Daily Mail Weekend magazine, December 3, 2005, by David Wigg

for his shirt


Ten years ago he caused a sensation when he revealed his manly chest in Pride and Prejudice. Now, Colin Firth strips naked to set female hearts aflutter in his new film. He bares all in an explicit love scene that is a far cry from his image as a genteel Regency buck.


Colin Firth will be forever remembered as the dashing Mr Darcy in the 1990s TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice. It was a seminal moment for millions of swooning women viewers when he emerged dripping from a lake, his shirt unbuttoned and clinging to his chest, his breeches sodden and his dark hair a tangled mess—and it turned Firth into a romantic icon.

Now Firth is revealing all. He strips naked for some raunchy sex scenes in his new, Hollywood-made, thriller, Where The Truth Lies—but gone is the smouldering, passionate, brooding Regency hero that launched him into the big time.

Instead, he plays a violent, sex-crazed pill-popper with a taste for both men and women, who becomes implicated in the murder of a beautiful blonde. The nude scenes include an explicit three-in-a-bed orgy with his co-stars Kevin Bacon and Canadian actress Rachel Blanchard. It’s enough to make Jane Austen’s gentle maidens in Pride And Prejudice blush prettily and cover their eyes in horror.

The nudity is all essential to the plot, the producers insist, but Firth’s scenes have shocked a lot of people. The man himself, though, is a bit bemused that anyone should be disturbed by the sight of his well-honed body, or that they would think he’s altogether too nice to bare all. ‘I can’t think of any actor who wouldn’t be attracted to this kind of part,’ he says. ‘There’s a glamour to all the decadence, despair and disappointment in the story. As for the nudity, I didn’t mind doing it, and everyone says it will be another Mr Darcy moment, but for the life of me I can’t see why.

‘I mean, I’m 45 years old, I look in the mirror and I’m glad to be thought of as a sex symbol. But I try not to think about it. I haven’t been chased down the street and nor has anyone ever thrown their underwear at me. Anyway, I’ve spent years trying to work out why Mr Darcy’s fully clothed swim caused such a sensation. My wife certainly wouldn’t melt at the knees if I came home in a wet shirt.’

In the film, Firth and Bacon play a 1950s’ musical comedy act who have taken the U.S. by storm. They are idolised like show-business gods and to their public can do no wrong. But that is where any comparison with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis—on whom the characters are loosely based—ends.  For the two men have a dark sides, about which the public knows nothing—their depraved tastes and sleazy habits.

Their careers come crashing to a halt when a beautiful blonde is found murdered in their hotel room.  The two men have a perfect alibi: they were hosting a coast-to-coast telethon when the girl was killed, and millions of viewers bear witness to that. But in the 1950s, to have any girl in your hotel room, alive or dead, was shocking enough—the scandal finishes them and they go their separate ways. Many years later, a female writer becomes intrigued by the story and begins her own investigation, using her own charms to lure the two men into revealing their secrets.

It’s a gripping whodunit with a Hitckcock-esque twist at the end, and if anything will kill off Firth’s Mr Darcy image once and for all, this will. ‘There is a salaciousness,’ he admits, ‘but I don’t think anyone will pay much attention to it. There may be fuss in some countries, but not here, where we are more sophisticated. No one here will give a damn. I wanted to take the part because I’m playing two roles in one, the good guy and the bad guy. I love that contact between what’s on show and what lies behind the mask.

‘I don’t believe anyone will be shocked just because it’s me. Anyway, I’ve some fairly murky stuff before now. I’ve been beavering away behind the scenes doing things other than romantic comedies, but I’m never remembered for those.’

In his own mind, he says he shook off Mr Darcy the day he walked off the set. ‘I have never seen myself as a sex symbol. But it is not something I am uncomfortable with. I thought it was fantastic, all that stuff about being a heart-throb. I enjoyed it, but never understood it.’

When I spent some time with Firth in the summer at the Cannes Film Festival he held court, stretched out on a sofa in his suite at the Carlton Hotel, a combination of smooth charm and smiling self-deprecation, modestly attributing most of his successful career to luck.

In the flesh he is impressively tall, standing 6ft 2in, with the shoulders of a rugby three-quarter. He answers questions very precisely after giving them considerable thought, and clearly enjoys the challenge of departing from what is expected of him. ‘I love being able to explore the difficult stuff. I like it when it’s not familiar—and those are all things that make you realise you’ve still got a pulse,’ he explains. ‘If you have success, people are constantly conniving at putting you back in your box and putting you back where they’re familiar with you. So there’s a real current in that direction.

‘You’re always being encouraged to go into familiar territory. Because people who are investing a lot of money want to be sure of what they’re getting. So you’re not often asked to take risks, which Where The Truth Lies all the more of a challenge.’

The sex scenes, he reveals, were anything but sexy to those taking part. ‘We’d rehearse it in the mornings with our hair curlers in, then we’d have a run-through partially clothed, while the director worked out where the cameras would be and the guy with the overhead microphone was going to stand. Fortunately, it wasn’t too close to me, because that’s very offputting and takes the sex out of it.’

Although he and Bacon look totally nude on screen, it seems that just one small part of them was covered up. ‘We had to wear a pouch called a modesty bag, which had to be kept out of the camera’s range. Everything would be going perfectly, then they’d yell, “We can see the bag!”, and we had to start all over again. We even had a lady on set whose job was to keep an eye on the bags in case they strayed into the picture.’

I wondered if he ever read a script of a film offered to him to check whether there was too much—or even too little—sex in it. ‘The older I get, I look at a story and if it calls for me to take my clothes off, I really have to consider whether I want to spend a lot of time in the gym getting in shape for the film. That’s quite a lot of pressure on top of the hassle of actually making the picture.’

He met his wife, an Italian documentary maker, Livia Guiggioli, while he was filming Joseph Conrad’s epic Nostromo for the BBC in 1996. Until then, he says that he had only been in two serious relationships and he finds it bewildering that people see him as kind of Warren Beatty. While making Pride And Prejudice he had an affair with his co-star Jennifer Ehle, who won a Bafta award for role as Mr Darcy’s love, Elizabeth Bennet. The pair kept their off-screen romance a secret for almost a year. Although neither have ever spoken publicly about it, Firth’s friends say he was devastated when they broke up.

Until he met Livia, he says he had been troubled by a feeling of ‘rootlessness’. He and Livia have a home in Barnesbury, north London, but like to escape to Italy as often as possible. They have two young sons, Matteo and Luca. He also has a son, Will, 14, from his earlier relationship with the actress Meg Tilly, his co-star in the film Valmont. He remains on good terms with Tilly and often commutes to Los Angeles to see Will.

His parents were teachers in Nigeria, where he was born, but he moved to Hampshire when he was four. Although he has often played public schoolboys in the past, he went to a comprehensive school in Winchester, where he was teased over his middle-class accent. His academic parents encouraged him to read books and, even as young as 14, he worked backstage at the Shaw and National Theatres after school, before gaining a place at London’s Drama Centre. His brother Jonathan, is also an actor. When he first heard that Firth was being cast as Mr Darcy, he expressed surprise: ‘But surely that part should have gone to a sexy actor,’ he said.

Firth has never been out of work since his career was memorably launched in 1983, when he played a homosexual public schoolboy based on the spy Guy Burgess, in the stage version of the hit play Another Country, a theatrical diving board for a group of newly discovered young actors, including Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis and Kenneth Branagh. Firth played a different role in the 1984 film adaptation as Judd, the fiery communist, and has since dominated our screens in a succession of major parts including Anthony Minghella’s Oscar winning The English Patient, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually and Girl With A Pearl Earring.

More recently, he played the hapless father of the world’s most unruly children in Nanny McPhee. Emma Thompson, who played the title role, noted in the diary that she kept during the filming that Firth was the target of much teasing behind the cameras. ‘But he took it all in good part,’ she wrote, ‘and even sent himself up by making a mock complaint to the director that, as a serious actor, he felt he deserved more respect from the rest of the cast!’

This week, Firth returned from Slovakia, where he’s been filming The Last Legion, in which he plays a Roman general guarding a boy emperor from barbarians. ‘I keep my clothes on, but being the Roman era, I was worried I would have to show off my legs in one of those mini-togas. I was in two minds whether I would look like a hero or some ridiculously cheesy figure. Whether you have the build or not, you can be killed in a costume like that. Russell Crowe didn’t look silly in Gladiator, but even if you have the most incredible physique there is still a risk of looking comical, flaunting yourself in a skirt. In the end, I discovered it was set in a time when Romans wore slightly more dignified uniforms, so I was able to cover up.’

He tends to make two films a year, but tries to work where his family can be with him, or at least within commuting distance. ‘I won’t take on a job if it is impossible to see them, because I miss them too much. Luckily, my youngest kids are still portable. The school is not much of an issue as it’s going to be. Of course, I get down time. I get time off. If I stop between jobs and make sure that’s family time, it works.’

One thing he has learned from a career spanning 20 years: ‘You can’t be naïve about the fact that the cinema throws up iconic images every so often. You try to be purist about it, you know: I’m doing a job; I’m a storyteller. I play roles. I go home. The reality is that every so often somebody takes hold of the public consciousness, it gets taken out of context and put up as an icon. It can be Hannibal Lecter, it could be Bond...And, of course, I was Mr Darcy.

‘The interesting thing about when people put you in a box—like Mr Darcy—is whether you are really there. I’m not physically into it, so it’s okay. It’s my attitude to it that’s going to make the difference. There may be the occasional frustration if you run into people who ask you the same question or, make the same assumption, but you get over it. As long as it’s not limiting what I’m actually doing. And luckily it doesn’t seem to be.’

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