the charmed life of a
Colin Firth has
said that he feels lucky he didn't become a "hunk" until he was 35—he 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
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
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
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 respect—I'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."
wanted to do the role with an American accent instead of an
Englishman as Egoyan's script indicated—but 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 on—that 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."
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 develop—whether 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
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
academics—his 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 tangible—preaching 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.