Entertainment Weekly, November 26, 2004, by Jessica Shaw

Love at Firth

The Bridget Jones star may be a heartthrob, but he's ready to break up with his romantic image. (It's not you, it's him.)


“That was a great interview,” coos Colin Firth, shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest, hair touseled, mod teal suit snug on his 6’2” frame. He nuzzles close to the reporter, a pretty young thing, and pours a sip of champagne into her mouth, then slips in a small pill, another sip.

It’s not easy being a journalist when you’re watching another one—albeit a fake one—get the seduction treatment from Firth, the actor responsible for more than his share of swoons and weak knees from those with a libido and a Pride and Prejudice DVD.

But drugging a college reporter? Dressed in a sleazy getup? This is not the Colin Firth who’s launched a thousand websites, whose dreamy Mr. Darcy turned the BBC miniseries of the Jane Austen classic into period porn. This is definitely not the reluctant romantic he’s perfected time and again in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, Girl With a Pearl Earring, and, yes, even What a Girl Wants.

Probably because—and brace yourself, women—Colin Firth is not Mr. Darcy. And right now he’s making that very, very clear.

Channeling debauchery looks disturbingly easy for Firth, 44, here on the London set of Where the Truth Lies, a psychological thriller from director Atom Egoyan (Ararat) in which he plays a Vegas-style performer who will keep a devastating secret about this particular coed. But last October, Firth showed up to shoot Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason with a $2 million check in his pocket and not a clue how to play the character he’s best known for. “I couldn’t really remember what I was supposed to do,” he says of embodying the arrogant attorney Mark Darcy, who gets his name from Austen’s hero. It didn’t help matters when about 600 people turned up on the streets of London to watch. “People recognized me from the [first] film, which I daresay they’ve seen more times than I have, which is exactly once.”

Rewatching his scenes in 2001’s Bridget helped. But Firth is facing this dilemma a lot: Crowds are turning out for his smoldering-yet-sensitive characters, and he’s not so sure he wants to turn up to play them. “I know I’ve played parts that are similar to each other,” he says. “The withdrawn quality, the air of inaccessibility. It’s one of the things they hire me for. There’s a lot of money being spent in movies. You want to buy it ready-made.” It’s why the Bridget producers needed him for the sequel. Firth initially bristled at the idea (“I didn’t like the inevitability factor,” he says), and joined only after Renée Zellweger and Hugh Grant did.

Days after finishing Bridget press in the States, Firth is back on the Truth set, purging himself of Mark Darcy and reveling in his new persona. “I’m attracted to dark stuff, and I’m in that mode right now,” he says. But the darkness could come only after the dawn. “The things that have limited me have also been currency for me.”

The best career investment Firth ever made comes exactly three hours and 15 minutes into 1995’s Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy emerges from Pemberley pond like Adonis during a wet T-shirt contest. Tapes were paused. Frames were frozen. The English press dubbed Firth’s newfound fame “Darcy mania.” Websites quickly sprouted up with names like Firthfrenzy, Firthessence, and aFirthionado. On one, a frenzied Firthionado can link to more than 50 sound bites recorded from Firth’s films including “You have to marry me,” “I’m sorry, it was all my fault,” and, for some inexplicable reason, “Whose pen is this?” The fact that Firth is—insert transatlantic sigh here—married (to Italian producer Livia Giuggioli) with children (two with Giuggioli and one with Meg Tilly, whom he met on the set of 1989’s Valmont) doesn’t give pause to the passionate.

Even before the big-screen adaptation was conceived, the obsessive heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary, the book, couldn’t stop fantasizing about...Colin Firth. So when it came to cast, it’s no shock that “Helen Fielding said if we didn’t cast him, she would not let us have the rights,” laughs Eric Fellner, who’s produced four of Firth’s flicks (both Bridgets, Love Actually, and next spring’s Nanny McPhee). Ask Fellner what incites such fervor and he says: “I truly don’t know. I’m not a girl.” Reason director Beeban Kidron takes a stab: “He embodies a particular kind of Englishman—chivalrous, polite, articulate, clever—that is a fantasy. One night he came [to the set] as himself, Mr. Relaxed. I withered all over again. People think directors don’t have those feelings, but I’m a girl.”

Before cult Colin kicked in, Firth was keeping busy in local stage productions, having horrified his professor parents by bailing on university for drama school. Milos Forman cast him as Valmont’s lothario in 1988, but the film was eclipsed by the similar Dangerous Liaisons. “People love it when they see it now,” he says. “At the time, it felt like walking into a room where someone had just told a joke and the laughter was dying down and you go in and tell the same joke.”

Even after Pride and Prejudice, only supporting roles in films like The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love came his way. But when Bridget made $71.5 million, he was christened the go-to guy for the hottie, haughty hero. Sometimes that worked out well (Girl With a Pearl Earring, Love Actually); sometimes it didn’t (What a Girl Wants, Hope Springs). But with this year’s Sundance entry Trauma, Firth ditched his comfort zone. “Marc [Evans, the director] used that principle of putting Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo,” Firth says. “Take someone [the audience] is comfortable with and make them uncomfortable.”

Not that Firth is finished with good-guy gigs. It took several tries, but Emma Thompson persuaded him to play the aloof father in Nanny McPhee, a fairy tale she’d written about seven difficult kids and their caretaker. “He kept saying, ‘I don’t want to do any more nice people,’” recalls Thompson. Firth gave in but only after “lots of begging, lots of money, lots of favors,” she says.

With Nanny and Truth both wrapped, Firth is officially unemployed. No concrete plans, other than picking at the guitar and revisiting unfinished short stories he’s been writing (his debut, “The Department of Nothing,” is included in the Nick-Hornby-edited collection Speaking With the Angel). He’s still getting offered “lots of bumbling romantic-comedy figures,” and his name perennially pops up as a potential James Bond (“No one has approached me, but I would not be averse to it”). For sure, we won’t be seeing Mark and Bridget: Smug Marrieds. “At the moment, I can’t think of anything I would be less attracted to.” The one project tempting him is Brian De Palma’s thriller Toyer, about a womanizer who also happens to be a lobotomizer. “It’s about as dark as it gets,” he says. “I met with [De Palma] and we both said, “Let’s do it when we are both ready.”

Whether he’ll be tearing out hearts while tearing out brains remains to be seen. Firth, for one, is more than ready to put the swooning masses to the test. “The idea of who I might be may always be skewed, but I’m just a guy,” he says, exasperated. “Mr. Darcy would never have become an actor.”

Photograph by Gavin Bond

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