Bridget Jones II is a closed set, which means that while Colin Firth is doing the ‘line-up’ for his latest scene, I am forced to sit in a freezing, grungy canteen with an overhead heater which seems to have been designed as a hair dryer for people over 6ft. Tall, lean, gangly people like Colin Firth.
Already he has stood me up several times. There was the occasion when I booked a flight down to London, only to find, moments before I left, that the date was off, though I decided to go and see his new film, Love Actually, anyway.
Then there was my current date, shifted from the warm chic of the Portobello Hotel to chilly Ealing Studios with its plastic table cloths, brown ketchup bottles, extras in Thai police uniforms and pale clouds of breath. Of course, it doesn’t help that I am wearing my short skirt. A bit of leg had seemed only right back in Edinburgh as I discussed my prospective date with jealous girlfriends, but here, it already seems wrong. Here, a short skirt seems all too Bridget Jones. As if I am play-acting a role as a follower in the cult of Firth.
By the time Firth arrives, I am pacing to keep warm. He blusters through the door, looking for all the world like Mark Darcy, the character he plays in the Bridget Jones films. He is dressed in a lawyerish pin-striped suit, pale blue shirt, tie pulled from round his neck. And he has that troubled, slightly constipated look about him. He is almost overly apologetic. “Have you come down from Edinburgh today?” he asks. “I’m so sorry about that. It’s been a very odd day because I’ve been doing the post-production dubbing for another film, which couldn’t be more different. It’s called Trauma. I’m just playing someone who’s very upset all the time. It’s about a guy in sort of emotional meltdown. I didn’t expect to be filming this today either. I thought we would be lounging in a hotel.”
He suggests that we move to his trailer which will be much warmer. I can’t help thinking of a few lines from the book of Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, when Bridget interviews the actor Colin Firth, Mr Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
“I think you’re exactly like Mr Darcy,” Bridget says.At this moment Colin Firth looks very like Mark Darcy. Not like Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, or like Jamie, the lovelorn writer he plays in Love Actually, or Judd the embittered public school Trotskyite he played in Another Country. But like the dull, repressed, smouldering Darcy of Bridget Jones, and it doesn’t make me swoon. I have to confess that, despite the short skirt, I’ve never caught the Firth mania.
Firth has been thinking a lot about Pride and Prejudice. “It’s very odd, you know, to have it as this ghost. It’s nearly ten years now and I do find it sort of bewildering. I’ve thought about it more in the last year than I’ve ever thought about it. Because it’s suddenly occurred to me how long it’s been and it’s still there. It’s only now that I’m seeing how bloody durable it is.
“We are, you know ... culture is saturated with stuff, we’re full of self-reference. So this film [Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason] quotes from something else that’s already out there, either the first film, or Pride And Prejudice. Everything is full of little homages to something or satires. And it occurred to me today because I was doing this dubbing – something that was very different – then one of the engineers said, ‘Oh, did someone say that the line sounded a bit Darcyish?’ I thought, God, ten years ago, I did that. That was my summer of 1994.”
Love Actually is the directorial debut of Richard Curtis, the screenwriter with the Midas touch responsible for Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’ Diary. It is an ensemble romantic comedy with a cast including Hugh Grant, Martine McCutcheon, Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson.
Firth plays a novelist, ditched by his girlfriend, who goes off to France to recover. There he meets and falls in love with a Portuguese housekeeper played by Lucia Moniz. In one of the film’s most romantic scenes, Moniz strips off and dives into a lake to fish out a manuscript he has been working on, echoing, I suggest, his own iconic soaking in Pride and Prejudice. “I don’t think that scene was written for me,” he says, shaking his head. “It was in place before I had the part.”
The scene in which Bridget Jones interviews Firth is in the book they are filming at the moment. In other words, Firth the actor is appearing in the film of a novel in which he appears as a character. How are they tackling this? “When does this article run?” he says, “because I find it very boring not to discuss the secrets. But I can assure you right now, as things stand, the character of Colin Firth does not exist in the film.”
Instead we talk about the actual interview Helen Fielding, author of the Bridget Jones novels, did with Firth, which formed the basis of the passage. “We had a friend in common through Nick Hornby,” Firth explains, “and he introduced us. She came to the set of Fever Pitch and then, I don’t know whose suggestion it was, but a call came from Nick suggesting that we do a Bridget interviews Colin, and I was living in Rome at the time and, in a way, though we staged it, it was pretty much verbatim. I thought she was remarkably faithful. The only difference is that she doesn’t let on that she’s the writer, Helen Fielding. And she very generously afterwards sent me faxes of the proof. Because it wasn’t a real interview. It was a little act we’d done together.”
Did she seem to have a Colin Firth crush, like Bridget does?
“How do I know?” he sighs.
“Can’t you tell?”
“No. No.” Firth’s eyes narrow at this point, as if bracing himself for a slew of humiliating questions about his ‘sex god’ status. He is 43 now and perhaps considers himself past all that. “I’d be delighted to think errrmm … obviously it would be flattering. But I don’t know. She doesn’t behave in a silly Bridget way at all.”
I tell him that out of the many women I talked to before the interview, I found only one who wasn’t a Firth-Darcy devotee.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s very difficult for me to answer any questions on this subject because I’m the last person who could have anything sensible to say about it.”
Firth has a resigned air, as if he’s given up on trying to convince the world he’s a serious actor, given up reminding them of his roles in Tumbledown, The English Patient and the forthcoming Girl With The Pearl Earring.
“Very often,” he says, “when I do something that’s different from Darcy it blends in and people don’t notice it. I quite like the occasional invisibility of an actor in certain things. You know, sometimes it’s one’s business not to shine.” There’s a pained, earnestness in his manner that verges on the comic. It’s not difficult to see why Rupert Everett might have clashed with him back when they were both acting in Another Country, when he complained that Firth was a “ghastly guitar-playing redbrick socialist who was going to give his first half-million away to charity”. Even now he is engaged in charitable and political causes (including campaigns for imprisoned asylum seekers) which he is reluctant to talk about.
“I’m not really that comfortable with doing it as a celebrity. I mean for years I’d much rather put leaflets through the door on my street. I spoke to someone recently who said, ‘I never think good of someone when they’re doing that. I just think it’s a kind of massage of your own conscience.’ Perhaps it is. I don’t know. But I think if you live in the west, you’re going to be living that paradox a bit. You are going to have to, you know, the inequality is there, there’s injustice in the world; do you have the right to have a nice day?”
His modesty is like a running gag. When I ask him if he sees all his own films, he says: “Yes, I do, sadly. One is obliged to see more of them. It’s not always a pleasant experience.” He constantly seems worried that something he’s just said may be ridiculous. For instance when he tells me he thinks it’s odd that when someone read back a quote from his short story (published in an anthology edited by Nick Hornby) he found the experience “horrific”, and adds, as if tired of his own voice, “Perhaps not that odd.”
He encourages me to talk about myself. “Moving on,” I say, but he insists on asking me about a book I’ve written. “What is it called?” It is difficult to tell if he is genuine. A journalist who recently interviewed him on the set of Girl With A Pearl Earring (in which he plays Johannes Vermeer), noted a telling aside by co-star Scarlett Johansson: “Colin has such a huge ego he probably thinks he painted the paintings himself.”
Firth grew up initially in Nigeria, then Britain and the United States. His father was a history lecturer, his mother taught comparative religions. Both were of missionary stock and grew up in India. Even now his mother still campaigns for the rights of asylum seekers, which is where he confesses he gets his worthiness from. Did it seem a rebellion then to do something so seemingly frivolous as acting?
“My family are so unorthodox I think the real rebellion would have been to become something much more … maybe gone into business, or gone into the armed forces or something. That would have been more strange for them. Although, my father has mentioned several times that I was the first actor he had met.”
I tell him I have heard that despite the money he must now be earning, he sticks to a fairly spartan lifestyle. “No, I’m not ascetic,” he says. “Absolutely no, I’m not. Well, I can be a bit. My family has a certain puritanism about it, because my parents grew up in India and they were all conscious of the need to conserve things, which is to do with their generation.” But he has no television? “That’s out of date. It was true. About ten years. I watch almost no television now, I watch news.”
He met his wife, the Italian producer, Livia Guiggioli, while on set of the mini-series, Nostromo, where she was then a production assistant, and married her in 1997. They now have two children – a two-year-old and four-month-old, and spend at least three months of the year in Rome. (He also has a son from a previous relationship with the American actress Meg Tilly, with whom he moved to British Columbia to live the wilderness life in a five-year break from his career.) What does Guiggioli think of his reputation as an object of desire?
“It just doesn’t come up any more. She thought it was as funny as everyone else at first. It wasn’t the Italians who couldn’t believe it. It was everyone who knew me. It actually was rather a funny time, and I don’t think I ever stopped feeling a bit numb about it really.”
Guiggioli’s parents, Firth explains, have always found it “vaguely ridiculous” that their son-in-law became such a screen idol. “It’s partly because when Livia and I met it was just a little bit pre-Pride And Prejudice and the only reference they had for it, was a film out in Italy at the time called Circle Of Friends, in which I play about as unattractive a character as you can get. A sort of mustachioed upper-class buffoon who pays for the abortion of a girl he gets into trouble. And, of course, they all went there to see this actor, and they came away, I think, probably in near despair. It confirmed everyone’s stereotypical idea of an unattractive Brit. Stuffy, humourless, rather stupid and a bit cruel.”
It’s not difficult to see why the Italians would struggle to relate to this stiff-upper-lipped Englishness. These days most English people, I suspect, don’t quite relate to it, except as a parody of some forgotten breed. Even Firth prefers to see himself as quite American. “I steered accidentally into the old-fashioned idea of the English persona. It’s partly having been away so much. Ex-pats do that. But actually I feel very largely rooted in America. Partly because my mother grew up there for so many years of her life. India and then Iowa for about seven years. And I spent some of my childhood in suburban America and I’ve been surrounded by Americans all my life. My eldest son is American.”
Even the culture he relates best to is American; his favourite author is William Faulkner. “One of the first things I would define myself with, is a passion for all sorts of Americana.”
In a way this makes sense. Only a not-very-English person could be this English. There is a knock at the door. Firth grips his tie and his loose collar – all that stands between him and the man he’s about to play. Any good jumpers in this film? I ask, “Trade secret,” he says. Then he apologises again, and that concerned look passes over his face. “Do you feel as if you’ve justified your trip down from Edinburgh? I’m so sorry it had to be so messy and everything.”
It’s so very Mark Darcy.
Return to Articles List