Marie Claire (UK) December 2003, by Charlotte Moore

Breeches off—
it's bathtime
 
 
 

Despite a host of new roles, actor Colin Firth can’t shake his image as a brooding romantic hero. But with his two latest movies, asks Charlotte Moore, is he finally about to escape that famous wet shirt?
 

 

Colin Firth is very wet. Excitable girls, and one or two boys, are rushing around breathlessly offering towels and thick, warm dressing gowns, but he’s in no hurry to step out of his alfresco bath.

The man who sparked a million water-cooler conversations with his wet-look Mr Darcy appeas to be at his most relaxed in a sodden state of dress. And although a beaten-up bath in rainy Deptford may be a million miles from Jane Austen’s ornamental pond, to all those present on the Marie Claire photo shoot, the moment is every bit as sexy.

Not that Colin isn’t attractive when dry. At first sight, he’s tall, broad and elegant and his European tan (he has just been to Italy with his wife and two children) gives him that necessary spritz of movie-star glamour. But initially, the sex-god status he’s known for is not all that apparent. Before his bath, when we meet to do the interview, he greets me with a British nod and a wide but shy smile. At 43, he doesn’t seem flirty, mysterious or brooding, and although he comes across as nice, visible swooning is not in evidence on the Marie Claire set.

He’s here to discuss his next two roles: as a cuckolded writer in Richard Curtis’s next big romrom, Love Actually, and as the moody seventeenth-century artist Vermeer in the ever-so-much-more serious Girl With a Pearl Earring. And that’s just what he wants to do. While ‘his people’—the publicists for both films— buzz around checking he’s happy to do the interview in a decrepit old attic, he trots up the stairs and gets on with it, stopping only to accept an ugly-looking mug of PG.

‘My roots are definitely here,’ he says when asked whether he’s drawn to Hollywood glamour. With his blokeish wavy hair, jeans and jumper and low-key manner, it is pretty tricky to envisage him cosying up to Brad and Jen at a Los Angeles cocktail party. He admits, however, that he’s more confident than he once was. ‘I used to shy away from premières and industry parties but, last year, I found myself at the Bafta awards with that feeling that one always gets when surrounded by famous people you don’t know, when I suddenly realised, “I know these people now! I’ve worked with them, I’ve  had dinner with them, it’s no longer polite smiles at all.’”

That he surprises himself is ludicrous. Ever since 14 million of us gaped at him as he played Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride And Prejudice, Colin Firth has become hugely famous—something of an icon as the archetypal romantic hero. He has starred in some ultra-popular movies (The English Patient, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Fever Pitch, The Importance Of Being Earnest) alongside some of Britain’s biggest names (Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Hugh Grant). And efven now, eight years after Mr Darcy, women of all ages visibly ripple with pleasure at the mention of Colin’s name.

‘It is odd,’ he says, when I ask how people respond to him. ‘They think they know all about you, when actually all the information is from magazines, and those are probably things I said once that I no longer think or believe.’ One thing that has often been said about Colin Firth is that he’s earnest. And it is true that, rather than talk trivia, our conversation quickly drifts towards the serious. He admits that, when he decided to be an actor, he felt he had to have ‘very serious reasons’ for doing it, and embarked on a ‘very earnest’ theatrical career. ‘If I were to have harboured a secret hope that it might turn into something more luminous, I would have thought it out of reach,’ he says.

To enjoy working on a film such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, there must, I implore, be a sillier side to Colin Firth. ‘Yes,’ he agrees, ‘I have got a very silly side, but it’s probably harder to bring that out in interviews.’ He grins with a smile that suggests there is a naughtiness lurking beneath his thoughtful exterior. ‘It took me years to do anything that seemed remotely approaching comedy, and then suddenly it seemed to be all I was doing. But I do feel very much at home in drama.’

Colin spent the first four years of his life in Nigeria. When I ask whether his family were theatrical, he reveals his wry sense of humour and says, ‘They were largely comprised of teachers, church ministers and doctors. All of whom could be said to have enormous egos in many ways.’

Throughout his childhood, his family moved often. The acting came about, he says bluntly, ‘because I was a show-off and I like getting the attention and loved stories, fantasy and role-play’. Was showing off his way of getting in with a new crowd? ‘I expect that was exactly it,’ he admits, smiling.  

But although he chats with verve and passion about his professional life, Colin doesn’t do confessional. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, ‘talking about my wife and family is not something I want to get into very much.’ A rule he instantly breaks when I let slip I’ve had a sleepless night with my own two-month-old baby. ‘Oh, me too,’ he says, his face gleaming with enthusiasm. “I was seriously wondering whether I would make any sense at all today.’

The new baby is Colin’s second son with Livia Giuggioli, whom he met on the set of Nostromo in 1995 and married two years later. He has another son by his ex-partner, the actress Meg Tilly.

‘You do worry that you’re not giving them enough time,’ he says. ‘I think anyone with family has regrets to some extent—you’d like to be a better father, a better son, a better brother. I read this wonderful poem by an actress who said that whenever she screws up with her kids, she puts money in a jar and says, “That’s for your therapy.” There is something reassuring about that, because you will fuck up and it’s just inevitable.’

These days, his success means that he has more control over the time he spends working away from his family. When he was filming Love Actually—a series of intertwined romantic stories starring the cream of British acting talent, including Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Martine McCutcheon—he got away with being a special case and made it a condition to be out early’. He mutters modestly, ‘It was like falling off a log—nice people, holiday in the south of France.’

But Girl With A Pearl Earring, based on the best-selling Tracy Chevalier novel, couldn’t be a  more different cinematic experience. Set in the gruelling world of seventeenth-century Holland, the film explores the relationship between Vermeer and his servant girl/muse (played brilliantly by up-and-coming starlet Scarlett Johansson).

But no matter how much audiences will enjoy these films, it’s still Darcy that Colin is remembered for. What was it like when his wet-shirted emergence was voted one of the greatest television moments of the twentieth century? Rather than rolling his eyes with boredom, he doesn’t seem to mind talking Darcy at all. ‘I’ve said this before, but if you say a word enough times, it loses its meaning, and Darcy was become like that for me now. When I was playing the Darcy-based character in Bridget, I had to go and watch Pride And Prejudice to get a grasp on who this character was that everyone went on about,’ he says.

How did he feel about the ensuing female outcry when he swapped his breeches for Arsenal boxer shorts to play Nick Hornby'’ lacklustre football fan in Fever Pitch?

‘Because I’m Mr Darcy, and I own half of Derbyshire and ride around on horses,’ he laughs, ‘people thought it must have been a huge stretch to play somebody who is basically from the same social class as I am, and who lives in the same part of London that I do,’ But on the whole, he refuses to make comparisons between his own character and his screen roles. ‘The whole point of being an actor is that you can put on a mask,’ he says.

Throughout the course of the interview, I do glean that the real Colin Firth cherishes living in London, and has recently ‘fallen in love with a new piece of Italy, too’; that he’s an insatiable bookworm, but is a terribly slow reader to the point where ‘I suspect I might have dyslexia’; he cooks up a ‘bloody good curry’; is dabbling in writing a book, but hasn’t got the self-discipline. I learn that he does, despite media speculation, like Hugh Grant, ‘although we’ve never socialised’. But it’s only much later, when he jumps in the bath, fully clothed in the pouring rain, leans back and closes his eyes, that I discover just how Colin Firth became a sex god.

Love Actually is out on 21 November; Girl with A Pearl Earring is released on 16 January. 


Photographs by Jamie Kingham; more photos from that shoot here

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