DASHING HIS REPUTATION
Still renowned as dishy Mr. Darcy, Colin Firth tells Leigh Singer how he debunks the tag of “quintessential Englishman”.
October 8-14, 2007
When Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy named his first autobiography, he boldly went where no actor had gone before, declaring of his famous Vulcan alter ego, I Am Not Spock. Colin Firth hasn’t yet gotten around to penning his own memoirs (unsurprising, perhaps, given that he’s still only a youthful 47), but you can put money on the fact that the name Darcy, either the Pride and Prejudice or Bridget Jones incarnations, won’t be in the title.
Which isn’t to say that Firth’s face visibly falls at the mention of his most popular role, Jane Austen’s smouldering, sopping-shirted hero that even twelve years on, still sets many female hearts aflutter. In fact, it’s he who brings the D-word up, a pleasant surprise, even if it may be a pre-emptive measure.
“The Darcy thing is like a nickname you get at school and you can’t shake off,” he says matter-of-factly, “but it’s no worse than that. You can’t look down on it because actually you can’t quantify how much it’s helped and how much it’s hindered. A certain amount of recognition is necessary to keep you going. And a certain amount of identity and tagging is necessary for the recognition. It might saved me from oblivion for all I know.”
Unlikely, given that Firth was already in the midst of a successful, acclaimed acting career that started straight out of drama school with his breakthrough film Another Country. And behind roles that most people know – The English Patient, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Love, Actually, there’s a parallel career of far more eclectic choices like a psychologically disturbed loner in British thriller Trauma or a seedy, Dean Martin-style crooner in Canadian mystery Where the Truth Lies that seem to owe little to costume dramas or Jane Austen.
Yet his sanguine assessment of public perception is delivered with a pleasant candour and sense of humour that belies the public perception of a brusque, brooding Darcy figure, or that other stereotype often attributed to him, that of the “quintessential Englishman.”
“I’m just like every other English person of my generation,” he says with a hint of incredulity about the incredulity past journalists have had about his 70s teenage years, all long hair, rock-fuelled rebellion and flunked A-levels. “I mean, I wasn’t born on a horse in fucking Derbyshire, you know.”
“An awful lot of representations of particular myths are peddled by people who are not actually of that [group]. I pointed this out to the Greek press a couple of weeks ago on the set of Mamma Mia! when they were talking about my playing the typical Englishman. An Englishman is probably far better represented by Wayne Rooney or Johnny Rotten or John Lennon. The most uptight Englishman I can think of, Prince Philip, is actually a Greek, so you can fuck with the stereotypes a lot.”
That said, in his new film, Firth plays a variation on the intense, internalised British male that he does so well. And When Did You Last See Your Father?, adapted from the book by Blake Morrison, details the complex, antagonistic father-son relationship between the somewhat emotionally stifled Morrison and his flamboyant, overpowering, now dying father Arthur (Jim Broadbent).
Given the intimate, emotionally revealing material – rivalry, remorse, reconciliation - isn’t there an inevitable glance across to your own family issues? “All the stuff that the movie deals with, it’s not stuff that occurred to me for the first time,” Firth states, “so it’s not as if the scales fell from my eyes. But it does make you reflect. My parents are actually young and healthy, so it’s not like time is imminently running out but the fact is, this is the time we’ve got and don’t wait for the last minute.”
Firth comes from a family of academics, spent some infant years in Nigeria but soon settled – or rather didn’t – in various locations across England. He acknowledges a typical teenage angsty relationship with his parents that he’s long left behind, but equally admits, “there’s something that makes you sixteen again the minute you walk through your mum and dad’s door.” Not that his father is anything like the larger-than-life Arthur, but what was his reaction to the film?
“He’s seen it twice,” he relates. “He’s very into the questions that it asks, partly because he’s just lost his father and probably feels more like a son when he watches. He’s not a demonstrative, loquacious person, he keeps very much to himself in a way but he was very moved by the film”
He pauses. “I haven’t really sat down with him – this is one of the things you don’t do, sit down and have that conversation. Blake sits at Arthur’s bedside and they’re going through bills!”
As a father to three sons of his own, two young boys with his Italian wife Livia Giuggioli and sixteen-year old Will from a previous relationship with American actress Meg Tilly, Firth’s also well-placed to see both sides of the parental dynamic. “I think I’m probably the kind of father more like Arthur than Blake,” he considers. “I’m no shrinking violet myself and I dare say that [Will’s] toes curl when I’m thinking I’m being charming.”
Judging by the – largely female – reaction Firth’s name gets, his son would be in the minority. Though perhaps Firth’s well-adjusted view of his career and screen persona comes from the luxury of knowing that he’s getting a ever wider range of roles nowadays, with the likes of St. Trinian’s and of course the movie adaptation of stage smash-hit, Mamma Mia!, opposite of all people, Meryl Streep.
“The minute I start telling people who’s in that, they say ‘I’ve got to see that’ with almost vindictive relish,” he smiles. “Not because they think it’ll be a masterpiece, but rather, ‘I’ve got to see you in Spandex.’ I’ve still got to go back next week and dance and sing to ‘Waterloo’ with Pierce Brosnan.”
Doubtless starchy Mr. Darcy wouldn’t approve. And no doubt Colin Firth couldn’t care less.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? is out October 5th.