In a bare function suite in Edinburgh's Sheraton Hotel, where he's promoting a new film, Trauma, which premiered at the International Film Festival on Friday, Firth's all smiles and greetings and handshakes and how are yous? In conversation, he's a keen listener and eager to enter into discussion. Where other actors betray their impatience with the endless rounds of interviews they are required to do either by contract or in support of box office receipts, Firth gives the impression of quite enjoying a nice chat with the press. Or maybe he's that good an actor.
Whatever, we're here to talk about Trauma, a film that is something of a departure for Firth. It's a psychological chiller set in London and reminiscent of Roman Polanski's tale of delusion and psychosis, Repulsion. Firth plays Ben, a poor unfortunate whom we first meet as he awakes from a coma in a hospital following a car crash in which his beloved wife was killed. As Ben attempts to put the pieces of his life back together he is haunted by a series of unexplainable events, including the apparition of his dead wife, precipitating the traumatised husband's loss of grip on reality.
With its mystery plotting and spooky atmosphere, Trauma sports neither the lavish costumes, nor the feelgood humour of the period dramas and the rom-coms Firth's at present best known for. Indeed, not only is Trauma not of the genre we've grown used to seeing Firth perform in, it's something of a hybrid, being one part horror film, another psychological drama, a third part metaphorical comment upon the alienated nature of modern urban living.
"It is an unsettling film," agrees Firth. "It seems to have found itself in the horror genre, but not as we normally perceive it. Marc [Evans, the director] put it very well when he said it was a blue-poster film, not a red- poster film. It's not a slasher. It's not surviving on shocks and fear. It's actually a very" – and here Firth ever so nicely checks himself, saying, "I've got to be careful here, I could say all sorts of good things about it which are not that sexy," before continuing – "thoughtful film about grief. Say paranoia, but don't say grief – I'm told this is what brings people in," he appears to finish, by way of sweet apology.
Then, a beat later: "But it does mess with your mind. Trauma is constantly entertaining in terms of the strange misdirects and the clues to what's going on. It's disorientating."
Firth's quite right. Trauma plays tricks with its audience, resolving mysteries only to have those certainties unravel once more. But beyond a bit of clever plotting, cleverest of the magician's misdirecting is the casting of Firth. Coming to the film with the assumptions we have about the actor, it's not only odd to see Firth playing against type, but we're naturally more trusting of his character than we might find ourselves to be should another actor have played the role.
Was the misuse of his screen persona a conscious gambit, I ask Firth? "That was a factor that Marc was very aware of," Firth says. "Marc and I have worked together since before that perception was around, and have been talking about working together ever since, but he knew it was something we could play on this time."
Firth says that, despite what people might think, he hasn't ever made decisions based on his reputation. He describes actors as strangely fickle creatures who are very capable of submerging themselves in an imaginary world at the exclusion of everything else. "So, every time I work," he says, "it's as if I had never done anything else. I haven't really tried to shake anything off. I've just ignored the reputation thing.
"I find myself initially a little bit surprised when people say, 'Was it strange for you to play such a dark character, given that people think you're Darcy from Pride and Prejudice?' One journalist even said, 'Did you think you'd have to be really good in this, just to prove that you're not Darcy?' That really took me aback, because nothing could be further from my mind."
Still, subverting expectations with this particular casting call has paid off. "What I've realised now," says Firth, "is that if you have become known for a certain thing you can turn it to your advantage and import some of that baggage into the job. Marc gives the example of someone like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo. Hitchcock made use of people like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant – he didn't get paranoiac actors for paranoiac films, he got someone that we're very familiar and very comfortable with in order to misdirect."
Firth's talking typecasting. Women, for example, are familiar and comfortable with Firth, he being in many minds a sex symbol. Typecasting is something Firth's aware of, even if it's not the way he views his career.
"Actors have a sense of diversity," he offers. "Even if they're not really changing their characters very much they're looking for new experiences. I think instinctively your taste changes according to what you've been doing a lot of. As an actor you're looking for differences in what you do, whereas people observing you look for similarities."
Firth notes with no little bemusement that it has been commented that he has played artists. "I draw a lot in films," he laughs. "That hadn't really occurred to me." He goes on to list other observations about casting: gloomy guys, cuckolded lovers and, of course, period drama romantic interests. "The world thought that all I played were suffering paranoids and then Darcy came along and people started thinking all I play are guys on horses with breeches," he says. "It's interesting, you read something and you think: 'Is that what I'm doing now? Is that where I'm at?'
Trauma suggests Firth is beyond horses and breeches. But it was the 1995 TV series from Jane Austen's novel that made Firth a household name. Since then he's done prestige British cinema (The English Patient), comedy (Blackadder Goes Forth), rom-coms (Bridget Jones's Diary – in which he was memorably cast as dullard Mark Darcy who, Helen Fielding described as resembling the actor Colin Firth), period comedy (The Importance of Being Earnest) and yet more period drama (Girl With A Pearl Earring). Varied an acting career as a brief glance over Firth's filmography reveals it to be, Trauma nevertheless stands out.
So, why make it? Firth says first and foremost it was the opportunity to work again with his friend Marc Evans. He also cites the inventiveness of the script by newcomer Richard Smith. "Totally unlike anything else anyone was sending me," says Firth. "So, it did jump out at me. I wondered what I could bring to it."
As it turns out and surprisingly enough, what Firth was able to bring to Trauma was his abiding fascination with the dark side. That's surprising because Firth has had, he readily admits, an easy life. Born in Hampshire in 1960, Firth enjoyed a happy upbringing in a family of academics. He didn't excel at school, but found his calling in acting and quickly secured his first professional role, following in the footsteps of luminaries Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis in the stage version of Another Country. Firth was pulled from the play to star alongside Everett in the film version and since then hasn't had to look back. "It was indecently easy for me," he says. "I didn't pay my dues in the rep companies or on the dole queue, I just got a job."
In 1996, while filming the television adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, he met his second wife, the Italian film-maker Livia Giuggiolo, with whom he has two children and in whose home country Firth spends a third of each year. Firth also has a child from his first marriage, to actress Meg Tilly.
Thus, given the healthy nature of Firth's personal and professional lives, his fascination with the dark side of life comes as a surprise.
"The gloomy side of life is interesting to me," says Firth. "I'm not unusual that way. Most people, broadly speaking, in the creative community find the darker side worthy of exploration. When you think about music, how much happy music is there? I don't think music comes out of joy. Most of the good stuff is really tormented. In the end the reason why most people do this rather vain thing of writing tunes or painting canvases or making up stories is because there's a conflict going on of some sort.
"Goodness knows I've done the lighter stuff and enjoyed making people laugh, but with Trauma I did enjoy manufacturing a dark world. It's funny, I think there's a thin line between finding all that stuff seductive and it doing your head in. The thing about Trauma is it's chilling, but it's seductive too."
Firth might be out of his breeches, but he's still one of British cinema's most charming seducers.
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