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Colin Firth: Single man's hero

Colin Firth has taken the film world by storm with his performance as a grieving professor

Naturally, Colin Firth is wearing a black Tom Ford suit and one of his trademark white shirts. Looking dapper, he's clearly enjoying one of the perks of playing the lead in the debut film from the former head designer of Gucci.

Ford turned the Italian fashion house around when he worked there as head designer and now he seems determined to turn Firth into a fashion icon. The British star does not have much of a reputation for his fashion choices; after all, he's best remembered for wearing a wet shirt while playing Darcy and awful jumpers in Bridget Jones's Diary.

Clothes are not something the 49-year-old thinks about when reading a script. "No, I don't think about it when I accept a project," he explains. "But it can make a difference to what you do or how you feel." That last statement is more in keeping with someone fronting a Ford campaign.

Warming to the task, he does admit that today he's feeling a million dollars in his new stitch. "Oh it's great [wearing Ford], as good as it gets, really. It's not unusual for me to wear suits – I felt fantastic when I put it on. If I were in a T-shirt, I'd probably have my elbows on the table."

The Hampshire-born star has an awful lot of admiration for the style guru and it's not limited to his fashion sense either. He says that rather than fall flat on his face, as some had expected Ford to do on his movie debut, he excelled to such an extent that Firth claims, "He's as good as any director I've ever worked with.

"It's very hard to explain what it is, because directing is a question of personality. The perfect director has to tick a lot of boxes and it's very difficult for any single individual to tick them all. Tom has a quiet presence on set; he inspires everybody who works on his film and I think that is what great directors do. If clothes can make you feel a certain way, so can a house, so can a light, a piece of lighting, so can an environment that is created. And quite obviously, it starts with a script. And I think very quickly, in a day or two, we were all trying to tell the same story and that was the power he had. I just felt what he wanted."

The A Single Man director must have been doing something right with his actor. Such is his performance as an English professor struggling to come to grips with the death of his boyfriend in California that it came as no surprise when Firth was awarded the Coppa Volpi for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. Since then Firth has received nominations from all the big American awards including the Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globes, and it'll be a major surprise if he isn't nominated for an Oscar.

The film is based on Christopher Isherwood's novel of the same name and the action is set in 1962. Although he was only two at the time the narrative is set, Firth says that acting in the film made him think about his own youth, especially around the time of the 40th anniversary of Woodstock. "It's funny but the anniversary of Woodstock made me reflect a lot of that again," remembers Firth. "That propelled me through my teens, that movement. From the age of about eight I was a committed hippie. I started to grow my hair then, get guitar lessons; I wanted to wear those clothes. I wanted to go to Woodstock. I wanted to be part of the Summer of Love."

It's not an image that immediately springs to mind when thinking of the actor known for playing restrained Brits. The suit and the upright posture of today seem more fitting. Nonetheless, he continues, "I watched the Woodstock film the other day and I found it absolutely beautiful, transporting – more now than 10 years afterwards. I know what became of the hippie movement and I know how Woodstock ended; it became a national disaster area and bad things happened and people had to be airlifted out. I think something could be taken from that and revived today. I think we went through a lot of legitimised cynicism from the 1980s onwards so I think just a little piece of that flower movement would be welcome to have back again."

Firth explains how listening to Marc Bolan led him to the Byrds and then music of Canned Heat and how he'd dream of running away and living in a community of hippies. The need for a sense of community seems to be again on the actor's mind.

Reading the book made Firth wonder what the LA of author Isherwood was like. "We associate LA now with the film business, obviously, with the entertainment industry. It's often considered to be at the frivolous and commercial end of things, wrongly I think, to a large extent. But I hadn't realised what a centre of intellectual life it was during Isherwood's period and it was partly because of the people who fled Germany. But you know, Isherwood's dinner table included Schoenberg and Stravinsky as well as Hitchcock and Joseph Cotten and the Hollywood lot."

In A Single Man, Firth's lover is played by Matthew Goode, and the actor as he approaches 50 says he's finding it increasingly difficult to live up to his reputation as the handsome lead. He says that when he gets a script these days that requires him to take his top off, "It's my signal to run for the hills actually".

"If you really want do a film and there are necessary scenes where you are undressed, it's one of the biggest sinking feelings an actor can have. You're just thinking, oh yes, oh God, how much time to I have to spend in order not to disgrace myself and horrify everybody? The older you get, the harder the work and the more you're hoping you won't be asked to do that any more."

Clearly, his impending 50th birthday is playing on his mind as he continues, "I think there are a series of crises through life, as you pass certain experiences that mark change and sometimes it is just an age milestone. Having children's a big one. And not having children can be a big one. I think you see the rest of your generation going through things; there are moments when you look at your life and go what did or didn't I achieve."

Firth jokes about being in a midlife crisis, saying, "I'm in a fully fledged one right now. It's in full swing. It's been going on since I was about 28. I've resisted getting a motorbike by the skin of my teeth. I'd be dead by now probably because I'd be rubbish driving it. I mean, life is full of crises and I don't think they are just to do with the ageing process, but there are certain physical changes that happen. A lot of people talk about their eyesight after the age of 40. I had 20-20 vision one minute and then suddenly needed glasses the next. And then you reflect – what else is going to go? My memory is not as good as it was. Your hair changes colour, falls out, all those sorts of things. You find you put on weight more easily, but then there are all these other variables – whether you're married or divorced, whether there's a war on, or natural disaster."

Firth's first major role was as a gay man in Another Country and now he's winning plaudits again for playing a homosexual. He's content with being talked about as a gay icon again, saying, "I'm happy to be any kind of icon! I'm not getting any younger!"

A Single Man is out 12 February