Sunday Herald, November 27, 2005, by Peter Ross

Without Prejudice
For a decade, Colin Firth has been Britain’s most lusted after leading man. But in truth he is much more complex than the sex symbol tag suggests. He talks to Peter Ross about the shock of fatherhood, the highs and lows of acting, and why Tony Blair’s religious beliefs make him want to jump in a lake


"Cool!" beams Colin Firth. "That sounds very reasonable.” He looks almost absurdly grateful, like a prisoner on death row granted a last-minute reprieve on the condition that he sleeps with the warden’s beautiful daughter.

Firth is pleased because I have solemnly promised at the outset of our interview not to ask any questions about Pride And Prejudice or Bridget Jones. These are the projects with which he is most closely associated, and which have defined him in the public mind as a piece of prime posh totty whose turbulent emotions are kept in check by good old-fashioned British reserve.

All rot, of course, but nevertheless almost every profile of him written in the last decade
and there have been hundredshas been a variation on this theme. The journalist who spoke to him just before me concluded by asking, "So what’s a Texan doing playing Bridget Jones?" and the only thing that prevented Firth from responding to this by falling to the floor and writhing around with blood streaming from his eyes was (a) the rugs in this London hotel room are pretty expensive, and (b) he’s too polite a chap to make a fuss. Nevertheless, he is delighted by the prospect of talking about somethinganything!other than Mr bleeding Darcy and Renée sodding Zellweger. "That would be very cool," he says. "Thank you very much."

He is sitting on a sofa in a room of The Dorchester, a gaff so chintzy that the staff have lace frills round their faces, and so hoity-toity that a little man follows you around sweeping up your dropped aitches.

Firth has been here all day, promoting his new picture. The ambience is hotel zen
calm to the point of numbness. It is 5pm and I am Firth’s last interview of the day, all that stands between him and soup and a salad. He is wearing jeans, scruffy trainers, a striped shirt, and the beginnings of a beard. He is tall and handsome, as you know, and thinks about what he is going to say before speaking. He tries to make an interview into an actual conversation rather than an empty ritual of obvious questions and unsurprising replies, and while this can lead to waffle and waste precious time, it’s nice to see him behaving like a human in the dehumanising context of a press junket; it’s a mark of the mandecent, intelligent and determined to make life a little more bearable.

We begin by discussing his film, Where The Truth Lies. Directed by Atom Egoyan in the noir tradition, it’s a complicated story about sex and murder. Firth plays Vince Collins, an English actor in Seventies Los Angeles who used to be one half of a hugely successful Fifties comedy duo, his former partner
Lanny Morrisbeing played by Kevin Bacon. Both men are planning to publish explosive memoirs of the decadent years they spent together, and what everyone wants to know is what really happened to the young girl who was found dead in their New Jersey hotel room back at the height of their fame. The film’s theme is the gap between public and private self.

All famous people experience that disparity, and Firth is no different. "The way the public see me doesn’t seem to be very coherent," he says. "Unless it’s just as Mr Darcy or the guy who does Bridget Jones, I don’t think there’s a finite image. The person that I read about in newspapers, who looks back at me, is an unlikely montage of disparate things, pieced together from one phase of my career attached to another. And actually, that’s fine by me. I don’t mind it at all." In other words, he doesn’t want people to know who he is. He would rather they were confused.

If he will allow it, though, I’d like to clear something up. One of the great Firth myths is that he is modest and self-effacing, and he nods when I mention this, dismissing it as "a load of British shtick". It is essentially the Colin Firth act that he slips into in public. But the truth is that acting requires enormous amounts of self-belief, even arrogance, and he certainly has those personality traits.

"Yeah, it requires huge ego," he says. "I remember one of my grandfathers, who was a minister in the church, said that he had to have quite a considerable ego to get up in front of people, tell stories and preach to them. He said that’s what got him up there, and over his nerves about being the centre of attention."

This is typical Firth, making a point about himself by referring to his family background. He does it a number of times during our relatively short time together; he clearly believes in the importance of bloodlines and a certain level of genetic predestination.

Anyway, he is not finished talking about ego.

"I remember at drama school it struck me that the great extroverts were not necessarily the best actors. Very often the best actors were not that sure of themselves socially; they could be very quiet and retiring people, and the stage was the place where everything got released." Although too fond of his British shtick to say so, he is talking about himself. The young Firth who grew up in Winchester and then attended the Drama Centre in London, does seem to have been something of a loner, uneasy in a crowd. But as he points out, being like that "is not inconsistent with having a lot of vanity and really, really wanting to succeed for your own sake."

Success came quickly. Firth was the star of the Drama Centre, known for his intelligence, poetic sensibility, and willingness to immerse himself in characters. When they staged Hamlet, he played the lead. He was talent-spotted and cast in the West End production of Another Country, the play which had already launched the careers of Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis. Firth had arrived.

He appeared in the 1984 film version of Another Country and quickly notched up TV and film work which saw him cast alongside some legendary actors. In Camille, he worked with John Gielgud, and appeared in the 1986 mini-series Lost Empires, the last television programme Laurence Olivier ever made. What must it have been like for a young actor in his mid-20s to act with people of that calibre?

"Stunning," he says. "It made me feel I had achieved something, although I hadn’t achieved very much in my own right, just to be in the company of the most luminous names in my profession. There was nobody more dazzling than Laurence Olivier, the most celebrated actor of the century. And I was treated, on the whole, with equality. Acting in this country is a very egalitarian process; there is that feeling that one is in a company. Olivier used to call me ‘partner’ ..." Firth breaks off and laughs, "...partly because he couldn’t remember my name. He asked me to call him Larry."

Back in those days, Firth felt differently about his talents. "In some ways I find acting more difficult now than I used to," he admits. "There were certain things that were easier because youth gave them to me for free. One was the ability to suspend disbelief, to believe whatever you want to believe. And that can produce the arrogance, which we were talking about. I was not nervous when I went on stage in my early 20s; I am now. When you are young, you go on stage thinking, 'This is my right. How can it go wrong? And what does it matter if it does
I’m indestructible.' The the realities of life tell you after 20 years that you are totally destructible, and you have seen the destruction, and you know what can go wrong. That is the sort of thing that can interfere with your work."

At this point, I hazard a guess that he is referring
in partVto his feelings about becoming a father. It’s true for a lot of men, I think, that when they become a parent, a sensation of constant low-level fear enters their lives; a lot of anxiety and pressure to succeed and be dependable, to live up to that word: dad. When you have a child, you are confronted with who you really are, and for an actora person whose work rests upon their ability and willingness to flit blithely from identity to identitythat can be difficult. In 1990, Firth had a son, Will, with Meg Tilly, the Canadian actress whom he met on the set of Valmont.

"That was the biggest thing," he says. "I went through a brief period after my first child was born when I felt even more bullet-proof. It was so important to me that it felt like nothing else was important, and so I felt like nothing else could touch me. I couldn’t possibly be intimidated by a social situation, and my career just didn’t seem important.

"But then you find out all sorts of things about yourself, as you become a parent, and start to make mistakes, and start to realise how much depends on your judgement at every step in terms of what your child’s future is going to be. Those things start to make you feel vulnerable. You realise that the world is quite scary and you have a huge responsibility to make it better for someone other than yourself. It turned my life completely upside down, and my feeling of invincibility pretty well ended around that time.”

I ask him to please tell me one surprising thing which he learned about himself during that period. He takes his time replying, I think because he is deciding how honest to be.

"Well," he says, "before I had a child I had thought I was a person who had a reasonable capacity to care for other people. But then I realised that it had basically all been about me up to that point. All my pursuits. I enjoyed not having ties, certainly not having any that I felt I couldn’t undo. And having a child is the one thing that you categorically and clearly cannot undo. It was a shock to have something that was bigger than me, bigger than my own ego. That my peace of mind and happiness depended on the well-being of someone else was a huge shock. That hadn’t happened before. I thought I had loved people sufficiently that their happiness was equal to my own. But it wasn’t. It was nowhere near."

Do not take from this that Firth is entirely self-centred. He is, for example, very politically engaged; he has campaigned for rights for asylum seekers, and is a director of Progreso, the ethical coffee chain which gives growers in the third world a percentage of the profits.

Anyway, his feelings about fatherhood began to affect the way Firth acted. He had been trained according to the Stanislavski system which required him to immerse himself in roles, and his own natural inclination was to strive for maximum truthfulness, but after the birth of his son he was increasingly unwilling to become the characters, to feel what they felt. The crisis came during the filming of Hostages, the 1993 docu-drama about John McCarthy’s kidnap and imprisonment by Islamic terrorists, which seems to have been filmed around the same time as Firth’s relationship with Tilly was coming to an end. "I thought, 'Why am I doing this silly job where I am entering into someone else’s shit? It’s ridiculous. I’ve got my own issues to deal with here, and I’m supposed to pretend to be this guy suffering.'"

Although Firth only became truly famous three years after this point, with his iconic Mr Darcy, my sense is that his commitment to acting has never been quite the same since. I hope any actors reading this will forgive me for saying so, but he’s a bit too smart for the job. He seems more naturally a creator than an interpreter of work. Five years ago he published a promising short story as part of Nick Hornby’s Speaking With The Angel collection, and has written more fiction since, although he prefers to write for his own pleasure rather than with a view to publication. He finds writing calming, but if he knew it was going to be published then he would get stressed about deadlines, and it would lose its therapeutic quality. Nevertheless, as he says, "the writing itch is growing, the acting itch is diminishing, and the possibility of doing something on the other side of the camera has raised itself."

Acting isn’t coming naturally to him at the moment, but he is bringing up two small boys
Luca and Mateowith Livia Giuggioli, his wife of eight years, and so the time isn’t really right to swap the Winnebago and film star salary for the writer’s garret and relatively paltry royalty cheque. Plus, he enjoys the company that acting brings. Firth is Hamletishly given to brooding and introspection, so being on his own isn’t good for him; that’s partly why he wasn’t at all at ease when living in the Canadian wilderness with Meg Tilly, and why he will be sticking to acting for now. He puts it simply: "The solitude and self-discipline of writing usually can’t compete with the allure of getting a paid job with lots of mates."

He grew up in a very well-read home. Both of his parents were lecturers. "Books were very much encouraged, and my parents read a great deal. Different strands of the family pass that down. My mother’s mother was very literary."

"You knew her?" I ask.

 "Yes, I knew all my grandparents. They were all there until I was about 35. It was extraordinary. She married a man who was completely self-educated
a butcher’s son who ended up as a doctor. They beat the crap out of him at school for being left-handed so he left and did it all himself. Education has always been of importance in the family. They were a bit freaked out at first when they realised I was not going the conventional route."

Firth used to be a bit paranoid about having never gone to university; he felt he was lacking something, but is over it now. Perhaps mindful of his autodidact grandfather, he uses acting jobs as a way of educating himself. While filming Apartment Zero in Argentina, he learned all about the history of the country. He had never read any Jane Austen, or indeed been that interested in English literature, until he signed up to Pride And Prejudice. Even after filming had finished on Conspiracy, in which he played one of the Nazi leaders planning the extermination of the Jews, he continued to research the Holocaust. "I suppose it’s a weird way to study," he says, "but I enjoy the homework."

He’s interesting, Colin Firth; much more interesting than I thought he was going to be before I met him. His mind and conversational range are sprawling, swampy. He could talk the hind legs off a donkey and make it fear for the other two. He is the sort of man with whom one could have a tremendous 3am conversation after seven pints and a half pizza supper. Trying to get his measure in a hotel room in less than an hour is an impossible task, like attempting to reduce the Everglades to a nice water feature. However, if pressed, I’d say that the key to unlocking him is to understand that he’s all about movement and change.

When he was 12, his family lived for a year in St Louis, Missouri. They made various lengthy road trips from the city, and as a result Firth saw much of the American landscape
its mountains and canyons, skyscrapers and neon streetsat a very impressionable age. "It was absolutely amazing and very wild," he says. "I had been living in a little suburb in Hampshire; I came back feeling very much at home in that world of travel, and have felt very itinerant ever since. I’ve had a lot of friends who are not English; my partners, girlfriends, have rarely been English. That’s not been consciouswill not accept English girlsit’s just happened that way."

Although Firth
like his rival for parts, Hugh Grantoften seems to represent a certain old-fashioned Englishness on screen, he himself does not feel especially English. He is a jumble of English, American, Canadian and Italian, and seems to like it that way. He is opposed to certainty of any kind"I have less and less patience with any kind of moral absolutism" is a typical Firth sentenceand can’t stand politicians who are convinced that their approach is correct, particularly if that point of view is rooted in faith. "So I have a big problem with Mr Blair’s religious convictions. I think they are very dangerous. And let’s not even talk about the White House."

One set of Firth’s grandparents were Methodist missionaries, but the atmosphere when he was growing up was always very progressive, and he was raised to be suspicious of religious fundamentalism. What was important was to debate, to discuss, to bounce opinion around. "I think questions are all you’ve got in life in the end," he says, and can’t even tell me if he believes in God or is an atheist "because those words are such absolutes that I find any discussion of them meaningless until we both know what we are talking about."

You could scoff at this, of course, and say that Firth’s attitude is wishy-washy liberal garbage, and that if we all thought like him, nothing would ever get decided; that may very well be true, but it makes him an interesting man. More, his ability to see every side of an argument, to put himself in someone else’s shoes, is
I would thinkwhat has sustained him as an actor even as his willingness to feel the emotions of his characters has diminished. The 12-year-old who went to America, and felt at home as he hurtled along the freeway, is now a 45-year-old with a protean imagination. It will be interesting to see what he does with it in future.

It is almost 6pm when I leave the hotel room. "Thanks for not being obvious at any point," he says as I’m going out the door. Likewise, Colin, likewise.

Where The Truth Lies is released on December 2

With many thanks to AnneP and Janet

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