Colin Firth is best known for roles as dashing aristocrats and well-heeled heroes, but in his latest film, What A Girl Wants, he plays a rather starchy father and politician, Henry Dashwood. and for once, the female lead is not a thirtysomething singleton, but an American teenager. Daphne Reynold (17-year-old Amanda Bynes) is the product of a relationship Dashwood once had with a bohemian American (played by Kelly Preston). When the spirited teen hops on a plane to London in search of her long-lost father, a fairy-tale-like adventure begins.
When Colin did his research on his co-star, he discovered her to be a prodigious talent who had her own TV programme. The Amanda Show, at the age of 13. “She is a massive star to a particular demographic,” says Colin, who will be 43 in September. “I didn’t know her really, but my kids did.”
The kids are 12-year-old Will, from his relationship with American actress Meg Tilly, and two-year-old Luca, with Italian wife Livia.
And they may even be able to see Daddy in What A Girl Wants. As a rule, his sons aren’t allowed to watch their father’s work. “We decided not to do that. When he [Will] was very young, I didn’t want it to be confusing, to see me in strange situations, and to have to explain the difference between reality and fiction. He has seen things now. He’s been on an aeroplane when they have shown something. You can’t control that. It is a bit freaky. I wasn’t there at the time. He was about three and stood up and shouted, “That’s my daddy!”
Until now, Colin has been known for playing virtually unattached and most assuredly childless guys such as Jack in The Importance Of Being Earnest and football-mad Paul in Fever Pitch. His Darcy characters, in both Pride And Prejudice and Bridget Jones’s Diary, are bachelors who appear tough nuts to crack, and they’re his most celebrated performances. But being a father, he admits, has softened him up, although he insists it’s not just his youngest son’s arrival that has made him appreciate the bond of fatherhood.
“I’ve been a father for some years and they’ve changed me completely,” reveals Colin. “It [having a child] surprised me enormously because I associated it with tedium, old age, comfort and death. and it couldn’t be less like that. It was an invigorating, frightening upheaval. It’s the most unpredictably wild thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t think babies were about that. The whole business of becoming a dad put me up against my limitations the way I never thought possible [and] gave me a different picture of the person I thought I was.
“There was much more in me that I liked and didn’t like. You can’t just do what you want. You can’t call your agent when they make a fuss and make life inconvenient for you. It’s all on their terms and their schedule and you can’t sleep when you want and you can’t be impatient when you want to be.”
Colin says Luca’s birth also changed the nature of his relationship with Livia, a production coordinator-turned- documentary producer, who he met on the set of TV series Nostromo in Colombia in 1996. “I don’t want to get too specific with my actual relationship, but I think that it deepens things. I almost can’t remember what it was like before.”
Marrying an Italian has given the actor’s life an unexpected bonus. “Italy has become a big part of my life now,” he enthusiastically explains. “I love it. It’s a huge blessing. I sort of married a whole family and whole country. And learning Italian is a huge bonus that came at the time that I didn’t expect. I thought I was doomed to be unilingual for the rest of my life like most Englishmen.”
It’s become expected that our best actors are eventually enticed over to Hollywood, but Colin is not easily seduced. “Hollywood hasn’t aggressively pursued me. Neither have I aggressively pursued Hollywood. So it’s a mixture of both. I think England has served me very well. I like living in London. I have absolutely no intentions of cutting those ties. There is absolutely no reason to do so. Certainly not so that I can have a swimming pool and a palm tree.”
He has, however, been enticed into one very Hollywood thing—a sequel—and is in London for the rest of 2003 filming Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason with Renée Zellweger. “I think everyone feels exactly the same about the sequel. It’s worth doing if it’s brilliant, otherwise you go into sequel purgatory, really,” says Colin.
“The first film is still so fresh in everyone’s minds,” he adds. “That’s what makes it so difficult to put together, because you really need the same three people to be available at the same time. That’s a challenge.”
For fans who can’t wait until 2004 to see Colin reprise his Mark Darcy role, he’s co-starring with Hugh Grant in Love, Actually, the directorial debut of Richard Curtis (who co-wrote the screenplay for Bridget Jones’s Diary),out at the end of the year.
Still bemusing to Colin is the legacy of his career-breakthrough performance as Mr Darcy in Pride And Prejudice, and the ongoing fan mail he receives because of the famous wet shirt scene. “I remember guys writing to me saying, ‘How do you do it? I dive into an old pond and come out in a wet shirt and my wife gives me a rollocking’ and I’d have the same problem. My wife wouldn’t start melting sexually if I came home in a wet shirt.”
That defining moment in his career happened by accident, reveals Colin. “The original script had Darcy diving naked into that pond. But the BBC crossed it out. It wasn’t easy for them either, because then what do we do? What about underpants? That would have been a disaster too. and when we filmed it, I didn’t think anything about it. All this talk about a transparent shirt, clinging to these contours which I really don’t have. It’s not even particularly transparent; it looks like an old sack to me. I still don’t understand. I think people’s imaginations must be very strong!”
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