Woman & Home, November 2005, by Shona Sibary

My life in
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 breeches moment.

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 and 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 language.

Fever 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 wardrobe.

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 visceral experience.

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.

Downsides...  Every 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

Blade 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 to do.

The Graduate... 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.

Tender 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.

Film Memories

* 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 any more.


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.

Thanks to Sue

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