The force of Firth
Good looks can be a terrible cross to bear. Poor Colin Firth is repeatedly cast as the handsome hero and yet this is not at all what he wants. "I've sometimes wanted to play the stuttering masturbatory village pervert in something and nobody wants me to do that, because they want somebody who's got a funny nose and greasy hair."
Not a worry, I imagine, that keeps him awake at night . . . He looks deadpan. "It's just that I want to do interesting work," he says, with feeling. But there is no getting away from it. Even if you slapped a wonky nose on him and greased his hair, he is still going to be the man who won the heart of almost every woman in the nation as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
To judge by the reactions of anyone (female) who heard I was going to interview Colin Firth, he still has their hearts. There were a couple of snide comments from men, including one who had worked with him on a film and said he was a "prat" and that I should beware of his "totally transparent mock modesty".
After watching several of his films in the name of research (it was hell but someone had to do it), I did wonder exactly what all the fuss was about. He does not always look quite as handsome as his Mr Darcy. In fact, he can look quite ordinary. Never ugly, mind. In his latest film, Relative Values, based on the Noël Coward play and due to be released on June 23, he plays the camp nephew of the Countess of Marshwood. He looks suave and clean-cut but not, frankly, drop-dead gorgeous.
"I actually asked to play that role because I felt it was something I hadn't done before. Other actors tend to be associated more with the camp, wry, pithy roles. I've tended to be associated more with seriousness, earnestness, sullenness, intensity or paranoia."
In the flesh, however, he looks everything the most smitten Darcymaniac could hope for—and more. He even has the sideburns. Although nearly 40, he appears as a younger, slimmer version of Mr Darcy and is altogether much easier company. Instead of glowering, he smiles, even laughs. Dressed in a blue flannel shirt, jeans and black trainers, he is all good-natured charm and, yes, self-deprecation.
"I tend to think that the 'looks' thing is attached to a particular role," he says, over coffee at Soho House in London. His voice is strangely neutral—timeless, placeless, not especially deep, not especially soft. "My looks aren't something that come dazzlingly through in everything I do. I can be made to look one way or the other fairly easily . . . I am still not recognised on the street that much."
He admits that this is partly because he deliberately tries not to attract attention. "I think you can project these things if you want. I don't want to make a ludicrous comparison, but I heard a story about Marlon Brando walking down the street with somebody who noticed that he wasn't being recognised and who commented on the fact. This is Brando in 1962. And Brando said: 'Well watch this.' And he just did this [Firth straightens his shoulders and widens his eyes], and within seconds people were noticing him. The chap who was with him said what he did was almost indiscernible. Now I can project the hell out of myself and not get that effect in the street. Probably."
Firth insists that anonymity is what he prefers. "I can't imagine who would want all that attention. I can imagine the ego inviting power, respect, all those sorts of things. I'm not hugely ambitious in those directions. As much as the next person, I want to be approved of, but I'm not greedy for that stuff. It's not where life's blessings lie as far as I'm concerned. To be bothered wherever you go—it's not a rational thing to want at all."
For someone who claims to be so diffident, acting seems a strange choice of career. He says that all he wants is for people to think he is a good actor. But surely he has to be known for people to think he is good? "I think the two things get confused. To have people say, 'He is good' is far more valuable to me than to have people say, 'I know who he is'. I would rather five people knew my work and thought it was good work than five million knew me and were indifferent."
Praise, however, has not been heaped on My Life So Far, which opened last month and in which Firth plays the eccentric inventor father of a boy growing up on a Scottish estate in the 1930s. One critic dismissed Firth as "stiff, uneasy and miscast". I ask if he minded. "Well, it's not nice. I'm very proud of what I did in that film. I like my performance in it. I think some critics don't know anything about acting."
For once, the
slips and he becomes riled, reeling off examples of critics who have
their facts wrong. Shades of an angry Mr Darcy here, although perhaps
Austen's character would have expressed himself less prosaically. "I
think 'Do. Your. F––ing. Homework.' I do think critics are an essential
watchdog, but if they don't check their facts, it gets on your tits."
And just to prove it, he is returning to us as another Darcy in the film version of Bridget Jones' Diary, by Helen Fielding, which he started filming last week. He plays Mark Darcy, the on-off boyfriend of Bridget: Mark Darcy, of course, was created by the writer Helen Fielding as a fantasy hero, based on Colin Firth's television portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet's lover.
In the book, Bridget, while waiting for Mark Darcy to ring, fantasises about Colin Firth and watches endless re-runs of the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr Darcy, tormented by his apparently unrequited love for Elizabeth Bennet, dives fully clothed into a pond and emerges, his shirt dripping and plastered to his chest. I ask Firth if he objected to his role in the diary.
"Nooo. I thought it was great. Bridget Jones is part of literary lore now and actually to be a part of it is enormously flattering."
In the sequel to the diary, The Edge of Reason, Bridget interviews Firth in Rome. Fielding asked the real Firth if he would take part in the spoof and he agreed. They had lunch together in Rome as Helen Fielding and Colin Firth; then Fielding switched on the tape recorder and became Bridget Jones, while Firth became an exaggerated version of himself, deflecting questions about how many times he had to change his shirt to re-shoot the pond scene in Pride and Prejudice, and whether he might consider splitting up with his Italian girlfriend. "Sometimes we were laughing so much about some of the questions we had to take breaks," says Firth.
To the dismay of Bridget and many other women, Firth has since married Livia Guiggioli, a documentary maker whom he met in 1996 while filming Nostromo. He has a reputation for forming relationships on set: first Meg Tilly, his co-star in Valmont, with whom he has a nine-year-old son, Will, and then Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet. He points out that this has only happened when he has been unattached and, even so, very rarely.
"I think it's quite extraordinary that people cast me as if I'm Warren Beatty: until I met my present wife, at the age of 35, you could name two girlfriends. Yet there's this extraordinary image of the man who goes off with his leading lady all the time, when any 35-year-old man who can claim to have had two past lovers is hardly a philanderer."
In the past he has emphasised a fundamental feeling of rootlessness. Born in Africa, where his parents were both teachers, he came to England when he was four. Later, he went to a comprehensive in Winchester, where he had the uncomfortable sensation of being an outsider, initially friendless and mocked for speaking with a middle-class accent. "On the whole I had a happy childhood, although I'm happier as an adult. But that element of rootlessness is still there and probably will never not be there."
Marriage, he says, has made a big difference. "I feel much more settled and peaceful." He and Livia live in Barnsbury, north London, and Firth spends much of the year commuting backwards and forwards from Los Angeles to see his son. He is still on good terms with Meg Tilly and has said in the past that the relationship broke up, not because they did not get on, but because he could no longer stand the isolation of the log cabin in the middle of the forest that was her home. "I had a kind of reclusive impulse at the time, but not that reclusive."
He puts most of his career down to luck. "I'm fortunate enough to be the height I am [six-foot-one-and-a-half, he says]; I have a face which is fairly adaptable and castable in lots of different directions; I am well-spoken enough—the kind of accent that one was encouraged to learn in drama school, Received Pronunciation, was basically my accent. My type happened to fit into a trend in the early 1980s for the public school type. I'm not a public schoolboy, but I was able to conform to that."
He first came to attention in 1983, playing a homosexual public schoolboy based on Guy Burgess, in the stage version of Another Country (he took another role in the film), and since then has never been out of work—although he claims he never really wanted to take the lead roles. "If you don't mind haunting the margins, I think there is more freedom there. It's like being a politician in opposition; that's where you can be most sincere. But, of course, you sometimes look at people taking lead parts and think they've got all the gravy."
Since Pride and Prejudice, however, he has remained very much centre stage, at least in people's minds. "I literally came into being with that role for a lot of people." Since then he has played the Nick Hornby role of the Arsenal fan in Fever Pitch, the cuckolded officer in The English Patient and the foppish, hard-hearted Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love.
"I do think I'm a character actor," he says. "There are a lot of character actors who look like leading men or women. I'm not necessarily talking about myself here—I'm thinking about someone else whose name I won't give, someone who is basically good-looking and often cast as a leading man but whose skills are actually to do the really quite odd and grotesque stuff. Unless you have the right mask, you won't be given those roles and therefore you will not be given the chance to prove your credentials in character work. I do think a little bit of that is true of me."
He mentions an article he read recently which congratulated him on accepting the role of Mark Darcy. "It said 'Thank God, he's finally smelling the coffee'. I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but I took it to mean that I should just go back to being Mr Darcy all the time for ever, that I should just own up to the fact that this is all my life will ever amount to."
He sighs. "I want
strenuously, that although I have never considered the Darcy thing to
a problem, that is simply not going to happen."
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