He’s hardly been idle in the time since but the fact that he still walks in the brogues of Darcy as far as the viewing public are concerned shows the role that made his name has now become something of a shackle.
All this could be about to change.
Last month, 43-year-old Colin appeared in the smash hit Love Actually. The film, about several intertwining romantic stories and starring nearly every working British actor, let its stars do what they do best.
So while Hugh Grant played the bumbling suitor and Bill Nighy twitched his way to the top of the charts, Colin did very little—and everyone fell in love with him.
His was the story of Jamie, the author whose girlfriend cheats on him with his brother and sends him fleeing to the south of France to mend his broken heart by writing a novel.
Once there he shares an awkward relationship with his young, non-English speaking Portuguese housemaid. While neither speaks the other’s language, the language of love is universal.
And with the audience’s sympathy still fresh from that film, Colin hits us again in similar vein this month with Girl With A Pearl Earring.
Based on the popular novel by Tracy Chevalier, it’s the story of Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer and the inspiration behind his most famous painting.
Though two very different characters, the similarities between their positions are striking.
Both fall in love with their cleaner, played by Portuguese singer Lucia Moniz in Love Actually and in Pearl Earring by the incredible 18-year-old American actress Scarlett Johannson.
The audience is let in on the secret but the characters are prevented from revealing their feelings to the object of their affections.
In Love Actuallyit’s because he can’t speak a word of Portuguese. In Pearl Earring it’s because he’s married and in 17th Century Holland such a thing would cause a scandal that would finish his career.
It’s a rare skill to find an actor who can so convincingly tell you he loves someone without ever saying the words.
“I think a lot of actors love the power of doing less,” says Colin modestly. “Dialogue is very limiting, particularly if it is anything other than excellent. Mediocre dialogue is utterly crippling to the process.
“But no dialogue is a very liberating and inspiring thing to do. You’re thinking ‘I’ve got this complex view of this woman and I’m going to have to do it all with my eyes’.
“There are times in Pearl Earring when there are two words being said and yet we were told by the director Peter Webber that the camera was going to be there for a very long time and we would have to fill that time. It gave us an added sense of responsibility.
“I stopped counting how many lines I have a long time ago. I think you learn that lesson quite quickly.
“There are adages around about actors with no lines stealing scenes and I think you don’t count your lines past the first year of drama school.”
As an aside, Colin is quick to give an example of just how awful some dialogue can be.
“It wasn’t my line, actually, but I insisted that someone else’s line was cut because I refused to be in the same room as the line!
“The line was, ‘You played me, Ross, you played me, and I’m not a piano’ and I said I would no longer be in the film if that line remained.”
And casting directors want Colin in their films at the moment.
Born into an academic family, his father is a history lecturer at King Alfred’s College in Winchester and his mother is a comparative religions lecturer at the Open University. Colin’s first acting experience came in infant school when he played Jack Frost in a Christmas pantomime.
Three of his grandparents were Methodist missionaries and he spent his early childhood in Nigeria, returning to England at age five. He later attended comprehensive school in Winchester.
Colin then spent two years at the Drama Centre in Chalk Farm where he was discovered while playing Hamlet during his final term. He went on to play a variety of character parts in television before his BAFTA nominated role as Mr Darcy in 1995 propelled him into both the public’s eye and the world of film.
At the same time as his career was taking off his private life hit something of a sticky patch.
His relationship with Canadian actress Meg Tilly, with whom he’d had a son, Will—now aged 13—came to an end and he then briefly dated his Pride and Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle.
Of the time, Colin recalls, “It was quite extraordinary that people regarded me as if I were Warren Beatty. But until I met my present wife, at the age of 35, I’d only had two girlfriends.”
That wife is Italian documentary maker Livia Giuggiolli, whom he met in Columbia while making the film Nostromo—on which she was working as a production assistant. They have been married for six years.
In August last year she gave birth to the couple’s second son, Matteo. Their elder, Luca, is aged two.
They live in Islington, North London, but often stay at Colin’s in-laws’ home in the Umbrian countryside.
“What strikes me about the Italians is their attachment to family,” he smiles. “Livia’s family is wonderful and close. You get a sense of security and stability. We English, on the other hand, we’re always off by ourselves.
“It’s a sense of tradition. When I first met Livia I had to court her, present myself to her father. I’d never met a 26-year-old woman who still lived with her parents.”
Of his reputation as a sex symbol, his wife is dismissive, it seems.
“The Italians don’t find repression very sexy, she tells me!”
With two successful films already in the can, Colin will be going for three. Later this year he revives his role as Darcy—the ironically titled Mark Darcy, that is—in the Bridget Jones sequel The Edge of Reason.
If Bridget Jones is still keeping her diary she should note it down. 2004 is going to be Colin Firth’s year.
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