The Australian, May 10, 2008, by Peter Wilson

The Reluctant

With a clutch of his new films out soon, Colin Firth talks to Peter Wilson about acting his age, his plans to take a year off—and why he thinks Mr Darcy was “the biggest bastard”.

Mister Darcy has had enough. More than 12 years after Colin Firth burned himself into millions of female memories as Jane Austen's moody hero Fitzwilliam Darcy, the British actor wants to take a rest from acting. "I just think I would like to do other things for a while," he says.

Given that his breakthrough moment to real stardom came when he emerged from a lake in a wet shirt in the TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice, Firth could potentially have been washed up by the time he reached the less "buff" age of 47.

Instead he has just been through the busiest period of his career and, after finishing 10 films in two years, he is seriously worried about burning out. "I would like to not act for a little while and it would be very, very nice to take a long breather." 
Sitting in the lounge of his local members-only club in Chiswick, west London, Firth is musing on how to manage a career over the long haul. "A year off would be great but it probably won't last that long. It's precautionary, really—it's trying to know when it is time to let things go fallow for a bit before you carry on.

"I spoke to Christopher Walken about it once and he said the more you act the better you get. I said, 'Sometimes I want a year off' and he said, 'That is nonsense—someone is going to give you a year off when you're not looking for it, man.'

"So maybe I am being a bit precious but I think it is important to just stop and sort of sit back and get that spark back. I don't want to have a year just sitting around on my arse."

Instead, he says, he might read, pursue a latent interest in writing, help out at the environmental technology shop he owns in Chiswick with his wife, Livia Giuggioli, an Italian documentary maker, and her brother Nicola, and spend more time with their children, Luca, seven, and Matteo, four.

Firth says of his profession: “It is very difficult to talk about acting in a way that doesn’t make you sound like a prat so most people, quite wisely, don’t even go there. Writers and artists can get away with an awful lot in deconstructing their craft, but actors just sound like overweening luvvies.

“Maybe we are, but nevertheless there is a process and in the end it is a job which requires some input, and it doesn’t all just come for nothing—it can be quite turbulent at times. And I think it’s just that human nature needs to rest and replenish itself, in whatever job you have got.”

Overwork in middle age is not a problem that affects women actors, who find it notoriously difficult to find substantial parts after about 35, or men whose acting reputations rely solely on their looks and bodies. Firth is certainly the best-looking guy in the lounge of his club on the day we meet, but he is no longer the head-turner he once was; his features and figure have naturally softened a touch and there is a fair bit of grey in his unshaven stubble.

But he has never been just a handsome face. A stand-out on the stage at Drama Centre London in his early 20s, Firth was told by the principal Christopher Fettes, that as long as he was not typecast for his matinee idol looks he had the potential to become the next Paul Scofield, one of the greatest English actors of all time. Firth later worked with giants such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole, but says Scofield, who died in March, “was at the very top for me”.

“He was the man who opened my eyes to acting when I was about 13 or 14. When I saw him in A Man for All Seasons I rethought what acting was. It was a revelation to me about the possibilities of acting. I just thought, ‘God, it’s not just about exciting behaviour and changing your accent and your walk and doing as much as possible.’ I saw this quiet integrity and I thought, it was such a paradox because acting is acting so it is false, but I am seeing something so completely true.

“I eventually did a little film with Scofield that was seen by very few people but was fascinating, called 1919. It was obliquely about Freud and I played the young Scofield’s character. I was star-struck and absolutely in awe of him but he was incredibly kind to me.”

Even without the acting ambitions fired by Scofield, the young Firth was never headed for academia. Three of his grandparents were well-educated missionaries—he spent his first four years in Nigeria—and his parents were [sic] both academics, but Firth says he still has a report card in which a chemistry teacher, Mr Merrick, explained his exam score of only three per cent. “He wrote: ‘I originally awarded Colin two per cent for writing my name at the top and two per cent for writing his name. I’m afraid I had to subtract one point for misspelling my name.’”

Firth accepts that he is unlikely ever to shake off the Darcy character but he happily acknowledges how much the role has given him, including the luxury now of taking time off. As a result he tends to embrace Darcy’s legacy rather than worrying about being typecast.

In Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and its 2004 sequel, The Edge of Reason, he went along with a string of in-jokes about the character, playing a love interest named Mark Darcy and splashing around in a fountain in a wet shirt while fighting Hugh Grant. In the recent teen comedy St Trinian’s he again wades out of a lake in a wet shirt and is humped on the leg by a dog named Mr Darcy.

Firth’s recent films have been remarkably diverse. At the popular end there have been the St Trinian’s remake with Rupert Everett, the Abba musical Mamma Mia! and Robert Zemeckis’s A Christmas Carol, which will be completed using digital animation technology.

But during the same two years—and at times rushing between sets—he has made several thoughtful and relatively low-budget dramas likely to appeal to older audiences. These include Genova, directed by Michael Winterbottom, Then She Found Me and And When Did You Last See Your Father?, while also being executive producer on a documentary his wife is making about a black man on death row in Philadelphia. “The light entertainment stuff that I’ve done simply has a higher profile than my more serious work, but right from the start I have always been drawn to more complex character roles,” Firth says.

The handsome, admirable and virtuous romantic hero is about his least favourite role, he says. “The more appealing the character is, the more I shy away from it. Actually, the more appealing the character is supposed to be the harder the work is, I think. In your 20s you often get asked to play callow youths, and what the hell can you ever do to give them any dynamic or any substance? I really don’t believe I ever belonged in romantic roles. And when Darcy came along I thought it was weird that they were asking me to play a romantic role at 35.

“I certainly didn’t play him as some greatly admirable figure. He is the biggest bastard. That was the way in to him for me. I turned down the role for months and it was actually a friend of mine who said, ‘I think you should do it because you are such a shit—you are the most unpleasant person acting in England.’

“In the book he is an extremely disagreeable man. He doesn’t have the demeanour of the good chap—it is the demeanour of an aloof, priggish, judgmental, harsh, selfish man. When he finally says anything about himself, he says: ‘I was taught to be proud in that way and think ill of others.’

“That was the angle I went for. I found that the softening of Darcy was the most difficult stuff to do. It was far more fun to scowl and look out the windows and sneer at people and it is a character role—he only features in about 10-15 per cent of the footage time in the series. He is sort of off to the side and so that is very, very different from playing a proper central romantic hero.”

Firth says he was happier playing an even less attractive character—the snide Lord Wessex in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. “I love that character—it is one of the performances I am most proud of in anything I have done. I pulled that one off. But is almost anti-comedy; he is the antithesis of everything that is charming and wonderful about that film. If it’s a film about wit and poetry, he has none. If it’s a film about joy and romance, he has none. Everything the film celebrates, he lacks.

“I love the boredom of the vacant, mediocre man who has got everything, a huge amount of money, spoiled, and this kind of blithe, lazy cruelty that he has. I wince at most of my work but that one, I think I nailed it. I got quite a lot of pats on the back from my peers over that but I don’t think I got a mention from anybody in any review.”

Australian audiences will next see Firth as a less-than-ideal romantic interest for Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt in Then She Found Me, which is Hunt’s directing debut and which opens on May 15. Firth plays a middle-aged, single father who is despondent after being dumped and close to cracking under the pressure of raising his two children.

“He’s not everyone’s dream man, his temperament is very uneven,” Firth says with relish. “I haven’t seen the film so I don’t know how he comes across in the final analysis, but a few people have said, ‘He’s not exactly perfect boyfriend material, is he?’”

Nobody in the cast is under 40. Bette Midler puts in her first substantial performance for some time and Matthew Broderick is reliably strong while British author Salman Rushdie, of all people, completes an unlikely journey from being a recluse living under a 1989 death threat by Ayatollah Khomeini to his first Hollywood role, a minor part as a gynaecologist.

Charging head-first into middle-aged angst with issues such as the death of parents, wilting romance, infertility, sexual betrayal and adoption, the film is most striking for the fact that Hunt and Firth actually look their ages. Cast as the 39-year-old class teacher of one of Firth’s children, Hunt was 43 when she made the film and if anything looked a couple years older.

The fact that she was allowed to look like a real woman of her age makes this a rare Hollywood offering indeed. Much more typical was her Oscar-winning role in As Good As It Gets, filmed when she was 33 and Jack Nicholson was 60.

Says Firth: “Helen asked me if I minded—she said, ‘I am not going to order you but I don’t want makeup.’ So we agreed right there. She could have had all the makeup artists and soft filters and I think it is a real testament to her that she didn’t. It would have been ludicrous for her to say, ‘I am going to direct myself in a film and there is Vaseline on the lens.’”

The film would not have been shot with such realism if it did not have a woman of Hunt’s Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy-winning stature fighting for it and then serving as director, co-writer and executive producer as well as star. “I know it was very hard to get this film made on the terms that it was made,” says Firth. “It doesn’t have the elements that make an easy pitch. It was about a woman of that age for a start, and it was very much a warts-and-all look.

“No one is pretending it is Bergman or anything but it is an honest, accessible, intelligent look at the life of a woman of that age and I think if she had done any compromises she would have undermined the film. Even the fact that she commits an infidelity—that is a very unusual and unpopular move in a female protagonist in any film. Guys can do it and they say sorry but the minute a girl does it, it is something else—she is no longer the heroine.

“And so I think it is a long time coming. There are not enough of these films around; women don’t get their stories told in the same way and I think Helen found this story and was very keen to make sure it got out there for that reason, that you don’t see that honesty very often. I liked that the film owned up to the fact of the imperfections of people. There were no heroes or villains in the film. Anybody who seemed to be a hero, something in the film subverts that, and anyone who seems to be a villain, likewise; it was full of contradictions.”

While he is uncomfortable talking in any depth about his personal life, he admits he did have some understanding of his character’s parenting pressures because of his own split in the early ‘90s with Canadian actress Meg Tilly, mother of his first child, Will, who is now 17. “I have been a single father for a period when I was breaking up with Will’s mum so I do know what it is like,” he says. “I can’t audit how stressed I was but I do know it can feel like a tremendous pressure, having kids. This always read to me and felt to me like a film for grown-ups. It’s not just that it’s about people of a certain age, it’s also the territory and the issues it covers.”

And When Did You Last See Your Father? which Firth began shooting within days of Hunt’s film, opens in Australia within a few months and is another movie that will probably appeal mainly to older viewers. It centers on Firth’s character preparing for his father’s death, “and that is not a big thing for teenagers to relate to,” Firth says.

“This is about dying and facing up to it and your own mortality and your relationship with your father and looking back over territory that means so little probably when you are even 20. It deals very intelligently with a lot of the grey areas involved in relationships and family and how fractured we all are. I think, despite a lightness of touch, it is quite courageous. It doesn’t allow for easy resolution, it is not a comfort film, but as you get a bit older you do realise that life is like that.”

Thanks to LindaMc

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