As the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Firth makes his entrance not as one of Vermeer’s leering dandies but as a haunted man, hatted and cloaked, who seems to step from the shadows of a Rembrandt. The shot sets the tone for Vermeer’s chaste but manipulative relationship with an innocent serving girl, Griet (Scarlett Johansson), who, much more than his vain, invariably pregnant wife, is his soul mate. Peter Webber’s exquisitely rendered drama opens December, following the recently released Richard Curtis comedy, Love Actually, in one strand of which Firth plays another artist enamored of a maid.
Graham Fuller: I think it’s important I tell you my mother named her dog Darcy—in honor of Pride and Prejudice rather than Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Colin Firth: Are you kidding? Pride and Prejudice on the telly, or the book?
GF: On the telly.
CF: Good heavens. [sighs]
GF: You’re working on Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason?
CF: Yeah, we’ve just started that.
GF: You’re obviously playing Mark Darcy again, but who’s playing Colin Firth?
CF: That’s quite easy—there will be no Colin Firth. It’s never been contemplated that Bridget would interview me. It’s been rumored she would interview George Clooney or another actor instead, but that scene’s gone.
GF: Renée Zellweger says she’s going to be less passive as Bridget this time round. Any thoughts about Darcy?
CF: Part of me thinks, How do you prepare for a role you’ve done before? I’m very suspicious of it seeming too easy, because that way you let yourself in for a few shocks. I don’t think Darcy really exists as a fully rounded creature. He’s more of a suggestion, and it’s difficult to develop a character based on an enigma. If you want to see inside him, what you end up with, inevitably, if you do it properly, is an ordinary human being. But I think we have to be kept wondering about Darcy, so it’s a delicate balance.
GF: How did you go about finding Vermeer in Girl With a Pearl Earring?
CF: I never found him. It was a constant chase. There’s nothing that gets under your skin more than something you can’t quite get ’hold of, something that weaves a spell but doesn’t satisfy. I think that’s the experience you have in front of Vermeer’s paintings if they get to you. Many people think his paintings are serene. I don’t think they are, but you can’t say they’re disturbed. It means the experience of looking at them is constantly animated. I couldn’t quite nail Vermeer, but there comes a certain time on a certain day when you’ve got to get in front of the camera and just bloody act.
GF: As much as Vermeer changes Griet, she changes him. She has an understanding of art that no one else around him shares.
CF: He would’ve known other artists, so it’s not as if he wasn’t able to talk the talk with somebody, but I don’t think he expected companionship in that understanding, certainly not from a woman, and certainly not from the domestic help. His life as an artist is utterly separate from his home life, and entirely solitary, and Griet is the only person who penetrates it.
GF: An intense, almost entirely nonphysical intimacy evolves between them. There’s that scene when Vermeer is mixing paints with Griet and the little finger of your right hand hovers by the little finger of Scarlett’s left hand. If you’d put your hand on top of hers, it would’ve ruined the spell.
CF: You could blow it just by moving a millimeter. The director pointed out to me that because of the camera angle, people think our fingers touch, but they actually don’t. If we’d been shagging all day, it would be absolutely irrelevant whether our fingers were a millimeter apart or not.
GF: Vermeer doesn’t exploit Griet, but—
CF: —Well, he does in a way. Whereas Van Ruijven [Vermeer’s patron, played by Tom Wilkinson] would’ve violated her physically and traumatized her that way, Vermeer goes much deeper and has a much more lasting effect on her. There is a cruelty in his relationship with her. It was more noticeable in scenes where I was less patient with her, and more unpredictable and capricious, but those had to be cut. I had to take a breath after the scene where I pierce Griet'’ ear and walk away from her. Without needing to go into the symbolism of what the piercing means, it’s clear he’s finally got what he wants. She’s made a sacrifice, he’s drawn blood, she’s become the painting he wants—and she’s gone through God knows how many barriers to achieve that for him—and he’s given her nothing. She thinks he might kiss her, but he just goes back to the easel. Instead of breaking down in tears as a lesser actress would’ve done in a bid for an award nomination, Scarlett struggled with her emotions, swallowed them, and came back again to her dignity. It was fantastic to watch.
You could say that Vermeer gave Griet a gift as well, but who knows? Interestingly enough, in Tracy Chevalier’s take on it, this experience finished Vermeer off. He was dead within 10 years, and his work was never as good again. And what we know is that he died in despair.
GF: Who do you play in Love Actually?
CF: Much more of an ordinary bloke. He’s a successful thriller writer—a shy, diffident Englishman—who is betrayed by his lover and rents a cottage in France to get over it and work on his book. While he’s there, he falls in love with the Portuguese cleaning girl. They have a language barrier, and therein lies the humor. It’s a comedy of misunderstanding.
GF: What has been the long-term effect of Pride and Prejudice on your career? You know the heartthrob thing.
CF: I only think about it if I get asked in this sort of situation, and then I suddenly go, “Oh, I don’t know.” People have assumed I’ve been irritated by the strenuousness with which I’ve had to explain that I’m not bothered by it. [laughs] I’ve continued to keep my roles varied, though I tend to get noticed more when they’re more in line with Darcy. I can live with that. You shouldn’t be lofty about anything that raises your profile.
GF: People forget that after Pride and Prejudice you played the cuckold in The English Patient [in 1996].
CF: I loved playing that. It’s odd when people wonder if you think you’re getting the short end of the stick by playing a part like that. There’s nothing interesting about playing appealing, attractive characters who are always in control. Nothing. Not unless there’s some glitch or quirk in there, in which case you’re actually not what you seem to be. I’d look for the cuckold every time. And I did a film called My Life So Far  where I run around in a 1930s swimsuit, for God’s sake. I thought, if this doesn’t kill the heartthrob thing, nothing will. [laughs]
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