Hello! August 27, 2002, by Adelaide Dugdale and Juliet Herd

The Reluctant
Sex Symbol

Light years from the self-assured, romantic types he’s
most memorably played, Colin Firth seems to be coming
to terms with his fame, and whether he believes in it or not, his sex appeal

It’s hard to believe that Colin Firth, best known for his brooding portrayals of romantic heroes, had once dreamt of becoming a pop star. “What I was 15, I wanted to be a pop star; that was my fantasy,” is his surprise admission. “I didn’t think, ‘When I grow up, I want to put on a pinstriped suit, clench my buttocks and looked pained. It’s not difficult for me now, I know the numbers,” he deadpans of his market monopoly in buttoned-up suits and frock-coats. “Funnily enough, I don’t particularly feel I’m that guy.”

Well, Colin might not, but his legions of fans certainly do. It all started when he dived, fully-clad, as Jane Austen’s smouldering Mr Darcy, into a strategic lake seven years ago in the hit BBC series Pride And Prejudice. The memory of his manly emergence in wet shirt and clinging breeches still sends female hearts swooning.

It seems that Colin, the actor, at 41, has a longer shelf-life than your average pop star—thus validating his career choice.

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. He made his film debut in 1984 in an adaptation of Another Country, and went on to win the title role in the costume drama Valmont, which was overshadowed by the flashier Hollywood version, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

And, to the delight of his loyal fans, Colin is back in period clothing for his latest movie, Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Starring opposite Rupert Everett (who he replaced in the stage version of Another Country), as well as Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Frances O’Connor, he plays earnest Jack Worthing. His character’s tortured marriage proposal to the sophisticated Gwendolen, played by O’Connor, is reminiscent of Mr Darcy’s agonising avowal of love to the sceptical Miss Bennet in Pride And Prejudice.

Firth has no fears over the Wildean wit of 1893 appealing to a modern audience. “I think this film has been very courageous in the way it invited the actors to play up a bit—and took a few liberties. The Importance of Being Earnest can be like death, particularly when people are over-enthralled by its reputation and too careful with it.” Again, Firth plays a variation on the repressed Englishman, but like Mr Darcy, there’s a duality to the character—literally—as reserved bachelor Jack Worthing moonlights as his rogueish, carefree brother Earnest in this classic study of mistaken identity. For Firth, the emotionally challenged Worthings and Darcys of the world happen to be the most interesting characters dramatically. “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.” Does he ever find himself in such situations? “I suppose so,” he concedes. “I’m a person who is often inclined to explain myself in a way which sounds as if I’ve explained myself quite well. Actually, I come away thinking that I didn’t even come close.”

Sounds a bit like Mark Darcy, Colin’s character in Bridget Jones’s Dairy. His ironic portrayal of the prickly, pompous, but ultimately endearing human rights lawyer, ludicrous in his hand-knitted reindeer sweater, merely served to reinforce the actor’s reputation as an unlikely heart-throb. (Fans who buy his used pillowcases and old jerseys at charity auctions will be delighted to know he is set to reprise his role in the sequel, scheduled to be made next year.)

Yet despite Firth’s big following, he has yet to carry a major 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 relates. “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.”

Colin admits he would have jumped at the chance to play Hugh Grant’s dysfunctional singleton in About A Boy, the screen adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. But while he was “briefly” disappointed about missing out, he realised “I was not in the price bracket they needed for it—I wasn’t expensive enough,” he adds drily, “I don’t command anything like the astronomical box office that Hugh does.”

“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 Colin, alluding, irresistibly, to the fact that Helen Fielding, Bridget’s creator, wrote the character with Colin in mind. In her sequel, The Edge Of Reason, the joke is taken further when Bridget flies to Italy to interview Colin himself, lifted from Fielding’s own conversation with him over lunch in Rome.

Colin is currently in London filming American Girl, another romantic comedy, in which he stars opposite Kelly Preston, the wife of John Travolta. He is cast as an uptight, pinstriped (you don’t say), British politician whose ordered life is turned upside-down when his unknown 16-year-old daughter by an old flame (Mrs Travolta) arrives from America to track him down.

“She’s delightful,” says Colin of his co-star. “A real ball of fire. I took to her immediately and found her very down-to-earth. I can’t imagine what her life must be like—how the other half live! You wouldn’t get a clue that she lives in a rarefied world at all.”

Although Colin has spent most of his career playing Englishmen in mostly British films, he does have a connection with Hollywood: his 12-year-old son William, from a previous relationship with actress Meg Tilly. But home now for Colin is north London, where he lives with wife Livia and their son Luca, born in Rome last March. “I met my wife just before Pride And Prejudice came out. She’d just met some unknown actor as far as she was concerned. I was trying to convince her I was extremely famous in England, but all my English friends assured her I wasn’t. Then it (fame) happened. She was a bit stunned at first, but takes it in her stride how.”

Colin’s next project is Richard Curtis’s Love Actually, an English- style Short Cuts. He plays a man who discovers his girlfriend has been having an affair, so 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 says. No doubt, according to Colin’s own convoluted philosophy, they’ll communicate all the better for it.

Besuited but not overly buttoned-up, Colin has an understated, very British style of sex appeal which nevertheless has women all over the world logging on to websites dedicated to him.

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