Serious but not stuffy, shy but not withdrawn, witty in a laid-back way, very modest, impeccably mannered. Oh, and handsome. No, it’s not a lonely hearts ad, it’s a description of Colin Firth, and indeed several of the characters he has played, from Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to aloof Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
These are the reasons he remains the ultimate British heart-throb to thousands, indeed probably millions, of women of a certain age.
As opposed to Hugh Grant, who they’d probably find just a bit too full-on, with that stuttering, rather obvious floppy haired charm, Firth, now 43 [sic] exudes a kind of irresistible middle-class bewilderment. He’s the sort of not-too posh, almost-ordinary bloke who could drip on about cricket with his mates in the pub for hours, scrub up nicely, yet remain utterly unaware of the fuss he can cause among females by simply walking into a room.
Or walking out of a lake, dripping in white flannels; it’s back to Darcy again, I’m afraid.
Meeting Firth, who is as thoroughly nice and decent as you expect him to be, it’s a question you beg to ask, but almost daren’t: What’s it like being a heart-throb?
If he’s just the tiniest bit bored, or even embarrassed by the question, Firth doesn’t show it. But, then again, his answer is spectacularly unsatisfactory. Courteous, yes, but dull.
“I actually don’t know what to say about the pin-up tag,” he says, without a glimmer of irritation. “Apart from the problem of trying to think of anything clever to say about it, it doesn’t encroach on my life at all really.
“It doesn’t do anything, it’s fine.” And that is that.
Firth, pin-up extraordinaire and, er, ordinary bloke with no stockpile of hilarious answers.
But that, I’m sure, is exactly why ladies who lunch love Firth, because he is Darcy. He’s the type of man—in character at least—who allows them to do all the flirting while he gives off this strangely seductive air of not-really-trying insecurity, of bemused bashfulness.
In his new film, the romantic comedy Hope Springs, he is completely Firth; more Colin Firth anyone could possibly ever hope to imagine. Even his character is called Colin—an English portrait artist called Colin Ware, to be precise, who has just received an invitation from his former fiancée, Vera (Minnie Driver) to her wedding.
Unable to cope with the shock, Colin escapes to the tiny Vermont village of Hope, where he tries to forget his troubles by drawing the faces of the town ’s many eccentrics.
For much of the film, Firth’s character is silent, moody, repressed, unsmiling, clearly still wounded by his recent rejection.
Then he meets kooky local “caregiver” Mandy (Heather Graham) and off we go into a comedy of opposites attracting, with the gushing, all American Mandy seducing the reticent, uptight Englishman with a slapstick-style striptease—and that’s just for starters.
“It’s a story of a man in the absolute depths of misery, cut off from all his refuge points, in a strange town, developing an entirely new life,” says Firth. “You see him healing and waking up. At the outset that might not sound hilarious, but it’s the kind of comedy that attracts me—when it’s about people at their most foolish, vulnerable, weakest, most prone to making mistakes.”
Exposed and ridiculous are two words that spring to mind during that aforementioned seduction scene. In order to bed our reluctant hero, Mandy gets horribly drunk and then dances about, naked, in a motel room, asking Colin to do the same.
And we do see him drop his trousers, but don’t get too excited. That scene in itself is squirm-inducing enough, in a Benny Hill kind of way.
But it’s worse to imagine Firth and his co-star “resplendent” with nipple-numbing plasters of their, well, nipples just in case they happened to spring up into shot.
“I turned up with plasters on my nipples too,” says the deadpan Firth. “I’m not showing them for anybody. It is quite sore when you take them off.”
“You do find though that actresses spend half their life being persuaded to disrobe on film. I’ve been on set where hours have been spent trying to get the woman to take her clothes off, and then when she finally, does, she gets crap for it for years. Even Glenda Jackson does. I do think if you do it once no one lets you forget it.”
The film, written and directed by Britain’s Mark Herman (of Brassed Off and Little Voice fame) is a project that Firth, perhaps surprisingly, went out of his way to pursue.
He more or less had his heart set on the lead role of Colin Ware, after reading the novel on which it is based, New Cardiff, by Charles Webb (who also wrote The Graduate).
The original title can be explained by the story’s sub-plot, about the village of Hope having been originally founded by a Welsh immigrant by the name of Godwyn Edwards (referred to by the major, played by Oliver Platt, as “some Welsh dick who founded this place.”
Minnie Driver’s character, Vera, is also half Welsh (not that you’d notice), which leads to further “surprise” plot developments that shall be left undisclosed here.
“The book came recommended by a couple of friends, one of whom was Nick Hornby,” says Firth, who starred in the 1997 film of Hornby’s semi-autobiographical novel Fever Pitch. “He gave me a nod in that direction and said, ‘This has got your name on it’—literally.
And a couple of days later, I got the same message from another friend about the book, so I went to find it and by another coincidence, the guy who had the rights to it was Barnaby Thompson, the producer I happened to be employed by at that time on The Importance of Being Earnest.
So I was in a very good position to make myself into a pest about it and I was on hand to lobby for the job more than anyone else.”
Far from resisting the notion that stiff and starchy Colin Ware has aspects of Colin Firth, the actor readily admits to some of those mutual qualities.
“This is about a confused, bewildered middle-class Englishman adrift in small-town North America, and that has definitely been me,” he says.
Firth insists that he is not really a big star in America, despite the fact that he is the name above the title in Hope Springs.
“America is a gigantic place, culturally as well as anything else,” he says, adding, “Most Americans don’t know who I am.” Not even after Pride and Prejudice?
“Pride and Prejudice did well in the States. It broke records for that particular television company but that doesn’t get it on the map the way it did here in Britain.” He says.
“I don’t think it became the talking point it did here, as there are so many television options in America, and I think that costume drama from Britain would be far more marginalized.”
Firth doesn’t remotely hanker after that kind of instant, international, Hugh Grant-style fame. He leads a determinedly non-celebrity lifestyle with his wife, Italian film producer, Livia Giuggioli, whom he met in 1995 in Colombia while making Nostromo.
Firth will next play the artist Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring which he filmed last year with his fellow British actor and close friend David Morrissey.
“I have no artistic talent whatsoever,” says Firth. “I have a level of talent that, if I had a lifetime of lessons, I would never aspire to produce the drawings you see in Hope Springs.
And I’ve just played Vermeer, so you can imagine how far I was from that. It was basically hours of lessons to look like I’m someone who wouldn’t drop his paintbrush.”
As for the future, there remains perhaps one crucial question: Will there be a sequel to Bridget Jones’s Diary, and will Colin Firth be in it?
“I think there might well be a Bridget Jones sequel, but I gather the ‘Colin Firth’ part will be cut out,” he says.
“They’ve said nothing about the, er, heart-throb role.”
And as he says the world he almost visibly winces.
What would Mr Darcy say?
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