The Times, Aug 7, 2004, by Janice Turner

Reluctant Hero


A decade on, the nation’s bosom still heaves over his damp-shirted Mr Darcy, but Janice Turner discovers Colin Firth never aimed to be a sex symbol

The last time I visited the Portobello Hotel was to interview gigolos as they were photographed, oiled-up and naked, in a bath. I hesitate to mention this to Colin Firth since our conversation in the hotel’s breakfast room has hitherto had an earnest, thoughtful air. But he seizes on the subject: “Were they good-looking? Did they take pride in their work? Were they gay? Who were their clients?” They love a bit of filth, do actors, and Firth breaks momentarily with his sensible interview persona to tell me that Rupert Everett, a rent boy before drama school, had a client who, many years later, became a close friend (although Everett has never revealed to him they’d met before in seedier circumstances).

But then, are our romantic leading men so far removed from gigolos? Both make a living knowing how to arouse and satisfy female desire. The differences being that film stars only pretend and are much better paid. Firth is in the highest echelon of British male fantasy lovers: if Clive Owen is bit-of-rough/soft, Sean Bean bit-of-rough/hard and Hugh Grant posh/light, Firth is probably posh/dark. His appeal is not in what he expresses but in what he is struggling to contain
Mr Darcy having to douse his ardour with cold water or the artist Vermeer in Girl with a Pearl Earring, channelling a longing for his housemaid-model into fervent brushwork.

Firth serves a well-read female clientele who abhor the obvious and crude, who could only fancy a mainstream Hollywood hunk in an ironic way. He is subtle, complex and refined enough for a number of unlikely ladies to emit earthy “phwoars!” when I mention his name, and grill me jealously about what he was like.

So, for them: Colin Firth this morning is wearing an unstructured midnight-blue velvet jacket over jeans. He is as tall (6ft 1in) and as broad as a leading man should be but seldom is. He is made of excellent stuff that is ageing well: lush, wavy hair, good but not Los Angeles-white teeth, the jawline of a leading man but the eyes of a watchful boy. The smile, a surprise since it is rarely part of his on-screen armoury, renders him younger. The sexiest thing about him, I find, is his voice: rich and warm, with a nervous edge that in films plays as choked passion. So later, when guests keep blundering into the breakfast room and he says, “Come on, let’s find a room downstairs,” an involuntary exclamation mark pops up in my brain.

He speaks in well-formed sentences with a very precise vocabulary. He does more interviews than most equivalent stars, and I suspect he likes to use them to demonstrate his intelligence. Because, at his age, 43, he seems to realise that being a romantic lead, which was far from his career goal, is not enough. He is queasy about his sex symbol status, even queasy about acting itself.

His latest film, Trauma, a low-budget British chiller by Marc Evans, director of cult horror flick My Little Eye, is a return to grittier, quirkier pre-Darcy roles. Firth plays Ben, an artist who lives with his ant farm in a creepy converted hospital in Hackney, East London. We meet him waking from a coma after the car crash that killed his wife. But Ben is mentally unstable, an unreliable narrator, so Firth, who is in every scene, does a lot of wild-eyed unshaven emoting as Ben’s sanity unravels. A gruelling part, I suggest.

“Oh, we love all that,” Firth says, sardonically (“we” being actors). “You can feel a bit of a char-monkey sometimes just showing up, getting your make-up on and phoning something in, then going home. In Trauma I was never off the set, which means, after a while, you are part of the decision-making process.”

Later, puzzling over the phrase “char-monkey”, I do a search and the only thing that pops up is an interview with Hugh Grant: “Imagine what it’s like, at 42, to be sitting in hair and make-up,” says Grant. “It’s ridiculous. It’s all right if you’ve written the film. But to be wheeled on, a char-monkey, at the age of 42. I hate it.” Firth gives me an only slightly more measured tirade: “It’s a fairly infantile day
you’re given a time to wake up, you’re driven to work, someone puts on your clothes. You’re treated like an 18-month-old child!”

The romantic lead’s midlife crisis appears to manifest itself as professional self-disgust. Being adored for your handsome plumage starts to feel empty, and not a little sad, after 40. You crave manly substance. But how to acquire it? Grant tried producing movies with his company, Simian Films, but that has stalled after two non-hits, Extreme Measures and Mickey Blue Eyes. Firth, however, has no ambitions to produce or direct, and despite contributing a short story to a collection, Speaking with the Angel, edited by Nick Hornby, he says he lacks the self-discipline to write.

“I’ve been deformed by the rhythms that acting gives you, which make you fickle,” he says. “You give yourself to a job for three months as if nothing else in the world exists. And then you drop it like a stone. As a director, you have to make that investment over a couple of years; I don’t know if I’ve got it in me.

“The trouble is most of us choose what we want to do when we are very young, and if it goes well your success can tie you to it. I sometimes feel I’m stuck in a profession only a 14-year-old would choose. Even though I love it.”

Fourteen is the age at which Firth, who plodded academically, devoted himself to acting. After school he found backstage work at the Shaw and National Theatres before drama school, and was then instantly scooped into the stage play Another Country with Rupert Everett. The film version followed. Firth has never done the struggling actor bit, toiled in rep or been out of work.

The Firth template was moulded early on: the sensitive victim of an experience so terrible it shuts down his emotions. In Tumbledown and A Month in the Country the damage was done in battle, in the Falklands and First World War trenches respectively. It was this ability to convey simmering internal conflict
as much as Firth’s dark looksthat made him a perfect Mr Darcy. Any actor who could embody every teenage girl’s literary crush and that most potent archetype of female desire, the distant, withholding but powerful man unlocked by love, would stir half the nation’s loins. But Firth says it was “the most improbable thing ever to happen to me as an actor. People would have howled with laughter if I’d tried to predict it. In fact, they did when it first happened.”

He quotes a theatre review of a few years before: “Colin Firth doesn’t have enough romantic charisma to light a 50-watt bulb.” And he was 33: “Too long in the tooth to play the romantic stuff. I thought this would be my last throw of the dice.” It’s a decade since Darcy, but women have not forgotten, and many fan sites celebrate a wet-shirted Colin. Such as or, the latter a fastidious, stalkerish temple to their hero, who is respectfully referred to as ODB (Our Dear Boy). They send him edifying books as well as their panties: he is probably pursued by the most intelligent horny women in the world.

“I have no idea what Tom Cruise’s fans feel about him,” says Firth, uncomfortably. “There are some actors who, wherever they go, people show up because they think they are fantastic. Then there are slightly marginalised people who are like somebody’s secret. I feel like a second division football team that has this following who are more into it for the fellowship of each other.”

I ask if he’s ever “googled” himself for fun and he shudders. “That way lies madness. It would be horrendous to listen to people who don’t know you discuss you in this proprietorial way.”

Post-Darcy, most of his roles have had a similar dramatic arc: romantically hurt guy healed by new love, as in his last Hollywood vehicle, Hope Springs, a rom-com so silly and limp it appears on lists of worst movies ever. He has a sideline in cuckolds: uptight upper-class ones in The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, or gloomy souls dumped for a more fun guy, as in Love Actually.

He is aware of his repertoire’s limitations: “I got a bit of a jolt in Girl with a Pearl Earring when the director said something about my brooding looks. And I thought, that wasn’t supposed to be a f****** brooding look!” But the darkness is all external. “I’m not a brooding person,” he insists. “But when it comes to things like music or literature I am drawn to the dark stuff. That’s what is most passionate, risky and interesting.” Trauma director Evans describes Firth as “the most even-keeled, amusing, easy-to-be-with person. I’ve never seen a dark side to him except on screen.”

Firth in person does convey an ease with himself, probably attributable to his solid family background. His parents, now around 70, are both academics, whose postings to America and Nigeria gave Firth, his younger brother and sister a peripatetic childhood. This bookish environment explains his fear of “char-monkey” vacuity and a tendency to intellectualise his roles. He spent hours studying Vermeer for Girl with a Pearl Earring, prompting Scarlett Johansson, who didn’t even read Tracy Chevalier’s book, to comment drily: “Colin probably thinks he painted all the paintings himself.”

It was also an ascetic and thrifty upbringing. “It annoyed me sometimes that they weren’t more avaricious. I would like to have had more gadgets in the house, more expensive toys.” The kind of childhood that makes him feel, even today, “conditioned to save silver foil because it used to be expensive”, is an excellent inoculation against the meretricious world of movies. Firth has never been enamoured of Hollywood, never chased it hard even after Bridget Jones’s Diary, his biggest box-office hit. “Los Angeles is such an untenable place to be,” he says. “People come home and go straight to their answering machines, obsess that they aren’t invited to some premiere. You laugh it off for a week or two, then you get sucked in.”

But neither is America always enamoured with Firth, often reading his English restraint as woodenness and preferring the more quicksilver charms of Hugh Grant. Although they seldom meet, there is an undeniable rivalry between the two, played out in their on-screen fist-fight in Bridget Jones, with a rematch in Edge of Reason, out later this year. Grant’s character
witty, sexy but heartless Daniel Cleaveris the closest he has played to his real self. And there is much of the slightly pompous decency of Mark Darcy in Firth.

While Firth’s intensity means he is often cast as an artist (Trauma, Pearl Earring, Hope Springs) or writer (Love Actually) the spivvier, shallower Grant plays someone who sells books (Notting Hill, Bridget Jones) or paintings (Mickey Blue Eyes). At this, Firth gives a small, satisfied smile.

“Hugh is a brilliant raconteur, a very funny guy,” he says. “In the DVD commentary for Love Actually he takes the piss out of me relentlessly. He says, ‘In this scene they photographed him higher up to try and make him look thinner.’ Or, ‘What’s that rinse he’s using in his hair?’ It is very funny. The rights and clearances department at Universal sent me the tape; they thought I might sue. But if I don’t play the game it will seem rather petulant.”

But in the private sphere it is Grant who is cast in darkness while Firth basks in the sun. Grant has looked anchorless since he split with Liz Hurley, bouncing around the social pages, creating kiss-and-tells. Meanwhile, Firth seems profoundly happy with his Italian wife, Livia Giuggioli, 33, a TV producer he met on the set of Nostromo in 1997. Nick Hornby has described Liviawith her beauty, culinary skills and PhDas “joke-perfect”. Her attitude to the cult of Darcy is amused bewilderment. They have two sons, Matteo, born last year, and three-year-old Luca, whose cute bilingualisms Firth proudly recounts. Italy, where he spends around three months a year, also gives Firth respite from the low-level but wearing hassle of fame.

Firth is keen to point out he has another son, Will, 13, by Meg Tilly, the Canadian actress he met filming Valmont in 1989. Firth moved to backwoods British Columbia for five years, at some price to his career, until the relationship finally broke down. After that, he spent stints as a single parent during Will’s long summer visits.

A solidness in his personal dealings has, he says, been his ballast against the instability of his profession. “My interpretation of growing up is mostly to do with a capacity to stick with something. Whether it is a professional project, a mission or a marriage.”

For the jaded fortysomething romantic lead, a rich home life is a grand compensation. It certainly stops any fears about losing your looks. I ask Firth if he worries about body-revealing bedroom scenes as he gets older. “I go for a run,” he shrugs. “I know that if I ate everything I wanted I’d turn into a blob and that’s age. But I could never take the time it would require to get my body up to Los Angeles standards. I would change profession first.”

Trauma is released on August 27

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