Colin Firth interview: ‘There are some characters you never want to shake off’

The Oscar winner on playing against type in his new film, working with Woody Allen and the role that haunts him still (It’s not Darcy)

There are perils as well as rewards to being an Oscar-winning actor. Although not for lack of trying, Colin Firth is still searching for anything as resonant as The King’s Speech or A Single Man, the double-barrelled salvo that propelled him into heady new leagues as a dramatic screen actor and solo box-office draw.

Tom Ford’s simmering 2009 adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel yielded a first Oscar nomination, before Tom Hooper’s monarch’s lament ferried Firth over the line the following year, delivering the statuette for his stammering King George VI (he also won a Bafta for both films).

Life after Bertie has seen Firth accept parts good (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), trad (Gambit) and peculiar (Arthur and Mike), but nothing to unduly trouble awards voters or cement his new-found leading-man status. The Railway Man, which came out earlier this year, had potential in both regards. Eric Lomax, whose hellish experiences as a British POW on the Burma Railway and subsequent mission of retribution against one of his torturers were documented in a bestselling memoir, was a substantive role and Firth’s portrayal earned high praise. But a tepid reception for Jonathan Teplitzky’s adaptation scuppered those chances.

Having just jetted in from the south of France, where he’s been shooting Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Magic in the Moonlight, opposite Emma Stone, Firth is still bearing evidence of the pounds he dropped to portray Lomax when we meet in Toronto. It’s a city which brings fond memories, not least because The King’s Speech began its inexorable march towards awards-season glory at the city’s annual film festival and 2,500 movie-goers sang “Happy Birthday” to him at its festival premiere. Firth is in town today to discuss a serious film, the true-life crime drama Devil’s Knot, but the actor’s sly humour is much in evidence, as when I ask him whether a project is ever truly finished in his mind. “Sometimes it’s all too finished,” he quips. “Sometimes it’s finished for me almost before it’s begun. Then you’re just plugging in the electrodes and carrying on.”

He’s too diplomatic to name names, although it’s safe to assume that Devil’s Knot doesn’t fall into that category. It would be hard to feel detached in the face of such harrowing subject matter. Directed by Atom Egoyan, it’s the first dramatised account of the notorious “West Memphis Three” case, in which three young boys were murdered in 1993 in rural Arkansas and three teenagers controversially convicted of the heinous crime. Despite a lack of physical evidence, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin’s penchant for death metal music and dressing in black, combined with Echols’s professed Satanic interests, whipped up a paranoid frenzy, with the prosecution asserting a ritual element to the killings. The subsequent miscarriage of justice has been the subject of several documentaries, most notably the Paradise Lost trilogy by film-makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and been a cause célèbre for Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson among others. As Firth puts it of the still unsolved case, “it’s relentlessly compelling to people”.

The actor plays Ron Lax, a local private investigator who worked pro bono for the defence and uncovered DNA evidence that played a key role in the sentenced trio’s 2011 release after 18 years behind bars (albeit under an “Alford” plea, which allowed them to proclaim their innocence while upholding their convictions). Despite an admirable Southern drawl, Firth wasn’t interested in doing an impersonation. The two men only spoke briefly on the phone; Firth found him a taciturn sort “not ready with his opinions”, but expresses admiration at Lax’s integrity in taking a principled stand against collective hysteria.

Interestingly, having been drawn to the project based on his past, happy collaborations with Egoyan and co-star Reese Witherspoon (on Where the Truth Lies and The Importance of Being Earnest respectively), Firth admits he’d never even heard of the West Memphis Three.

“I knew nothing about it,” he concedes, with a touch of frost in his voice. “I wondered if that was just me but I’ve checked and found it’s not unusual to be ignorant of this case.”

Perhaps his defensiveness is a symptom of having to plead ignorance at a dreadful episode that destroyed several young lives, as the father of three sons himself. Besides two boys with Livia Giuggioli, now 13 and 11, Firth has a third son from an earlier relationship with actress Meg Tilly. Firth has always stayed in touch with Tilly and Will, who’s now in his mid-twenties. Married to Livia for 17 years, he splits his family’s time between west London and Italy, and is an avid ecology and human-rights activist alongside his Italian wife. While Firth is especially keen on flying the flag for indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers, Livia crusades for ethical fashion; Colin’s mates have been known to wear her wares on the red carpet. Colin Firth with his wife Livia Colin Firth with his wife Livia

Firth himself can’t help but make anything look stylish. As the antique-loving Lax, he makes wide 1990s ties, shapeless suits and George Michael-style face fuzz look like they should be rushed back into fashion, pronto. During our encounter, the ever-suave actor, in his dark tailored suit, white dress shirt and black-rimmed specs, manages to make a dark, drab hotel room feel like glamorous surroundings. Even watching the 53-year-old unbutton his jacket to sit down and casually signal his publicist to bring some water is like a lesson in effortless sophistication and elegance. The fact that his cerebral synapses clearly fire on all cylinders too (he co-authored an academic paper on research into the human brain three years ago) could spawn jealous thoughts in his fellow males, but Firth’s tranquil presence dissipates the rush to envy.

He arrived in Atlanta for the Devil’s Knot shoot three days after wrapping The Railway Man in Australia and admits the abrupt transition felt “very strange”. “They were equally dark [stories] and I was playing a real person in both cases but the challenge was very different,” says Firth. “In the case of The Railway Man, I had to immerse myself in someone else’s memories, whereas Devil’s Knot was about an outsider coming in with no preconceptions and asking questions. On an emotional level it wasn’t as onerous. Both stories involve truth being obscured, but it never interests me as much to find connections as to find differences.” Although it’s based on Mara Leveritt’s brilliant book documenting the case, Devil’s Knot will play best for those who, like Firth, bring little if any knowledge to this tangled, terrible story and are ready to be appalled by it for the first time. Anyone who has watched Paradise Lost will find it doesn’t add much to the discourse, not least because Egoyan shoots it like a dated made-for-TV whodunnit, although that’s an argument Firth dismisses outright. “Atom’s not making a documentary,” he says. “But it raises the question about the difference between the two. Both are storytelling.”

Berlinger and Sinofsky are even depicted in Devil’s Knot, which Firth insists raises provocative questions. “This whole trial happened in the presence of a crew,” he observes. “Everything Damian Eccles did, everything the judge said, every person in that courtroom must have been aware that there were cameras and yet everyone’s pretending they’re not there. With reality TV – and these were the early days of it – we’ve learned to be good sports about voyeurism. It’s become convention now to ignore the fly on the wall. I find it absolutely crazy. There’s that moment in Madonna’s movie, the one where she’s being followed around by a camera and everyone’s pretending it’s not there [In Bed With Madonna], where Warren Beatty says, ‘Why is no one mentioning this? Can you do anything without a camera crew around?’”

Colin Firth in 'Devil's Knot' Colin Firth in 'Devil's Knot'

Like Madonna, Firth also had his moment as a pop-culture touchstone in the 1990s, his career singularly defined by Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice for more than a decade. For a time, Firth seemed content gliding comfortably along as a period-drama heart-throb, before A Single Man and The King’s Speech altered our perceptions, and likely his own. If he’s still navigating those new expectations, his upcoming projects also signify a readiness to take a breather from seriousness and just have some fun.

Of Allen’s impending Riviera comedy, Firth says: “I can’t tell you anything about it but it was a great experience and not an easy one to walk away from.” He also has on the horizon Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’s comic, in which he stars as a suave secret agent who takes a young upstart under his wing. Having long been touted as a potential 007, Firth was no doubt tickled by the chance to tweak the image of the clipped-accented, lethal-force-dispensing British super-spy. This winter, he’ll also be giving voice to Paddington in the live-action adventures of the beloved Peruvian bear, directed by Bunny and the Bull’s Paul King. Although Paddington is being partly brought to life in the motion-capture studio, Firth stopped short of pulling an Andy Serkis. He’s sticking to the recording studio for the film. Who knows when or where Firth will find his next Single Man or Bertie? He’s signed to play the literary editor who steered Fitzgerald and Hemingway to brilliance in Michael Grandage’s directorial debut Genius, and is primed for another character that will leave a bit of lasting residue. “Asking if it’s difficult to shake characters off implies that I want to shake them off,” he smiles. “There are certain ones that you welcome to  stay around.”

Firth cites his role as Aston in an early 1990s stage production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and George in A Single Man as the two roles he’s played which have lingered longest. “There’s this irrational sense that those characters are still around somewhere and you have an ongoing relationship with that person,” he says, fiddling distractedly with his wedding ring. “I know that Tom Ford felt the same way about George. You feel you might run into him and you want to check up that he’s okay, even though if you’ve seen the film… But he never went away and I don’t want him to. Whereas there are others where you just walk off the set and it’s absolutely goodbye.”

‘Devil’s Knot’ is out now

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat