Little wonder, then, that when the makers of Bridget Jones's Diary suggested this time our hero take his shirt off, he was catatonic with fear. Wouldn't those legions of female fans be horribly disillusioned when they saw the real 40-year-old body hiding behind the layers?
He took on a personal trainer, went straight into the gym and lived, together with co-star Hugh Grant, on a diet of salad and water, in order to put his best abs forward for the part.
"All that happened with the mere threat of me having to take my shirt off," said Firth, 12.5kg lighter than when he was first cast as Bridget's smouldering lawyer-love Mark Darcy for the film.
"But then it got worse. They came to me and said, actually, they were thinking of having my shirt torn off me. In the fight scene with Hugh at the end of the movie, we'd tear each other's shirts off, to reveal these toned, sinewy, oiled and glistening bodies. Everyone would gasp. It would be the sexiest scene that anyone would ever see in a film.
"I said, 'Is that realistic? I just about manage to get my shirt off at the beach'."
Sadly, for all of us who have become used to regarding Firth as top-grade thinking women's crumpet, it didn't quite happen as it was envisaged. Instead, the scene degenerated from a vision of pure sensuality into an orgy of pure silliness—that has still proved to be one of the high points of the movie.
Similarly, the rest of Firth's life has a habit of turning out quite differently from how he fondly imagines it might. Take his career, for example. Never did the Nigerian-born Brit in his wildest dreams believe it would amount to much more than doing menial jobs around the place while he strode around the amateur stage in his spare time.
"I thought I'd end up pursuing my interests as a hobby," said Firth, who followed up his Pride And Prejudice star turn as Darcy with supporting roles in Shakespeare In Love and The English Patient, and then the lead in something unusually—for him—contemporary, the Nick Hornby movie Fever Pitch.
"I always thought I'd be washing dishes or flipping burgers. I thought if you wanted to be an actor, that's the kind of life you're looking at."
In fact, he once had a long discussion with a close actor friend about what they envisioned themselves doing if they weren't able to make ends meet pretending to be other people. Firth's answer surprised even himself. He couldn't conceive, honestly, of being an employee for too long; he always rebelled against authority. So instead, he could see himself working professionally as a minor crim—and not a terribly successful one at that.
"I think I would have been a rather pathetic minor criminal," he said after a long pause, as he sat at home in London where he'd just finished rocking to sleep his four-week-old son Luca. "I don't know. I remember thinking, at the time we were talking, that thank God acting is working out. I wouldn't have been half as imaginative or evil enough. I would have ended up some sad, scrounging, swindling, skulking figure.
"So I think I was extremely lucky that everything worked out for me as an actor."
Us too, it has to be said, as we watch him take on a second desirable Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary. The role was inspired by the pounding his first Pride And Prejudice Darcy set off in the heart of Bridget Jones's author Helen Fielding. To have the Mr Darcy play Mark Darcy is one of the film's best jokes.
The role has turned out to be another quantum leap in terms of his public profile. He's now even being talked of as a possible next James Bond, although he scoffs at the mere suggestion, insisting it's merely a rumour dreamed up by the panting press.
"He values his integrity very highly," said his Bridget co-star Renée Zellweger. "He's an extraordinarily intelligent man who's also very lovely to be around. He made it very easy for me."
Yet while all this success has come as a surprise to the son of two university lecturers and grandson of three missionaries, he said that was the aspect of acting he enjoyed the most: never quite knowing what was going to happen next. Ever since he was recruited from drama school into a little play called Another Country which went on to the West End stage and was then made into a major movie, he's relished the peaks and troughs of an actor's life.
"There's just no straight trajectory in this profession," he said, "but I find that very unpredictability has made the life so much more manageable. You don't see each new thing as being the thing that might make a big difference. You know that even if something goes well, the effect will probably ebb away soon after - although hopefully leaving some residue behind.
"Of course, I want the work to keep coming in and be interesting, but I'm not queasy about success any more. I know you can take it all too seriously. If you get famous early, you end up having a skewed vision of yourself. This way, with all the ups and downs, you get into almost a rhythm of surprises, some pleasant when things go better than you expected and some mildly disappointing when things you thought would go well don't. But you never take it all too seriously."
Having a balance in his life helps too. He regularly sees the LA-based 10-year-old son Will he had with actor Meg Tilly, his co-star on the film Valmont. Now he is loving the first few weeks of his second son's arrival in the world, born to Italian documentary film-maker Livia Giuggioli whom he met on the set of Nostromo and married four years ago. The couple visit her homeland often, where Firth can stroll around unacknowledged by locals.
"I think the most important thing is that I prefer my life outside work to my life inside work," he said, slowly. "There are times I have to be dragged into work. Being a father is the most important thing in the world. I just love time out with my family.
"I've always thought that problems come for people when they want something too badly. They hunger for it so much, they are prepared to sacrifice the kind of things they'll later regret. I've never been like that.
"I've always found it very grounding that people seem to find it far more impressive if you have an article and photo in People magazine than, say, if you've just spent three months in the theatre or on a movie." He laughed, suddenly. "A lot of people were far more impressed that I had my photo on the posters for Bridget Jones than by the fact I was actually in the film."
Riding on the success of Bridget, Firth is in no hurry to plump for a big Hollywood romantic comedy at the expense of low-budget quality work and said he would agree to a sequel only if the script was up to scratch.
"But first, I want a break," he said, forcefully. "Too many Darcys could be dangerous."
I asked. He laughed, cautiously this time, but didn't answer.
he's just longing for a period in his life where there's no discussion
about his keeping his shirt on, buttoned up and completely dry.
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