"You're exposed here because everyone knows these lines, and everyone knows they can be funny," British actor Firth says of the new big-screen adaptation of the Oscar Wilde comedy. "It's up to you to be funny as well. You can't blame the script."
"The Importance of Being Earnest," which opens Friday, May 31, at Downtown West, marks the first time Firth has gone Wilde, but he says it's his favorite of the Victorian rebel's plays.
"I think it's head and shoulders away from the rest," Firth says by phone from New York, where he's in the middle of doing press for the film. "I think it's that Wilde paradox about how he was at his most profound when he was at his most trivial . . .
"This has no pomp about it and no pretensions to carry a message. It deftly avoids all earnestness, ironically. . . . It's a masterpiece of flippancy."
Firth much prefers flippancy to earnestness himself.
"I think that earnestness can easily be self-inflated and pompous," he says. "Ironically as well, the word earnest was gay slang of the period for 'gay.' That was his little joke on Victorian society, to have that written up in lights on the West End of Victorian London."
In "Earnest," Firth and Rupert Everett take on false identities—as young men named Ernest—in order to win the hearts of Frances O'Connor and Reese Witherspoon, respectively. It's the second feature-film role in a row to cast Firth in a romantic light, following his Mark Darcy in last year's "Bridget Jones's Diary," but the actor who made Britain—and eventually America—swoon with his portrayal of Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy in the 1995 miniseries "Pride and Prejudice" doesn't mean to perpetuate the trend.
"I would die of boredom if I spent my life playing romantic leads," chuckles Firth, 41. "I can hardly bring myself to do more than one every few years really. It's not very interesting work usually.
"Actually, the Darcy thing isn't conventionally romantic, in my eyes anyway. The guy is emotionally challenged."
That's why he wasn't averse to playing Mark Darcy in "Bridget."
"The guy might as well have come from the 1800s," Firth says of the character, whom novelist Helen Fielding was inspired to create after seeing Firth's Darcy in "Pride & Prejudice." "He's not a particularly typical Englishman of today . . . . Most English guys of that age probably owe more to John Lennon than to the Duke of Edinburgh."
The son of teachers and grandson of missionaries, Firth trained on the stage and wasn't interested in becoming a sex symbol, but that's what happened when he sparred with Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice."
"You just give it its quarter and get on with your life," says Firth, who had an off-screen romance with Ehle before marrying Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli in 1997. "I can't spend my life playing into it."
Firth has been as likely to play a loser at love. He was famously betrayed by wife Kristin Scott Thomas in "The English Patient" and fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love."
"The directions I take are somewhat eccentric and oblique, but I can only do it as I see it," says Firth, who spent the first four years of his life in Nigeria. "I daresay there are a lot more cuckolds and losers and stuffed shirts on the way."
Well, maybe after his next role. In "Hope Springs," due this fall, Firth plays an artist who flees England for the United States to mend his broken heart and winds up with both Minnie Driver and Heather Graham vying for him.
Firth, who has a 14-month-old son with his wife and an 11-year-old son with Meg Tilly, his "Valmont" co-star, approaches work the way a husband and father would.
"You can't quite indulge the artistic choices that you might have when you were younger," he says. "You hope you can get a well-paid job in something that's also good. That's not always an option.
"Peter O'Toole (his co-star in 1990's 'Wings of Fame') used to say to me, 'One for show, one for dough.' I said to him, 'Which one are we doing now?' He said, 'Dough.' "
Firth is "unemployed" at the moment and enjoying life at home in England with his wife and son.
"As a young person, like most young people, I would have utterly shunned the idea of anything comfortable and bourgeois, but as time has gone on, I've started to feel a need for it really," he says. He doesn't do anything really outrageous, like dusting or gardening.
"I kind of want to have it there already and have somebody else do it all," he admits. "I think it's Raul Julia in 'The Addams Family,' when his child is born, who says, 'The exquisite joy of having children and then paying somebody else to raise them.' "
Firth says he's perfectly willing to relax when he's not working and not look for creative outlets other than acting.
"My ability at anything else is so limited that it's embarrassing to even talk about it," he says. "I have my little hobbies just like everyone else. I like to play the guitar badly. I play the piano even worse. I read, slowly and laboriously. I try to write. It's not how I spend my days, trying to do other creative things."
Ironically, director Oliver Parker made him play guitar and sing in "The Importance of Being Earnest."
"I actually desperately hoped it might lead me on another career direction," he says dryly. "I would get discovered and the world would fall in love with my singing voice. The offers for the 'Oklahoma!' revival would come rushing in. It hasn't worked out.
"I studied very, very hard and very intensely on the guitar . . . to try to distract from the limitations of my vocal abilities. It didn't work really. The whole abiding impression is of one big limitation. But I studied very hard, and Rupert caught me at it and mocked me mercilessly."
Firth had worked with Everett before, way back in his 1984 film debut, "Another Country."
"Rupert's got a memory of me playing the guitar endlessly when we worked together the first time," says Firth. "I don't remember this at all. I do not believe I ever brought a guitar onto the set of 'Another Country.'
"His memory of me
is as a
kind of earnest socialist hippie, endlessly strumming the guitar and
to give the first $500 that I ever earned in my life away to charity.
could be more ghastly."
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