Gotham magazine (April 2003) by Clay Weiner
Firth and Foremost

Dashing British leading man Colin Firth opens up about Bridget Jones, Tony Blair, Mick Jagger, and much more.

Considering his nearly 20 years in the business, two Oscar-winning movies (Shakespeare In Love and The English Patient), and big-time blockbuster success with Bridget Jones’s Diary, you would think Colin Firth would be a household name in the US. Rather, he’s still best remembered as the man who hit Hugh Grant in the kisser over the winsome Ms. Jones. This month, his latest movie, What a Girl Wants, starring Amanda Bynes, hits theaters nationwide. “He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with,” says Bynes. “He brings so much to his character and the film.” When we sat down with the first gentleman of the screen, he shared his thoughts on playing British stereotype, concealing rage, and speaking one’s peace.

What does it feel like to be constantly pegged as the successful yet repressed and uptight British man?
It’s a paradox really. I realize that it looks that way from the outside, though I’m not seeing it so much myself. It’s been lingering since Darcy [his acclaimed, career-making performance in the BBC’s production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice]. I don’t mind it really, being typecast as British. When you are British, it doesn’t feel like being typecast at all.

If you were to play off type, what kind of roles would you most desire?
I’m about to do a film about a man suffering a nervous breakdown, which will be welcome new terrain. This recent picture, What A Girl Wants, is a return, I guess, to previous material, but it’s a fairy tale. I like to think that the cinema holds a place for dreaming, for escapism...I wouldn’t want to be always in that area, and at times there was a sentimentality that I resisted, but for that moment it was satisfying. The desire to be truthful and the desire to be too austere compete with one another. This was, after all, a movie for teenagers.

What happens when you sign on for a film, get halfway through it, and realize it’s a dog?
I’m very used to making the wrong call on things. I guess my instincts aren’t that good on that. Nobody’s are, or else we would all be making masterpieces. You can cut eight different movies from what you shoot, and often your vision of a project is not in line with the director’s. I think the reverse is also true; I have  seen beauty come from what I thought was rubbish.
It’s been rumored that you had a hand in convincing Renee Zellweger to reprise her role in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
No, I don’t know where that got out. It’s entirely not the case, and I suspect she is capable of making her own decisions.

When the movie industry thinks sequels, we often get paltry versions of a quality original. What was your reaction when Bridget Jones 2 was brought to the table?
In the abstract, my thoughts were quite negative. The word sequel conjures up dreaded thoughts. You ask yourself do you want to do a sequel about something you’ve already done? But then you read the story, and if the script transcends your skepticisms, you find a new affinity for it. In some respects, revisiting a familiar character is quite attractive to me. I’m not drawn to characters by how much they require a transformation. That might sound like an unusual thing for an actor to say, but what concerns me most is telling a story truthfully, not using a funny accent or changing my walk. Getting deep into characters can be relentlessly interesting.

One quality your movies have shared is managing to reach the heartstrings of women. What do you think women find so attractive about you?
I have no idea. I’d fall into all kinds of traps if I was to speculate on that matter. I suppose it’s inherent in the qualities my character possess. There is something charming when you see one thing but suspect something is bubbling underneath; the substance below becomes more alluring, more erotic for that reason. Many of my characters have personified that duality. In the same respect, such qualities endure simply as an English archetype. I had some Italian friends over here on a visit, and they couldn’t understand it. They thought if I was perceived as sexy, then who else? Does that make John Major sexy?

There is something subtle to your portrayals of men that goes beyond mere repression.
I look for twists. It isn’t just repression. They have to have a simmering below, a discomfort. You have to find it in the character. I find that what blocks people, their own limitations, most intriguing.

Is there a future for the English gentleman, or is that character a dying sentimentalism?
The English are an extremely polite people, but their reserve—this notion of the English gentleman—is a fairly recent ideal, only a few hundred years old. We have an enormous history of warfare, a high record of violence at home, we’re oversexed, like to drink a lot—all of which stems from the fact that there is a great deal of passion underneath. The archetype is now breaking down quite significantly with the past generations. Especially Mick Jagger and John Lennon. Those are the guys I want to emulate. The rock-and-roll culture still looms large.

How does English manhood compare to American manhood?
I think they are probably identical. Whenever I try to differentiate them, I can always think of an exception. There are macho jocks, sensitive poets, neo-fascists, and men’s-movement guys in both countries. Cliches tend to rule in movies. The one prevailing one is that every boy who ever went through English public school is gay.

Actors in the US have largely been quiet about their dissent regarding the potential war against Iraq, in part because many fear that being too political will kill their careers. For an actor with notoriety, is the climate in  Britain any easier? Do you hesitate to speak your mind on matters of  politics?
Yes. It is, period, easier to speak out in England. Although I have noticed it is easier now than 18 months ago in the US. I think the debate is far broader over here; the issues get explored further. The acting community is fairly quiet, it does seem, but not silent. It’s quite challenging to speak you mind on causes as a celebrity. You’re met with hostilities, as in “What gives your opinion any more weight than mine?” Or “What makes your opinion any more qualified?” But ultimately I decided I have opinions about it just as any citizen, and I need to share them. Having some celebrity, in the end it is pretty damn useless in the scope of changing world affairs. Being a businessman would probably be far more influential.

On that note, since when did England become the butler to whomever sits in our oval office?
It is the rather prevailing view, especially articulated by our political cartoonists here, but even Nelson Mandela has said likewise. It was very worrying, yes, that [Tony Blair] has tailored his policies so absolutely to the US, but then it is also quite uncomfortable, as you can see with Chirac, to take a position against the US.

Do you have a temper?
Yes. Acting is frightening; it is a very scary thing to do. It requires a bit of aggression, actually. For a child it is a perfectly natural thing to do, but not for an adult. There are all kinds of motives you can use to get to the point where you have the ability to pretend in front of others. Acting is something in which vanity will help you a lot. I’ve heard it said that to combat his stage fears, Lawrence Olivier used to insult the audiences in the wings before he would go on. I can understand that sort of impulse, above it being purely mechanical, as a technique.

Can you imagine your life today if you hadn’t found acting?
I could be living in a cardboard box, flipping burgers. I could have been locked up by now...I don’t know if I could see myself being successful at anything conventional. I didn’t shine at school. I certainly feel fortunate for it.


With thanks to Dorine

Please do not upload any images to your
own website, club, group or community's
photo album. Thank you.
Return to Index
Click on boots to contact me