Colin Firth's latest leading-man role is in The Importance of Being Earnest, which has been panned by US critics
Yet the Los Angeles Times elected to focus its social diary on the phenomenon of the ardent female fans who had lined up to attend a Bafta-sponsored question-and-answer session with Colin Firth. Several women were following him, groupie-like, across America, reported the newspaper, which carried gushing quotes from them along the lines of "Colin is the man of my dreams."
The British actor became a transatlantic symbol of romance and sexuality with his portrayal of the brooding, glowering Mr Darcy in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. In reality, he is humorous, self-effacing and slightly sheepish about finding himself portrayed as the object of American women's fantasies.
"Sometimes, I get an almost ludicrous level of respect," he says ruefully. "But, if people expect me to be Mr Darcy, they are going to be disappointed." And—another blow to his fans—"I don't think I'm an excessively romantic guy. Romantic clichés don't appeal to me and I'm not a fan of Valentine's Day. I think romance can be a bit facile."
That is not to downplay the effect of the Darcy role on his life and career. "I was 35 when I did Pride and Prejudice, and I thought that romantic, leading-man roles were passing out of my scope," he says with a laugh. "It was time for me to do character roles and joyfully get fat, so the reaction to Mr Darcy took me very much by surprise.
"It put the romantic, leading-man character back on the agenda for me in terms of the sort of work that is coming my way. It's come back in a way I would never have expected. I don't know what would have happened without Mr Darcy." But he hastens to correct any false impression: "Things were going all right beforehand. It's not as if I was struggling and suddenly found a life."
Although he has been heralded as one of the best British actors of his generation, it was not until Pride and Prejudice that his film career took off. He has since appeared in The English Patient, Bridget Jones's Diary and Shakespeare in Love.
He was in America to publicise his latest role as Jack Worthing in director Oliver Parker's quirky version of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, which also stars Judi Dench as Lady Bracknell, Rupert Everett as Algy Moncrieff, Frances O'Connor as Gwendolen Fairfax and Reese Witherspoon as Cecily Cardew.
We meet in a Los Angeles hotel the morning after his Bafta appearance. Dressed casually in jeans, white trainers and a dark crew-necked sweater, he is more easily identifiable with the Arsenal-loving soccer fan he portrayed in the film of Nick Hornby's book Fever Pitch than Mr Darcy.
He lives in London with his wife, Livia, an Italian film-maker whom he met in 1996, while they were both working on the film Nostromo. They were married in June 1997 and have a son, Luca, who was born in Rome last year.
Firth's most serious romantic involvements—and he insists they are very few—have been with his leading ladies. He has a 12-year-old son, William, from a five-year relationship with actress Meg Tilly, whom he met on the set of Valmont, and he had a brief relationship with actress Jennifer Ehle which began while they were filming Pride and Prejudice.
He is, he believes, a better father now than he was when his first child was born. "I was 30 and I still felt far too young for anything like that," he says. "I hadn't quite got over not being 18 any more, and having a child changed my life dramatically. This time, I feel a little more equipped for it."
Professionally, he finds himself having to defend The Importance of Being Earnest in the face of harsh criticism. Exception has been taken to Oliver Parker's revisionist version of Wilde's play, which includes fantasies, flashbacks, a hot-air balloon and a tattooed Gwendolen. Daily Variety described it as "utterly miscalculated", generating the "queasy feeling of desperation". The Hollywood Reporter thought it "feeble", and said Parker's film-making choices "continually disrupt the delicate process of Wilde's comic writing".
Firth is stoutly supportive of his director, seeing in Parker's version a freshness and originality often lacking in the more traditional stage productions.
"The play has been done endlessly," he says, "and for someone to take it and be impertinent with it is not only an interesting experiment but entirely consistent with the spirit of the original. Oscar Wilde was in the business of disturbing complacencies and creating upsets and upheavals.
"Somebody once said to Wilde that this play should be like a wonderful mosaic, and he said no, it should go off like a pistol shot. I have seen probably 30 productions on the stage, and I have never seen one which has done that. Obviously, I'm a bit partisan, but this was an attempt to free it from the dangers of fossilisation."
He says it is the quality of the writing that inspires him. "There is nothing more intoxicating for an actor and nothing sets you on fire more than good language. The text is where it all starts. It is our job to interpret it, so, when the language vibrates, if you get it right, you catch fire. It fires up your intellect and even your body is affected by it. It is a very visceral experience."
Firth is full of praise for Reese Witherspoon, the only American in the Earnest cast. "It may be shocking to some people, but a lot of the American actors I've worked with are far more disciplined than Judi Dench," he says with a laugh. "Judi has a terrible sense of mischief, and sometimes you're lucky to get beyond three lines of dialogue without her cracking up with laughter. Of course, she's very sure of her own discipline, which is why she's free to have fun. But I found that American actors are intensely disciplined and extremely hard-working."
He claims his greatest handicap as an actor has always been his name. "Names are important; it's a huge part of who you are. Colin is the sort of name you give your goldfish for a joke. I was watching an episode of Blackadder, and there was a dachshund called Colin, and just his name was supposed to reduce you to fits of laughter. It has the double disadvantage of being considered commonplace, dreary and banal and, at the same time, not common at all. So I have this commonplace, dreary, banal name, but there is nobody else to share my fate. There are very few Colins around."
Oddly enough, he plays a character named Colin in his next film, Hope Springs, in which he stars with Minnie Driver and Heather Graham. But this Colin is a romantic figure. Quite unlike the actor playing him.
'The Importance of Being Earnest' is released on Sept 6.
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