Ms London, September 13, 2004, by Joy Gold

Mr Darcy's Back!


What’s it like to be two of the four sexiest words in the English language? asks Joy Gold

Colin Firth is keeping extremely close-lipped about the new Bridget Jones’ Diary sequel, The Edge of Reason. The book’s author, Helen Fielding, was entranced when Firth played Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in 1995 that in her two novels, she called her fictional hero Mark Darcy. And in the second of the books, Bridget actually gets to interview the real Colin Firth. This is where it gets complicated. Does that mean that Firth plays Firth in the film, as well as lampooning himself as Mark Darcy? Or have they got someone else to play ‘Colin Firth’, as a surprise twist? You’ll have to wait a while to find out, for all the enigmatic Mr. Firth is saying today is that “we all know the dangers of sequels—lightening very rarely hits the same place twice. I think you’ve got to move beyond the original, go the extra mile, and have the guts not to repeat the first one. Apart from that, I’m giving nothing away!”

In his latest film Trauma Colin Firth plays Ben, a man who is struggling to find a path through a bereavement, whose live seems to be at a crossroads and which needs an urgent rebuild and makeover, and who has woefully underachieved throughout his failed career as a would-be artist. A female rock star, whom he idolised to the point of obsession, (and who he may at one time have stalked), has been murdered while he is in hospital in a coma, after the car crash which killed his wife. “Which I hope will destroy the myth that all I’ve ever done in my career is to play a string of repressed Englishmen in suits”, he says with a little smile.

He’s right. The toffs have been offset by things like the Falklands War drama Tumbledown, Conspiracy and his turn in the football drama Fever Pitch. Nothing is quite what it seems in this new blackest-of-black drama. Firth considers how bleak the subject matter is and then smiles a shy smile. “You know”, he says, “it’s strange that the heavier subjects are always a lot easier to tackle for an actor. In fact, the heavier they are, the better it comes. I LIKE doing ‘dark and interesting’. It’s comedy, which is really difficult—and which can be SO depressing. There’s a HUGE amount of anxiety in doing something that is supposed to be funny, and it’s not for nothing that most of the truly great comic geniuses have all been pretty tortured and very misunderstood souls when they left their work behind them.

Getting it right in comedy, the perfect timing, is horrendous, and to get it right is extremely difficult. To fall off the high wire that is comedy is a complete disaster, and nothing looks more inept. Non-actors won’t believe this, but there’s a lot more ‘play’ with a straight drama, and all the angst in you is worked out in your playing of the character, so that you can, in most cases, walk home with a smile on your face. Get a comic scene wrong, and you go home feeling wretched. So yes, the ‘heavy’ stuff can, in a lot of cases, be pretty cathartic and, paradoxically perhaps, even useful.”

Then he adds: ‘but, having said that, we were working six out of seven days a week, and yes, it is weird to walk away from a story of dark corridors, insects, and an unbalanced (perhaps) mind, and ghosts. Well, I didn’t go into psychoanalysis, at any rate, so that’s a plus point! The thing that interested me was that when I first received the script, I had no really clear idea of who or what Ben was. But I then brought into play memories of people who reminded me of him—people I’ve met over the years who have gone through things like he does. It’s like working, if you like, from inside someone’s head—and he’s a man who reacts, in a very large degree, to what other people say, do and think.”

So how does he feel that he dealt with the comedy in the new Bridget Jones’ Diary—The Edge of Reason? Firth pulls a long face and says: “Well, I haven’t seen it yet...not in completed form. Just a few rough cuts. And I didn’t think it was actually very funny. That’s for others to judge though, isn’t it? But the great thing about doing a sequel as a group of actors is that you all know each other, and therefore there’s no ice to be broken—you’re all SO much more relaxed.”

He chuckles: “You know, everyone in the cast was endlessly badgered by friends, colleagues, family alike, after the success of the first Bridget Jones, and everyone was going on and on about ‘Hey, you MUST do another’. And then, as soon as it was announced there was another film to go into production, and it was assured, all that suddenly became mutters of ‘Oh, really, do you think that’s a good idea?’ The turnabout in attitudes was amazing. And very funny.”

Colin, now 44, says matter-of-factly: “The thing is that if you give them the same film over again, everyone will hate it, and they’ll hate the sequel equally as much if you don’t. It’s a no-win situation. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!”

The man who memorably played the haughty and immaculately dressed (except when he went skinny-dipping in that lake) Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is dressed in a dark blue jacket that may have seen rather better days, and his blue shirt is slightly crumpled. He looks like a bloke who is totally happy with his appearance, and that he doesn’t have to make a great effort to impress anyone any more. He may be confident in that department, but there’s also the air of a ‘little boy lost’ about him as he toys with the glass of mineral water on the table next to him. “I am always looking,” he says “for a movie style that i have never done before. Honestly. Where can I get to that is something different? And the reason I made Trauma was that it’s about a world that is turned inside out, and that the camera is the objective view of the action. It was also damn hard work, since I was in nearly every scene, and often in tight close-up!”

He also had some unlikely co-stars. Along with the beautiful young American actress Mena Suvari (of American Beauty fame) and veteran actress Brenda Fricker, Firth had to face up to a cast of thousands—because Ben keeps a terrarium of ants in his lonely room, and is also fairly fond of spiders.

“Now I have no phobias one way or the other,” admits Firth, “but if it comes to a choice of having a few hundred ants crawling across my hands and chest, or not, then I will definitely go for the ‘or not’ option. But then if I’m out in London on a social evening and it’s an option between the stalkers and the paparazzi and ants and spiders, well, I’ll take the ants and spiders ANY time.

“No, I’m not totally comfortable with insects, but I do learn to cope. I’m not in terror of spiders, as I say, but I can think of better things to do than stroke a tarantula, however friendly her handler says she might be. Actually, the little minx had forgotten all about our bonding when I worked with her again on a film I’ve just made called Nanny McPhee. There aren’t many people in the film world who supply specialist insects and creepy-crawlies for stage and film work, and some spiders seem to have pretty lengthy lives. So I bowled along to the set, knowing that I had to pick up this wee beastie, and blow me down, when her owner opened her box to introduce me—it was the same one from Trauma. She had no clue as to who I was, and she had to be reminded all over again.”

Colin chuckles: “It’s a funny old world, using God’s creatures of any shake or size in a movie. It doesn’t matter if they are large or small—they all have to be treated with respect, and no harm has to come to them. When the ants were all over the floor, at the end of the scene their owner had to use a special little Hoover-type thing that scooped them up without killing them off. Amazing, really.”

Ben, says Colin, “wants to be that sort of chippy, chirpy chappy who is a good mate, and great at telling jokes, but in fact, he’s a fantasist, and has totally failed to grow up at all. He’s like a student of 18, who arrives from somewhere out of London, and who is intoxicated as well as slightly in awe of, the Big Smoke. It happens al the time. and these kids lead the student lifestyle, and some are successful, and they grown up and develop their careers, and others realise that art or acting or whatever isn’t for them, and they go off in another direction.

“And then there are others, like Ben, who just remain in the same old rut all their lives. Well, all I can say is, when you are in your late teens and living in a pigsty, it really doesn’t matter, and as Peter Pan put it, it’s ‘an awfully big adventure’. But, when you are in the same pigsty, and you are aged 42, that’s more than a bit sad and questionable, in fact, it’s pathetic! Why hasn’t Ben succeeded? That’s obvious—he’s never ever recognised that he simply just doesn’t have the talent! He always wanted, in that mind of his, to be a man who broke the rules, and he never wanted to be boring and run-of-the mill. Who actually sets out to be like that? No one. But, sadly, it happens to a good many”.

Trauma, however (in which BBC Films has a strong involvement) has remained unreleased for over two years, and has some references—like dates on magazines—which mark it out as being not quite as contemporary as it would want to feel. And there are also some moments of slipshod filmmaking which mark it out as something that, sadly, looks a bit rushed and under-budgeted. Firth remains unrepentant.

Firth made his London stage debut in the West End stage production of Another Country (opposite another superstar in the making, Rupert Everett), in which he played Eton schoolboy Benett. In the film version two years later, he was Judd. He’s been seen in A Month In The Country, Valmont, What A Girl Wants, Love Actually and he was the artist Vermeer in the international success The Girl With a Pearl Earring. And he was also recently Emmy- nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Conspiracy. He’s got three children—his eldest is Will (14) from a relationship with Meg Tilly, who he met on the set of Valmont, and the other two boys are Luca (three) and Mateo (one) from his ongoing marriage to designer Livia Guiggioli. Colin spent his very early years in Nigeria, where three of his four grandparents were Methodist missionaries. Returning to Hampshire at the age of five, he went to “very ordinary” schools, including the local comprehensive, until he left for the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm, London. “People believe I come from the public school set”, he laughs, “and that I’ve been to university. Heaven knows why—maybe it’s because I’ve played a few aristocrats.” His father lectures in history at Winchester University College, and his mother lectures in comparative religion at the Open University. His very first acting role, he recalls “was as Jack Frost, in some school pantomime...I don’t think that I was very impressive!”

He and Marc Evans, who directs Trauma, are old mates from years back. Did that help? “Oh, obviously, gloriously, yes. Again there’s a form of shorthand between you that means that you don’t have to spend  agonising HOURS talking about what and what is not in shot, what is expected and the motivation.

“Marc is a total delight. He also has the ability, bless him, to make me look a darned sight more intelligent than I actually am! Also, it was a chance to do some work on film that is completely different from a few recent pictures I’ve made—and some of which, I admit, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with. It as fantastic to be given it—this is work that I could respond to. And working with like-minded people is a wonderful adventage.”

Next, he’s up for making two films, Where the Truth Lies, and Toyer, both for release next year. I quote a line at him from a recent article in a glossy magazine, which says that the four sexiest words in the English language are “Colin Firth and Johnny Depp.” Firth squirms in discomfort. “Grief,” he says, “give me a break. And give the title to Johnny, will you?”

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