The Age, March 6, 2004, by Tom Ryan

Renaissance man
 Brooding, serious and awfully hunky in period costume,
Colin Firth plays the artist Vermeer perfectly, writes Tom Ryan.

Colin Firth has a special affection for Rome. It's where his wife of six years, 33-year-old Livia Giuggioli, grew up, and it's also the birthplace of their first son, Luca, who's fast approaching his third birthday. And although he's reluctant to "do press", as he puts it, he finds himself in Rome doing just that. He was there last year to promote The Importance of Being Earnest and he's back again for the launch of The Girl with a Pearl Earring, in which he plays 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer opposite Scarlett Johansson as his 17-year-old muse.

With the film's publicist watching the clock in the next room, Firth is staying in a hotel, doing a couple of interviews before heading off to spend the day fending off questions from the Italian media about "what it's like being Mr Darcy", referring to the 1995 performance that officially turned him into a heart-throb, as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Esq, in the BBC's mini-series adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

"I'm sitting in a barren room that looks like an interrogation room in a Belgrade police station," he complains (not that he's ever been inside one). "If I look out the window, however, I'm looking at a beautiful terracotta-tiled roof with a million TV aerials and a dome, of the mini-St Peter's variety. Beyond that there's an ancient Roman palace, and to my right there's a statue of St Peter. I'm high up, so I'm overlooking the rooftops."

Ah, Rome! "Yes, indeed. It's pissing with rain, more like a Norfolk winter than an Italian one. Awfully dark and gloomy." No sign at all of the golden sunshine that smiled down six years ago on his meeting by the fountain in the Piazza Navona with Helen Fielding. Forget "smiled", though: it was probably more like guffawing at their exchange.

Fielding is the author of two diary-style novels whose perpetually befuddled heroine is named Bridget Jones. She had originally invented the character as a nom-de-plume for a regular column she'd been writing for the Independent newspaper. In the big-screen adaptation of the first of the books, Bridget Jones's Diary, Firth had played Bridget's uptight object of desire, a Fitzwilliam Darcy type of chap named Mark Darcy.

In a twist in the second novel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, published in 1999, Bridget is assigned to interview Colin Firth. The subsequent encounter is presented in the book as a straight Q&A. The topic is supposed to be Firth's then-latest film, Fever Pitch, based on Nick Hornby's semi-autobiographical novel.

In real life, Fielding set up the interview with a co-operative Firth and came to Rome to do it. "It was contrived a little," he explains. "Helen of course is not Bridget and I'm not really Colin Firth, or at least not the one in the book. That's someone I assumed for the interview.

"Then she was generous enough to include me in the editing process afterwards. She would fax me a draft and I would say, 'Maybe cut this or add that or change the answer here or there.' "

Alas, the scene won't be turning up in the big-screen adaptation of the second film, directed by Beeban Kidron, which is finished and now awaiting release.

So who is Colin Firth when he's not busy being Colin Firth? He says he is certainly not, in real life, anything like the put-upon men he's presented to the world in films such as The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Londinium (screened here on cable TV as Four Play), Love Actually, Girl with a Pearl Earring, not to mention Pride and Prejudice.

"None of them are me as I see myself," he declares, "although they probably all are representative of me to some extent. I think they have to be for any actor playing any role. For it to be convincing, it's got to come from somewhere that's you. The question is about realigning the relevant parts of yourself.

"You always have to find something about a character that you like. You can be playing the most despicable human being, but if you pronounce them despicable then you won't be able to make it real."

The suggestion that Firth might originally have become an actor in order to meet girls is apparently untrue. It just turned out that way.

In 1989, he worked with Meg Tilly on Valmont, Milos Forman's adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's famed novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and the pair spent the next few years together with their son, William, now 12, pursuing a secluded existence in the Canadian backwoods.

After their amicable split came the affair with Jennifer Ehle, who played Elizabeth Bennet to his Darcy in the BBC miniseries. And then, while shooting an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo in Colombia in 1996, again for the BBC, he met Livia Giuggioli, who was working on the miniseries as a production assistant and whom he married in 1997. Their second son, Mateo, was born last year.

Acknowledging that his "method training" has left its mark, Firth says there's a thin line between "becoming" a character and letting it become you. "I think if the actor's unstable enough, it could get a little weird. But I do think that in order to get to the heart of a character, an actor needs to suspend his or her disbelief.

"You need to do that but then keep a sensible third eye open. You've got to have a critical view of what you're doing as well. They talk about Bela Lugosi having insisted on being buried in his Dracula gear because he kind of lost the plot."

There's no danger that Firth will make the same demands of the shoulder-length wig he dons to play Vermeer, which apparently led co-star Johansson to dub him Fabio. He has a rather more cerebral approach to the character.

"Basically what fascinated me about Vermeer wasn't how he applied his brush," he explains. "It was more how he must have seen things, because he saw so differently. You know, there are no layout lines on any of his figures. If you look at his painting of Girl with a Pearl Earring, you can't even see the outline of her nose, and yet you know where it is.

"Vermeer had this extraordinary softness in his view of everything. That fascinated me as an actor. Some of his characters are in soft focus and there's a kind of intensity and gentleness to everything. I didn't know if there was a way to express that and, in some ways, it made everything frustratingly elusive. But that interested me more than the brush technique.

"It's what Vermeer sees when he looks at the girl, or when he looks in the corner of a room, or when he looks at the light coming in through the window. It was that, really.

"There's something very elusive about his paintings and there's something quite elusive about the man, I think. And maybe it was just as well that it stayed elusive.

"I remember being deeply immersed in it all, but I could never find a single hook to help solve any mysteries. And there came a point where the camera was rolling and someone said 'action' and I just had to get on and act, ready or not. And so, interestingly enough, it always felt like he was slipping away from me.

"But it just meant the chase was always on and it kept it very alive."

Photo by Steffan Hill

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