Colin Firth, 45, is
everybody’s romantic hero. But his latest film Nanny McPhee is a family comedy
where he plays the harassed father of seven children. He talks to Shona
Sibary about his career, his favourite films and that wet-shirt-and
His new film Nanny McPhee... I play Mr
Brown, the widowed father of seven children who’s paralysed by his love
for them—but they, paradoxically, interpret that as lack of love.
Nothing initially attracted me to the role—I thought it was going to be
a lemon of a part—but it was a gorgeous story and, in the end, the
magic of the whole thing got the better of me.
Little co-stars... Well,
I can see why there’s the old adage, “Never work with children or
animals.” Not because they’re difficult, it’s just that children
are not really supposed to work according to the demands of
filming. You’re required to manufacture apparent spontaneity on
demand over and over again during the course of a very long day.
Very few children are able to do that. Then there are labour
laws. You’ve got them for 40 minutes before they have to be stood
down and I think that’s a good idea because otherwise the pressure
would be unbearable for them. I remember a funny moment where we
were on a bit of a tight schedule and the children were asking
questions incessantly, which was holding up filming. In the end,
Kirk [Jones], the director said: “Okay. No more questions until
lunchtime unless it’s really, really important.” Sam, one of the
little boys, stuck up his hand. Kirk sighed and said, “is it
really, really important, Sam?” Sam nodded. “What’s going
to be in the bun I’m eating?”
Getting emotionally involved... You
have to be careful when bonding with children on a film. You
don’t distance yourself, you become their friend and you comfort them
help as much as you can. But your’e not their dad and you know
there’s going to come a difficult moment when it’s all over.
Mr Darcy... I said “no”
to the part initially. I harboured doubts because I felt he was
just too iconic to be played convincingly. Also, a side of me
thought I was wrong for the role and many of my friends agreed.
One said, “Please don’t play Darcy. You’ll ruin it for me
forever.” Another said: “Darcy? Isn’t he supposed to
be sexy?” The reaction to the whole thing took me very much by
surprise. It put the whole romantic, leading-man character back
on the agenda for me in terms of the sort of work that started coming
my way. I don’t know what would have happened without Mr Darcy.
The wet look... In Pride and Prejudice
I was originally supposed to take all my clothes off and jump into the
pool naked. The moment where the man is a man instead of a
stuffed shirt. He’s riding on a sweaty horse and then he’s at one
with the elements. But the BBC wasn’t going to allow nudity, so
an alternative had to be found. There were meetings. What
could Darcy do with the pond, fully clothed? The alternative went
via underpants, which actually were not historical. He would
never have worn underpants. They’d have looked ridiculous
anyway. In the end a decision was reached—if you can’t take
everything off, just jump in.
The Bridget Jones films...
Like Mark Darcy, I’ve been in a fight. I lost decisively. I
got the girl but lost the fight. Yes, there were marks on my
face. But I wasn’t being very gallant. I spent most of the
time running away actually. I think the thing that’s required the
most courage I’ve done in the name of romance was getting
married. If you’re as scared of marriage as I was, it’s a pretty
romantic thing to have done. That and learning my wife’s Italian
Pitch... I played Paul, a scruffy Arsenal fan. His
clothes were supposed to be all out of date and, I’m ashamed to say,
they were my own. The costume designers searched high and low for
unfashionable clothes—and the only place they could be found was in my
The script... There is
nothing more intoxicating for an actor than good language. The
text is where it all starts. It is our job to interpret it, so
when the language vibrates, if you get it right, it fires up your
intellect and even your body is affected by it. It is a very
Missing the boat...
I really wanted the part in About a Boy that
went to Hugh Grant. I even went as far as calling Nick Hornby and
telling him his story would make a great film. He told me it had
already been picked up. They needed someone much more bankable
than me in America and I don’t command anything like the astronomical
box office that Hugh does.
job you take is a spin of the dice. Sometimes you can be bitterly
disappointed—with your own work or the overall result. And if
that happens if can be ghastly having to honour your obligations to
promote the film.
Sex scenes... Absolutely
designed to be contrary to anything erotic you know. Nobody wants
to do things by numbers and that’s exactly what it is. It can be
daunting as well. We don’t suddenly take off our clothes in front
of our colleagues in a room and that’s exactly what you’re asked to
do. And then to behave in a certain way towards somebody you’ve
probably only just met. Now that’s crossing the line and it can
be pretty galling when there’s a bunch of guys with walkie-talkies
hanging around. The relationship with the other actor is largely
dependent on the sense of humour present. Funnily enough, once
you’ve crossed the line it can be surprisingly relaxing. It’s the
crossing that’s the problem.
Lessons I’ve learnt... Be
nice to youngsters on set. They come on cocky but they’re
terrified and they really want somebody to look up to. Albert
Finney once told me a story. He was so gracious with everybody
and I remember we were on a very long, arduous stint in Columbia [sic] [filming Nostromo] and he
recalled how he had never forgotten being treated with tolerance and
patience by somebody older than him. There was a terrifying
moment when he was understudying for Olivier and he was very concerned
about getting in somebody’s light. And there was this old actress
who said: “Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll get my face in somewhere,
you just go where you want...” He was so grateful. Albert’s
very much like that and, for me, that’s something pretty fundamental.
Acting... It’s a
lot to me because I do need to be out of the house.working—but it’s not
everything. I’ve invested a great deal in other things and if
this went away I’d survive because of that.
Films I Love
Runner... I’ve seen it over and over again and it hasn’t
aged. It’s an amazing sci-fo film with a wonderful sadness about
it. It’s always raining and there’s the dislocated figure of this
man, alone in a detached urban environment where he’s got a tough job
Somehow, in my teens, this became the ideal film. Grown-up and
sophisticated with a big emotional twist, cool music, sunglasses and a
suit. It was a bit of a reference point for me.
Women in Love...
It was very much action stuff—Steve McQueen on his motorbike and films
like that—until Women in Love
came along and then there was a shift. I started to be drawn to
things that were more complex and sophisticated.
A Man for
all Seasons... Paul Scofield changed my view of acting.
From watching him I learnt you can express the contradiction between
acting, which is quintessentially fake, and truth and integrity, just
by being quiet and still. Robert Duvall specialises in this too.
Mercies... I’ve got a bit of a romance with America and the
whole trailer-park thing. And this film, which Duvall won an
Oscar for, I absolutely love. It’s about an over-the-hill country
singer with a drink problem. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to
films like this. Maybe it’s because I went to school in America
for a year when I was 12. I travelled around with my parents and
it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had.
* The yellow brick road...
The first film I remember as a screen experience was The Wizard of Oz—obviously
not in 1939, but it was definitely screened in a big cinema in the
middle of the ‘60s and my sister had to be taken out because of the
Wicked Witch of the West. She was about four and just shrieked.
* Screen violence... I
remember there was something on the telly that I lost sleep over
because it upset me so much. It was a Western called Apache with Burt
Lancaster playing an Indian named Massai, who beat his wife. I
just couldn’t cope with that.
* Dreaming... As a kid I
was always in a movie. I’d walk down the street and I could hear
the soundtrack. I’ve done it for 20-odd years, but I don’t do it
Colin, 45, is
married to Italian documentary maker Livia Giuggioli. They have
two children: Luca, four, and Mateo, two. He also has another
son, William, 15, from a previous relationship with actress Meg
Tilly. Colin made his film debut in 1984 in Another Country,
but his most famous roles have been as the Darcies—in Pride and Prejudice
in 1995, and the two Bridget Jones films with Renée Zellweger.