The excellent BBC adaptation of the Jane Austen classic, with Jennifer Ehle as the feisty Elizabeth Bennett, who finally discovers the humanity behind the haughty façade of Fitzwilliam Darcy, slices neatly through 41-year-old Firth’s acting career.
The years before never quite lived up to the potential of his 1984 film debut as Tommy Judd in Another Country, although he won the Royal Television Society award as best actor in 1989 for his performance in the Falklands War drama, Tumbledown. There were too many forgettable films, such as Femme Fatale in 1991 and The Hour of the Pig in 1993.
Then came Darcy. Since then, Firth has hardly paused. He played the decent Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient, the Arsenal football fanatic in Fever Pitch and the dastardly Lord Wessex in the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. He played Shakespeare in spoof style for Blackadder Back and Forth and then hit the jackpot again as the splendid Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary. The author Helen Fielding, an unashamed Firth fan, based her character on his brooding Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.
“I have absolutely no problem at all with Darcy—playing him or being known for that part,” says Firth. “I know that some actors loathe to be reminded of something to which they have been so closely linked. As for Bridget Jones, I get lost in it. If they ever do the planned sequel from her second book, The Edge of Reason, I am supposed to appear as myself, being interviewed by Bridget, because she’s a fan of Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. It is like mirrors facing each other. But I feel lucky to have made that sort of mark with anything, ever, in my life. Most of us have very little potential to make any impact. So to make it on a scale like that is great. But it seems a million miles away from me now.”
It certainly looks that way. We meet in a hotel opposite Central Park in New York, where the apparently easy-going Firth, brown hair unkempt, is wearing a grey T-shirt under a black jacket over his rangy 6ft 1in frame and looks like someone about to attend an actor’s workshop off-Broadway. He is still largely unrecognised here, and that seems to please him.
“There is a quote—J. B. Priestley, I think—in which he says: ‘I have never been out of fashion, because I have never been in fashion’, and that seems to sum me up,” he says. “I have been flavour of the month, but never a number one star. I have been second or third choice for things, too, and that is probably a safer area to be than bang on top of the mountain.
“The result is that I’ve never been out of work from the day I left drama school. I have been stuck at times to find anything good to do, but that is different to being worried about not paying the rent or feeding the kids. I put it down to good fortune. I know my options are not boundless, but I have not been frightened yet about making a living.”
Firth’s living has been a very good one. He visits America regularly, either to work—one of his forthcoming films, Hope Springs, is set in Vermont—or to see his 11-year-old son, William, from a five-year relationship with American actress Meg Tilly. But his home is in London, where he lives with Italian wife Livia, 31, and 17-month-old son, Luca. He was able to see much of them during the making of his latest film, The Importance of Being Earnest.
Firth plays the lead in the first big-screen version in 50 years of Oscar Wilde’s play. It first opened on Valentine’s Day in 1895 and was taken off less than three months later when Wilde was charged with “gross indecency” for homosexual practices. It is now being pitched as “a trivial comedy for serious people”. But director Oliver Parker plays it straight, with some inspired casting, including Dame Judi Dench as the formidable Lady Bracknell, Tom Wilkinson as the Rev Canon Chasuble and Anna Massey as Miss Prism.
“You get the best out of this play without messing with it,” says Firth. “There is a tendency to take things like this and have the cast wear trainers and biker gear. For the most part, they don’t work. The formula has been altered because it’s a film, but it’s right for a modern audience. Oscar Wilde would have approved. Someone said to him that the play was like an elegant mosaic. He said: ‘No, it’s not – it should go off like a pistol’.”
It does, indeed, go at a pace, with glamour added by American Reese Witherspoon as Cecily Cardew and Australian Frances O’Connor as Gwendolen Fairfax—both with immaculate English accents. The plot is not dated, thanks to setting the film in its rightful place, in 1890s England. “It has great costumes and landscapes,” says Firth. “But, in my view, the cinema is meant for entertainment, not personal expansion, stimulation and education. It is a place where you go to be taken away somewhere. This film works well in that capacity. I am a great champion of triviality.”
This was not always the case. The last time Firth worked with co-star Rupert Everett was in his debut, Another Country, and he recalls: “I had just come out of drama school and I must have been very dull. He did not have much patience with dull people.” Everett, when I meet him later, puts it more strongly: “He was very left wing—Look Back in Anger, Royal Court and all that,” he says. “He was always strumming his guitar and if he ever had any money would give it to some political organisation.”
But Firth has clearly mellowed. “He’s very funny, actually, and loves complaining—which I do,” says Everett. “In a film, there are two groups of actors. Those who are passive complainers, who pretend everything is fine and then secretly call their agents, and those who accept that they just like to complain for the sake of it. Colin and I are in that category. So we really got along well and he’s become great fun.”
If that’s the case, Firth keeps it hidden for the most part. Despite an occasional twist of dry humour, he still comes across as a serious soul. His father, David, was a history teacher and his mother, Shirley, lectured on comparative literature. He was born in Hampshire, and travelled widely in childhood as his parents took up various teaching posts, among them Nigeria, where his grandparents were Methodist missionaries, and St Louis, Missouri.
When his father accepted a teaching post in Winchester, Firth attended a local comprehensive rather than the famous public school. “I realised, then, that many of the English do not have a natural affinity with Shakespeare and the literacy rate is not as high as it should be,” he says. “It is a far more Philistine country than many people think. The soccer hooligans are not a weird little aberration. I went to school with guys like that.”
He was not a high-flying pupil. “I remember getting three per cent for one chemistry exam,” he recalls. “The teacher said he gave me two of those marks for writing my name correctly. So I think it was a safe bet that I would not be following my parents into the teaching profession. I admire what they have done. My own way of making a living is far less worthwhile. No question.”
He’s had his moments of indecision. One came after meeting Meg Tilly during the filming of Valmont in 1989. He moved into her log-cabin retreat in British Columbia, where they had William and he concentrated on carpentry. He did not act, out of choice, for the best part of two years. He then conducted a relationship with his Pride and Prejudice co-star, the beautiful Jennifer Ehle, sparking rumours of a possible marriage.
The relationship was over by the time he met Livia, who was working with him as a producer’s assistant on a BBC dramatisation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. They married on June 21, 1997. Talk of personal matters has him visibly squirming. A casual question about romance in his life has his brown eyes darting towards the door as if assessing the possibility of making a bolt for it.
He is much more at ease when talking about his work and how he would have loved the Hugh Grant role in the recently released hit film About A Boy, written by Nick Hornby, who also wrote Fever Pitch, in which he starred. “I picked up the New Yorker magazine and read this short story by Nick and phoned him,” he says. “I told him: ‘I’ve just read your story and think it would make a great film’. He said: ‘It’s an extract from my new book, About A Boy, and has already been picked up for a film for $3.5 million’. So there was me, thinking I had this wonderful idea, but the whole film world had already fallen over themselves to get it. They needed someone far more bankable than me—and Hugh was born to it.”
But Firth has
moment as the lead in Hope Springs, playing Colin, a British artist who
flees London to find solace in small-town America after being dumped by
fiancée Vera, played by Minnie Driver. He arrives in the New
village of Hope, where an innkeeper (Mary Steenburgen), arranges a
with beautiful Mandy (Heather Graham). But Vera arrives to try to
him. “It was written by Charles Webb, who wrote The Graduate,” says
“I loved it and really went after it. And with two actresses like
who is playing jaded and bitchy, and Heather—eccentric and sweet—you
know. If it’s half as good as The Graduate I will be more than happy.”
The Importance of Being Earnest is released this month. Hope Springs is released on November 1.