Evening Standard, May 8, 2003, by Genevieve Fox
Don't call me
Mention Colin Firth and most women will swoon, blush and think back fondly to that wet-shirt moment in Pride and Prejudice. Firth would rather they didn't. That was eight years ago.

They will also think of Hugh Grant, since the two are constantly compared. Firth would rather they didn't do that either because, as the 42-year-old pin-up is anxious to point out, he is not simply a laugh-a-minute box-office wonder boy. He can do "serious", too.

He reminds me during our interview at the Dorchester Hotel, that's all he did between leaving drama school in 1983 and playing Mr Darcy 12 years later. It is time, he feels, to get serious again.

There's no hope of that with his new movie, the romantic comedy Hope Springs. Blue-eyed, tousle-haired Firth plays yet another hopeless heart-throb, the sketch artist Colin Ware, who has just been jilted by his fiancée Vera (Minnie Driver) and is seduced by local nurse Mandy (Heather Graham).

Firth reflects on Ware's preposterous behaviour, with absurdity underlining the character's emotional vulnerability. "I find it irresistible that someone who is emotionally at rock bottom is able to be wry about themselves and maintain his sense of the absurd," he says in his quiet, clipped voice honed by a Hampshire childhood.

Although he feels it's time to move on and do serious roles again, Firth is anxious not to be seen as a soul-searching luvvie. "I tend to be earnest in interviews," says the son of lecturer parents, "because we go down a certain route, but I think humour and flippancy are important."

He can do more than that, though. His non-comic roles have included Falklands War survivor Robert Lawrence in Tumbledown, a pilot in The English Patient and a Nazi in the BBC's Conspiracy. Soon we'll see him play the painter Johannes Vermeer in the forthcoming film of Tracy Chevalier's novel, Girl With a Pearl Earring—"not," as he puts it, "a barrel of laughs."

The trouble is, it is the comic blockbusters, such as Bridget Jones's Diary, that we remember him for, hence his unshakeable reputation as a poor man's Hugh Grant. Firth insists they are not in competition. "I can't touch his territory, really," he says. "I know that the part I am playing would stand on its own, but because Hugh exists everything is compared to him.

"I remember thinking when I first saw Four Weddings, that might have been my territory and I am sure Hugh has written his name on it forever now. He does it with such flair—there's nobody who touches him. I find him good fun to be around. I don't think we could ever be in serious competition."

The two are together in Love Actually, Richard Curtis's comedy which opens later this year. "When we met up on set we went through a recap on how our year had been. I asked him about his latest film and he said something like, 'The good news for you was that it went down badly with the test audience.' It's all handled in good spirit."

Hugh Grant is hearty in real life and as funny as his on-screen characters. Firth, whether he likes it or not, goes a bit deeper. He's spokesperson for Oxfam and is an advocate of Fair Trade. People listen to celebrities, he says about his role; they do not listen to disadvantaged coffee traders in the Third World.

He is also a self-confessed member of the "work just pays the bills" club. Firth has two sons, Will, 12, by his first wife, actress Meg Tilly, and Luca, two, by his second wife, Livia Giuggioli, an Italian film producer whom he met on the set of Nostromo in 1995 and married two years later. "There's a way in which children take the pressure off the work," says Firth. "Suddenly it's not that important."

As for how he meets those family commitments, "it's been a juggle, ever since children came into it", he says. "I would choose not to take the job that means eight months in Honduras if I can do a job which is here." Livia, he says, "is a complete example of patience".

Firth was sent a copy of New Cardiff, the novel by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate) on which Hope Springs is based, by his friend Nick Hornby. "The dialogue," he enthuses, "is written with such élan," adding that he writes fiction himself when he can. But he's not giving up the day job yet. 

"It's all rather convenient to have other strings to your bow. I would love to write stories and I do have a go, but then a job comes up. It's something I enjoy, but things remain in drawers. It's a fantasy, not an ambition." 

Female fans with their own fantasies to take care of will breathe a sigh of relief. As for Colin, he may be a funny man trying to break free, but his public image is not keeping him awake at night. He's too grounded and self-deprecating for that. He also knows when he's on to a good thing. 

When he finished filming Hope Springs, he had enjoyed himself so much he didn't want to leave. "I chased after that job and loved it. I went away feeling if you get paid to do that, life's not too shabby." If you're Colin Firth, I don't suppose it is. 

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