Daily Express, Sept 29, 2007, by Garth Pearce

I'm no posh pin-up

Women 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

Colin  Firth’s 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 have stuck.”

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 loathed authority.

“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 of responsibility.”

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.

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