UK Cinemas, August 23, 2003

What a Girl Wants

Interview with Colin Firth


It's a glorious Spring morning in London and all heads turnespecially those of the womenas Colin Firth walks through the lobby of a posh hotel. It's easy to see why. At 43, the 6-foot 1-inch hunky English star of 'Bridget Jones Diary' and 'Pride and Prejudice' is handsome and charismaticand instantly recognizable, even though today he's dressed in a simple black suit instead of a wet, frilly shirt over breeches.

The irony is that, even though he's here to promote his new film, the romantic comedy 'What A Girl Wants,' the sexy figure of Darcy is still stalking him, for Colin stars as Lord Henry Dashwood, a somewhat stuffy aristocrat. The big difference is that Henry has a secret wild past. And a secret daughter, Daphne (Amanda Bynes), an American teenager who yearns to meet the father she's never knowna man her bohemian mother (Kelly Preston) considers to be the great love of her life.

Here Colin talks about his new film, what's going on with Bridget Jones, weight issues and body images, motorbikes and mid-life crises, and his Sex Symbol status.

Did they have to bend your arm a little to do this film?

A little. It's set in a world that really doesn't exist, and it's probably not the kind of film I'd ever go to, but I was completely charmed by it, and any resistance I had to playing Lord Henry quickly evaporated once I met Dennie. I've played stuffed shirts before, but she's very persuasive, and she broke through my English reserve and quieter way of doing things right away. And then it also occurred to me that I'd never made a film I could take my own kids to, so I thought, why not? I've done romantic comedy before, but not for kids. Let's face it, Bridget Jones talks about anal sex. So it just seemed like a great project and so completely harmless that I felt any resistance I had to it was probably more to do with snobbery than anything else.

Any surprises playing Lord Henry?

The biggest one was realizing I'm now old enough to play the elder statesman to this beautiful teenage girl who's my daughter. That was a bit of a shock, and I have to say I'm not that comfortable with it. I'd rather have eased into it, playing dad to a baby, and then a five year old and so on. But I did get to express my own inner teenager in the scenes where I ride a motorcycle and play air guitar in front of a mirror. This is the first film I've done where I could get on a motorbike and like every teenage boy, I had a fantasy of playing in a rock 'n' roll band, so it didn't take much to bring all that back. I spent ten years of my youth like that.

What about working with Amanda?

I was incredibly impressed with her. She's right on the cusp of a very successful adult career, and she's very talented and mature and very experienced. That was the other shock, that even though she's so young, she's probably been on as many movie sets as I have in my 20 years in the business. It suddenly made me feel quite old.

This film parallels your own life in that you also have a son who's American and lives in L.A. with his mother (actress Meg Tilly). Could you relate?

Very much so. I think any parent will identify with this story, and I definitely did. I see my son quite a lot, but he doesn't live here, so it's a bit of the same feeling.

Henry is another 'strong, silent' type. Do you worry about being typecast?

I do and now I'm very careful about playing more of the strong, silent types. For a start, they can be very tediousboth to play and watch. It's great to do it every so often, like with Henry in this film, mixed up with other roles, but I think that losers are more interesting to play. The difficulty in failure and struggle and instabilityall that conflict is far more interesting to me as an actor and as a person.

What was it like working with Kelly Preston?

I wish we'd had more scenes together because she was so much fun to be around. I'm always a little cautious when I have to work with a Hollywood actor because from where I stand, Hollywood always seems like Mt. Olympus, and then she's married to John Travolta, one of the most famous people in the world. So you think, are they going to be aloof and different from me? But instead I met this stunningly beautiful, extremely warm and charming and entirely professional person. She was absolutely dazzling.

Did you get to meet John Travolta?

Sadly he didn't show up. I wanted to meet him but he was off flying jumbos at the time.

A sequel to Bridget Jones seems very much on the cards, have you seen a script yet?

Not yet, but there's been another recent flurry of activity, and a new deadline to deliver the script but I honestly don't know what the situation is. We'll all have a look at it but they won't make me do it if the script sucks. I think I have to treat it like any other script, because there's nothing especially appealing about doing a sequel and revisitng the role.

Even though so many people loved the first one?

Yes, and that can be the reason not to do a sequel, if it's not up to scratch. So, you've had a big success, we all loved it, so leave well alone and don't try to recapture the magic. But if the new script strikes out into new territory and is really fresh, then I'm more interested.

Do you want to play Darcy again?

Again, it depends entirely on the script. So far the pitch I'm getting on the new one is very encouraging. There are new characters and new areas to explore, and obviously it'll be based on the book. So instead of an unlikely couple finding each other, it'll be about their difficult relationship which goes under and then they have to rediscover each other.

Isn't it like a bizarre hall of mirrors, reading about yourself playing Darcy and then actually playing yourself?

That's exactly how it is. It's so much so that I can't even trace all the little kinks in it. There are so many levels of irony. It got to the point where in the second book there's this dreadful interview with Bridget Jones and me, and my poor mother thought it was a real interview. (Laughs) She even called me up to warn me.

Is Darcy a fantasy figure for women, or do men like that really exist?

He's a total fantasy. If you went to a party and met a guy who's really like Darcy, you'd think he was completely ridiculousa poseur. No one acts like that, except maybe an extremely self-conscious high school kid coming dressed in black.

Are you like the strong silent type in real life or a bit of a nerd?

Definitely a nerd! I'm a fairly dorky sort of person, If I went around trying to smoulder at people in real life they'd just laugh at me. That sort of thing only works in a drama.

It's been said you have already persuaded Renée Zellweger to pile on the pounds for a follow up. What exactly have you said to her about it?

(Laughs) I haven't said anything because it's not even a reality yet. And I don't have to tell Renée anything about playing Bridget Jones. One of the most bizarre spectacles on the first film was watching Renéethis young, very attractive Hollywood stardowning pint after pint of Guinness. It's not something you see very often. There are certain sorts of people who either don't care, or who like Bridget Jones will be mortified the next morning, but Renée was doing it aggressively, with gusto. And then Hugh and I, rather preciously, were desperately trying to reclaim our boyish figures at the age of 40.

What do you think of Renée's newfound mega-stardom?

It didn't come as any surprise to me, to be honest. Just from the moment I saw her in 'Jerry McGuire' I thought, she's got such an ability and is so spontaneous and real. She just jumps out from all the rest. And there's nobody even remotely similar to her in what she does. She's just so versatile, from Jerry McGuire to Bridget Jones to Nurse Betty to Chicago. She's an amazing talent, the real deal.

Do you ever feel envious of her success?

God no! Some actors' success is a surprise to me, and you do feel it's a bit like they won the lottery and just got lucky, but not hers. She deserves it all.

Renée complained after doing Bridget Jones about all the pressure on her to immediately lose the weight. What do you think of the Hollywood fashion for skinny "lollipop' women?

There's definitely a double standard I think when it comes to that, although there are pressure on men too. If you're known as 'Body Beautiful' you start to get penalized if you go to seed. But I imagine the pressures on women are so much worse and you only have to look at them. There are so many women in Hollywood who are staying thinner than can possibly be healthy. So the pressure must be overwhelming. And you often don't even know how thin these girls have got when you see them on screen, because the camera doesn't really show you the reality. It does add a few pounds and you look bigger on screen. But then when you go to an awards ceremony and you see what the girls really look like in the flesh, it's quite scary. You see all these beautiful girls who must be starving themselves. They have to be.

As a man, do you find that look attractive?

Not at all. And most guys I know wouldn't find that look attractive. I don't know whether it's because they're so worried about their body image, and how they photograph, or whether it's because of the huge bombardment of advertising with these really skinny models. Whatever the reason, it cannot be a good thing. It's not attractive, it's not healthy, and it's not sexy.

You've talked about how much sexier Renée was the size she was in Bridget Jones. Will you persuade her to pile on the pounds again?

I think she looks pretty amazing whatever size she is, and I don't actually know what size she is now as I haven't seen her since the film. But she didn't look fat to me as Bridgetnot at all. I thought she looked lovely, and it didn't even occur to me she was in any way overweight. And I don't think Bridget Jones is supposed to be fat. Part of the point is, how many women have you met who don't think they're fat? Most women seem to feel their bums are too big or their thighs or whatever. They're very harsh on themselves in one way or another, and usually make some judgment about their bodies that is certainly lost on me. So that's one of the ironies of it all. There's all this self- torture going on when it's not necessary. People's sense of what's attractive is not really based on that.

What would it take you to move to Hollywood full-time?

Unless something radical and unforeseeable happened, I'd never move therebut not because I don't like it. Just because I thrive on London. I love the city and it gives me so much stimulation, so a great deal would have to change in my life. I do like LA and I have a lot of friends there, but I'm so rooted here in London.

Has the "luvvie" tag attached to many British stars ever held you back from getting roles in Hollywood?

I don't think so. I think if you're right for the role, they'll cast you. Look at how many Brits are nominated at the Oscars every year. Hollywood's always been full of Brits.

How do you feel about becoming this big sex symbol? Do you still get women throwing themselves at you?

It all began with 'Pride and Prejudice,' and then went right over the top after 'Bridget Jones' came out, and it's utterly bizarre. Women shout at me on the street, and while I have no objection to it and it's not bizarre in a bad way, it is very peculiar. I think it would have misdirected me for life if it had happened on my first job when I was 23. I'd have had a very distorted image of who I was and what my power as an actor was, and have spent the rest of my life wondering why the hell it wasn't happening anymore. So luckily it came at the right point. I don't really understand it, but it's better than being ignored.

What's the one thing you have done in your life that goes against your image as the typical English gent?

Well, on this film I really got into riding the motorbike. It was my first time on a serious bike, and if you put a man my age on one, you're asking for a lot of trouble, because mid-life crisis beckons. In fact, I had serious, serious thoughts about getting bikes, and by the time we finished I was seriously thinking about buying not just one but a whole garageful of them. But the various disasters I had on the bike taught me that as the father of a young child, it'd be pretty irresponsible of me. So I sobered up. And they're not going to ever cast me in the Steve McQueen role in 'The Great Escape' or in The Jimmy Page Story, so this was probably as close as I'll ever get to those fantasies.

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