"We didn't get along very well," declared Everett recently in a Manhattan hotel suite, pouting extravagantly at the memory of Firth's seriousness. "We were very different. He was always strumming on the guitar and being very left-wing, and he was going to give all his money to charity."
That would be the more recognizable half of Firth. "He was very serious," continued Everett. "But the thing is, he's really, really funny. You have to wind him up. As soon as you've wound him up, he's really funny."
That would be the bawdy half, a half that doesn't often get a public airing, usually getting lost behind Firth's . . . umm, earnest demeanour. Which is why Jack Worthing is an ideal role for Firth.
For those in need of a Wilde refresher, the convoluted Earnest, which opens on Friday, goes something like this: On the cusp of the 20th century (not incidentally, as Freud is beginning to peddle his theories of the subconscious), bachelor Jack Worthing is leading a blithe double life.
He passes the days quietly at his estate in the country, overseeing the education of his naively romantic niece, Cecily (Reese Witherspoon). For his frequent trips to London, however, the secretly roguish Jack has created the identity of Ernest Worthing to allow him free reign, teaming up with the ne'er-do-well rake Algernon Moncrieff (Rupert Everett) for bawdy days about town. When Jack-as-Ernest proposes to the lovely maiden Gwendolyn Fairfax (Frances O'Connor), she exults in the offer, declaring that she'd always wanted to marry a man named Ernest.
Like Jack, Firth seems to revel in the tension of maintaining two competing and sometimes contradictory identities. He presents a polite façade of British reserve but can transform instantly into a bomb-thrower when discussing politics. The grandson of missionaries, he is of two minds about his own chosen profession, seeing it both as potentially life-enhancing and utterly useless.
His life itself is cleaved in two, boasting a quiet home and wife and young child north of London, and an 11-year-old son living an ocean and a continent away with a former lover. Perhaps that persistent duality is what fans key into when they continue to see him as Mr. Darcy, the ambiguous hero of the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride and Prejudice.
Firth decided to pursue acting when he was 14 or 15 years old. He'd just written the preparatory tests in anticipation of taking his high-school exams the following year. The news was grim. "I remember a report from the chemistry exam, the actual score was 3 per cent, and my teacher mentioned that he'd given me two of those marks for writing my name correctly," says Firth, sipping some ice water with an embarrassed smile. His marks were far better in the arts—literature and history and music—so away he went. "There was no choice, really," he reports, deep-set eyes gazing into the middle distance.
Though he was breaking away from the doctors-teachers-missionaries path of his forebears (his father is a university lecturer), there was a commonality in his choice. "If one were to be really earnest and idealistic about the possibilities of acting as storytelling, they could overlap with [medicine and teaching]. Storytelling is a potential healing medium and a teaching medium," he says, before softening his words to deflate their self-importance.
"I think if you characterize it as that, you've got pomposity and then you're lost right there, so forget it. But I just think if you're doing it as honestly and courageously as you possibly can, and you try to maintain your integrity with all the limitations you've got, then I do think it can be enormously valuable to people."
From the start, Firth's interest was live theatre. "I didn't become an actor to do movies, it didn't occur to me. I thought that was another profession that movie stars get to do. Very few actors get into movies. Certainly in England that's still true." In short order, however, Firth himself became one of those movie stars when the play he was appearing in was adapted for film. That was Another Country.
More film offers flooded over the transom, including the creepy thriller Apartment Zero, which pitted Firth as a lonely sociopath; and a starring turn in Milos Forman's Les Liaisons Dangereuses-inspired Valmont, playing a scheming lover who manipulates the emotions of a young and vulnerable woman. Not far off from Earnest,come to think of it, except without Wilde's happy ending. He met actress Meg Tilly on the set and fled into her log-cabin retreat in the British Columbia wilderness, raising their son and making furniture. The isolation eventually killed his enthusiasm for the relationship and he moved back to England.
In 1995, the actor turned in what became the proto-Firth role, playing Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen's initially distant but ultimately benevolent romantic hero. A man, again, with two faces. The women swooned; the fan mail still flows. Firth doesn't understand all the noise. "I had a letter from a psychologist in Switzerland," he begins, amazed, running a hand through his easy brown curls. "She wrote pages on the phenomenon of that character.
"She said there was something divine about Darcy, in the sense that he's forbidding and—if you turn to an Old Testament, Godlike figure sort of thing—he's frightening and judgmental and remote and one is to fear him. And eventually you realize that's not the case, that he's warm and benevolent and generous and everything's going to be all right."
"I suppose that has a power," he sighs. "But I was just the actor who played, it, you know?"
A dalliance on the set of that miniseries with Jennifer Ehle, who played Austen's heroine Elizabeth Bennet, led to Firth's reputation as a rogue who bedded all of his leading ladies. Not true at all, he says, pointing out that the relationship was brief and over by the time his wife-to-be came into the picture. Firth married Italian filmmaker Livia Giuggioli in 1997 and the couple had their first child last year.
Rupert Everett says Firth has mellowed in the years since they first worked together, but Firth shows no signs of backing down when the subject of politics comes up. He opens up with a couple of shots at Tony Blair for pandering to the electorate with his pop-culture prime ministership, then launches into a series of prolonged attacks: on the British resentment of immigrants and refugees; on the damage that the continuing march of industrialization is doing to tribal peoples around the world; on the actions of companies which harm labourers around the world. He is about to help kick off an Oxfam campaign on the need for a Fair Trade movement, which educates consumers about the sources of the products they buy.
He finishes in a manner that would make his parents proud. A man of two faces, he seeks to rip off the proper, reserved mask his own nation wears on the international stage.
"I come from a country where the literacy rate is extremely low," he declares, seeking to correct the North American perception of Britain as a nation of high culture—Oscar Wilde and all that. "A lot of English people wouldn't be able to understand a word of spoken Shakespeare," he says. "There are people who do, but it's a far more philistine country than people think. The soccer hooligans are not a weird little aberration. They are very highly representative, I can tell you. I went to school with guys like that."
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