What did you expect: Mr Darcy in a Dolce & Gabbana suit? For those unprepared for his slight and self-effacing countenance, Colin Firth could be a sore disappointment. Far from filling the space between us with brooding magnetism and Chanel's Egoïste, he's a bit like an intense postgraduate student, keen on beer and long pub conversations about T S Eliot. Clad in a black ensemble that might be designer or thrift-shop, but certainly conveys no pleasure in appearance, is a man who speaks so quietly that I have to stick my tape recorder under his nose, and he apologises.
Those who know more of his work than the obligatory Pride and Prejudice, who saw his brain-damaged Falklands casualty in Tumbledown or his Pinter-directed Caretaker, will not be surprised by the contrast. This is not Bridget Jones's dreamboat, treating you to a penetrating Ralph Fiennes gaze to seal his own gorgeousness. None of that. Firth is affable, straightforward, intelligent, just an actor—but one whose looks encouraged an unwanted celebrity, who knows he owes them big-time but is properly embarrassed by the idea.
This Christmas, he is the handsomest face of the schedules in the television film Donovan Quick, a feel-good morality fable about a man from nowhere who sets about solving the problems of a family struggling with poverty, disability and drink. Loosely based on Cervantes's knight errant, Don Quixote, his character does good in atonement for a past misdemeanour, until the men in white coats make him well, and nasty, again. "They cure him enough to go back to being an a***hole, because we live in a world where doing good is mocked and sophistication and jadedness are what we admire."
At 42, the serious-minded actor lives with total disregard for the trimmings of even a home-grown star's lifestyle, for cars, clothes and houses. When he adds that, these days, he would rather have a hotel than sleep on the platform of the Gare du Nord, it still sounds like a close call. He would make a brilliantly skulking Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's tortured anarchist, but though he would welcome an overtly political part, and would probably do anything that fascinated him enough for free, he never has time to seek one out. Too busy being reluctantly glamorous.
Firth has worked consistently since leaving drama school in 1982 and walking straight into the play of the year, Julian Mitchell's Another Country, in which he replaced Rupert Everett as the public-school proto-traitor Guy Bennett. For years of theatre and television work, he escaped being recognised in the street, which suited him fine. He lived in Hackney when Pride and Prejudice aired, his neighbours either unaware or unimpressed that the nation's pin-up was around the corner. "Nobody gave a s***. It meant I could go out in my pyjamas to pick up the Sunday papers and the bog roll, and nobody would comment. I didn't fancy getting dressed to do those things. In fact, I still hate getting dressed."
He is not even career-obsessed, taking months off every year to visit his 10-year-old son in southern California, where he lives with his mother, the actress Meg Tilly. Firth fell in love with her on the set of Milos Forman's 1989 film Valmont, and they moved to the wilderness of British Columbia to raise their son. For a year or so, his career threatened to evaporate, even though he was still flying home to work.
"I wrote to local Vancouver theatres saying what I'd done, without blowing my own trumpet, and that I'd be happy to do kids' workshops, but not one of them replied. When I read a piece in a British tabloid saying that I'd been sniffing round Hollywood, trying to get a Jeremy Irons-type break, when all I'd been doing was changing nappies, I felt that all that mattered was that I'd gone. It felt dangerous."
In fact, Firth had visited Hollywood three times and loathed it. Instead of using Valmont as his Tinseltown calling card, he refused all meetings out of inverted snobbery and fear. "I told myself I was a purist, but actually I was s***-scared of it all. Now, if it happened to me, fine. I've dropped that pose of shunning it. I'd still hate the intrusion, but I believe you can stay yourself. The ones who really whore out were whores at the beginning. If I were only good at it ... If I could distinguish myself at those parties and chat shows, it might be easier."
But Firth's idea of fun is "dull", meaning literary, with the odd afternoon's football but no showbiz haunts or junkets if he can help it. With his Italian wife, Livia Guiggioli, a documentary producer, he sees theatre, goes out for dinner (tables easier to reserve since P&P), talks books with his great friend Nick Hornby, whose Arsenal fanatic Paul Ashworth Firth played in the film of Fever Pitch. Asked by Hornby to contribute to a new book of short stories, Speaking With the Angel, the profits of which will benefit the TreeHouse Trust for autistic children, he may have finally found the confidence to show the fiction he has been stuffing in drawers for years.
You can see how the idea of a writing life would appeal to his reticent non-acting self, that telling distrust of the shallows of his business. "When I agreed, I thought, 'I'm an actor, I'll just ramble on until I find a voice,' but it just kept coming out awful." Eventually, he was "chuffed" with his first-person monologue in the voice of an 11-year-old boy, and he looked more excited about the publication party and the book signings than he would about being a hot tip at the Academy Awards. Another contributor to that book was the creator of Bridget Jones, Helen Fielding, who hit a second jackpot when Firth agreed to play Mark Darcy—media lawyer in fantasy breeches—in the new movie.
"Doing that has lifted the curse off the whole Mr Darcy thing," he says. "Not that I've been desperate to get away from it." Hadn't we heard that he was haunted by Austen's snarling stallion, that the drama was taboo in his house, that his nostrils began to twitch when reminded? Don't mention the D-word. He laughs. "Not at all. It was just another job."
There may have been a fear that he would never be seen in modern clothes again, and there was definitely a photo-shoot where he was asked to wear a wet ruffled shirt and throw around torn-up copies of Bridget Jones's Diary (he made his excuses and left), but he'd do Heathcliff in a flash if he were asked.
Maybe, but he's obviously far happier with his next role, as a prominent Nazi lawyer. In Conspiracy: The Meeting at Wannsee, the story of a 1942 Third Reich gathering to formalise the details of the Holocaust, Firth plays Dr Stuckart, who puts the case for mass sterilisation over a buffet lunch.
"You'd have thought it was a meeting of some corporation board, all making jokes and sipping wine. The atmosphere on set was alarmingly buoyant, but suddenly you find yourself speaking some banal line about cleaning the gas trucks, and you're hit with a wave of nausea."
Firth catches us out in our prejudices, shows that it is all too easy to ascribe to good looks the vanity that normally underpins conversations with leading actors. He did not choose acting for the fame and the women—if there was a dubious motive, it was wanting to teach his school a lesson. His parents were academics but, as an 11+ failure, he went to the local secondary modern in Winchester and was miserable. The family's years in Nigeria and St Louis set him apart, and so middle-class were the Firths—Colin, his brother, Jonathan, also an actor, and their sister—that they weren't allowed to watch ITV.
"We didn't have popular culture. We were inversely deprived of life's essential vulgarities. I hadn't seen Crossroads or Magpie or Randall and Hopkirk. There was a whole area of playground chat that I couldn't join in with. I never saw Les Dawson or Larry Grayson."
Weren't they on BBC? "Oh well, it must have been past my bedtime, then."
If the kids thought him weird, the teachers were worse. "I was unwilling, and they disliked and despised me." Though things improved at sixth-form college, where he acquired a home-counties accent to match other long-haired Genesis fans, there was no way he was going to university. Somehow, through school plays and local drama workshops, he discovered ambition. "One day, at 14, I just walked in and told my parents that I was going to be an actor." At the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm, he finally shed the habits of the perverse loner, reading what he was asked, for once, and collaborating. He had chosen the place for its iconoclastic approach, and was soon its star, playing the lead in the centre's first and last Hamlet, directed by his mentor, the school's principal, Christopher Fettes.
One of the tutors told him he was matinee-idol material, but not as an encouragement, rather a warning that he might easily end up prostituting the talent that made Fettes compare him to Paul Scofield. "But I never even expected to work. When I left, I'd have been euphoric to get a spear-carrier in repertory. Films seemed like another world." Instead of the usual waiting job, he landed Another Country, followed by the film of the play.
"To me, it felt like megastardom. I made no distinction between that and a Hollywood role. I'd only been in London three years." He thinks it was his looks that clinched the audition. "Others were far better than me, but they weren't looking for a short fat guy with a slight Scandinavian accent. They wanted someone who walked and talked and looked like me." But the image of the upper-class romantic is not one that suits him, or provides much faith in his future offers.
"There's been a lot of grumbling recently about how the toffs get all the work, especially in America, but it's not true, and I certainly don't want to be sneered at for being something I'm not. I'd love to do a south London villain. It's like Miles Davis said: don't play what you know, play what you don't know."
Next year, he gets his biggest chance to defy that advice, playing Hamlet at the Riverside Studios, directed once again by Fettes. "I was beginning to wonder if it had passed me by. Albert Finney said you should play it at 20 or 40, but I think Hamlet's 30. By my own theory, I'm 10 years too old, but I'm itching to do it." The play has been much discussed recently, with Simon Russell Beale's political prince and Adrian Lester's acclaimed interpretation for Peter Brook, but Firth is not nervous of Elsinore fatigue, only determined that his own shot should be his proudest moment. Clearly, he is pretty thrilled with life right now but trying not to be smug. After two relationships with leading ladies (Jennifer Ehle was the second), he is relieved to have shed the embarrassing lothario reputation.
that actors are f***ing each other all the time, but it's just that you
tend to end up with the people you work with. Actually, being with
actor is a nightmare, I promise you. Livia is a very secure person,
more secure than me. Every single actor I know envies me."
Donovan Quick, BBC1, Dec 28, 9pm
Photograph: Alan Strutt, shot at One Aldwych
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