The difference between them, though, is immediately obvious. Where Darcy sulked, Firth is easy company, funny, with a startlingly goofy laugh. The edges are softer on him: his hair is lighter than you might imagine, he’s tall (6ft 1 in) but not imposing, and his sense of style is quintessentially English—a thrown-together look of suit jacket, jeans and a crumpled striped shirt. That famous superior frown does surface from time to time, but on the real man, it’s simply concentration.
Neither is he as posh as you expect. Born 43 years ago to teacher parents, he describes his family as ‘middle class but never particularly wealthy.’
Even next to Hugh Grant, Michael Caine or Ralph Fiennes, Firth may well be the most English actor there is, so it may surprise you to learn that, sorry girls, he’s happily married to Italian documentary producer Livia Guiggioli. They met on the 1996 BBC mini-series Nostromo and, for a while, divided their time between London and Livia’s native Rome. ‘I still don’t know if I’ve ever seen a city so beautiful. I haven’t seen them all,’ he deadpans. ‘Out of anywhere I’ve ever been, Italy is probably the place I get noticed least. It’s fantastic. I go there and assume that I’ll be able to, you know, pick my nose, or scratch myself, and not have any witnesses. But work was always based here [in England], and friends and family were always here, so it was never my intention to uproot.
He and Livia now live in Islington with their two-year-old, the second of his two sons. The first boy was from his five-year relationship with actress Meg Tilly (his co-star in Valmont),. and who now lives with Tilly in Los Angeles. The distance is difficult, but they speak often and Firth sees him as much as he can. ‘It’s something that I deal with. Obviously, you’d love to have your children around you.’
Not wanting to be away from his family is a factor that’s made him much choosier about the work he takes, but in the case of his new film, Hope Springs, he says that he had ‘no hesitation’ in accepting the part. It’s a feather-light romantic comedy about an English artist who, jilted by his fiancée (Minnie Driver), finds himself in a small New England town, and soon falls for a local kook, played by Heather Graham.
‘One of the things I loved about Hope Springs was that it was so wilfully slight. I found it beautifully put together. It felt like this fantastically well achieved piece of paper folding. It’s just got to be a big hit now to round it off as a happy ending!’
Maybe it will, but I find him a less comfortable screen presence in comedy, as slapstick as this. Firth disagrees.
‘If I think it requires a bit of prancing about, I’ll do it. You know, the only people that smoulder in real life are adolescents at parties. A real life smoulderer would be a very silly creature to behold.’ That said, Firth’s natural state is a serious one. He talks passionately and knowledgeably about the issues that bother him—and there are many.
I ask whether he ever feels guilty about choosing a career as, well, frivolous as acting? ‘Absolutely. Shame, I suppose, is a better word. My mother travels around campaigning to get asylum seekers out of detention and helping people in need. I just do miserable, token things, like getting the studios to donate money from premieres to charitable causes. Unless you use it in that kind of way, fame is useless—except to get you a table in a restaurant.’ Does he ever do that? Use his celebrity to get an upgrade? He smirks, ‘Absolutely. I’m not political enough to insist on sitting in the luggage hold on a long-haul flight.’
A busy man, the next 12 months will see him plenty of roles, including the film version of Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With a Pearl Earring, and, possibly, a sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary.
‘If it’s a good script. The word is that Renée [Zellweger] is keen. She likes the character, feels a real affinity with her.’
As the interview comes to an end, I ask whether his wife is back at work. There’s a slight hesitation, but he can’t help himself. ‘She’s a bit too pregnant to work—due in July. It’s a boy—don’t tend to do girls in my family.’ He breaks into the sweetest smile, and all trace of Darcy evaporates before my eyes.