Colin Firth: interview
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 rivetingIt 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.
PERIOD drama has always been a breeze for Colin Firth. The charismatic 48-year-old became famous worldwide, thanks to his performance as Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and hasn’t been out of work since.
Managing to combine appearances in romantic comedies (Love Actually) with more serious roles (Then She Found Me), he’s back in something which is a unique combination of the two, comic costume drama Easy Virtue. In this adaptation of Noel Coward’s 1920s play, Colin is troubled Mr Whittaker, who no longer seems to be able to remain civil to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas). The whole family is shaken up when only son John (Ben Barnes) returns home with his rather modern American wife (Jessica Biel).
Q: Were you aware of the Noel Coward play before the film? A: No. Funnily enough, I’ve done a film adaptation of a Noel Coward play before and, in a way, it was quite a similar premise. I did a play called Relative Values on film. I think it’s not as successful as this, but Easy Virtue was a wonderful script.
I think within all the politeness and wryness and wit and trivia and flippancy of Coward is immense passion. If you think of all that champagne froth stuff he does, the silly songs that he sings – which are masterpieces, really – he also wrote Brief Encounter, you know?
Easy Virtue is gorgeous material, it’s very easy to be over-reverential of it, or be afraid of it. They can be museum pieces if you’re not careful. I didn’t want to do this film at first, because of that. I’d just been shooting Mamma Mia! and Genova at the same time and I wasn’t ready to leap into something. It got pushed back a bit and, in fact, it was more a desire to do a Stephan Elliot movie than a Noel Coward play that pulled me in. And I think that’s what we have. It’s as much Stephan’s sensibility as Coward’s.
Q: Has your process for selecting projects changed recently? A: No, because I never had a process. It’s just a series of choices. You hope it’s instinct, but then you can sometimes be polarised about something. Nothing’s ever the full package. Occasionally, they might be. The pieces can shift around and it’s a combination of things. Most of it is a gut reaction on reading. I try to just treat it as a bit of literature, not imagine what it’s like on screen, not to try myself out on it, if you like, let it be what it is. And if that hooks me, then I go back and have another look. Sometimes you know in 10 pages. Actually that’s usually!
Q: You have moved from playing the lover to playing a possible father, such as in Mamma Mia!… A: That’s life. That’s where I am. One of the few pleasures of the ageing process – and there are very few really – is the roles actually get more complex.
I look at Ben (Barnes) and I’m reminded of certain aspects of myself at the time. You really have to look for roles that have any texture when you’re in your 20s. You’ve got to survive those because the callow youth is terribly, terribly difficult. It’s terribly difficult to give it texture.
I think Ben pulls it off. I’m working with him again now on Dorian Gray and he’s addressing it. I mean, Dorian Gray’s the perfect role for someone like him because he starts off as a callow youth then turns into a homicidal mass murderer by the end of it.
I found it desperately dull being 25 as an actor. A friend of mine, an older actor, said to me, when I was that age, you know the hardest role in Shakespeare is not Hamlet or Lear, it’s Ferdinand in The Tempest, the earnest lover with no sense of humour. The older you get, the more they let you be jaded, or witty, maybe you’re bad, maybe you’re disappointed, layers of experience. There’s more to be had so, yeah, bring them on!
Q: Could you empathise with Mr Whittaker? A: Yes. Absolutely – I think anybody could. Family is complicated. From childhood to having your own, it’s complicated. There are times you want to hide from them and run from them and, in some ways, although there’s something entertaining about Whittaker standing back and making wry comments, there’s something noble about his defending Larita from the mob, the family.
Q: Talking of family, how do you get on with your Italian mother-in-law? A: My wife brought home to meet her parents, an Englishman – that’s one problem right there – nearly 10 years older, with a child, and an actor. I mean, how many strikes do you need against you, really? They were very gracious with me, but it was not a good package to sell to the in-laws, so there was a mountain to climb! I had to learn the language in order to make myself worthy.
Q: Mamma Mia! has just become the UK’s highest grossing film of all time. Do you have fond memories of filming in Greece? A: Oh, the time of our lives. That wasn’t hard. It was really obscene to be paid to have that much fun – it was wonderful. One of the moments I think I’ve come closest to death was when I was sitting with Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard on a boat just off Skiathos looking at the Aegean, on a beautiful day. I said to them, and the producer was standing near us, ‘Do you ever feel overpaid?’ And I was nearly thrown overboard. It was just, ‘And they’re paying me? And I’m sitting here?’ That was just fun. It was a walk in the park. I’ve never done such an easy job in my life.
Q: Do you still get nervous as an actor? A: Yes. Nerves are the enemy all the way through your working life. And I think they can get worse. They haven’t for me, yet. But I’ve seen older actors go through deep crises, brilliant actors, particularly in the theatre. They said Olivier suffered a bout of nerves for 10 or 15 years, where he found it almost impossible to go on.
Ian Holm didn’t go on stage for that period of time. Apparently Ian, according to stories, turned to the audience and asked them what they were looking at! Then went and locked himself in his dressing room. I don’t know if that story is true, but I live it in my mind because I feel there but for the grace of God go