Flashback to the 90s, Colin Firth makes the hearts of English ladies beat faster, by wearing the britches of the shy but passionate Mr. Darcy in the TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. Among his fans, the writer Helen Fielding, who in the daily newspaper, the Independent, was writing a humorous column under the pseudonym, Bridget Jones. She was so taken with that portrayal of Darcy that, when she wrote the Diary, she decided to name the good boyfriend’s character Mark Darcy. And she was so taken with Colin Firth that, in the second book in the saga, she sends Bridget to interview Colin in Italy, just like me, and the disastrous journalist, in a serious pickle, makes one gaffe after another. In 2001, they made the Diary into a movie, and guess who Helen wanted to play Darcy? Colin Firth. When I met him, he was getting ready to begin work on the sequel, again co-starring with Renee Zellweger (Bridget) and Hugh Grant (the dog, Daniel Cleaver).
The first thing I did upon arriving at our meeting point, an inn in Umbria surrounded by lush greenery, was to make sure that I did not bring my Walkman instead of my tape recorder, as happened to Bridget. I was expecting to see a an aristocrat in country attire, but instead saw him driving a utility vehicle down a cypress-lined road on which he made the short trip from his in-laws’ house; parking, he came to meet me. When he laughed, his face beamed. I decided to verify if what I had read was true; that the interview with Bridget actually occurred.
What’s your favorite color?
He looked astounded and disappointed. Then he composed himself and seemed to clearly think that, after the craziest British journalist, he was saddled with the stupidest Italian journalist.
“What kind of question is that? I don’t know, Blue I guess…”
Correct answer. I should have gone to the next question (What’s your favorite dessert?) but was afraid that he would get really irritated and so I revealed my little game.
“Yes, the interview really happened. In Rome, at the Piazza Navona. My friend, Nick Hornby, the writer, introduced me to Helen Fielding, who was writing at the time in the Independent under the pseudonym of Bridget Jones. She asked if she could interview me under the guise of Bridget Jones and I accepted. It was really fun.”
Did you think a lot before taking the part of Mark Darcy?
“An awful lot. At the time, I had had enough of playing Pride and Prejudice’s Darcy. The public identified me only with that person and I had no more privacy. By playing Bridget Jones’s Mark Darcy, a character inspired by the other Darcy, I hoped to ridicule and liberate myself once and for all from the character.”
Instead you found yourself stuck with the name for the second time...
“That is exactly what happened. I never thought the film would be that successful.”
And now you’re filming the sequel.
“At first, I wasn’t thrilled. Hugh Grant has said that playing the same character more than once is like putting on a wet bathing suit.”
And is the sequel faithful to the book?
“Not really. The story
the last one ended, with Bridget and Mark Darcy together. She feels
again and thinks he’s fooling around with his secretary, until finally
they separate. Bridget makes a trip to Thailand, ending up in a mess
drugs, and having to defend herself from that dog, Daniel. But then I
to assure a happy ending.”
What thing has struck you about Italy?
“This sense of tradition. When I met my wife, I had to court her, present myself to her father. Before this, I had never met a 26-year-old woman who was still living with her parents.”
Have you ever thought about working with Italian directors?
“Yes, I would like to work with Giuseppe Piccioni one day.”
What don’t you like about our country?
“That they ignore basic driving rules but are so fastidious at the dinner table. My father-in-law is horrified and grimaces when I put pasta and meat on the same plate.”
Why did it end with Meg Tilly?
“We were together for four years in a log cabin in the forests of Canada, where she grew up. But I missed London. For two years I didn’t act; I just did odd jobs as a carpenter and being so cutoff from the world began to get to me. So I went back to England.”
Do you feel like a father?
“At one time, I thought I would never have children. I was afraid of losing my freedom. I had Will when I was very young, but separating myself from him was the most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life, even if I knew I would see him again. I think that children help us to be less egotistical; they force you to love something outside of yourself.”
Time for the wet shirt. Mention Pride and Prejudice to any Englishwoman and she’ll quickly tell you about the wet shirt. Even Bridget, in the interview, speaks of it obsessively. In the drama, the austere Darcy would never have a speck of dirt on him. But there is a scene where he dives into a lake and emerges with his shirt and pants clinging to his body. It was this image which turned Colin into a sex symbol, a characterization which he hates. I know this and I tease him.
You should be happy that I haven’t seen that shirt or I would risk jumping you as Bridget did in her interview.
Giving a forced laugh, “Look, I would like you to have seen that scene. but it was nothing extraordinary. I’ve been asked a thousand times why it produced such a reaction and I have concluded that it’s in the eye of the beholder: All Englishwomen are in love with Darcy, a man of repressed passions when clothed, but seeing him wet makes him appear vulnerable.”
Too cerebral. Maybe there’s a simpler explanation. You’re a good-looking guy with a great physique.
He dissembles. “I don’t play a lot of sports. I don’t think of myself as handsome, but rather ordinary. This is ideal for an actor because I can transform myself into what I want to be.”
“Not really. I know that I have something which attracts women. But it’s not something that I can see in the mirror.”
In real life are you a man of repressed passions like Darcy?
“I feel that I resemble him a lot.”
How do you attract a woman?
“It depends on the situation. I would rarely find myself in bed with someone immediately. Usually, we become friends first because I need to establish some sort of rapport.”
Now can I jump you?
“You would be the first
oops, the second.”
Photographs by Alberto Conti