Alcohol units consumed while nervously waiting for Colin Firth: 0 (v good). Calories consumed while nervously waiting for Colin Firth: 1,005 (v bad). Times made prat of self in interviev:2 (poor. Must work harder at inner poise so film-star types take me for woman of substance, not sad, star-struck singleton with doughnut dependency).
Colin Firth has gone and done it again. This month you'll be able to catch him in the screen version of Bridget Jones's Diary and he's every bit as overwhelmingly attractive in it as he was in Pride And Prejudice. He plays Mark Darcy, the enigmatic, cool but intrinsically kind love interest, and it's a piece of dream casting.
Author Helen Fielding's hero is based loosely on Jane Austen's Mr Darcy—but, claims the film's PR, pretty much on Firth, too: "Helen has a huge crush on Colin and penned Mark Darcy with him in mind." When he arrives, Firth isn't having any of it. "Helen makes no secret of the fact that she has a crush on Mr Darcy," he says. "That's different from having a crush on me.”
Well, he can protest as much as he likes that Mr Darcy's appeal was much to do with the costumes but it won't wash. There's only so far a pair of breeches and a frilly shirt can take you and they didn't take Ewan McGregor and Hugh Grant very far at all.
In person, Firth, 40, is a younger, leaner version of Mr Darcy, only smilier. Which is one surprise (I'd read he comes over as prickly). Another is that he's tall. Now, my theory as to why the film industry expects its leading ladies to stay matchstick thin is that they need to be the size of Twiglets to make their leading men—tiny men, mostly—look normal. Most actors are titchy and make you feel like a carthorse. Colin Firth is well over 6ft and makes you feel like Tinkerbell. Which is my only excuse for my first Embarrassing Interview Incident—when I come over all Bridget Jonesy carrying our coffees and trip on my skirt. In total Mr Darcy mode (gallant but firm) he came to my rescue, whipping the coffees from my hand and smiling benevolently. Nearly ripped my bodice open on the spot, I can tell you.
Speaking, as we were, of thin actresses, how encouraging it is to see a film in which the men, Firth's Mark Darcy (taciturn but a real darling) and Hugh Grant's Daniel Cleaver (irresistible but a real shit), look devastatingly attractive while the women look like you and your best mate. How much for granted we take some old bloke like Michael Douglas looking, frankly, a bit scraggy but wooing a nubile 20-year-old. It's almost shocking to see glamorous men coupled with real-looking women.
Renee Zellweger, who plays Bridget, gained a stone for the part. My first question to Firth is: what's it like having a porky leading lady? "Renee was recklessly courageous," he says, laughing. "She didn't count the cost at all. I've noticed there's a fascination about a woman who is prepared to put on weight. That bony, sinewy, thin-as-a-rake shape is so unattractive, but there is such a fear of putting on an extra pound that a woman who would willingly put on weight is a phenomenon:'
My next question is, who does the best English accent, Renee or Gwyneth? (He played opposite Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love.) He's far too discreet to say, but his answer is telling. "They're both brilliant actresses and Gwyneth's portrayal was spot on. But she didn't have to get the mannerisms of a south Croydon girl down pat and Renee did that superbly."
He is delighted to have been Helen Fielding's muse. "Bridget's great. Just like her, I've had booze-fuelled nights when I've woken up the next day saying, 'Why? Why? Why?' Who hasn't? We all have insecurities—and we can all relate to hers. The only woman I've met who doesn't empathise with Bridget was 16—simply too young to have spent her 20s worrying about getting it wrong with the opposite sex."
Firth spent his 20s, if not getting it wrong, at least probably not getting it right. He was single until five years ago, when he met his wife. Until then, the press tried to pigeonhole him as—in Bridget parlance—an emotional fuckwit, serially seducing his leading ladies. First he left the mother of his son Will, actress Meg Tilly, then he had a romance with Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennett!), but that didn't last either.
But Firth as a man unable to commit didn't ring true. He was smitten enough with Meg Tilly to move to a log cabin in the Canadian wilderness on her whim and stay for several years until, one suspects, he was in danger of howling at the moon. That, to me, spells Commitment with a big C. He looks relieved when I say so. "The Lothario tag always seemed a bit ridiculous to me,” he says. "At 35, the press had managed to identify two girlfriends that I happened to have met through work. You'd worry about a 35-year-old single man who hadn't had two girlfriends.” Quite. For four years he's been married to Livia, an Italian he met on location, although, significantly perhaps, she makes films rather than stars in them. I've been stricken with admiration for her since I heard that to be with Firth she moved from Rome (glorious, vibrant) to the London borough of Hackney (which isn't).
I live there and while Hackney has a certain edgy charm, I feel duty-bound to warn any Firth fanatics nursing hopes of nabbing him that the move is proof that theirs is a Big Love, not likely to be shaken by fickle showbiz breezes. Admittedly, they've now moved to Islington, a smarter part of London. "Yes, now I'm a smug married,” he says ruefully, "And I live with all the other smug marrieds." He clearly thinks this a small price to pay for domestic bliss. Beaming, he tells me, "I'm very happily married." But for Firth, being single wasn't all bad either. "I can't relate to Bridget's fear of being alone,” he says. "That never bothered me.” Much has been made of the whiff of eternal outsider that clings to him. It's definitely there, As I watch him chatting with the photographic crew at the SHE shoot, you see glimpses of the little boy who went to many different schools in several countries and had to work out each time what part to play to avoid being picked on. Most celebs at a shoot, with people fawning over them, find it natural that they're the most important thing in the room. Not so Firth, who is diffident, almost humble, He is clearly proud of his acting but pretends to be "ordinary old Colin" as a foil for the utter superficiality entailed in what he calls the "work part of the job"—publicising his latest vehicle, posing for photos, talking to people like me about his marriage. He tries to bear it with good grace, but sometimes cracks. The photographer asks him yet again to "give that cheeky little grin,” and he says, bluntly, "No, I won't.”
Under all the bonhomie, there is something rather austere about him. Early on, I flirt with the idea of calling him "Col" to see if it would rile him, but I chicken out. There's an old trick of being a bit rude to raise a reaction from your interviewee. I give it a go, asking what it's like to hear his acting described as "stiff,” but he's wise to this. "Last year at the end of the interview a journalist quoted a nasty review I hadn't read. She saw me feel the impact of the words and later wrote, 'He finally dropped the amiable mask.’ So what? She had an amiable mask and dropped hers. It does hurt me when my acting is criticised. I'm vulnerable about my work If a journalist doesn't seem to like me personally, I don't mind because I'm aware of dissembling techniques. I mislead a little bit."
He's good at talking without saying a lot although, when we were talking about vanity, he admitted: "I wouldn't like to go bald at all—and it's happening." I peered furtively at his hair—if he is balding, it's not obvious. He might be slightly thinner on top, but most shorter mortals will never be able to cop any balding patch anyway. His sex god status is secure.
And it may be recognised in the US. The PR woman says Bridget Jones's Diary previews there have gleaned a better reaction than Notting Hill. Firth blithely dismisses talk that the movie will make him huge in Hollywood. "You can't tell how successful a film's going to be. You just wait to see what the public thinks." Despite his protestations that he'd rather die than endlessly play leading men, he may have to accept that he does bring something to those roles that others don't—the hint of a moral backbone, I suspect.
He talks at length about the need to maintain a sense of humour in his profession (and he is genuinely witty), but I suspect he veers naturally towards the earnest. He talks passionately about asylum seekers (he’s clearly spent time, not just money, trying to help them). At another point he tells me, “I could never read someone else’s diary”. He admits there are times when he would have kept £100 he found in the street, “but not now”. And when I ask if fidelity is an area where he finds it hard to maintain his integrity, he looks at me as if I’m mad and says an emphatic, “never”.
Colin Firth is an old-fashioned guy. And that’s why he’s more convincing as a strong, silent leading man than as the snivelling toad (the Earl of Wessex, Gwyneth Paltrow’s betrothed in Shakespeare in Love) or the limp cuckold Geoffrey in The English Patient, much as it pains him—a serious thesp—to hear it.
If big parts beckon, he won’t be disappearing to LA, although his son Will, 10, lives there with his mother, and Firth already spends a lot of time there. “I just can’t live there. I don’t hate LA, but if you’re an actor, it’s better not to be sucked into it”. Understandably, he won’t say much about Will. But when we get onto the subject of weeping buckets, he says he does cry and did so “not that long ago”. It’s pretty clear from the context that he was worrying about some aspect of his relationship with Will, although in typical Firth style, the only thing he’ll admit keeps him awake at night is “silly stuff, like parking on single yellow lines”.
He works so hard at being ordinary that you forget the heartthrob stuff completely. Then it poleaxes you when you least expect it and you’re reminded that you’ve just spent the afternoon on a sofa with the fantasy figure of a large chunk of British womanhood. My moment comes when I go to say goodbye.
Dressed in something black and expensive, he turns quickly towards me and for a nanosecond focuses his unsmiling attention fully upon me. It’s electrifying. I start spluttering like, well, like Bridget Jones “Bye, good to meet you, see you soon”, I yelp. A flash of panic crosses his eyes but he’s far too nice to do anything but smile. Of course, the only way I’m going to see him soon is if I start lurking around outside his home at odd hours.
I’d simply been Darcied. Again. See the film—you will be, too.
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