It all started when Firth played Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, the epitome of female desire—tall, dark and handsome. Then he played Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones's Diary and we all swooned some more.
Hours before I was due to interview Firth, I was sitting in a corridor of the Dorchester Hotel—and who should walk by but His Nibs. I had been busy gabbling away to another journalist when this vision appears. All six foot one of him glides by, and I am gobsmacked. He wears a chocolate brown suede jacket, the same colour as his eyes. His long legs are covered in denim. And his shoulders are beautifully broad. He's a modern-day Laurence Olivier.
I contemplate faking a faint, but I am already sitting down. So I settle for watching him walk by and leering at his fabulous frame. He is so tall, the ceiling looks low. But at last it is my turn. Colin Firth and I are alone in a hotel room.
OK, so I have a Dictaphone on the table and this is supposed to be work, but if you have swooned over him as much as I have, it is a little tricky to control yourself. I sit on the edge of the armchair, asking him questions, and almost topple over in excitement.
We will talk about Pearl Earring in a minute, but first we talk about his role in one of his many other films, Richard Curtis's Love Actually. In this he plays a writer who falls in love with a Portuguese girl and who goes to the ends of the earth to see her. Unabashed romance. Another one for the fans.
You must have women of all ages leering and lusting after you, and writing you letters, I say.
"There are definitely letters, yeah, but there are no knickers in the post," he says. "It's so terribly well- behaved, unfortunately. A lot of it is still vague, extremely polite and second-hand reporting. I don't tend to get the actual person themselves."
If ever there was a cue to speak up . . . so I tell him that the one that did it for me was Bridget Jones's Diary in the navy pin-striped suit, with the barrister flies, standing over a pot, cooking for her.
"Really?" he says, with a frisky look in his eye.
I tell him that I even thought about bringing the costume that day and asking him to dress up for me. He smiles some more but, aah, I must stop flirting with Mr Firth. He is married to a beautiful Italian woman, for whom he learned the language. Imagine. Enough of my infatuation. On with our official reason for meeting.
Girl with a Pearl Earring is based on Tracy Chevalier's book of the same title. It's a fictional account of the girl in that famous Vermeer painting, and how the picture came about. Firth plays Johannes Vermeer. The film is perfection. Every frame looks like a painting, the music is divine and the whole thing is very sensual.
This is a case of less is more. There are lingering looks between Vermeer and Griet, the maid who was the muse for the painting. The moment when their fingers brush against each other is positively explosive. It is a darker role for Firth, and yet the women will be swooning once more.
"I didn't know anything about Vermeer," he says, "but I'd noticed the painting—which doesn't come every day for me. I'm not an art expert but I do tend to pop into a gallery if I can, and this happened in New York. It was in the Met. I was just blithely wandering from room to room and there was this very small painting at the other end of the room and it absolutely hit me. Like most people who aren't art experts, you just know what you like. And I thought, 'Oh God, what is it about that one?'
"It had this strong power and so it developed into a nerdy obsession. That was five or six years ago, but being the fickle creature that all actors are, you have this passion for something and then the capacity to completely forget."
Colin Firth was born in Hampshire, England in 1960. He has a brother and sister. His parents are academics; his father is a history lecturer at King Alfred's College, Winchester, and his mother is a comparative religions lecturer with the Open University.
Were his parents draggy academics?
"I suppose I thought so at the time, but now I think it was probably a gift, really. It was an environment which encouraged thinking, 'Fatherhood is a strangely passionate experience. I thought it would be a wise mellow thing, but it's not. It's a crazy devotion. I fall in love each time'
reading and conversation. My parents were interested in different places and my father got a teaching post in Nigeria, so my first four years were there, and then he got a teaching post in the USA so I spent a year in high school in St Louis.
"We moved about a bit. It set me slightly apart as I wasn't in an elite public-school system. At the time I considered it to be a mixed blessing, but now . . . "
Firth has had a solid theatre training but he hasn't done that much stage work. Perhaps six plays in total, he thinks. Nor is he yearning to go back to the theatre, although in some ways he looks forward to the idea. "I'd love to do something very new and exciting in a smallish theatre," he says.
He lives in London with his Italian wife, Livia Giuggioli, and their two sons. (He also has a 13-year-old son with the American actress Meg Tilly.) When I ask him about his home life, and how he met his wife, he clams up a little.
"Without wanting to break too many rules of talking about wife and family and everything, we met in Colombia. She was the assistant producer on the television series Nostromo. I was having a slightly miserable time and we'd four months to go, and she showed up."
Is she a typical Italian?
"She's Italian, oh yeah. I have to draw a line under it now, but you can probably imagine. She's very fiery, very smart, she's no pushover."
Does he enjoy fatherhood?
"It's hard work but it is fantastic, particularly being a bit older now. I feel halfway to being a granddad really, which in a way is a nice thing because granddads are always kinder and more twinklier than dads.
"It's exhausting. The moment you walk out of the house and leave that noise behind you is just fantastic. But, paradoxically, you find yourself missing them desperately within half an hour. It's weird.
"Fatherhood is a strangely passionate experience. I didn't think it would be so much like passion—I thought it would be a wise mellow thing, but it's not. It's a crazy devotion. I fall in love each time. I hadn't realised how much I'd been living for myself. Parenthood is the one salvation to stop you from being a complete and utter egotist."As an actor on a film set, you're treated like an infant, really. You're told what time you're going to wake up. Somebody puts your face and hair on for you. You're told where you go and what you're going to say. Literally the only thing that you do for yourself is go to the bathroom. So you're like a 10-month-old child, but then you go home and the roles are radically reversed. You can't say, 'If you don't shut up I'll call my agent.' There's no recourse, the child is hungry and it's up to you."
He talks about his career. He is no good at pursuing parts but he has pushed to change direction: "I do think character work is the best." And he can't understand why women have fallen in love with some of the grouchy characters he has played.
"It's their problem, really, because I didn't play a person who wanted to be liked. It certainly surprised me."
But he is not going to stop doing romantic roles: "One doesn't do these things on purpose, but I don't want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg."
Our time is almost up, but I have a little request. Go on, say something in Italian for me, I plead.
"I can't, I'll feel completely silly doing it," he says. "Oh God."
And then he obliges . . . I have no notion of what he was saying, but, oh God, Colin Firth speaking Italian. Sponge me down, quick.
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