Free of the preoccupation with images that binds many young actors to safe, familiar types, Firth has lent himself to a succession of disparate, challenging roles: a sullen Marxist boarding school student in Another Country; a shell-shocked World War I veteran in A Month in the Country; and after his loveless longer in Apartment Zero, the lead role as the 18th-century lounge lizard in Miloš Forman’s Valmont, the latest adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses.
The son of two British academics, the 28-year-old Firth has a scholarly aspect that belies his hatred of school as a child and his successful evasion of university. After a futile effort to break into theater by “making tea in the wardrobe department at the National Theatre,” he enrolled in the rigorous three-year program at Drama Centre London, leaving after two years for his first stage production of Julian Mitchell’s play Another Country. Eight weeks later, director Marek Kanievska cast him in the costarring role in the film version. “I wasn’t nearly as concerned about the change of roles as the change in medium,” he recalls. “It was not knowing if there was anything specific I should be doing that was so frightening.”
As it happens, he had nothing to fear. He won accolades for both performances, as well as interest from other filmmakers, including writer-director Martin Donovan, who was looking to cast his macabre psychological political thriller, Apartment Zero.
“After I’d read it once, I didn’t want to do it,” Firth remembers. “I misread it as a B-movie thriller.” The film, a favorite at several recent international film festivals, is, in fact, a political allegory, centering on the story of the relationship between the self-deluding Argentinean Adrian LeDuc (Firth) and a shadowy, seductive American played chillingly by Hart Bochner. What finally drew Firth to the part was the chance to play a character “as full of need as he is unequipped to address it,” he says. He was always intrigued by the location, Buenos Aires, having recently starred in Tumbledown, a BBC drama about the Falklands War.
“Everyone said Colin was too good-looking to play the lead, “ says Donovan. Adrian could not be overtly attractive, the filmmaker asserts, “because beautiful people have an advantage over the rest of humanity, an advantage Adrian does not have.” But Donovan had observed Firth’s ability to inhabit a role, and Firth allayed skeptics’ fears by layering his performance with unscripted quirks. For example, “Colin thought that smiling would be painful for Adrian,” says Donovan. “Every time he smiles in the film, it’s almost a wince.”
While Apartment Zero, a small, complex film, will likely draw a selective following, Valmont promises to introduce Firth to a wider audience. Or does it? Have the film and his role in it been upstaged by Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons and John Malkovich’s vicomte?
“The part I play is no more the John Malkovich role than Hamlet is the Laurence Olivier role,” Firth replies. “Besides, when one is doing Hamlet, one is always using the same script.” Valmont, he says is altogether different from Frears’s film. “The characters are motivated differently, the plot concentrates on different story lines, it has a different ending. During the entire six-month shoot, nobody mentioned or even thought of the other film.”
If Firth was at first judged too handsome to play Adrian, this time there were fears that his wholesome schoolboy looks might not emit sufficient pheromones for a devious seducer. But Firth won Forman over with something he hadn’t been called upon to use much onscreen: levity. “I knew I wasn’t going to be taken seriously if I went in there trying to act the part of a Latin lover. And Miloš was asking why everyone was so serious—why make seduction such a heavy business? It was a trap everyone had fallen into, that to play the philanderer, they should smoulder.”
With a résumé that ranges from losers to Lotharios, what sort of career would Firth like to carve out from here? “I’ve never thought of having a ‘career,’” says Firth, all pro forma British effacement. “For me it’s just one job and then another job.” As it is, he expects, “In ten years’ time I’ll get over this nonsense” and leave acting. An idle threat, one hopes.
Photo by Fran Collin
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