Until now. In the Golden Globe-nominated Girl with a Pearl Earring he plays Vermeer, the Dutch master, who falls for his lovely maid. He endlessly touches up her portrait, but his passion is confined to painting. It’s a role that fits the man. It’s not that in real life he is a romantic failure—even to my untrained eye he is handsome and happily married—but he is diffident. If Firth, 43, encountered the object of his infatuation after diving into a lake—as he did so as Darcy in the television version of Pride and Prejudice—he would probably scurry into the bushes.
This modest quietness is ignored by adoring female fans. When he recently toured America, a posse followed him coast to coast in a frenzy of screams and lingerie lobbing. In Bridget Jones’s Diary he is an object of desire—a modern Darcy—but his swooning fans should clasp their smelling salts because he’s nothing like his upper-middle-class screen characters, or so he claims. “I’m a phoney,” he says in a garishly decorated caravan on the set of the second Bridget Jones film.
As proof of his proletarian past he reprises the agricultural accent—and language—of his Hampshire secondary modern. “It was ‘Firthy, come and get a smack in the mouth’ and ‘Who you f****** looking at, you c***!” He even claims to have sung in a band that was “hippie with punk overtones”. Hard to believe in his Gieves & Hawkes suit, which he insists is a stage prop.
If he is a phoney it is as much because his career has not been true to his early rebelliousness as to any class sellout. In 1979, at the dawning of Thatcher’s Britain, he found himself at drama school. “The inverted snobbery was very aspirant, the alternative culture was riding high and I wanted to be a part of that. But my street cred certainly wasn’t going to be competing with the kids in that class: I wasn’t a smack addict and didn’t develop a criminal record.”
Instead, casting directors realised he would look pretty in hunting pink and told him to ride with what could be described as the Brideshead Revisited pack. “To my astonishment I was identified immediately as silver spooned, plummy,” he says. And filled with ambition, he wasn’t going to let political posturing hold up his career. And so from Firth’s first role in Another Country he took on the Rex Harrison mantle of Britain’s favourite PMT.
“It’s been so easy,” he smiles sheepishly. “I’ve got none of the credentials of treading the boards at the Hartlepool Empire.” Still, it says something depressing about Britain that he had to pretend that he had. Until recently, British film was so pre-Victorian you were classed as either toff or tyke.
“Britain really does do the class labelling quite a bit. I’ve had such a full career, one doesn’t complain, but,” he says, rubbing a slightly greying temple, “I do notice dead-end roads.”
Far from regretting some of his cinematic slush, he “couldn’t give a s***” about the sneers of trendies who say his films are schmaltzy. Partly this is because he can reel off lots of non-romantic flicks he has starred in (alas all the ones we didn’t notice, including a drama screened at the same time as Pride and Prejudice in which he played a “drunk Nottinghamshire miner and wife abuser”).
He says he has “had it up to here” with “1980s edginess” and all those Ken Loach films about the underclass, and feels British tastes might be changing. He was “surprised” Love Actually, in which he stars, received benign reviews. “People said, ‘It’s fun, I like it, it made me laugh, it made me cry, it swept me along’,” he says, “and in its own way was actually enormously risky. It really is a case of ‘ Duh, if you don’t like it you can see Kill Bill instead’.”
Although he is grateful for the regular employment, he wishes offers would come in to play East End gangsters. “I have gone through periods of sitting around not working and waiting for the perfect part,” he says, “which I can do very easily as I’m naturally lazy.”
If his life experience is anything to go by, he is suited to playing Dutch daubers: not only does he have an Italian wife by whom he has two children, he spent much of his childhood in Nigeria and America—his parents are academics—and later lived in Canada for five years. His son with his former live-in lover, the American actress Meg Tilly, lives with her Stateside and “is basically American”, while Firth says he feels “very nearly as at home in America as in Britain”.
While classmates sported agricultural accents, he was called “the Yank” from the time when he lived in the US, “despite over-egging the Hampshire as much as I could”. So despite his current A-list status, he has always felt a bit of an outsider. “I have always been a chameleon and had this quite childish, rather solitary, love of fantasy. You need to be quite infantile to be an actor.”
The personal cost of such a disposition is guilt about the treatment of his—now teenage—eldest son. Though he currently makes great efforts to see him regularly, he regrets not being around more during his formative years. “I think I am a much better father second time round,” he admits.
He lives in Hampstead, northwest London, with his wife Livia Giuggiolo, a 33-year-old television producer, and their children Luca, 2, and six-month-old Mateo. He eschews showbusiness schmoozing parties, though admits it would be unnecessary now: most folk worth knowing in British film probably have their children “playing round at my house”.
He laughs at suggestions that his life is remotely glam. “Filming is a workaday environment,” he says. “You mention female attention, but most of our life is conducted with very little awareness of it. I go to work, I come home and change nappies.” Hmm, new man as well; the aroma of Pampers will only make him more adorable to Bridgets everywhere.
The one British actor who might be compared to Firth is Hugh Grant. Though the latter has stuck more to romantic comedy than the more eclectic Firth, they have shot three films together. Is theirs a friendly rivalry?
“Well, I hope it’s friendly. In this) all we do is pull each other’s hair, and in the last one we just beat each other up. Off set we are very rude to each other.” Really?
“Oh, it’s just little bitchy comments. I’ve just listened to the DVD commentary for Love Actually and Hugh points out unfavourable camera angles in a scene with me that an actress was obviously having to do all the work.”
He might have a chance for revenge: he speculates there might well be a third Bridget Jones film. Unlike Grant, Firth has done the obligatory Shakespeare, but is also focused on film. Unusually for a British actor, he regards stage snobbery as misplaced.
“The attraction of theatre is just how easy it is,” he insists. “You don’t utter a line in public before five weeks rehearsals. I’ve very rarely seen a brilliant film actor who can’t cut it on stage. In film you’ve only time for three takes. People imagine you do more takes, but there is a critical period in which you have to get it right or it’s indelible.
“There are an awful lot of surprises. Yesterday I was dubbing this film Trauma, histrionic stuff about a man in an emotional crisis. Then I got a call to come out here and rescue Bridget Jones from a Thai prison. Film is all artifice: the actress you are ‘opposite’ might not, in reality, even be there. The director will often say: ‘I’m sorry, we’re not going to do the scene where you kill your wife, you’re going to marry her instead,’ and so in totally the wrong order you can actually get shot, have sex and get married before lunch.”
Poor Firth. He’s the male Ursula Andress. Whatever parts he plays, 20 years from now you can guarantee he will only ever be remembered for one thing: emerging sexily sodden from the water. But maybe I shouldn’t feel too sorry for him.
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