Globe and Mail, Oct 4, 2005, by Liam Lacey

Colin Firth:
the charmed life of a
late-blooming heartthrob


Colin Firth has said that he feels lucky he didn't become a "hunk" until he was 35he had a few years to learn to become an actor first. Tall, dark and somewhat brooding-looking, the 45-year-old actor spent part of his early career at Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to various film roles, typically playing naive young men. By the time he was 35, when he married Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli, he had had only had two girlfriends, including Canadian actress Meg Tilly, with whom he had a son.

Then, in 1995, he starred in the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC miniseries of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (His brother Jonathan said, "Darcy
but isn't he supposed to be sexy?") But the role of Darcy, and particularly a scene where he emerged wet from a pond and earned the sobriquet the "male Ursula Andress," changed his life. Then later, there were two more Mr. Darcys in Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and several other Darcy-like brooding film roles.

Darcy, says Firth, has been sexy for 200 years but he's proud he made it convincing.

He once said, "I have a kind of neutrality, physically. I can be made to look a lot better, or a lot worse." His sex appeal is indirect, the male equivalent of the prim librarian who, under the right circumstances, may be persuaded to doff her spectacles and pull out her hairpins.

On this particular late afternoon, the second last day of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Firth was looking pleasantly rumpled, wearing a sports jacket over an untucked shirt, faded blue jeans on long legs and a lot of beard stubble. He was also bleary-eyed, not apparently related to the glass of red wine in his hand, but to exhaustion. He flew in the previous night from Tunisia, where he is shooting a sword-and-sandal epic, The Last Legion, for the TIFF premiere of Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies.

He has a car waiting to take him to the airport in half an hour. Looking distracted, he put down the wine and asked a publicist for a double espresso. I asked him if he was very tired.

"A great understatement," he says. "Very tired was about 8 a.m. this morning."

After so many roles where he has played superficially dark, secretly nice characters, his part in Egoyan's film, based on Rupert Holmes's show-business whodunit, as beloved fifties television entertainer Vince Collins (with Kevin Bacon as the Jerry Lewis-like sidekick), is a departure. There's bisexuality, drug and alcohol abuse, and nudity. Collins is an unsavoury character who ends up a depraved Hollywood recluse. Were there any second thoughts about taking on such a role? "Every job you take is a spin of the dice to a certain point, but I've never seen a film by Atom you can't respect. This film
in the hands of someone who I didn't admire and respectI'd positively know to keep away from.

"But everything that Atom has done is thought-provoking and investigative and lacking in crass moral judgment. I thought it would be an interesting journey to take."

 Firth wanted to do the role with an American accent instead of an Englishman as Egoyan's script indicatedbut he was overruled: "I realized the arguments for keeping with the script were too solid to ignore. We present him as an archetypal Englishman of a certain kind, which makes the violence and debauchery more shocking. It was much the same way as this biography of Cary Grant that came out at the time we were shooting, which dealt with his bisexuality and interest in LSD, which was only really interesting because it wasn't our image of Cary Grant."

Firth thinks there may be some insulation from celebrity excess in living in England: "Believing in your own publicity is a weakness that can apply to anyone, anywhere. Tearing into all the favours that fame can bestow on you without any kind of sense of putting the brakes onthat can happen anywhere. You only have to look around and see how much drugs, alcoholism and suicide there are among people who have got it all. I think [in England] we're protected by our famous sense of irony to some extent. There is a tendency to debunk, so it's a little harder to get above yourself. Even though we have an ancient aristocratic system and there still can be found people who take status and titles seriously, the prevailing feeling is there's not very much respect for an actor who has to have a bigger trailer than another actor. It's very difficult to sustain on an English set without becoming laughable."

Of course, it's also true that some of the greatest acting in England takes place in the relatively modestly paid and mean world of the theatre, where actors like Firth learn their craft: "I've always been taught that without resistance, you can't developwhether it's your muscles or your voice or your acting ability. It's a tragedy really when creative people get so rich and famous that people open doors and smile all the time and give them everything you want. Now I've worked in America a lot of times and by far the majority of actors [there] are very well-grounded, [with] enormous senses of humour and very professional. But I've seen star behaviour. It's not even the star's behaviour, but watching it being connived at by people around them: not rolling their eyes, not questioning, not laughing when they hear something particularly pompous, all of which is destructive to the person who's being fawned on."

 Perhaps another reason for Firth's perspective is that he comes from a family that didn't place fame and wealth as the pinnacle of value. Three of his grandparents were Methodist missionaries, a denomination that emphasizes the importance of serving others. Both his parents were academicshis father taught history and his mother comparative religion: "I suppose I could be thought of as a black sheep, but there's a line of consistency. We're all involved in things that aren't exactly tangiblepreaching a sermon isn't quite the same as hammering nails and building something. We all stand up and tell stories to people in a way."

Recently, Firth became a director of Progreso, which has opened two London coffee shops in a planned-for English chain, half-owned by OXFAM and intended as a challenge to Starbucks and other luxury coffee chains. The difference: Progreso profits go back to coffee-grower co-ops in Ethiopia, Honduras and Indonesia, or to help other coffee-growers. Firth has lobbied the World Trade Organization about fair-trade practices, personally invested money to set up the Progreso chain, bought shares for producers, travelled to Ethiopia and even served behind the counter.

The experience has forced him to deal with the social value of celebrity: "The whole business of celebrities and causes is full of paradoxes. Who the hell wants to listen to someone preaching to them about poverty who comes from a life of privilege? And I say, well then, stop reading here because I don't want to bore you.

"But organizations who want to help people are tracking down celebrities and their endorsements like gold dust because they've discovered it's one of the most effective ways to create change . . . My own solution was I couldn't be just another celebrity spokesman. I got directly involved and understand the system from one end of the chain to the other, and I've become better educated and I think, in many ways, it has fundamentally changed me." Spoken like a true Methodist celebrity hunk.

Thanks to Joan

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