Australian Women's Weekly, April 2003, by Susan Chenery

Colin Firth is doing a magnificent smoulder, his burning intensity practically crackling. You almost expect the curtains to catch fire and can imagine him standing in a flaming doorway, heroically glowering as the room spontaneously combusts.

Sadly, however, his shirt is dry. Today, alas, he is not Mr Darcy. He is not in the BBC-TV’s Pride and Prejudice now. He has not just leapt off his heaving white stallion on a high summer day in the English countryside and plunged into a pond. He is not, therefore, striding through the grounds of an imposing and desirable country estate in tight, wet breeches and white-frilled shirt, steaming up the lens in one of television’s most unforgettable, iconic moments. It was just so ridiculously romantic.

And, much to his mortification, Colin Firth will never, ever live it down. Eight years after he filmed Pride and Prejudice, the conversation still inexorably turns to the clinging, wet shirt that caused his sudden, dramatic elevation to heart-throb. He used to be bemused by this, now he is just resigned.

“I left Darcy behind me the day I walked off the set,” he says. “Obviously it is something I am associated with in print, but I don’t feel I have much connection with it. It is so weird, a hologram of me as Darcy kind hovers around doing things without me. It was just a job of work, but it has been compounded because I have to keep talking about it, answering questions over and over again, so I can’t separate other’s mythology from me.

“In the original script, Mr Darcy is nude when he jumps into the pond. That was never really going to happen because it was being made for the BBC, so alternatives had to be found. Y-fronts were not a very good alternative. So, in the end, it was decided to just throw him into the pond, clothed. Nobody on the set, nobody, had any feeling that anything particularly sexy was happening.”

It is plain Colin finds a certain satisfaction in shattering illusions on what he sees as a tiresome, worn-out subject.

Today, he is definitely not Mr Darcy any more. Instead, he is in Luxembourg and he is playing Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master painter, albeit an extremely handsome one—17th century Dutch painters smouldered too, apparently, even when they had 11 children underfoot and crippling debts, as Vermeer did. Standing in the doorway, among the sausages, hams and washing that hang in the kitchen, moustachioed and wearing a wig, Colin looks as though he is in a Vermeer painting.

The artist’s house has been authentically recreated for the film Girl with a Pearl Earring, an adaptation of the best- selling book by Tracy Chevalier. Just as Vermeer used intricate combinations of light and colour to create minute detail in luminous portraits of people in quiet contemplation, so too is Colin bathed in gentle, painterly studio lights as he conveys with a glance Vermeer’s repressed sexual attraction to the servant girl who is the subject of his most radiant painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring.

This is a portrait of an artist and Colin is dissolving into Vermeer, fascinated by the character he is playing. “Very little is known about him, he is an enigma. He could well have been boisterous, fun loving, completely bald, we just don’t know. I already had a love of Vermeer, but there is this particular quality about his paintings that I can’t describe. I think they are serene. Then I look at them again and think they are rather troubled. I find I’m emotionally involved with the job. I love going to the gallery and pretending to be this bloke.”

Colin’s film characters are generally serious, earnest, taciturn, sullen, intense, a bit stiff, really, and awkward. He is the master of reticence; the reserved Englishman who reveals himself gradually. His ironic reprisal of Mr Darcy as a barrister in a sweater with a reindeer on it in Bridget Jones’s Diary [2001] was, in the words of the book’s author, Helen Fielding, a man with “a giant gherkin up his arse”.

“In comedies I am usually the butt of the joke. In Shakespeare in Love [1998], as Lord Wessex, my function was to be the one guy who lacks poetry, romance and humour—all the things the film celebrates. Usually I am the stooge, the straight man, you know. Often I am the angry frothing one and Hugh Grant gets all the laughs.”

It is therefore something of a surprise to discover, when he throws himself into a chair—as himself in jeans and a black sweater—later in the evening, that he is none of these things. The smoulder and brooding intensity seem to have been taken off with his costume. Very tall and very thin, with brown eyes and fresh red cheeks, in person Colin is livelier than any of the characters he plays.

Now 42, Colin speaks with a flat, indistinguishable English accent, as if he has consciously squeezed any class cadences from his voice. He has a way of frowning when concentrating, which makes him look intense, but when he smiles he is extraordinarily handsome.

In person, the aristocrats whom he often plays could not be more removed from his own middle-class, left-wing background. With his long legs splayed out untidily, one arm behind his head, he is articulate, amusing, with a keen sense of the absurd and a rather attractive, conspiratorial laugh.

“I learned early on that having a sense of humour is salvation, having a sense of one’s own ridiculousness can keep you sane. I was quite young and I had put a lot into a series called Lost Empires [1986]. It was one of my first disappointments. There was no way that I could spin it to make it okay and I was feeling really bad about the whole thing. There was a moment where the misery of being an actor in something that nobody liked had just reached a peak, you know, and suddenly I just found that it was hilarious, a fantastic feeling.

“Now, if something horrible has been written about me, I phone a friend and read it out. I learned that from another friend who once rang me and read out all his bad reviews. It is howlingly funny. The more precious you are, the more criticism hurts, I think. And if it is hurting, it’s a sign that you’re being precious.”

That is not to say that he doesn’t take his work seriously. He spent hours grinding minerals such as black onyx into powder to make Vermeer’s paints. “I loved the smell of it. The actor’s job begins where the words finish: you do the gesture, the walk, what lies in between. I try to work out what the person would have had to experience to have resulted in saying a line. I love solving how to say the line, and if I can’t, I will try and change it.”

Yet Colin Firth is a reluctant star, uncomfortable in the media gaze and retreats from his fame with some alarm, wrestling with the dilemma of being a private person in a public occupation. “The normal things in my life are very important to me; friends, family, having a life.”

You get the impression that he is far too intelligent to buy into the shallower, more hysterically egomaniacal aspects of celebrity. “I don’t occupy that zone, I don’t have a star persona. That is a completely separate world and not where life’s blessings are as far as I’m concerned. It is such an unnatural thing to watch yourself on screen, it really throws you, and I have a tendency to withdraw. Sometimes, when you read your name, it is like reading about someone else. The name Colin Firth on a screen is very different from the name I used to see on my exercise books.”

Indeed, the frivolity of his professional life must jar with his upbringing. Both his parents are academics—his father is a history lecturer, his mother taught comparative religions, and has long been an activist on behalf of imprisoned asylum seekers. He was brought up with books, no television and a social conscience. He still maintains the family’s impeccably left-wing credentials and social activism, and insists that he will send his son to a state school.

The British actor Rupert Everett, then already a sybarite, remembers an earnest Colin on the set of his first film, Another Country [1984], in which Colin played a homosexual [sic] public school boy. “He was always strumming on a guitar and, being very left-wing; he was going to give all his money to charity,” says Rupert. The two got along better 18 years later, when they teamed up for the frothy failure, The Importance of Being Earnest [2002].

Nevertheless, there is something weird about talking to the actual Mr Darcy, a female fantasy sitting here in the delectable flesh, about asylum seekers: “Our perceptions of people shouldn’t be based on where they’re born; compassion shouldn’t stop with national borders.”

Three of his four grandparents were Methodist missionaries and Colin spent his early childhood in Nigeria, where his parents were teaching. He would probably have been far more comfortable following his family into academia, had he not been an indifferent student who didn’t like school and rebelled by growing his hair long and being surly.

“Acting was a last resort really, there didn’t seem to be anything else that was feasible. I wanted to find something that was stimulating and also earn a living. When I was 14, I just walked in and told my parents I was going to be an actor.”

Discovered while playing Hamlet at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London [sic], he has not been out of work since. “I did say to Dad once I felt slightly that I hadn’t fulfilled the family tradition of going to university, that there was something missing somewhere.”

“Having taught higher education all his life, Dad said that instead of writing about Jane Austen, ‘You get to speak the lines and put the clothes on and walk around’. It is not the same, but it is an education.” His younger brother Jonathan and sister Kate also became actors.

And here is the bad news for the hopeful: Colin has been irrevocably domesticated since 1997, when he married Livia Guiggioli, now 32, an Italian film producer. They live in North London. “I don’t have an adviser,” he says, “I talk to my wife. She is the smartest woman on this planet. I feel peaceful and settled with her. She is a very secure person, much more secure than me. I am very happily married.”

Livia, it is said, is not the least bit impressed by her husband’s film stardom. His friend, novelist Nick Hornby, agrees: “She is joke perfect; PhD, beautiful in that sultry Italian way, funny and vivacious.”

Colin and Livia have a son, Luca, born two years ago in Italy. “My wife preferred to suffer in Italian,” Colin has joked. He has another son, Will, born in 1990 to the actress Meg Tilly. They met on the set of Valmont in 1989, and they retreated, in a grand romantic gesture, to her home, a log cabin in the snowy wilds of British Columbia, to change nappies and do carpentry for a couple of what were, quite literally, wilderness years. Eventually though, snow and isolation got to him, cabin fever set in and Colin returned to London alone. “I had a kind of reclusive impulse at the time, but not that reclusive.”

His strong sense of family, one suspects, is what makes him the stable person he gives every appearance of being— for an actor. His priorities are clear, he makes choices now, he says, for home and stability. He takes months off each year to be with Will, who now lives in California.

“Anyone who has got kids finds it puts their whole world into perspective. The baby has been fantastic, the very best thing, the main thing.

“My life revolves around my two boys. Everything else pales into insignificance next to the things you really care about. I’m a dad who goes to work, but I’m a dad. If I do something, it’ll have to be something where I can have my children around me.”

When Colin was courting Livia, he told her Italian parents that he was a sex god in England in an attempt to impress. They laughed hysterically. “It was a time when people were telling me there was a heart-throb thing going on. They laughed in astonishment. When I first met her, they went to see a 1995 film called Circle of Friends. In it, appealing I am not.

“They threw up their hands in despair at this awful, ghastly, bloated, moustachioed English fool. And then when they saw Nostromo [a 1996 TV series adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel, on the South American shoot of which he met Livia] there was a genuine disbelief that anyone could find this man sexy. Italians don’t find reserve sexy.”

Indeed, lest anyone remain under the illusion that he is suave, he confesses that for Fever Pitch [1997], an adaptation of the love and football novel [sic] by Nick Hornby, in which Colin played an emotionally retarded, couch potato football fan, the costume designers had to look no further than Colin’s own wardrobe to find the right daggy, unfashionable clothes.

“My character’s clothes were all out of date and, I’m ashamed to say, they were mine. The costume designers searched high and low for unfashionable clothes, and then found them in my wardrobe.”

Manoeuvring the subject once again to the irresistible subject of Mr Darcy, it must have been deeply satisfying, I suggest, to beat up Hugh Grant, as his character did in a fight over Bridget Jones.

Colin raises one eyebrow sardonically, “Oh yeah,” he says. “I have been wanting to do that for years.”

The writer Helen Fielding was one of the millions of women who fell in love with Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice. Her best-selling Bridget Jones’s Diary was a modern day retelling of the story, written with Colin’s Mr Darcy in mind. It was no accident that Colin was cast, once again, as Mr Darcy in the film.

It was a joke within a joke, art intimating [sic] art, and parodying himself as Mr Darcy was a catharsis for Colin. Needless to say, he glowers magnificently in the reindeer sweater; requisitely dark, difficult, uptight.

“I found it intriguing that it reflected back on itself,” he has said. “It was a hall of mirrors for me, but it lifted the curse off the whole Darcy thing.”

A female journalist, going to interview Colin, was cautioned by a male friend who had worked with him not to be taken in by his “totally transparent mock modesty”. There may be something in that.

In the same way that there is always a lot going on underneath the repressed exterior of the characters he plays, there is something in the way talks about himself that makes you suspect that there would have to be a healthy degree of ego and narcissism underneath the self-deprecating persona he presents. Given the amount of praise he receives from women, it would be hard to avoid absorbing at least some of it.

This is confirmed in a jokey but telling aside by his co-star Scarlett Johannson, who lays the servant girl, Griet, in Girl with a Pearl Earring: “Colin has got such a huge ego he probably thinks he painted the paintings himself.”

And so we leave him in his surreal, pretend world of men in Flemish hats and women in tightly corseted brocade dresses, an exquisite work of art, smouldering among the sausages.

With thanks to MC and JaneC

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