Colin Firth: interview

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Admit it – many of us think Colin Firth is just bland, middle-class totty. And maybe he was, once. But, as Dave Calhoun has discovered, the former Mr Darcy has grown up and moved on, and in his latest films, he’s riveting

It crept up on me unexpectedly. For a number of years I’d dismissed him or avoided him or – shame on me – mocked him. Whenever I thought of Colin Firth, which admittedly wasn’t very often, I could only think of one word: bland. It didn’t help that he had an alarming following among the good women of middle England, many of whom seemed about to rip this mild-mannered fellow’s flowing white costume-drama blouse from his back and do unspeakable things to him. When I mentioned to a colleague that I was to interview Firth, a strange look came into her eyes and her voice quivered. It reminded me why Firth put me off my popcorn.

Yet, slowly but surely, Firth is evolving; his understated but potent presence in a few recent films has hit my bias hard. He’s never going to win awards for searing histrionics, but I’ve started to appreciate the essential Englishness of his demeanour on screen: confident but not arrogant; skilled but never irritatingly so.

‘My primary instinct as an actor is not the big transformation,’ Firth tells me. ‘It’s thrilling if a performer can do that well, but that’s not me. Often with actors, it’s a case of witnessing a big party piece but wondering afterwards, where’s the substance?’

I’m sure loyal followers of Firth will tell me that I’m late to the party. And others will mock me for going soft. But last year, Anand Tucker’s adaptation of Blake Morrison’s memoir ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father???’ really got me thinking. Firth does a good job of portraying middle-age, middle-class male stoicism, which is a lot harder than it looks. He’s 48, and age has brought him the ability to take on more serious roles that lean towards the classless. Of course, Firth’s always going to be more toff than factory worker, but while he’d look ridiculous in a Mike Leigh film, he’s too versatile to be condemned to play earls or Tories. Now we’re all middle class, he’s cinema’s everyman.

When I meet Firth at the London Film Festival, it’s a couple of hours before the premiere of ‘Genova’, a film he’s made with the dynamo British director Michael Winterbottom and one that proves there’s a new vigour to his career. He’s very good in it. He plays an academic whose two young daughters are involved in a car accident which kills their mother, his wife. The family is based in the US, but he decides to shift them to northern Italy for a fresh start. Firth gives a quiet performance, restrained but not uptight; he offers a controlled yet moving portrait of grief. ‘I love the film,’ he says as he explains the pleasure of working with Winterbottom, who enabled him to explore his character in a way that he has rarely been permitted. ‘I’ve honestly never been more happy with a film.’ I believe him. Now that he’s is older, he’s enjoying a new maturity that allows him to play fathers and husbands – grown-ups not pin-ups.

We talk about the variety of his recent roles. Even while he was making ‘Genova’ – a low-budget drama filmed in the usual Winterbottom style of little money, few crew and lots of imagination, he was flying back and forth to Pinewood to shoot ‘Mamma Mia!’ – which has taken almost £70 million at the UK box office and looks set to become the biggest earner ever in our cinemas. ‘We had to embrace the laughter and silliness for it to be enjoyed by the audience,’ Firth says. ‘We decided that we just had to have fun and enjoy the stupid costumes and the stupid… well, I better not say anything rude about the music.’

You couldn’t find two roles more different: in the first he offers a subtle take on grief and recovery; in the second he prances about a version of a sunny Greek island dancing to Abba songs. ‘Actually it’s nice having that diversity underscored for a change,’ he says. ‘Usually people who write about these things like to join the dots rather than emphasise the lack of joining.’

He remembers that last year offered a similar contrast when he was making a documentary about death row, ‘In Prison My Whole Life’ with his wife, Livia. ‘We travelled to Amsterdam to interview Snoop Dogg. We were with him for four hours and he was great company. But it was the same week that I had to snog Rupert Everett in drag for “St Trinian's”.’

It’s taken Firth a long time to ditch the image of the well-bred pin-up (or ‘posh totty’, as a colleague put it to me). And even today a clip on YouTube of Firth as Mr Darcy diving into a lake in the 1995 BBC adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ has thousands of overheating users needing a similar hose-down. ‘He’s gorgeous,’ writes one fan. ‘When he gets out of the lake dripping wet I literally swoon.’ Others are less subtle. ‘MR DARCY! GIVE ME THAT COCK!’ screams one. Firth will always be Darcy to some – Boris Johnson, for instance, who introduced him at the premiere of ‘Genova’ by waffling on about Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet and costume dramas. Firth, embarrassed, merely forced a smile.

Looking back, Firth’s post-Darcy career did him few favours. He must have thought that a turn as a football fan in the British film version of Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’ (1997) would inject his reputation with some much-needed machismo – but it made so slight an impression on me that I struggle to remember anything about it. Did I even see it? Then ‘Shakespeare in Love’ (1998) saw him back in billowing-white-shirt territory and ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ (2001) sealed the deal.

But things are looking up. Earlier this year, Firth was in Helen Hunt’s relationship drama, ‘Then She Found Me’ and this month he can be found savouring the sharp Noël Coward dialogue in ‘Easy Virtue’, where he plays a darkly witty, chain-smoking patriarch in 1920s Britain whose soul is stained by his time in the trenches during World War I. On the horizon too is a role as the Machiavellian Lord Henry Wootton in a new version of ‘Dorian Gray’ and even a lead in a film scripted by Irvine Welsh, of all people. Welsh meets Firth? That’s a partnership no one would have predicted back in his Mr Darcy days.

Genova’ will screen as part of a Time Out 40th anniversary weekender at BFI Southbank at 8.45pm on Nov 21. ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Easy Virtue’ are in cinemas now.

Author: Dave Calhoun. Portrait Greg Funnell



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