It was a case of "don't mention the D-word". I had been warned in the strongest possible terms before my interview with Colin Firth that it would be inadvisable to bring up the ticklish subject of his most famous role as Mr Darcy, the smouldering hero who caused such a mass outbreak of national hysteria when he appeared in BBC1's production of Pride and Prejudice in 1995.
So it was with some trepidation that I went for supper with Firth at a smart Japanese restaurant in Glasgow. No doubt, I said to myself, he is going to be Darcy Revisited: stern, harsh and distinctly unsmiling. He might even reprimand me for the vulgarity of my manners.
But in the event, I needn't have worried. Firth is perfectly happy to discuss all aspects of the character that dare not speak his name. The actor even—shock, horror—possesses a keen sense of absurdity. A relaxed presence with a black zip-up top and slightly dishevelled hair, he is certainly not afraid of taking the mick out of himself. "The British in general are brilliant at laughing at themselves and their country," he says, "and there’ nothing more pleasing in a person. Starting with yourself is the root of all humour.
"When I've been in comedies, I’ve tended to be the butt of the joke. In Shakespeare in Love, my function was to be the one guy who lacks poetry, romance and humour—all the things that the film celebrates. It's an important comic function, and having a sense of one’s own ridiculousness is something that keeps me sane."
As an example, he goes on to reveal that his friends had a great time at his expense over his horse-riding exploits in Pride and Prejudice: "Oh, they laughed themselves to death. And they continue to. The contrasts to that character are quite extreme if you see me daily over breakfast."
In fact, the only thing that still unnerves Firth about the Pride and Prejudice experience is the memory of the "Darcy Mania" that gripped the nation for a while. The ballyhoo only become more intense when the brooding aristocrat—in a now immortal scene from TV history—came out of a lake wearing a sodden white shirt.
"I'd been doing this job for quite a number of years and things had never gone potty like that before," Firth says. "I was delighted, but nervous. What could I say in response to it other than a rather limp 'gosh'? And how could I answer questions such as: 'What’s it like to be a heart-throb?' 'Well, I wake up and have a full heartthrob breakfast. Then I walk down the street making hearts throb all over the place'."
He was also perplexed that people always expected him to look like an Adonis off-screen. "Until I played that part, I was never aware of disappointing anyone with my presence. In 35 years, I had never previously seen anyone's face fall when they met me face-to-face. If anything, that’s the answer to the question, 'what's it like to be a heart-throb?' You’re a walking disappointment. There is absolutely no possibility of living up to a character who has that kind of grandeur."
Firth has found the sex-symbol stereotype restrictive in other ways, too. A heartthrob had better know his place—"I've encountered that a few times," he sighs. "We're very specific about people’s roles. In any debate forum, if someone contributes who is not seen as qualified, then it’s invalid. You’re judged on your credentials, not on what you actually say. So as an actor, there are certain areas you’re forbidden to enter. People won’t hear certain things from a luvvie. You’re endowed with specific features—you’re trivial, you’re self-obsessed.
"So, for instance, when Harold Pinter asked some questions about the moral authority of the war in Kosovo, George Robertson said: “Mr Pinter seems to have found himself a new profession.” The implication was: “Stick to writing plays.” So I feel I can’t take up an issue because I’m viewed as a typical luvvie."
Always quick to spot comic potential, he adds hastily: "Not that I seek gravitas. Being in a Sunday afternoon drama serial is not something that automatically adds weight to your opinions on Kosovo."
Firth thinks deeply about his craft—and that was one reason why he was drawn towards his latest film, Donovan Quick. Going out on BBC1 next Thursday, this is a thought-provoking drama set among the cut-throat world of privatised buses in Scotland. In this clever reworking of the Don Quixote myth, Firth plays an other-worldly loner who is so disgusted with the inadequate service provided by the greedy franchise holder, Windmill Transport, that he resolves to start up his own one-bus operation.
Even though it was made last year, the film nevertheless has a timely significance in a country where great swathes of the privatised transport system appear to have gone into meltdown.
But for Firth, Donovan Quick’s story has a universal resonance beyond mere contemporary echoes. There is something of him in all of us. We have all experienced that Quixotic sensation of noble failure—and we all share his dualistic nature. "Donovan Quick is infused with contradictions—and that makes for good drama. If you keep trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, you are never going to rest. You have to learn to live with something and its opposite—both are true. You can admire a politician and then find out that he’s corrupt—but one does not invalidate the other. Life can be fantastic and crap at the same time. We’re always looking for the final word on people, but Donovan shows us that you can be pathetic and noble simultaneously.
"Being comfortable with that lack of resolution is as close as we’re ever going to get to understanding anything. We have to accept paradoxes. Any search for clarity beyond that is doomed. Like Donovan, we make the mistake of thinking we’ve found the magic formula, or the system for winning at roulette, or the perfect political system. It’s not about finding answers, but relentlessly pursuing them. You are always travelling; you never arrive."
When he is in full flow like this, it is hard to credit that Firth has often run a mile from interviews. He admits that with reporters in the past he has felt about as comfortable as a marathon runner with a stone in his shoe.
Part of the problem, he says, is that a journalist’s desire to pin things down is inimical to an actor’s need to remain elusive and unknowable.
According to Firth, "there is a fear of being defined—which is anathema to an actor. I didn’t avoid interviews for personal reasons. It’s just that it’s wise for an actor to keep his own identity at a low profile. Our job is to do with creating an illusion, and that illusion is far more effective if audiences don’t know who you are off screen. It’s like a conjuror—he’d be ruined if he gave his trick away.
"It’s not good for people to become too familiar with me as myself. I want audiences to accept me on screen or on stage. I don’t want them to compare that with what they saw on some chat-show."
So has Firth ever deigned to appear on a chat show? "I did a magnificently grudging Wogan about 12 years ago," he smiles.
One of the lasting legacies of the D-word is that people imagine Firth has spent his whole career in period breeches and wigs. But in fact he has a great range, as films as diverse as Fever Pitch (in which he played Nick Hornby) and Hostages (John McCarthy) demonstrate. "The profile of you-know-what is so overwhelming that the perception is that I’ve done more period dramas than anything else, but that’s just not true," he protests.
"Anyway, what is period? Fever Pitch was a period drama—it was set seven years before it was filmed. My character’s clothes were all out of date and, I’m ashamed to say, they were mine. The costume designers searched high and low for unfashionable clothes, and the only place that they could be found was in my wardrobe.
"I’ll take a good script wherever I see it. The year it is set is, quite frankly, secondary. I remember a very well-known actor once asking me whether I was concerned about being trapped in period dramas. I told him “absolutely not.” If a period drama is any good, it will be just as much about the present as something in contemporary dress.
"In any case, every film is an artificial convention. Look at Quentin Tarantino’s films—they’re set in an entirely stylised universe. I’ve never seen a world where machine-guns lie around on the kitchen sideboard, the bathroom is covered in cocaine and rock’n’roll music plays as you drive down sunny streets in an open-top car."
Just to underline his versatility, Firth’s next two feature films are fiercely contemporary. Londinium is a modern-day comedy about two couples who go in for a spot of light wife-swapping, while Bridget Jones’ Diary is a big-screen adaptation of Helen Fielding’s bestseller about a terminal singleton in London today.
In the latter, Firth plays a man named—wait for it—Darcy. However, he is quick to point out that "this Darcy is not the same character at all. He’s a 20th-century lawyer, and he has an entirely different style of speaking.
"Also, Austen’s Darcy would not have stayed for one second in the same room as Bridget Jones. If he thought the Bennet sisters were vulgar, imagine what he would think of a smoking, short-skirt-wearing, falling-down-drunk woman like Bridget. He’d be absolutely horrified by her."
So these films show once and for all that there is more to Firth than playing the winner of a 19th-century wet T-shirt competition. As he concludes—with a characteristically self-effacing chuckle—"I’m not just a stiff-upper-lip, chinless wonder."
Donovan Quick is on BBC1 at 9pm next Thursday.
Return to Article Index