The Times Magazine, 6 May 2000, by Jasper Rees
 
   listen
without
   prejudice
how Colin Firth
  has outlived Darcymania


Since becoming the breeches-clad object of so many female fantasies, Colin Firth has gone to some lengths to avoid being typecast.  But then, weirdly for a leading man he doesn’t really thrive on being the centre of attention

Last year Colin Firth moved house.  For years he had lived in Hackney in east London which—at an educated guess—perfected tallied with Firth’s sense of who he is: an ordinary Joe, the antithesis of posh, and certainly no card-carrying member of the mover/shaker in-crowd.  He remains defiantly scruffy.  Not a man to throw on a suit in a hurry, let alone the Regency breeches which he will wear forever in the lascivious fantasies of middle-class English womanhood, he pitches up for the photoshoot in his regulation smudgy round-necked pullover.

But since he married his Italian girlfriend, Livia, in 1997, he has moved to new address which is more suit than sweater.  Barnsbury, where the Firths now live, is at the epicentre of the Islington comfort zone.  The difference between the addresses can be summed up thus: “I was sitting in my house reading and two people came past and actually looked through the window,” says the house’s new owner.  “And one of them said, ‘Oh look, it’s Colin Firth.’  It wouldn’t have happened in Hackney.  Pride and Prejudice didn’t have such big penetration there.”

So Barnsbury is where Firth needs to get back to from the photographer’s studio in Shoreditch.  It’s less than a mile away, the traffic will be hell, but Firth wants to take a cab anyway.  Unfortunately the one that was booked for him hasn’t turned up, so he has to walk.  We stroll along the Regent’s Canal, which is quiet and uncrowded, but at a certain point he will have to cross Upper Street at its most pell-mell.  He doesn’t seem to welcome the prospect.  Again I could be guessing.  I’ve interviewed Firth more times than he probably cares to remember, and a frequent theme of the conversation is his disputatiousness .  I posit some theory about him, and the next time we meet he (politely) remembers disagreeing with it when he read it.  I’m relieved to hear that it’s not just me that has this problem.

Colin Firth and his wife Livia at last
year's premiere of Shakespeare in
Love in London
When he was making Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby brought Helen Fielding, the author of Bridget Jones’s Diary, on to the set.  The Bridget Jones character, at the time, was the nation’s leading Darcymaniac.  “I felt a little bit shy and clumsy and embarrassed,” says Firth.  “I felt I was the one making the faux pas and saying the wrong things.  She then wrote up a Bridget Jones version of the visit to the set, which is very funny. but didn’t echo my recollection, although Nick said it was very close to what had happened.  She wrote a thing about having followed me inadvertently everywhere around the set until eventually I said ‘I’m going to have to go on alone from here because it’s the men’s toilet.’  I don’t remember that.  Nick says it’s true.”

I guess that Firth’s fear of Upper Street in rush hour is based on the “Oh look, it’s Colin Firth” syndrome.  For a while after Pride and Prejudice, Firth’s house in Hackney was staked out by paparazzi, who then followed him out to Rome as his wedding approached.  Their pursuit was “very, very unnerving in a way that it’s almost impossible to explain to anyone who hasn’t had it happen.  I was someone who wouldn’t have taken it seriously as a threat until it actually happened.  But it became extremely important to me that my wedding day was not invaded by paparazzi.  We had the Diana experience in Rome of being chased through underpasses on motorbikes at the time leading up to the wedding.  That night was the first night I’d decided it was a game, that this could be fun.  I felt like I was in a Bond film.  But you do get a bit paranoid.  I got very skittish about being invaded, and also some of the trickery was unnerving.  People phoning up pretending to be British Telecom, trying to get information, and you get this horrible feeling afterwards when you realise it wasn’t British Telecom and you’ve just told them things.”

It’s years now since Darcymania subsided, but the old wariness is intact.  Quite recently he and Livia went to the theatre—Sam Mendes’s Donmar Warehouse, to be precise—to see The Real Thing, starring, as it happened, Jennifer Ehle, who was Lizzie Bennet to Firth’s Mr Darcy (a relationship that extended off screen).  Who should the Firths find themselves sitting next to but those quondam Islingtonians, Mr and Mrs Blair.  Firth says that, before the lights went down, he could just feel the eyes of the entire audience waiting for the two parties to acknowledge each other.  You sense that he would happily have curled up and died.

As it is, Upper Street is fine.  We chat on the pavement about recent films and plays before he lopes off to Barnsbury, those yeoman’s shoulders rolling under the sweater.  In a few months’ time he might find it harder to slip through the crowds so easily, as four new films, three for cinema and one for television, heave into view.  There’s a movie of Nöel Coward’s Relative Values, an adultery comedy called Londinium and, on television, a film about a small-time Scottish bus company based loosely on, of all things, Don Quixote, called Donovan Quick.  But first there’s My Life So Far, based on Denis Forman’s childhood memoir of growing up on a vast Galloway estate before the Great War—Forman was the son of a classically madcap inventor.  It reunites the redoubtable combination of director Hugh Hudson and producer David Puttnam, who together made Chariots of Fire.  Shot three years ago, it has been through a variety of versions and, without wishing to sound disloyal to it, Firth has evidently washed his hands of the film.
 

“It can be hard to remain attached to something by the time it has come out,” Firth says.  “It is really old work, which is why it was very hard to be a spokesman for Pride and Prejudice, even on the rare occasions when the questions were not inane.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen My Life So Far in any of its forms.  I was attached to it because I enjoyed making it so much and I don’t understand why people felt it had to be repeatedly corrected.  I don’t mind saying that it wasn’t broke in the first place.  Partly what it suffers from is the randomness of a true story, because that’s what it is.”

Playing the author’s father, Firth finds himself in puppyish pursuit of Heloise, a French woman set to marry his wife’s brother.  It’s nothing new to watch Firth not getting the girl—see his suicidal cuckold in The English Patient.  But what is new is what remains in the final cut of the character’s nastiness—his view, underpinned by racism, that jazz is an abomination; his disregard for his wife’s feelings; his fight with his young son for the attentions of Heloise.  Firth has played obstreperousness more than once; he has given us seven shades of sullen introversion; he is the leading exponent of a very French style of underacting, in which you don’t see is what you get, which turns out to be the perfect way of capturing on screen a certain kind of repressed Englishness.  But this is something different:  a childish mixture of ebullience and selfishness.

That doesn’t make the novelty a surprise.  One of the textures of Firth’s career is his restless determination to wrongfoot his audience, to the extent that he sometimes wrongfoots himself.  The list of Firth vehicles that ran out of gas is surprisingly long—from Granada’s 12-part epic Lost Empires to the most recent non-starter The Secret Laughter of Women.  One of my theories is that he actually courts anonymity in a project; that given a choice between two scripts, he will go for the one that makes it easier to cross Upper Street unrecognised.  He does admit to “a tendency to withdraw”.  After Pride and Prejudice, big-time American television beckoned, but he chose to do Fever Pitch. “There’s a big part of this which is extremely uncomplicated,” he says.  “I want to well thought of.  I want to make money from

this. I want to be prosperous.  I want to be respected.  Like everybody else I want to have jobs that are inspiring and enjoyable and fun.  With something as extraordinary as Pride and Prejudice and as unexpected as a cult attached to a character you’ve played, it is so difficult to understand what it was that you did that was apparently effective.  But then you don’t want to be perceived to be trying to catch lightening in a bottle twice.  So I think I probably did consciously go in all sorts of different directions.”

Firth’s biggest withdrawal came after he played the lead in Valmont at the end of the Eighties.  It was Milos Forman’s version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and was overshadowed by the splashier Hollywood model.  Firth fell in love with his leading lady, Meg Tilly, moved with her to the inner wilderness of British Columbia and stayed for five years.  They now have a nine-year-old son, Will, whose birth has effectively shaped his career since.  Thanks to the rhythms of the American school year, and the need to spend three months of the year with Will near Los Angeles, he can’t do much theatre (although he did have a notable success last year doing two short runs at the Donmar in Three Days of Rain).  When he has Will in the summer hols, they go to Umbria, ruling out those British films shot on location at the height of July and August.

Then there’s Hollywood.  It’s typical of Firth that though he has been in The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, doing meetings in the movie town where he regularly pitches up as a parent is also ruled out.  “I rent a place and make a life for myself there,” he says.  “We have friends, we have places we like to go, we treat like our home for a while.  It is quite far out of town, mercifully.  I don’t detest Los Angeles, I just don’t have a romantic attachment to it.  I can like LA a lot more if I don’t have much invested in it.  It can make people very neurotic.  It’s very hard to be above that if you are trying to play the town.”

Clockwise from top left: Firth as Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; in Fever Pitch; in My Life So Far; and with Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love
“There is so much fear and insecurity running rampant there.  I’ve seen perfectly intelligent and otherwise balanced people coming over to your place and breaking into a sweat because there is some billing argument or they think they haven’t been seen in the right order by a director who is in town.  You’re just better out of it really.  You can have a perfectly nice life in this business without subscribing to all that.  I really don’t know that if I made it important to me that I would be able to do it peacefully, with my self-esteem intact.”
If it’s one irony that Firth spends so much time voluntarily out of work in Los Angeles, it’s another that he goes there to be a father.  Until My Life So Far, he had never played a dad.  As if to make up for lost time, the script gave him all the children he had not had in previous jobs.  They occupy the screen like swarms of formation-flying bees.  It’s typical of this career that you wait nearly 20 years for him to have a kid and then he has a daughter played by Kelly MacDonald, who at the time was fresh out of Trainspotting.

“You’d think that the first time you play a dad, you should start with an infant and then work up gradually, then play the father of a seven-year-old,” he says.  “I actually started off as the father of an actress who was 21.”  This begs the question:  not how old is Colin Firth?  But, how old do people think Colin Firth is?  He has been playing juve leads all the way through from an actual schoolboy in Another Country to an overgrown schoolboy in Fever Pitch, so that his fortieth birthday will this year come as a bit of a shock to everyone.  Though not to the actor himself.  Agents have a way of reminding their clients of their age.  Last year a fellow actor with whom he shares an agent told him about a casting he, too, would have expected to be up for.  His agent told him it was for people in their twenties.  Firth mentioned his actor friend was 35.  “You’re 38,” the agent replied.  “Suddenly I realised that it wasn’t a lot between us, but I was on the other side of a fairly important barrier as far as casting is concerned,” says Firth.  “Then just to rub it in, my agent phoned me back about five minutes later and said, ‘They’ve offered it to your brother [Jonathan— six years younger].’”

Firth notes a similar process with parenthood.  When I ask him if he and Livia will be having children, he says “It’ll happen.”  You don’t want to be too old, I say.  “No, I know.  There does seem to be very little in between.  You finally reach adulthood and you go through a time of being too young for everything—I’m not thinking about acting here.  ‘Oh, you’ve got plenty of time, it’s all in front of you, you’ll find out that later in life.’  And then suddenly on a dime you’re past it, you’re not young any more.  There does seem to be a missing middle bit.”

Whenever the Firths do have a child, it will be born into the same sort of wandering infancy known to its father.  Firth’s parents, both born in India, were academics who took him to Nigeria and New Orleans before settling in Winchester.  Firth has talked about feeling miserable at school in his teens, leading to a decision he has only recently stopped regretting, to avoid university and head for drama school.  But he agrees with my hunch that interviewers have picked up this particular ball and run a bit too far with it.

“There is an enormous cult of personal archaeology into our own misery now,” he says.  “They want to know where all the wounds lie. And increasingly I realise that I don’t think all the explanations lie in unhappy things.  Some of the explanations are not to be found at all.  You are just as likely to be formed by the positive things, the peaceful things.  I definitely, definitely have been affected by moving about, largely positively, I think now.  It’s not coincidence that it was very important to me to adapt socially wherever I went, going back to quite young childhood, and if that meant trying to alter how I came across to people, I would make quite a considerable effort to alter.  I would change my sense of humour, I would really try to assimilate, and I’ve ended up being an actor.  It might be too pat to say that one led to the other, but I do think that it played a part in it.”

If this makes Firth sounds like a forbiddingly serious fellow, following that first meeting with Fielding on the set of Fever Pitch, he agreed to be interviewed in Rome by her as Bridget Jones.  “We basically had lunch as Colin and Helen and then she stuck the tape recorder on and went into Bridget and I did Mr Darcy, a rather serious actor who just wants to get on with the interview.  And it was very funny.”  And now there’s the movie

version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, to be shot this year, in which Firth has agreed to play Mark Darcy, the smooth object of Bridget’s desire.  “There’s a certain inevitability about it,” he says.  “I think it’s healthy for me to do it.”

What if they make a sequel and have to shoot the bit where Bridget interviews Colin Firth in Rome?  If he’s Mark Darcy, he can’t be Colin Firth too.  They could get his brother to play him, I suggest.  “There’s a thought,” he says with a wintry smile.  “Or you might have to change the character of the actor.  Someone the Americans believe is a credible sex symbol.”

  • My Life So Far is released next Friday and Relative Values on June 23.

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