Although Firth starred in two Best Picture Oscar winners—The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love—your average American Joe has never heard of him. But then again, not many Americans would have been exposed to Mr Darcy’s wet shirt and breeches, as memorable a star-is-born moment as Madonna’s Gaultier bra or Brando smouldering in his vest in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Pride and Prejudice did air on the US cable arts channel A&E, and Firth did get a few calls offering TV work. “The offers weren’t all abominable,” he says. “But even if they weren’t, there would always be a little detail like, ‘Just sign here and don’t worry because it probably won’t happen but if this goes to a series, you’re with us for ten years’. It was very Faustian.” Even in the UK, Pride and Prejudice did not palpably alter the number or quality of roles he was subsequently offered. “Although before it, I thought I was extremely successful, it wasn’t until afterwards that I realised that no one had noticed me.”
Whether he likes it or not, Firth has unavoidable ties with Los Angeles, where his former partner, the actress Meg Tilly, lives with the couple’s 10-year-old son. And, for the purposes of this interview at least, a little bit of Hollywood effusiveness seems to have rubbed off on to the otherwise reserved academic’s son from Hampshire.
Hugh Grant, for example, is “the best actor of light comedy that we have, the best actor of light comedy anywhere,” according to Firth. “Light comedy implies something less substantial than drama but that’s quite untrue. What Hugh has is an extremely inaccessible ability. I can think of very few actors at all since Cary Grant who have had it—Rupert Everett is another—but there are millions of talented dramatic actors.”
Firth is just as complimentary about Zellweger, who maintained her English accent the entire time she was making the film. Bumping into her at an LA hotel was the first time he had heard her normal voice. “She’s now wandering around using what I think is a rather unconvincing Texas accent.”
The choice of Zellweger for Bridget caused a minor rumpus in the British media, who thought the role should have gone to a British actress. But there was no doubt in anyone but Firth’s mind that he was Mark Darcy. Helen Fielding wrote the character of Mark Darcy with Firth in mind, and the first book was interlaced with Bridget’s unquenchable Mr Darcy/Colin Firth fantasies. In the second she went one step further—flying Bridget to Rome to interview the man himself. The transcript of the interview is real. “Yes, I’m the co-writer on that,” says Firth. “We played it. Helen came to Rome and interviewed me. It’s all true.” To begin with, he was sceptical about the film of the book. “I didn’t know if it was feasible to adapt it because Bridget’s is a very specific narrative voice. It’s not based on gags and there’s nothing you can easily lift and turn into screen dialogue.”
But there was a more pressing problem. “This wasn’t the hardest role of my life for obvious reasons. If anything was difficult, it was precisely the very fact that I was trying to conform to an idea of me which emanated from someone else. And I just don’t know what she had in mind. I’ve got this word ‘Darcy’ that follows me around and it doesn’t really touch my life until I talk to journalists, when it becomes the only thing on the agenda. So I thought I might as well have some fun with it and join in the process.”
Firth was initially as leery about the original Mr Darcy, considering him “inherently unplayable”. It was only later he realised the character wasn’t as different from himself as he had imagined, and not the man who “stands in the corner of a room smouldering because he wants to smoulder”. The similarities between the two Darcys are uncanny, and he knows it. “There’s even an early scene in Pride and Prejudice which is repeated in Bridget Jones’s Diary.”
In each, Mr Darcy is “standing there looking down his nose at everyone. And it reminds me of high-school parties where you’d stand there, feeling all hung-up and repressed. And the only way you can deal with that is to pretend it’s because you’re superior and enigmatic. So that’s what you hide behind to deal with the paralysing situations.”
What Firth finds slightly paralysing is, inevitably, being a sex symbol. Does he find himself attractive? “Does anyone? I have good days and bad days. I don’t recall ever looking in the mirror and having a fully fledged erotic experience. I’ve tended to try and put it down to a combination of things; playing a role, having the right make-up, and the cameraman being very generous.”
Mostly, though, “it’s like reading about someone who has appropriated your name. In reality, these things happen a long way from yourself. You could be brushing your teeth while someone else is reading about you, putting an image in their minds which is probably not that of you brushing your teeth.”
Feeling paralysed with fear or embarrassment may be the key to Firth’s incandescent screen presence. One of his worst fears is “a director who says, ‘Be sexy! Be attractive!’ It’s a nightmare. But if a director says, ‘Be really revolting and a bit dull’, you think, ‘Yes, I can do that, I manage that every day.’”
He insists he avoids playing “attractive” people wherever possible. “It was Mr Darcy’s obstacles and problems which appealed to me, not the fact that I was going to play a wonderful romantic man. I wouldn’t have been able to do that famous scene coming out of the pond with the wet shirt unless it was about a man who’s absolutely paralysed with embarrassment. It’s not about a man saying, ‘All right girls, here’s the shirt’.”
He got the perennial start on awkwardness in adolescence. The child of middle-class academics, Firth nonetheless failed his 11 Plus, and found himself not fitting in at all well at the local secondary school. He found solace in school plays and, at 14, announced that he would become an actor. His career trajectory on leaving London’s Drama Centre, where he trained immediately after leaving school, was astonishing. “My first job was quite spectacular,” he says of replacing Rupert Everett in the West End run of Another Country. Like Everett, Firth segued into the film, his first, and still one of his most successful.
After BJD, his next film sees him back in period costume: The Importance of Being Earnest which, coincidentally, also stars Everett. Firth says he has no idea why he gets offered so many period roles and finds it amusing that Mark Darcy in BJD is “in a modern film but still exactly like someone from the 18th century”. And yet, he quaintly adds that making BJD did nothing to enlighten him on the enigma that is “woman”. “I knew nothing at all about women. And I still know nothing about them.”
He couldn’t especially identify with either singletons or smug-marrieds, although by Bridget’s definition he is a fine specimen of the latter. “I’m married the Italian documentary maker Livia Giuggioli and extremely content. Extremely happy. But I don’t see the world in terms of married and single people. I would never walk into a dinner and be horrified that they were all couples except me.”
If BJD scoops it big at the US box office, Firth may well have to revise his attitude to Hollywood. For the time being, any thrusting exec wishing to sign him up for a hot A-list project will find him characteristically elusive. The Screen Actors Guild’s Actors to Locate department—the place to which such a suit would turn — reports that Colin Firth has “no contact information available”. He wasn’t in town for the splashy New York premiere either since his wife was about to give birth to their first child. None of this will save him now. As much as Firth loves to regale journalists with tales of Hollywood’s having resisted him and not vice versa, it can resist no more. And neither can Firth. “I don’t consider Hollywood stardom to be the pinnacle of what one needs to aspire to in life. But I’m sure it’s very pleasant and if I’m forced to go that way, I’ll probably come quietly.”
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