Colin Firth had good reason to be confused when we met in a smoky Toronto hotel bar. He was at the Toronto Film Festival with not one, but two films. “It is a very odd experience hopping from one screening to another,” the low key British actor muses. The two films in question go from one cinematic extreme to the other. There is "The Girl with a Pearl Earring", based on the best-selling novel, a sombre mood piece in which Firth plays enigmatic painter Johannes Vermeer in this dark period piece. Then Firth reverts to romantic comedy with the far more commercial "Love Actually", from British scribe Richard Curtis, who makes his directorial debut with this gargantuan of ensemble comedies
“I do like to mix and match”, which is why Firth jumped at the chance to play Vermeer. “I was sitting at home one day and a script arrives with an offer ‘Do you want to do it?’ I go in and met them and said yes,’ “, Firth explains, with his typical quiet reserve. “I was just really ready to do a bit of drama, since there had been quite a string of romantic comedies and light stuff, which is nice.” Films such as Bridget Jones’ Diary, Importance of Being Earnest, and the very slight Hollywood comedy What a Girl Wants and Hope Springs, for instance. “I had been looking for years looking to do something like Pearl Earrings. In fact it was really odd, because in the first week of Pearl Earrings, I just thought ‘am I really doing something here where you don’t have to be tongue in cheek’?”
It’s no surprise of course that Firth is often sent “the light stuff” as he puts it, because for the classically trained actor, stardom occurred through the pages of Jane Austin and one Mr Darcy, who was the beginning of that phase in his career. “I think romance and comedy has obviously found a way to go hand in hand in popular culture and I think if you get successful in one thing, it makes you employable enough.” Which is why Hollywood was quick to cast him in the light teen comedy What a Girl Wants, yet Firth denies that he opted to do that film – or any film for that matter – to raise his American profile. “it wasn’t that conscious. I think a lot of what we do is very random and on the outside, it is often assumed that everybody has some sort of strategy. I often read an analysis of an actor’s career and they talk about choices, in that they made bad choices for a while then good ones as if they were in a world of perfect choice. In fact, it is very odd, just looking back over the last few things, that I have done, I cannot see any pattern. Some of them worked out very badly and some of them worked out well, but there is no exact science.”
Firth didn’t need too much persuading to join first-time director Richard Curtis’ ensemble romantic comedy Love Actually, which contains several disparate comedic tales of love and friendship.
Firth had worked with Curtis as a writer when he adapted Bridget Jones’ Diary and understands his unique sense of humour. “He really does have this fantastically intelligent and self-deprecating wit that you associate with the films that he writes,” Firth observes. “He is doing something, which however mainstream it is, is quite different from what other people do and I think that it is actually only mainstream because he single-handedly made it so. It is quite hard to write about middle-class professional people, which is usually the stuff of sitcoms, but he actually manages to get some drama out of it.” Firth says that is especially evident in Love Actually, which is not all chuckles and guffaws. “Great drama comprises both comedy and tragedy, and I think Richard has been able to enmesh both and bring a genuine humanity to his work.” Much of Firth’s sequences were shot early in the production schedule on location in the South of France, and says there were no major dramas working on what seemed like such a complex undertaking. “For me it was a simple pleasure from beginning to end. I think it was easy to say that because in some ways I could just jump right in and feel so little pressure as I’m not carrying the film. My whole story line could have been a total catastrophe and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I decided to see what would happen if I just allowed myself to be carried by someone who hasn’t proved himself to be a master of this form. Also when my stuff was confined to the South of France, the schedule started with my scenes so it felt like it was my little movie for a while. Thus it was just easy to have a good time and get things right in 3 weeks.”
Firth says he found it difficult to relate to the bumbling romantic he plays, mainly, he insists, “because I don’t feel like him at all or think I’m as nice as that guy. I wouldn’t be as patient and self-deprecating.” Nor as romantic, as he sees himself as “sporadically romantic which means that I don’t have a permanent romantic view of life,” says the cynical Firth. "I’m interested in emotion, its complications," he adds. "I’m not necessarily an optimist in terms of romantic love. I’m not the type of romantic who enjoys the weepy movie and then sighs sweetly about it. I’m more interested in the obstacles and the impossible than I am in resolution and happiness." Be that as it may, it’s Firth’s decade-old image of the shirtless Darcy that caused a plethora of females to figuratively kneel at his feet. Darcy still remains a part of Firth’s legacy. “It doesn’t go away. I am very surprised now, almost 10 years later it is still so present. I’m surprised it was a success at all at the beginning and then I was surprised that people were still talking about it after six months.” Firth was also labelled one of the sexiest men alive, which he found both embarrassing and weird, but delightful as well. “Everyone likes to be flattered but it is weird because there is no one way that you feel about that. You do wonder, I suppose, especially as your career has to continue, what it is going to mean and yet I don’t think it has meant that much except that I have talked about it in most interviews,” he says with a dry smile. Firth prefers not to give his sex symbol image much thought. He is married to the Italian documentary maker Livia Giuggioli, whom he met in 1995 in Columbia while making Nostromo. Giuggioli gave birth to the couple’s second son last month. Another long-term relationship with American actress Meg Tilly produced son Will, now 12, whom he visits frequently in Los Angeles. "Hey, I have a great life. I’ve got a nice home, great kids and a wife I love. So I feel blessed. But I consider myself a jobbing actor. I have to pay the bills. So I choose roles that interest me and allow me to get on with it."
Perhaps for that reason he allowed himself to play the predominantly silent, internal and not particularly sexy Vermeer, in this fictionalized story behind one of the 17th-century artist’s most famous paintings, suggesting that the girl in the painting was a maid (Scarlett Johansson) and that his wife and family were scandalized that he would use the maid as a muse. Because not much is known about Vermeer, Firth had to invent him by looking at his painting which so happen to be scattered throughout the globe. “The tacit nature of the character has been drawn somewhat on the tacit nature of the paintings. You have this sense of quiet in the work within what must have necessarily been a chaotic household. There’s no question about it, with 11 children running around. It was an active world. He grew up in a pub. The beer consumption was enormous. This was a world that wasn’t as calm and tranquil as the paintings might lead you to believe.” Firth says that he relishes the risk involved of starring in a slow-moving painting-like drama that is as distinctive from the likes of Love Actually as you can get. “But that’s the fun of being an actor”, says Firth, who, in one years, instils both laughter and tears from his audience. “There was a friend of mine who asked me years ago if my primary instinct was to make people laugh or cry. I had never seen it in those terms nor do I, but it was an interesting question to think about. I suppose this was in my early twenties and so without hesitation, I said ‘cry’. It’s more satisfying is to try to move people, hit the darker emotions rather than to uplift people and I actually think comedy is probably a lot harder.”
We will continue to see both extremes of this most quintessential of British actors. After all, he is currently shooting the long-awaited sequel to Bridget Jones’ Diaries, The Edge of Reason, due out later next year. “I think everyone feels exactly the same about the sequel. It’s worth doing if it’s brilliant, otherwise you go into sequel purgatory. The first film is still so fresh in everyone’s minds, which is what makes it so difficult to put together, because you really need the same three people to be available at the same time. That’s a challenge.”
LOVE ACTUALLY OPENS IN LIMITED RELEASE ON NOVEMBER 7 BEFORE GOING WIDE ON NOVEMBER 26.
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING OPENS LIMITED ON DECEMBER 12 BEFORE GOING WIDER ON XMAS DAY.
- PAUL FISCHER