Not least because the lavish BBC costume drama, seen by more than 100 million viewers worldwide, is being repeated on British television, and Firth, 44, happens to have caught sight of himself acting out that memorable moment.
"The wet shirt doesn't look anything special to me. It was hardly wet at all," is his bemused, updated verdict. "I have to say I understand that scene the least. It's one thing that did not come from Jane Austen, and was an accident of circumstances to some extent. Because I wasn't allowed to do it nude, for BBC reasons, they talked about underpants, which seemed preposterous. So, I said the next best thing to taking all your clothes off—if you want to look impulsive and free-spirited—is diving in with your clothes on."
The resulting Darcymania, now part of popular culture mythology, saw Firth hailed in Britain as "our national treasure", his private life scrutinised to the point where he was photographed carrying home a new vacuum cleaner, published under the headline "Mr Darcy does the household chores", and his fans logging their lust on websites such as Firthfrenzy.com and afirthionado.com.
"Mass hysteria? No, I haven't been able to fathom that at all," says a resigned Firth, safely and happily married for the past five years to an Italian named Livia, the mother of his 15-month-old son Luca. (He has a 12-year-old son William, living in Los Angeles, by an earlier relationship with American actress Meg Tilly.)
"I have been able to fathom why he [Darcy] is fascinating," he continues. "There is something romantically compelling about a man we think we don't like and that we judge horribly as seen through the eyes of Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, whom we fall in love with first. When she starts to realise that this man has been utterly misjudged, it creates a romantic sensation in us."
Firth appears more than willing to analyse the brooding, scowling, misjudged, magnetic Fitzwilliam Darcy—even raising the subject himself—largely because the role has informed so much of the work he has done since. In his latest film, Oliver Parker's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, he plays the very earnest Jack Worthing, whose tortured marriage proposal to sophisticated Gwendolen (Frances O'Connor) is reminiscent of Mr Darcy's agonising avowal of love to the sceptical Miss Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle.
It doesn't tend to matter whether he's in period dress or not. In American Girl, the film Firth is now making on location in London, he is cast as an uptight, pinstriped British politician whose ordered life is turned upside down when his unknown 16-year-old daughter by an old flame (Kelly Preston) arrives from the US to track him down. In yet another new movie due for release soon, the bittersweet comedy Hope Springs, Firth plays Colin Ware, an awkward British artist torn between two women: his ex-girlfriend, played by Minnie Driver, and new love interest, played by Heather Graham.
"I tend to find if I'm in modern costume, I might as well not be—rather like Mark Darcy. He's in a modern film but still exactly like someone from the 18th century," observes Firth, alluding to that other Mr Darcy in the film Bridget Jones's Diary, based on the book by Helen Fielding, who wrote the character with Firth in mind. In her sequel The Edge of Reason, the joke is taken further when Bridget flies to Italy to interview the man himself, lifted from Fielding's own conversation with the actor over lunch in Rome.
Did Firth find it somewhat surreal to be playing different versions of himself, not to mention Mr Darcy's doppelganger, in the hit film, which also starred Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant? "All I had to do was remind myself who they were talking about when they said they wanted it to be a likeness to Mr Darcy because I couldn't remember," he says somewhat mournfully. "I didn't know quite what they were expecting. I thought they might say, 'He's nothing like Mr Darcy.' Once they seemed to be responding, I didn't find it very challenging after that."
Firth's ironic portrayal of the prickly, pompous but ultimately endearing human rights lawyer Mark Darcy, ludicrous in his hand-knitted reindeer sweater, merely served to reinforce the actor's reputation as an unlikely heart- throb. (Fans will be delighted to know he is set to reprise his role in the sequel, which is scheduled to be made next year).
"All great actors have people who really follow their careers and enjoy their performances, but Colin somehow touches a deeper nerve," says Donald Haber, executive director of the Los Angeles branch of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. "It's an emotional fan club."
Paradoxically, despite Firth's big following, he has yet to carry a big movie on his own—something he readily acknowledges. "I read something the other day, which said I'd been doing little jobbing character parts until I did Mr Darcy, and that's when I went off and did the big stuff," he says. "In fact, it was the other way round. I found myself doing very enjoyable character parts like [Kristin Scott Thomas's cuckolded husband in] The English Patient and [the ghastly Lord Wessex in] Shakespeare in Love. I think there's an awful lot more to characters than romantic leads."
The Hampshire-born son of two peripatetic academics, Firth studied at London's Drama Centre before being snapped up for a starring part in Julian Mitchell's Another Country on the West End stage as the traitor Guy Bennet. He made his film debut in 1984 in an adaptation of Another Country, and then won the title role in the costume drama Valmont, which was overshadowed by the flashier Hollywood version, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
More recently, he starred as a soccer-obsessed English teacher juggling both his love of the game and a new girlfriend in the low-budget film Fever Pitch, based on the novel by his friend Nick Hornby. Firth admits he would have jumped at the chance to play Grant's dysfunctional singleton in About a Boy, the upcoming screen adaptation of a Hornby book. But while he was, "briefly" disappointed at missing out, he realised "I was not in the price bracket they needed for it - I wasn't expensive enough. I don't command anything like the astronomical box office that Hugh does."
He is more than content to quietly shine in ensemble efforts such as The Importance of Being Earnest, co-starring O'Connor, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench and Tom Wilkinson. (The line-up in American Girl is similarly eclectic, featuring Americans Preston and newcomer Amanda Bynes alongside British names Anna Chancellor, Eileen Atkins and Sylvia Sims).
Firth has no fears that the Wildean wit of 1893 won't appeal to a modern audience. "I think this film has been very courageous in the way that it invited the actors to play up a bit - and took a few liberties," he says. "The Importance of Being Earnest can be like death, particularly when people are over-enthralled by its reputation and are too careful with it."
Again, Firth plays a variation on the repressed Englishman, but as with Mr Darcy, there's a duality to the character - literally—as reserved bachelor Jack Worthing moonlights as his roguish, carefree brother Earnest Worthing in this classic study of mistaken identity. "It's not difficult for me now, I know the numbers," the actor deadpans of his market monopoly in buttoned-up suits or frock coats. "Funnily enough, I don't particularly feel I'm that guy. When I was 15 I wanted to be a pop star; that was my fantasy. I didn't think, 'When I grow up, I want to put on a pinstripe suit, clench my buttocks and look pained.' "
For Firth, the emotionally challenged Worthings and Darcys of the world happen to be the most interesting characters. "A certain articulacy can be dangerous and misrepresentative because all you've done is bypass what it is you really want to say," he suggests. "Sometimes being tongue-tied is a lot more eloquent and the other person's imagination is engaged."
Firth's next project is Richard Curtis's Love Actually. Featuring a stellar cast including Grant, Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson, it is a series of interwoven pieces examining that slippery emotion called love. Firth plays a man who discovers his girlfriend has been having an affair, and promptly flees to France, where he embarks on a relationship with a woman who doesn't speak English. "My piece is about two people falling in love who don't share a language," he explains. No doubt, according to Firth's own convoluted philosophy, they will communicate all the better for it.
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