I'm no posh pin-up
still swoon over his Mr Darcy but on the eve of his latest film the
actor best known for his aloof upper-class image reveals why it
couldn’t be further from the truth
image as Mr Darcy has clung to him tighter than the wet shirt he so
famously wore when he emerged from a lake in Pride And Prejudice. But
it’s time, he says, to confess some home truths. He’s just a kid from
the local comprehensive who got lucky.
“I am not posh and have never come close to mixing with the
upper-class,” he says. “It is all a myth. I remember when some report
said that I had been to Winchester. It made it all sound as if I’d been
to the famous public school.
“The truth was that I was at a comprehensive school—in Winchester. But
that never really emerged at the time. A lot of people looked at me on
screen, in my tails, walking around big houses, and thought that I was
used to the same kind of lifestyle. I dread to say that image seems to
Perhaps Firth, 47, should have put the record straight at the time. The
fact that he was locked in an off-screen relationship with Jennifer
Ehle, who played on-screen love Elizabeth Bennet, probably had
something to do with it. Firth avoided interviews like the plague—and
then skirted around his personal life with care.
He is now a changed man. He celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary
earlier this year with Italian wife Livia, by whom he has sons Luca,
six, and Mateo, three. And he can finally talk with ease about his
16-year-old son Will from a five-year relationship with American
actress Meg Tilly.
The reason? “I have learned to relax,” he says. “I would not say that I
am the most laid=back person you ever going to meet but it has got
better with age. There was some truth in what Rupert Everett said about
me some years ago, that I took life all a bit too seriously.”
Everett, who co-starred with Firth in the 1984 film, Another Country,
nicknamed him “Frothy” and took great delight in regaling other actors
with tales of how Firth would play his guitar, donate to Left-wing
political campaigns and be “grim.”
But Firth was, apparently, emerging from
some intense teenage years in which his history teacher father David
and mother Shirley travelled widely—including to Nigeria and America—as
they took various jobs.
He finally settled in to a boys comprehensive, Montgomery of Alamein in
Winchester, near where his father taught at a local college.
“I was a difficult teenager,” he reflects. “Not in the sense that I
would be running wild around the town, smashing up the place. But I
“I grew my hair, pierced my ears, got into rock ‘n’ roll and got drunk.
I occasionally dabbled with drugs but nothing serious. I was lazy. I
just did not want to work at anything—certainly not at anything which
might have won me a place at university.
“I was not crazy about being at an all boys school. Girls, to me,
looked fantastic but out of reach. So I think that added to the general
mood of being an awkward adolescent.
“I have a feeling that part of the reason for me doing amateur
dramatics was to meet girls. The girls were good-looking and it was a
way, quite frankly, to get laid. I joined a band, I acted and I read
books with fancy names.
“It was just an image thing, I suppose. I could not see a clear path
for my future. I could not see a real way out so went inside myself at
times. I knew what I did not want to do—and that was to take on a lot
Firth is reflecting on his old self in the wake of playing one of his
best roles in a forthcoming film, When Did You Last See Your Father?
The film is based on the book of the same name by Blake Morrison. Firth
plays a grown-up Blake, dealing with the illness and death of his bluff
doctor father (played by Jim Broadbent) who always wanted to be the
centre of attention.
It deals with family tensions and the knowing jealousy of his wife
(Juliet Stevenson) ab out a possible mistress (Sarah Lancashire), as
the story sweeps from the late Fifties (with other actors playing a
young Firth) to the Eighties. The question which haunts so many people
is confronted head on: what to do with a once energetic father when he
becomes incapable of looking after himself?
The title of the film is poignant. It asks the question about when men
really last see their father. Not in illness, infirm old age or death
but in healthy living. The last time, for example, that a father really
acted as Dad from long-ago days?
“I asked more questions about myself through this film than anything
else I have ever done,” admits Firth. “I am both a son—my father is now
73—and a father. How good have I been at both? Could I be better? It is
not too late, so how can I change?”
Firth is far from the uptight and aloof figure he so often portrays on
film. “I think it is sometimes a case of: ‘Oh, let’s get Colin to play
the bloody miserable one again,’” he jokes. He has a social conscience
and has campaigned on behalf of a group of asylum seekers but he does
not lecture or bleat about his campaigning. “I am not sure whether life
ever ends with everything resolved,” he says. “There is a carelessness
about the order of things.
“I really do believe in that line in the John Lennon song that life is
what happens when you are making other plans. It can never be neatly
packaged. My life is far from packaged, I can assure you of that.”
But Firth’s life and career does seem to be neatly divided by his role
as Fitzwilliam Darcy in the classy 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride And
Prejudice. The years before never quite lived up to the potential of
his film debut as Tommy Judd in Another Country, despite winning the
Royal Television Society’s award as best actor in 1989 for his
performance in the Falklands War drama Tumbledown.
There were too many forgotten movies and he seemed to be drifting, like
many thirtysomething British male actors, into mediocrity. Then came
Darcy. Since then, Firth has hardly paused.
He played the decent Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient, was the
Arsenal football fanatic in Fever Pitch and appeared as dastardly Lord
Wessex, who insisted on his marriage rights to Gwyneth Paltrow in the
Oscar-winning Shakespeare In Love.
He then hit the jackpot again with Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary
and Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, fighting Hugh Grant’s cad Daniel
Cleaver for Bridget herself. “I have absolutely no problem at all with
Darcy—playing him or being known for that part,” says Firth, reasonably.
“I know that some actors loathe to be reminded of something to which
they have been so closely linked. But I feel lucky to have made that
sort of mark with anything, ever, in my life.
“Most of us are struggling to get through with what we do, and have
very little potential to make any impact. So to make it on a scale like
that is great. But it seems a million miles away from me now.”
It certainly looks that way. When we meet, his brown hair is unkempt,
he wears a grey T-shirt under a black jacket over his rangy 6ft 1in
frame and looks more like someone about to attend an actor’s workshop.
“There is one quote—JB Priestley, I think—in which he says: ‘I have
never been out of fashion, because I have never been in fashion’ and
that seems to sum me up,” he says. “I have been flavour of the month
but never a number-one star. I have been second or third choice for
things, too, and that is probably a safer area to be than bang on top
of the mountain.
“The result so far is that I’ve never been out of work from the day I
left drama school. I have been stuck, because I have not been able to
find anything good. But that is different from being worried about not
paying the rent or feeding the kids.”
And whatever else happens, his brooding Mr Darcy will never be
forgotten. “I am totally unlike him,” he says with a smile. “He was
this taciturn, dark, sexy guy and that is just not me. He rode horses
and owned a wonderful home in Derbyshire. I ride a bike, talk a lot and
do not live in luxury.
“I nearly turned it down because I could not have been more wrong for
the role. And that one decision, had I gone ahead with it, would have
changed my life.