Maybe it's his aristocratic air or even his piercing steely glare but, for some reason, Colin Firth has gained a reputation as an actor who plays hardened bachelors, virtually unattached and most assuredly childless guys.
First there was Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, then Jack in The Importance of Being Earnest, not to mention football-mad and emotionally stunted Paul in Fever Pitch. Later this year, Firth will further confirm this reputation when he reprises his role of aloof singleton Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.
What makes this typecasting quite so ironic is that, unlike so many Hollywood stars, Firth puts family first.
From the moment he fell in love with his leading lady, Meg Tilly, on the set of Valmont at the end of the 1980s, Colin Firth has embraced his relationships with passionate fervour.
After swiftly marrying, they moved to the wilderness of British Columbia where they had a son, Will. There, they spent five years together, living practically as recluses in a region where the woods were so thick there was very little light and at times it snowed so hard they couldn't even go out for a walk.
Eventually the seclusion grew too much for Firth and they spilt up, but nevertheless remained on good terms, "because everyone has been patient and mature about it," he says. Will has effectively shaped Firth's career ever since.
Thanks to the rhythms of the American school year, and the need to spend three months of the year with Will near Los Angeles, Firth doesn't do much theatre. When he has Will in the summer holidays, they go to Umbria, ruling out those British films shot on location at the height of July and August.
"My son is triple national," he says proudly. "My son is born Canadian, took American citizenship quite recently, but he's also English.
"Because of the complications of my life, any free time goes to him. I fly to see him (in California) whenever I have a moment. That's the only place where I really hang out."
But in 1995, Firth met Livia Guiggioli, a former production coordinator and now a documentary producer whom he met on the set of TV mini-series Nostramo in Colombia.
Nick Hornby, a friend of Firth's since Fever Pitch, describes her as a joke-perfect, "PhD, beautiful in that sultry Italian way, funny and vivacious".
She is also, he says, "very good for Firth, because she's absolutely not in any thrall to him". She "affects to be completely mystified" by the cult of Mr Darcy that captivated so many female viewers following his sultry, sodden shirt-wearing performance in Pride and Prejudice.
They married in 1997 and had a son, Luca, who is now two years old. The birth of Luca, Firth says, has changed the nature of his relationship with his wife.
"I don't want to get too specific with my actual relationship, but I think that it deepens things. I almost can't remember what it was like before."
Becoming a father has, Firth admits, completely changed him. "It surprised me enormously because I associated it with tedium, old age, comfort and death. And it couldn't be less like that. It was both times an invigorating, frightening upheaval. It's the most unpredictably wild thing that ever happened to me. I didn't think babies were about that."
In a typical self-effacing way, and perhaps with a hint of Firth's very dry sense of humour, he adds that becoming a father has forced him to tackle his own petulance.
"The whole business of becoming a dad put me up against my limitations the way I never thought possible; gave me a different picture of the person I thought I was. There was much more in me that I liked and didn't like.
"You can't just do what you want. You can't call your agent when they make a fuss and make life inconvenient for you. It's all on their terms and their schedule and you can't sleep when you want and you can't be impatient when you want to be."
As a rule, Firth and the mothers of his two children have decided his sons won't be allowed to watch their father's work in their younger years.
"We decided not to do that. When he (Will) was very young I didn't want it to be confusing, to see me in strange situations, and to have to explain the difference between reality and fiction. It's not everybody that sees his or her father on a screen, or on the television. And I wanted him to feel relatively normal.
"Of course he has seen things now. He's been on an aeroplane when they have shown something. You can't control that situation. It is a bit freaky. I wasn't there at the time. He was about three and stood up and shouted, 'That's my daddy!'."
Marrying an Italian has also given the actor's life an unexpected boost.
"Italy has become a big part of my life now," he enthuses. "I love it. It's a huge blessing. I sort of married a whole family and a whole country.
"And learning Italian is a huge bonus that came at the time, that I didn't expect. I thought I was doomed to be unilingual for the rest of my life, like most Englishmen."
Despite his love of Italy and the family ties there, Firth remains a Londoner, and his half-Italian son will be raised in London. Hampshire-born Firth explains his enthusiasm for the British capital.
"London is international, it escapes any sort of provinciality. It is endlessly varied. There is a street near me, in Islington, which is a very small street. It dates back to about 1750, and in this very small street - I can remember it exactly - it starts with an Italian restaurant, a button shop, a hat shop, an antique tool shop, a taxidermist, a puppet theatre, a pub, an Italian deli...London is very much like that. Also, there's humour in the air and people are interesting. It's constantly surprising."
It's become expected that our best actors are eventually enticed over to Hollywood, many of them succumbing to career-numbing block busters. But Firth has only dabbled across the pond. He's not easily tempted.
"Hollywood hasn't aggressively pursued me. Neither have I aggressively pursued Hollywood. So it's a mixture of both. I think England has served me very well. I like living in London for the reasons I gave. I have absolutely no intentions of cutting those ties. There is absolutely no reason to do so. Certainly not so that I can have a swimming pool and palm tree."
But he has been enticed into that very Hollywood of phenomena, a movie sequel - a first for Firth. He was in London at the end of 2003 as Mark Darcy, co-starring again with Renee Zellweger.
"I think everyone feels exactly the same about the sequel. It's worth doing if it's brilliant. Otherwise you're going to sequel purgatory really," says Firth.
But Bridget Jones' won't be Firth's only big screen appearance this year. As well as having recently co-starred with Hugh Grant in Love Actually, he plays painter Johannes Vermeer in the critically-acclaimed Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Following the release of Hope Springs earlier in 2003, it seems he's had a busy year, but Firth, unlike most actors, comes clean.
"It's funny, sometimes you create that impression but you only have to do two (films) a year to have it seem really busy. I tend to find people say I've been busy if they notice the projects and actually my output has been has been exactly the same.
"It just depends how many of them flop and how many rise to the surface. Every so often you will do something that will put more attention on you and I guess Bridget Jones was one."
Firth remains a self-confessed member of the "work just pays the bills" club. Regardless of his professional success, his priorities will always stay the same.
"It's been a juggle, ever since children came into it," he says. "I would choose not to take the job that means eight months in Honduras if I can do a job which is here.
"There's a way in which
children take the pressure off the work," he concludes. "Suddenly it's
not that important."
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