Firth then attended the Drama Centre London, which he described as a "tough school." There he studied a Stanislavsky/Strasberg-based curriculum, which was "very unconventional in English terms," he admitted. "It was very much motivated by the extraordinary personalities of the men who ran it; they were hugely charismatic and very powerful, and rather frightening teachers. It certainly galvanized a lot of us into taking our energies to a different level."
Also at Drama Centre he studied with Yat Malmgren, a student of the man who formalized dance notation, Rudolph Laban. Said Firth, "Yat took Laban's notation into acting. We studied movement psychology and its notation. We didn't use the notation particularly, but the notation is based on principles of putting psychological concepts into space, into action, into the physical world.
"It all sounds terribly alienating and full of shit, really, to people who don't subscribe to it," he continued. "I found that after a couple of years of it, it started to make an enormous amount of sense; it came as close as anything anybody really can to teaching acting. I think it's very hard to teach acting. You certainly can't teach talent. It made sense to me, and I still use it."
Another influence on Firth's early years was Christopher Fettes. "Best theatre director I ever worked with," the actor said. "He would constantly challenge you to ask questions, not only about your character and your performance but about what you're doing as an actor: Who are you doing it for? Are you alive enough to the world around you? Are you reading newspapers? Are you listening to voices? Are you going to galleries? Are you absorbing things that will stimulate you? And if not, why not? Why aren't you asking questions? Why aren't you pursuing things? What right do you have to be standing up and watched if you're not watching the world yourself?"
As Firth recalled, "It was an incredibly vigorous process, where you'd get rather pleased with yourself about what you were doing, and he would challenge you. He would give you cowardice. He would tell you to throw it all away. I remember, at one point, I thought I was doing extremely well. We were doing Tartuffe; he put a very dark spin on it. We'd been rehearsing for weeks. I felt quite smug about where I'd got to. At the end of one week he gave general notes, and he just said to me, 'I want you to come back on Monday with something different. I want you to throw it away. I want to see what happens.' And it was a torturous weekend. I just risked a completely different physicality. He was a healthy dose of a mixture of fear and respect that he engendered. He still has it over people even now."
Although he worked hard in drama school, Firth admitted that his first job came quite easily. "I didn't pay my dues in the sense of struggling to get employed," he said. "I think that is soul-destroying, and I admire anyone [who goes through it]." At his first audition, although the circumstances were daunting, he earned a role in a long-running West End production of Another Country that had also launched the careers of Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Day-Lewis, and James Wilby. Firth took over Day-Lewis's role.
"They held these enormous auditions," Firth said. "They put out ads in a stage newspaper. Thousands of boys came to try out. There were guys dressed—they tried to put the costume on, which doesn't sell, I don't think. And it's a really superbly bad idea; it's far too keen-looking. I think rules are a bit different here than they are in England. I think they like a bit of self-effacement and deference in England. If you were to sit before the director and were a bit skeptical about your own chances for the role, they tended to like that. Here you're out the door if you do that. Anyway, I got past first base. It was a classic thing. I don't know if it happens anymore, but it was the darkened auditorium and the light on the stage."
Firth said the opportunity provided him not only with the work but also with an Equity card and an agent. "Everything happened at once," he admitted. "So I have not paid my dues. I landed on my feet right from the beginning. And my second job was film version of that play."
Firth first came to the attention of American audiences when he portrayed Mr. Darcy in the BBC's 1995 miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Darcy's cool exterior couldn't quite hide a slowly burning love for the story's heroine; irritation at her uncouth family, frustration with her other potential suitors, and a warm brotherly heart counterpoised his character's apparent haughtiness.
The English Patient followed, in which he played the sadly accommodating and genial husband of Kristin Scott Thomas' passionate Katherine. In 1998 he played Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love, showing menace as he demanded the hand of Gwenyth Paltrow's Viola, showing humor as he skidded to an obsequious halt in front of Judi Dench's Elizabeth I. In Bridget Jones's Diary he earned Bridget's respect for his grounded, persistent nature; he earned ours for a sensitive, subtle limning of a seemingly bland good guy.
Yet he still reads for roles. "I haven't read anything in England for decades," the actor said. "Here, oh yes, and I probably still would again. A lot of the work I've done here, it's required. A lot of the work I didn't get required reading as well. I have failed on a grand scale."
And he, like so many actors, has exited auditions wishing he'd done something differently. "I've known I've had a bad day," said Firth. "I'm not a great auditioner, actually. I think I did one really good audition in my life, which got me started. I think most jobs I auditioned for I haven't got. It's just a different skill. It's almost a stupid thing to do—to audition actors. I don't know how much you can really tell. You can dazzle at an audition, and then you can't function for the length of a film shoot. Spielberg doesn't audition people, and I think that shows great confidence and wisdom."
On one occasion early in his career, he had the opportunity to watch other actors read for the role of Lewis Carroll in Dream Child, the story of the real Alice of Alice in Wonderland. "I watched four actors come in and, one after the other, be utterly brilliant," Firth said. "It was quite an amazing thing. I would not have wanted to make those choices. It was an extraordinary privilege to just watch completely different but brilliant interpretations by actors—one of whom is a continually successful actor, another of whom I never heard of again, and one who is a successful director.
Firth said he continues to use his drama school training but with additional techniques. "I'll take anything I can get," he admitted. "My school was a little bit purist about not working from the outside in. I've tended to disagree with that over the years. I think they made things very difficult. I had to play King Lear as a student. I was 19 years old. Particularly my kind of 19. There were two other actors playing the role; both were a lot more manly than I was at that age. They could grow facial hair, which I couldn't. They were big, which I wasn't. One of them was a rough Scotsman; the other was a big Canadian with an operatic voice. They grew beards. I couldn't grow a beard. And they wouldn't let me stick anything on. This was in our student production, and we weren't allowed any accessories or anything to help us. I knew that if I could have just done something—costume, beard, just something to help me suspend disbelief—that would have connected something with the inside, and I could have worked back out again. Mirrors were banned in my school, even in the dance school. There was one little mirror in the bathroom. They just didn't want you working according to the external imagery.
"And I think they're slightly misguided," he continued. "I think people can, if it works, use it. I really don't see any point in imposing something just to make an orthodoxy out of it. Forage. Go where you can. Copy. Steal from other actors. Find things in the street. I've sometimes found that I've been saved at the very last minute by hearing a voice in a bar that makes me think, That's useful. I haven't got a start for him; I haven't got a character; and I just heard this guy. It just gives me an idea. It gives me something to refer to. So I honestly think, Yeah, great, use disciplines, pursue them, and be as rigorous about them as you can. And I think it can be very rewarding. But cheat—all the time, if you need to, wherever you can. That's what I find you have to do. Your stimuli can come from the most unexpected places."
In person Firth is not unlike his screen persona--well spoken and gentlemanly. But he'll become uncharacteristically riled when asked about the on-set shenanigans of some actors. "What-on-earth job would tolerate people showing up late and behaving badly?" he began. "I don't see what on earth gives actors the right to behave any differently from anyone else. There's no need to. It's bullshit. There's absolutely no excuse for it, and nobody respects you. It does nothing but drag you down, and it makes your work worse. Just stay off that."
And a few minutes later he added, "I'm sorry, I just came back to the behavior thing. If you work in a bank or you're a policeman, no one's going to tolerate—you can't throw tantrums and show up late. It's just basic human respect, for one thing. It's embarrassing to watch people not behave themselves. And also, with filming, there's a lot of money riding on you if you're playing an important part in something. People are putting their necks on the line, and I think a bit of commitment is expected. People don't come out of their trailers, and stuff. I hate it. It really gets me. It pisses me off when I hear stories like that."
Firth must be doing everything right. His 2003 credits are numerous: the popular favorites Hope Springs and What a Girl Wants, the artistic gem Girl With a Pearl Earring, and the universally appealing Love Actually.
In Girl With a Pearl Earring he plays Johannes Vermeer—the 17th century Dutch artist whose 35 canvases brought painting out of the religious Gothic style and into a new world of color and light and simply portrayed secular people in daily activities. Firth likewise breaks ground here, crafting perhaps his deepest, darkest portrayal yet.
Indeed the film's director, Peter Webber, told BSW he cast Firth because he would bring a tenderness to the role. "And there's a mystery about him," Weller added. "He's both human and complex." As for Firth's performance, the director said, "You believe he's interested in the girl as a person. I knew he wouldn't overplay it."
Firth said he found the key stimulus for his character in the paintings. But he readily admitted it's difficult to explain the process of absorbing a character from an object. "And I don't know how much it helped, actually," he added. "I'm not saying one can. I think one can take what you can whenever you can. Christopher Fettes had us observe, when we were doing Tartuffe, any religious art from the Renaissance, partly because of the eroticism of them, the strange homoeroticism of some of these—the Caravaggios, even in the earlier stuff. They're very suggestive. It's just, I thought, this is a guy whose paintings withhold a great deal, and yet they contain enormous passion. He sets himself at a distance from his subject a lot of the time. They're works that refuse to give up their secrets. All I could do was hope to see the way he saw. I wouldn't have been able to do that if we didn't have his paintings to articulate what he saw. But I think he found--the value of an artist like Vermeer is like he saw with a unique eye, and he imparts that vision to us via the paintings. So I had that benefit. I could see these extraordinary soft surfaces, of garments and skin, removed from us, and I just thought, Well, don't try to act looks and attitudes; just forget the camera and try to see like that—and hope they capture them when they photograph it."
Those who've seen his portrayal of Vermeer would agree that Firth is at his natural best creating the aura of the mysterious painter.
In Love Actually Firth gives us perhaps his most buoyant portrayal yet. He plays a man disappointed in love who flees to the South of France to mend his heart while writing a crime novel. Firth's character slowly falls for his housekeeper. Neither speaks French—he speaks English, she speaks Portuguese. It's perhaps our first chance to see the actor at his most ebullient. And did all of his Stanislavsky training work for Firth's performance? Firth recalled, "I didn't think so much about it, to be honest. I just put myself in [director] Richard Curtis' hands and went to France and had a good time. Sometimes it's like that."
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