Breakfast With The Arts

May 19, 2002

Colin Firth with Harry Smith

[film clip of scenes from Pride and Prejudice and The Importance of Being Earnest with P&P music]

A&E and England’s favorite romantic lead—Colin Firth—once galloped about Pemberley, the country estate of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. But now, he’s inhabiting another country manor with Reese Witherspoon, Rupert Everett and Judi Dench in a sumptuous version of Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest.

[clip of scene where Jack is being interviewed by Lady Bracknell]








Harry Smith:  And Colin Firth joins us this morning. Good morning.

Colin Firth: Good morning.

HS: Now, we’re going to—for those who need remedial Oscar Wilde—we’re going to do a little remedial work here and go through who’s who. Alright, you play the first Ernest, who’s really Jack, but he creates Ernest because . . . [points to Colin]

CF: I think I’m with you so far. I mean I think I’m the main beneficiary of the remedial Wilde. He creates Ernest because it’s more fun. . . to be Ernest. Jack’s life is one of duty. He’s burdened with responsibility and it’s all too “earnest.” [Harry gets a charge out of this] And, if he wanted to have fun in town, break the rules, be a playboy, it’s better that someone else gets the blame for that. So he creates his unruly brother Ernest.

HS: So, in London, Jack as Ernest visits your pal, Algernon, who also decides to become Ernest because . . . 

CF: He decides to become Ernest because he, well, it’s a role waiting to be filled into. He decides to be the same Ernest and he’s out to court—to put it in a very genteel way—he’s out to court my 17-year-old ward, who dreams of the wicked brother Ernest. And so he wants to fulfill that role for his own unsavory ends.

HS. And, of course, both Ernests end up at Jack’s or Ernest’s country estate. . .

CF: That’s right.

HS: . . . with the women they love, who—neither of whom are interested in marrying Jack or Algernon but really both want to marry. . . 

CF:  Somebody called Earnest.

HS: Right.

CF: Yes. Therein lies the play’s absurdity, really. The height of your ambition, the height of your romantic dreams lies in this name. You know, without wanting to offend anybody by that name, it’s not exactly the name with the most lyrical ring to it. And I think in every direction you take in this play, you encounter triviality. And I think it’s exquisite for that reason, precisely. Almost every other Oscar Wilde work that I can think of has something very intense at its heart. This tragedy or melancholy or dark, dark secrets. And, here, it’s no more than getting out of boring appointments and covering up the fact that you didn’t pay your food bills. You know, there’s no tragedy and no sexual licentiousness, really. It’s very, very innocent.

HS: It’s riotously funny and a joy to watch. Was it a joy to do?

CF: It was and I wasn’t sure it was going to be. I think there’s a very old adage about comedy being the most serious business and is often very hard work. And countless times when people will watch something you’ve been in and they’ll say it must’ve been such to do. It really wasn’t. It was manual labor. It was a real sweat to get it to look that much fun ‘cause it isn’t a spontaneous process—filming—and to make it look spontaneous is quite arduous. [voiceover behind-the-scenes footage]  But this was the exception that proves the rule. We did make use of our own—the atmosphere on the set. We were able to harness that somehow. It was a very unruly atmosphere. And, you know, a lot of us knew each other very well for a long time. There was a lot of mischievous characters. In fact, I think, there wasn’t a single character that didn’t have a mischievous sense of humor. So it was . . . There were pranks. It was every man for himself, really. And it kept things very buoyant. And I realize that that pitch that we’d reached of banter and just sheer joy on the set really was maintained when the camera rolled.

HS: You’re a young man, but you’ve done a lot on stage and on film. Is there something you’ve been itching to do. Something that you just would crawl through molten lava to perform? [Colin is nodding ‘no’ while question is being asked.]

CF: No.

HS: Really?

CF: No. I often investigate to see if there is. I give it thought to see if there is. Am I missing something? Should I be looking for something like that? And I’ve realized it doesn’t exist. I mean there are short-term ambitions that come along. I’ll find a part that grabs me and feel I really want to do it at all costs. But there is no great long-term dream or plan. And I think possibly the side of me that wanted to be an actor in the first place did so because I enjoy unpredictability. That I don’t want to know what’s too far down the road or around the corner. And I probably thrive on that. I thrive on being this sort of, you know, as we call it, car boot sale, a garage sale. Not knowing what’s going to show up. You lift this up and something’s underneath it . I find that exhilarating in a way. I like to see what comes.

HS: Well, we really enjoyed seeing you in The Importance of Being Earnest.

CF: Thank you.

HS: Glad it came your way.

CF: Thank you so much.

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