W, November 2003 by Samantha Conti

Going Dutch


Colin Firth, the thinking woman' s sex symbol,
stars in a new film as painter Johannes Vermeer


When Colin Firth's female friends found out he'd been cast as high-born hunk Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the reaction ranged from uproarious laughter to utter disbelief. "I don't look like a heartthrob to most people I know, to be honest," Firth explains with a big, amused smile, sitting in the low-ceilinged breakfast room of London's Portobello Hotel. "At the time, none of the girls I knew wanted me to play Mr. Darcy. They said, 'You'll ruin it forever, Colin Mr. Darcy is supposed to be sexy. In Italy, where Firth' s wife, Livia Giuggioli, is from, the response was even worse. A friend watched a few minutes of Firth as Darcy, sporting the breeches, billowy white shirt and sideburns that made generations of women across the UK and the United States quiver with longing, and asked: "Do the English find this sexy? Do they also find John Major sexy?"

Fans will be happy to know that Firth is back in period costume—donning shaggy, shoulder-length wig and inky-blue capes and trousers—for his role as Johannes Vermeer in the sensual drama Girl With a Pearl Earring, opening in December. But first he'll appear in the star-packed Love Actually, a film written and directed by Richard Curtis of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary fame, which examines l0 different love affairs. Next year, he'll star in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and in Trauma, a psychological drama about the spooked survivor of a car crash.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, based on Tracy Chevalier's novel, is about a young servant named Griet who fuels the artist's imagination, upsets the Vermeer household and becomes the subject of one of the 17th-century Dutch Master's best-known paintings. The film wasn't an easy one to make, not least because so little is known about the artist. "It was very difficult to nail anything—Vermeer's character is utterly elusive," Firth explains, sipping a glass of water. "We don't even know what he looked like, so it made the exercise a completely creative one for Tracy Chevalier and for the rest of us as well." Vermeer's paintings are equally enigmatic. "It's hard to talk about any paintings without sounding airy fairy, but there's something else going on in those works that's difficult to describe," Firth says. You can call them jarring, restless, but that doesn't do. I found myself constantly in motion trying to chase after what it is."

So he took the practical approach and traveled with the crew to Delft, where the film is set, to see paint colors being ground and mixed in an old mill. "There's a line in the film about a painting being glazed with piss. Well, it's amazing the amount of stuff that's made from beetle shit or the urine of some animal," he reports. "And how much it takes to turn it into usable color." Firth also tried his hand at painting. "A lot of the interest one takes in this stuff is quite nerdy, and I don't know whether it helps the performance" he admits. "It all may just be rather masturbatory, but it made the experience more interesting for me."

The dialogue in the film is spare, and as in Vermeer's painting, much of the drama is conveyed via gestures, glances and innuendo. That's one of the reasons director Peter Webber—in his first feature film—picked Firth. "He's a bloody great actor," says Webber. "There' s not much to get your fingers into in this role, and I knew Colin wouldn't overemote to compensate for that. He also has a mystery, a dignity, a sternness and a romantic sexuality that' s particularly appealing to women."

Firth' s character in Love Actually also gets involved with the help. He plays a heartbroken novelist who moves from London to the South of France and falls for his Portuguese housekeeper. Because there are so many stories unfolding, none of the cast members, who include fellow heartthrobs Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman, as well as Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley, are onscreen for long, but Firth didn't mind at all. There's a real sense of event about this film—it wasn't going to be run of the mill, notes the Hampshire-born actor. "Richard Curtis taking a risk like that—taking all of his story ideas out of the drawer and just spending them—a cast like that and three weeks' work. What' s to lose?"

Tim Bevan, cofounder of Working Tide Films and the producer of Love Actually, believes that this year will be a watershed for Firth. "There are three English actors who can open pictures worldwide, and they are Hugh Grant,. Rowan Atkinson and Jude Law," says Bevan. "Colin is biting at their ankles. It' s just a question of getting him in the right pictures, maybe casting him opposite Julia Roberts. And I'm not saying that to denigrate Hugh Grant." Asked if Firth's age—he turned 43 in September—would be a barrier, Bevan said no. "In England, young kids, with the exception maybe of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, don't become stars. They do their apprenticeships—like Colin. For him, it's not too late at all for megabucks stardom."

Firth himself remembers wondering after Four Weddings and a Funeral came out what would have happened if Grant' s role had gone to him. "It was an observation," Firth says, "maybe, had the part come my way, I would have done something different with it, and the film wouldn't have had anything like the success it had." He acknowledges that he's occasionally been accused of imitating Grant. "I'm talking about the slightly blustery quality—that's something I have done in the past," he says. "You know, the slightly embarrassed Englishman trying to find his words—now that's a lot of us, that's general shtick Hugh may have staked it out, but he didn't invent it. He just represents it brilliantly, and with far more charm than I would be capable of doing. I think he is a master at what he does. He has a talent that is very easily underrated because it's comic and because it's popular. I've watched him work There's a craft going on there, it's not shtick."

Firth, whose parents are college professors, was discovered playing Hamlet at the Drama Centre in London and made his professional debut in the West End production of Another Country (he was in film version, opposite Rupert Everett). His career is patchwork There are the great films, including Valmont; where he met Meg Tilly, his first wife [sic] and the mother of his 13-year-old son, Will, and Tumbledown, the widely acclaimed TV film about a Falklands War veteran. There are also ones where Firth took a backseat to the stars, including Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient, and the just plain silly ones like What a Girl Wants and Hope Springs.

But Pride and Prejudice remains a touchstone for him, particularly since he played a modern-day version of Darcy in Bridget Jones and will do again in its forthcoming sequel. Although he originally thought the role in the mini-series "seemed like a poison chalice," by the time the second of six episodes aired, Mr. Darcy had become a national obsession and eventually earned Firth a BAFTA nomination. In the U.S. the production broke all of A&E's records and won him a place on People magazine' s "50 Most Beautiful People" list.

After eight years, Firth still receives fan mail addressed to his dashing alter ego. "Most people write very carefully worded, very Jane Austen-esque letters—no filthy perverted stuff and no nude pictures. Which I find very sad," he says with mock disappointment. "More than one older woman has written to tell me Mr. Darcy reminds her of her father. Even one letter like that makes everything you've ever done worthwhile: Most of the time, as an actor, you're just prancing about in a frock, and it's no good to anybody. It's just a load of overpaid self-gratification. But occasionally you might hit the spot with somebody."

One of the few women who didn't swoon over the portrayal is Firth's wife, Livia, with whom he has two sons, Mateo and Luca." Livia just laughs at the whole Mr. Darcy thing," he says. "Repression is not sexy to most Italians.

Photo by Jonathan Worth

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