expressive face and a string of smouldering, half-forgotten characters behind him. He'd been Robert Lawrence, the wounded Falklands veteran; he'd been Valmont in the Milos Forman film of the same name; he'd been a nutcase in a Ruth Rendell crime drama. And then, in 1994, he was cast as Mr Darcy.

What was so special about Mr Darcy? Women loved him. For a great part of the BBC's version in the story, he hung around in the background, not saying much. Firth did a lot of his acting with his eyes. Other characters talked a great deal about him while he was absent. Unlike a lot of male heroes, he was a mystery. He was in no way a feminised wimp. Late in the day, burning with passion and unfulfilled sexual desire, he jumped off his horse into a pond and emerged, his shirt dripping. What people remember is those mutton-chop sideburns flying through the air. For the entire Bridget Jones generation, this was a superb antidote to the dull, whining, noncommittal New Man of the 90s - and he didn't drink lager and go on about football all the time.
 

Since then, Firth has become part of the zeitgeist. He has entered the language. After Darcy, of course, he was playing a 90s football fan - the Nick Hornby character in Fever Pitch. Next, rumour has it, he will play Mark Darcy in the film version of Bridget Jones's Diary. The official status of the rumour, according to a spokesperson from Working Title, the film's production company, is 'unconfirmed'. Still, it's pretty exciting. Bridget has already interviewed a fictional version of Firth himself in the second Bridget Jones book, The Edge of Reason. In the world of Colin Firth, art is beginning to copy art.

At the moment of Darcy, Firth, who was 34, was wondering how much time he had left as a romantic lead. Having accepted the part, he said, 'I don't know how much longer that sort of character will be available to me.' Afterwards, he was stunned at the way people identified him with the character. 'I felt as if I'd lost my whole personality,' he says. He tells me: 'It's been very strange, this idea of Mr Darcy appealing so much to women. Because obviously, as you can see, I don't carry that around with me. I'm not so Mr Darcy every day of my life. If people expect to see a saturnine, dark, smouldering tall aristocrat, they are going to be disappointed.'

At rest, Firth's face is set in a sort of handsome grimace, he looks easily haunted. The mouth turns slightly down; the bones of the face cast shadows. But his expressions change with almost no

effort; as an acting tool, this is a highly strung face. One slight touch on the happy pedal and he beams; an iota of misery and he glowers. 'I never saw myself as Mr Ugly, but I'm not that handsome,' he told me. 'I can sort of be made to look quite a lot better or quite a lot worse.'

I first meet Colin Firth, now 39, on the set of Donovan Quick, a forthcoming BBC television film in which, as usual, he plays an intense, edgy fellow who hides behind a mask of English reticence. He is genial and welcoming, and speaks in that unusual, slightly old-fashioned voice which is perfect for costume drama. That's his actual voice. In person, Firth is not at all like Darcy. There is no sense of menace. Firth's character, obsessed with the tyranny of a national bus company, starts his own. Firth spends the day patiently approaching the bus, and entering the bus, and entering the bus, over and over. He takes instructions from the director, David Blair, with absolute humility.

Before we meet again, I catch him several times on TV. He's prolific, having made more than 30 films, and you can often get a glimpse of him late at night, in a youthful guise. Sometimes he has a caddish moustache. Early Firth looked jittery and worried. The mature, smouldering Firth came later. Firth is very English; he plays people who hide their emotions. He often appears melancholic. Firth himself had an unhappy childhood. He once said: 'I'm very suspicious of people who romanticise their childhood.'


Firth goes forth (clockwise, from above) in the forthcoming Relative Values; The
English Patient; Pride and Prejudice and Donovan Quick

 
Firth is married to Livia Guiggioli, an Italian documentary maker. Nick Hornby describes her as 'joke-perfect: PhD, beautiful in that sultry Italian way, funny and vivacious'. She is also, he says, 'very good for Firth, because she's absolutely not in any thrall to him'. She 'affects to be completely mystified' by the Mr Darcy situation.

For three years in the 90s, Firth lived with the actress Meg Tilly, whom he fell in love with on the set of Milos Forman's Valmont. They have a son, Will, who is now nine.

We met again, recently, in a film production office in London's West End. Again, Firth is impeccably warm and charming. He wears neutral clothes; his hair is on the short side of bouffant. Firth's hair is either quite short or quite long, never very short or very long. His characters are always outwardly respectable. He tells me he is about to go to Los Angeles to spend time with his son. He says, 'Los Angeles can actually be quite a relaxing place, but the minute you try to invest anything in it, it grabs you and starts to play games with you.' He already sounds like a character in a film. Another reason he is going to California, Firth says, is for 'my own personal relaxation, which is doing very little indeed'.

He lived in Canada with Tilly, three hours inland from Vancouver. 'I'm too much of a lightweight for it,' he says. 'It's wilderness. Serious wilderness. It's not a trip to Wimbledon Common. And I rather fancied the quaint idea of the wilderness. It's really the middle of nowhere.' The move, he says, had been Tilly's decision. 'She found the place. I had a kind of reclusive impulse at the time, but not that reclusive. It was too wild. If you go north from where we were, there'd be nothing but woods and grizzly bears, until you get to the Arctic Circle. I found that oppressive. You couldn't even go for walks. There were instructions about going for walks. You take a flare and a map and a blanket and a bell, because within 20 minutes you can get lost by going round in circles.'

Firth is gentlemanly, affable. With his deep, old-fashioned voice, he talks as if he were in a smoking room, holding a brandy bubble. We were quickly on to the subject of his childhood. Having been born in Africa, where his parents were teachers, he came to England at the age of four. Then, after stints in Billericay and Brentwood, the family moved to St Louis, Missouri, for a year. Firth was 12. When they came back to England, it was to another town, just outside Winchester. The young Firth felt unsettled.

The year in America, he says, 'didn't feel like a very good thing at the time.  It was probably a very good thing.  I had a very bad time there.' The year abroad had done something to him. 'American kids,' he says, 'were a hell of a lot more sophisticated. I was barely out of grey shorts. I'd come out of primary school, where my classmates had grass-stained knees and collected football cards.' The American kids, on the other hand, 'were more like something out of Woodstock. I was like something out of Just William. They had slogans on their backs that were to do with the Vietnam war. I felt like a geek. I made up for it  with a false cockiness. Before I got rejected, I would tell someone to fuck off. Someone would say, "What's your name?" and I'd say, "Mind your own business."'

This was how he started: the first serious acting he did was to pretend he was tough, when he was not. Looking at his facial expressions, at the layers of stoicism and reserve, one gets a sense of somebody deeply, quintessentially English. Firth's face was once described in The New York Times as 'strangely neutral'. Unlike Jude Law, or Ralph Fiennes, he does not easily slip into American; being in America as a child only made him more English. The English actors he likes are Albert Finney, Donald Pleasance and Sir Anthony Hopkins - men of elusive emotions and inner struggle.

He tells me he went back to his American school in the 90s, and found, to his relief, that it was 'pretty nasty. The place was horrible and had the atmosphere of a reform school. It made me realise that it wasn't all me.' He had acted in pantomimes and school plays since the age of five. 'School plays,' he says, 'were always something where I was definitely praised and in demand; that wasn't true of most aspects of school life for me.' He wasn't the first to be picked for the football team, or particularly academic. When he was 14, he made 'an official announcement to myself' that he wanted to be an actor.

After the unsettled childhood, he didn't have a pleasant adolescence. Firth saw the Winchester of the 70s, full of squaddies, Hampshire lads and public schoolboys, as a place seething with menace. 'People will 
 
 

After Darcy 'there was
hardly a woman in England
who wouldn't crawl on her
knees to Moscow for a
touch of his nether lip'

laugh at this, this is going to sound hilarious to some people, but I've felt more threatened in a town in Hampshire than I've felt in central Los Angeles,' he tells me. At school in Winchester, and later at drama school, he resented the fact that people thought of him as posh. He felt conflicted; at school he roughened his accent. Talking about his school clearly makes him uncomfortable. He says, 'Every time I mention school, the headmaster writes to my parents.'

This is odd. Here is Colin Firth, the man who played Valmont and Mr Darcy, still under the spell of his old headmaster. Here, perhaps, is a clue to other Firth characters - the evasive, squirming Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient, the walled-in schoolboy Communist Tommy Judd in Another Country. Was Firth a bad boy at school? Referring to his old headmaster, he says, 'If ever I've suggested that I was, that's what he takes issue with. I was just quietly resistant, in a way. He had a lack of respect for me because I was neither an identifiable wild rebel nor someone who toed the line in a meaningful way.' Firth saw himself as a 'loner', a 'quiet opter-out'. He 'didn't really like the system, I didn't like the education. I didn't fight it very courageously. I just didn't go along with it very much.'

As a teenager, he got into some fights, which 'tended to be with close friends, rather than strangers in the street'. He grew his hair long, wore beads and listened to progressive rock. He 'went the hippie route', and felt, he says, like a freak. Nick Hornby says that when Firth was preparing for his role in Fever Pitch, which is about a guy who uses football as an emotional crutch, he 'found the things that were about him... I know he really identified with all that rootless Home Counties stuff, the suburban need to belong.' Firth tells me plainly: 'I didn't like my life while I was at school. I can honestly say I don't feel that I was very happy at school ever.'

At 16, the long-haired Yes and King Crimson fan found his feet; he went to sixth-form college. Suddenly, with his flares, his interest in books and rock music, he 'slotted in very nicely with the in-crowd'. But 'academically, it all went to pot'. When punk came along, Firth was not a convert. 'Progressive rock,' he says, 'had become so pompous, and that pompousness suited me, because I had become so well acquainted with it. There was so much snobbery. It was my sanctuary from the laddishness that I didn't fit in with.' He stuck to flares, too - the grandiosity of the late hippie period had become his identity. Once again, he was an outsider.


Colin show: (below, left) with ex-girlfriend Meg Tilly
and (right) with wife Livia Guiggioli
Not feeling like a future heartthrob, Firth moved to London in 1978 to 'get near theatres'. He was miserable. This must have seemed like a last chance, a shot in the dark. He took a job answering the phone for the National Youth Theatre. He had no friends, enjoyed reading Kafka. He 'made tea' at the National Theatre's wardrobe department. He auditioned for a place at the Drama Centre, and got it. Christopher Fettes, who taught Firth there, says that 'as a boy and a young man, Colin was a person of conspicuous intelligence. Real intelligence. It is very rare to have the privilege of training people for the theatre who are by nature poets. And Colin is.'

At the Drama Centre, Fettes explains, 'there is an insistence on the Stanislavsky Method'. The approach, which is Russian, is based on using your inner demons to express the emotions of your character; you turn your own frustration into someone else's. Fettes explains that while this approach 'simply doesn't suit the Anglo-Saxon temperament in many, many cases', Firth 'responded to the training on every level, right from the early stages'.

Firth was taught the Laban theory of psychological types, and put through the paces of 'Russian emotional freedom and Jewish introspection'. He came to know the 'reality of the inner world'. Fettes says that 'when he was a boy, one saw a potential Paul Schofield in him'. The Drama Centre mounted a production of Hamlet, something they had not done before, and have not done since. Firth played the title role, and was immediately cast as Guy Bennett, the role eventually played in the film by Rupert Everett, in the West End production of Julian Mitchell's Another Country.

Firth works best as an old-fashioned Englishman; he's harder to imagine as a foreigner or a contemporary type with an estuary accent. You can't quite see him as Ralph Fiennes's Nazi in Schindler's List, or a Tim Roth druggie. Nor can you see him as a wimp in a romantic comedy, as played by Hugh Grant. He is deeply English; he has managed to use his own troubles and frustrations to play unsettled, seething Englishmen. 'I've not been a peaceful person,' he tells me. Sometimes, he says, while acting on stage, he feels 'waves of loathing' emanating from the audience.

Firth is happier to talk about his family background. He has a brother, Jonathan, who is six years younger and also an actor. Jonathan, he says, is 'a real gentleman. I'm much more of a talker. I find him a much more stable and self-contained person.' Whereas Jonathan is 'wry', Colin says of himself: 'A lot of things hit me without me seeing them coming. Disappointments would take me by surprise.' Colin, says Nick Hornby, 'laughs a lot, and likes to make people laugh'. He listens to a lot of music, including opera, and reads a lot. He loves Faulkner, which I wouldn't have expected.

His parents met in India; his mother was three and his father was five. His mother's parents were missionaries, although 'they weren't the sort of missionaries who went around converting the natives and bashing people over the head with Christianity'. His father's father was also an ordained minister. You can see where his accent comes from; it's not the cut-glass Sloane accent, but something older, with a whiff of the Raj. Talking to him, you can sometimes see his Imperial cad in The Turn of the Screw; all it took was a pair of mutton-chop sideburns, and the transition was complete.

After leaving the Drama Centre, Firth has never been out of work. After Another Country, he had, he says, 'cornered the market in wet, sensitive, naive young chaps'. He was still worried about what he thought of as his 'neutral face' - with such a face, he told one interviewer, he would do better in intense roles. In 1987, there was a breakthrough of sorts - he landed the role of Robert Lawrence, a disabled Falklands veteran, in Tumbledown. This was a chance to be madly intense, and Firth revelled in it.

'I lived with him,' he says of Lawrence. 'And he was a goldmine. An articulate soldier who will talk.' Firth began to identify with Lawrence. He poured himself into the role. He even began to have nightmares about the Falklands war. When he looked at the camera as Lawrence, Firth says, 'his face was in my mind's eye. His face on me.'

Firth pauses, and his expression changes. Sometimes his demeanour can appear to change instantly, without apparent effort. He said, 'At the time, I loved to think I was making this incredibly reckless sacrifice for my craft. If I was screwed up at the end, so be it. Now I can see that that was glamorous to me. I wasn't really suffering at all.'

There was more intensity. In 1989, Firth was Adrian LeDuc in Apartment Zero, a psychological thriller set in Argentina; Firth studied Argentina, becoming fascinated with the place. He told one interviewer about how he saw tango as a metaphor for Argentina's political situation. Playing neurotics, he said, was 'a laugh'. By the mid-90s, he was a respected leading man, but not quite a star. He'd approached the title role in Valmont as 'the claw in the velvet glove'. Valmont flopped. In 1994, he played a nutcase in Master of the Moor, the Ruth Rendell mystery.

And then came Darcy. Firth was offered the part of Mr Darcy in the television production of Pride and Prejudice; it changed the pattern of his career. The role, in which he spends most of the story glowering in the background, and then jumps fully clothed into a pond, made him into a star, and an official heartthrob. After Darcy, Christopher Fettes says, 'there was hardly a woman in England who wouldn't crawl on her knees to Moscow for a touch of his nether lip'.
 
 

Firth has managed to
use his own troubles and frustrations to play unsettled, seething Englishmen.  'I've not been
a peaceful person'

I ask him about Darcy jumping into the pond. Firth says, 'Originally I was supposed to take all my clothes off and jump into the pool naked. The moment where the man... is a man. Instead of a stuffed shirt. He's riding on a sweaty horse, and then he's at one with the elements. But the BBC wasn't going to allow nudity, so an alternative had to be found.'

There were meetings. What could Darcy do with the pond, fully clothed? 'The alternative,' Firth says, 'went via underpants, which, actually, were not historical. He would never have worn underpants. They would have looked ridiculous anyway.' In the end, the inevitable decision was reached. As Firth put it, 'If you can't take them all off, just jump in.'

The trouble was that Firth himself, as Bridget Jones was to discover, was not allowed to jump into the pond. Firth tells me, 'There's a thing called Wiles disease, which means you can't be insured to jump into a pond, because you can get sick from rat's piss. So we got a stuntman to do the actual dive.' A stuntman did the dive? So those mutton-chop sideburns flying through the air were not Firth. 'Everything is me, except there's a very, very brief shot of the stuntman in midair. Everything else is me.'

Darcy, of course, is not a confused, post-feminist wimp. He is not remotely noncommittal. He was the best televisual real man for ages, and appealed directly to the growing constituency of lonely thirtysomething women. In Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the heroine manages to get an interview with him, and asks him about the 'wet-shirt shots'. Then she asks about his next film, which, he tells her, is 'about moss'.

I go to see the film about moss, My Life So Far, in which Firth plays a quaint Scottish aristocrat who has invented some new uses for sphagnum moss. He starts off nutty, and begins to smoulder as soon as Irène Jacob appears on the scene. There are some great Firth moments, with the camera closing in on the hyper-expressive face as the tormented eyes slide around. He's also in a film called Londinium, as a man who is 'terribly gentlemanly but suddenly violently irascible' - a touch of the John Cleeses - and has a camp part in Relative Values, a film based on the Noël Coward play, alongside Julie Andrews and Stephen Fry.

Firth says he is going to go off on holiday and read some books. 'I'm going through a big Graham Greene phase,' he says. He is an admirer of Ralph Fiennes, and would have loved Fiennes's part in The End of the Affair. 'He's got it covered,' says Firth. It could get quite exasperating, actually. He keeps eating up the things I'd like to do.' Firth twinkles again and laughs.

Five years later, it is clear that Firth's tenure as a romantic lead is far from over. It might not be long before we see him in the clutches of Bridget Jones herself. Is that too much to ask?  •
 

My Life So Far opens on 12 May nationwide and Relative Values is released in June
 

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