* * * * * E x c l u s i v e * * * * *
An Englishman in Rome (part 1)
by Marco Spagnoli* (2/6/03)
translation by Antonella

Colin Firth is an extraordinary gentleman. Elegant, modest and above all kind. With a deeply ironical sense, he stands out for the interesting and thoughtful way he presents himself. He is not only the sex symbol that everybody wants to be but, behind the looks and charm, there is something more that gives you an impression of real charisma. Fresh from the success of Bridget Jones’ s Diary, Colin Firth has just finished filming Girl with a Pearl Earring based on Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. In Rome to promote the very amusing film, The Importance of Being Earnest, co-starring Rupert Everett and directed by Oliver Parker, Colin Firth describes his experience as an artiste and actor with admirable far-sightedness and charm.

Your career is similar, in some aspects, to Humphrey Bogart’s. At the beginning, he played bad guys or, anyway, not very likeable characters. What happened to transform you into a leading man?
When you are young, you usually start by playing heroes, characters that are, unfortunately, often very boring. Then, when you get older, you start getting different roles, perhaps as a “baddie,” a madman or an eccentric, which are always more interesting. The opposite happened to me.  At the beginning I was the baddie or paranoid one, while now after the success of Pride and Prejudice on television, I have been given the opportunity of playing other leading roles. The first big opportunity was in Bridget Jones’ s Diary. Although I am very grateful for this kind of work, I think that these are often less amusing characters. That’s why in my next film I might well go back to playing the role of a paranoid.

Speaking of Darcy, the character that made you a star, it is said that you don’t even want to hear the name…
This is absolute nonsense.  From the beginning this was alleged and this has been perpetuated.  I have never in my life said anything bad about a role that brought me so much luck. In every interview I talk positively about it, and then when I read the article I find out that the journalist has put unpleasant words in my mouth about the Darcy character. Therefore, whenever I give an interview I have to say something like: “Ok, I’m very happy with that role…etc., etc.” Otherwise I risk being misunderstood and, once more, having to read the “Colin Firth rejects Darcy” kind of article.

Since we’ve never seen the TV series in Italy, we are rather immune to your success.  Rowan Atkinson, who is also married to an Italian, has prevented the sale of any Mr. Bean films from showing in our country so as to have a quiet place to spend his holidays…
Italy means the same to me: I can easily go around here without anybody recognising me.

What do you like about Italy?
Many things that seem clichéd: the food, the weather, the music. Once, I remember meeting three American girls, who used to come to Italy for long holidays together; each had her own personal reason. One liked to come here for the fashion, another for the Renaissance architecture and the third one for the food.  They were forgetting the opera, sculpture, the countryside, the language…

What don’t you like?
Well, Italian contemporary music…but not much else. It is very difficult to find something that you really don’t like. I think that it is the most amiable and beloved country in the world.

In The Importance of Being Earnest you worked with Rupert Everett again many years after Another Country. How was it?
It is very difficult to measure the artistic chemistry you can achieve with another actor. Generally, you can only strive for the possibility that something special will occur between the two of you. There are occasions in which something almost paradoxical takes place: you are a great friend of the person who’s acting with you but on screen there is no positive chemistry. You can hate a person and on screen you seem like the greatest friends in the world. And it is almost impossible to foresee something like that. Rupert and I worked together twenty years ago and we played the roles of two great friends. In real life we disliked each other. Now, after almost two decades, I was very curious to find out how we could work together again.

From the moment we greeted each other, I realised that something special would happen on set, by virtue of our past history and therefore on screen as well. A lot depended on the spontaneity of the moment: Rupert is the most spontaneous actor I know.

Why did you hate each other?
Because he considered me to be too serious and boring, too earnest and lacking a sense of humour. I though he was excessively sophisticated. Hate is too strong a word. Let’s say that outside the set we didn’t get on very well.

What has changed between you two?
Let’s say that Rupert has become maybe not more serious but more tolerant. I’ve learnt to pretend to be more sophisticated.

It is also your second time with Judi Dench after Shakespeare in Love
It’s marvellous, even though there has been the same relationship between our two characters: I am the sfigato [he says it in Italian and it means “the unlucky one”], always very afraid and the one who puts up with everything from her.

Before Oliver Parker’s film, had you ever played Oscar Wilde?
No, I am the only English person who has never performed in any of Oscar Wilde’s plays. I don’t say only English actor, but really English citizen. Everybody acts in one of Wilde’s plays at least once in his life but it had never happened to me before. Even though you might work in a bank, you might have played Oscar Wilde at school…I didn’t. I liked taking it onto the big screen very much, but in the theatre it is completely different. It is not the same discipline, it loses a lot and takes on something which doesn’t belong to it. In the cinema you are freer, since you don’t feel the formality of the stage and you can be more spontaneous. You can speak in a quieter, subtler tone of voice, though you cannot recreate the same Wildean energy as in the theatre.

Who do you feel closer to: Jack or Ernest?
Neither of them. If I had to choose, maybe Ernest, as Jack is a boring man who lives in the country. However I like his search for an identity. This is something close to me in my profession as an actor. It is easy to understand what motivates him to search for his past.  But, as an actor, I don’t think I need to create a secret identity to avoid life.

Have you have had an actor as a role model?
There were certain moments in my youth when a particular performance managed to alter completely my perception of what it means to be an actor. At the beginning, I naïvely thought the secret of acting was linked to make-up, costume and movement. Later I changed my mind. When I saw Paul Scofield playing Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons I under- stood what acting really meant and what could be achieved in the art of acting. It was a shock for me. He didn’t act much with words, but he used his body a lot. For the first time in my life, it seemed possible to read someone else’s thoughts. It was the first time I had a deep percep- tion of the integrity and awareness of that person. His mode of acting had a substance of a speculative and almost philosophical nature, able to transmit huge emotions to the audience. What was more interesting was the paradoxical aspect of all this. Acting is by definition a lie. This man suggested, on the other hand, that it was pure truth. It is an element which today’s young actors don’t have but that you can find in other actors of the past like, for example, Spencer Tracy or in older ones of my generation such as Robert Duvall. This is the kind of work I admire and would like to reproduce in my acting. This is much more interesting than many other aspects of acting: to be able to sustain inner complexity. The dressing up is nothing compared to all of that.

You have worked with many young actresses with great talent: Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Ehle, Renée Zellweger and Minnie Driver. Is there any of them you would particularly bet on?
It is not easy to answer that. I’ve been very lucky, as I worked with extremely good actresses, even though it has been a while since I’ve worked with an English actress. They are all American [sic] and all very clever. However if I had to bet on the future of one rather than another I think I would name Scarlett Johansson with whom I filmed Girl with a Pearl Earring. She is extraordinarily talented and she’s younger than the others. I think that she will end up being a director. Everybody loves her; on set she was the apple of everybody’s eye for her beauty, youth and pleasantness. She is a very serious, professional actress who takes her responsibilities very seriously.

Continue to Part 2

©All photos by M Spagnoli
and provided exclusively to www.colinfirth.com

* Film critic for numerous Italian magazines and web sites: Il giornale dello spettacolo, Vivilcinema, Time Out – Rome & Milan, www.cinema.it


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