There was a strange moment in Colin Firth's acceptance speech at the Baftas. He thanked the usual helpmeets but at the end he also paid homage to the director of a film other than The King's Speech: Tom Ford. It was Ford who cast Firth in A Single Man, the role which proved to worldwide moviegoers that there was more to this actor than quiet Anglo-Saxon displays of interiorised disturbance. It has taken a while. Unless the bookies have got it very wrong, the journey to the heart of Hollywood should end tonight when Firth is anointed this year's Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his role as George VI.
In some ways it's been an odd career. Everyone else in Another Country (1982), the stage play by Julian Mitchell about gays and Marxists in a 1930s English public school, seemed to shoot out of the blocks. Firth was the only actor to play both lead parts, one on stage, the other on film (1984), but he took the slower road to stardom and only now is he clearly the bigger cheese than Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh and possibly even Daniel Day-Lewis. For years he laboured somewhat in their shadow.
Then in 1995 his TV performance in Pride and Prejudice fixed him as Middle England's frock-coated, sideburned pin-up. Suddenly, and for another decade or more, he was living under an even longer shadow cast by Mr Darcy. Notwithstanding parts in huge hits, including Shakespeare in Love, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!, he has only finally escaped it in the roles of a bereaved American homosexual and a tongue-tied English monarch. The King's Speech has also earned him a Golden Globe. Only the Oscar remains.
I first met Firth in 1987. He had written a fascinating diary about making A Month in the Country for a magazine and it needed cutting. I helped wield the knife. Over the intervening 24 years, I have interviewed him several times – and it has always struck me how, unlike the majority of actors, he talks in carefully fashioned paragraphs about the business of being an actor. To mark what may perhaps be the biggest night of his life, here is a conflated self-portrait based on our conversations: Firth on Firth.
Jasper Rees: Is it fair to say that on the whole you play withdrawn people?
Colin Firth: Another Country [he played budding traitor Guy Bennett on stage] was a pretty demonstrative character. In fact because that character was so ebullient I felt that, if anything, I was going to get typecast that way. Because I played the character in the film [Tommy Judd] who's a much more contained person, it went that way instead.
Another Country launched several careers, but yours seemed to lag behind. Was there a private sense of resentment?
I've always, I think rather compulsively, found myself looking at everything from so many different angles and having so many different attitudes to things at once, that if you feel yourself marginalised slightly you can resent and cherish it at the same time.
As a younger actor were you more drawn to characters who were somehow damaged, or do people see that in you?
It's obviously a mixture of both. You project your own agenda in the end. Problems fascinate me. To me that's what the drama is all about. I do like trying to push that to its conclusion, to push the characters to the limits of their problems and raise the stakes as much as possible.
Why do you seek that sort of role?
I dare say it's partly because it fascinates me when you can have a forum where you can express what social convention forbids.
Can you elaborate?
Violence, hysteria, fear, paranoia, weakness, cowardice, which I think everybody lives with, but they tend to be shameful emotions. I think it's important to reflect them. I think also that the story about the bloke who's absolutely fine isn't really a story. And so the further you can go with the problems the more the story is there. It's not really a question of how fucked up I can make this person. It's more to do with how high I can make the stakes. How big can I make the obstacles? I do believe the drama is more interesting if the obstacles are bigger. I think the actor can make a choice there quite a lot.
But your character inherits problems from the plot. You can't create problems for him.
No, but I remember my director at drama school constantly saying, "Make it more important to you". You constantly see performances where you just don't believe that that means that much to that person. You can scream and cry about it or you can be very stoical. If you take Mr Darcy, he doesn't do very much at all. I tried in every scene to make everything as difficult as possible for him.
If he's having a row with Elizabeth Bennet, I could have chosen to make that frightfully easy for Mr Darcy – thrown off debonair remarks and not really given a shit about it. But I found it more interesting to make it very difficult for him because he's in love with her. That's what I mean by obstacles: that in fact he wants to have sex with her, or he wants to hit somebody, or he wants to scream at somebody or he wants to leave the room but he's denying himself that, you can create an inner struggle which creates a certain tension, hopefully. And you can do that all within a fairly contained performance.
When he declares his love – were you aware how big a scene it was?
Not having any idea of the impact Pride and Prejudice was going to have, no. There was definitely a lot of pressure on us. It was a five-month shoot and that was in the third week. It was one of the first major dialogue scenes we had to do. It was very intimidating for that reason, and I spent the weekend doing a hell of a lot of homework on that particular scene just before we did it. I remember people trying to take the pressure off it. They were going round saying, "Don't worry about Scene 47. It's just like any other. Just treat it like any old scene." Of course it all made it worse.
Did Pride and Prejudice change your life?
I think I kept trying to characterise it as something that didn't make any difference. It's very hard to analyse it. It might have made me a little bit self-conscious about things. I think it made me a little bit impatient with the press. There were other things going on at the time. I had met someone [the Italian film producer/director Livia Giuggioli] who I was going to end up marrying, and there was a lot of interest in me when it was discovered I was engaged, and it became extremely important to me that my wedding day was not invaded by paparazzi, and the intention of the press was to do just that, so we went into contortions to make sure that the wedding day was secret. It can be very, very unnerving to be pursued by photographers in a way that it's almost impossible to explain to anyone who hasn't had it happen. I think it must be largely irrational, or I don't know whether it taps into some instinctive fear of being pursued or being spied on, but when you wake up in the morning and you see the house staked out, you see there's somebody out there, waiting for you, or they're standing by a car, even if there's only two people, a photographer and a journalist, the impulse is to draw the curtains and keep peeking, and wondering if they've got the telephone number. It makes you paranoid, basically. They are things which in the scheme of things seem very harmless to most people and a small price to pay for all the perks, and that's fair, but if I'm asked directly what it did to make my life any different, that's probably the only thing.
In Fever Pitch, your character says he doesn't come from anywhere. You also moved about a lot as a child.
That was the thing that struck me most when I read the book. He said something to the effect that a middle- class suburban male when he steps into a comprehensive school steps into a cultural void.
That chimed with you?
For me, rock music was the way I went at that time. I grew my hair. I wanted to be a blues guitarist or something. The street-cred accent. The word credibility was terribly important. In the late Seventies, early Eighties everybody was talking about street cred.
Did you feel rootless?
I think I always did. The family moved around a lot. My mum came to England to have me. My dad was in Nigeria. My father was teaching history. My sister was born in Nigeria. There was some sort of system where you could get posts abroad, and that interested him. He got a job in America for a year – St Louis. My father went to public school and to Cambridge. My mother is university-educated. I had a state education, secondary mod, so I felt a little bit of an outsider.
Were you a toff dumped among yobs?
It is reductive but it's true really. I spoke with a Hampshire dialect, a different dialect to the one my parents spoke with. And that's confusing to grow up with. This isn't a lament for my childhood. You're asking about rootlessness. That contributed to it. We weren't a wealthy family because my parents were teachers. So I didn't have that sort of privileged background but definitely there were educational expectations put on me. We were always encouraged to read.
Did you want to?
Yes I did. I devoted a lot of my childhood to reading. I read the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was about 14. I'd read a précis of it in Look and Learn magazine. That got me fascinated with that stuff. Also I fancied myself capable of it. Set my sights quite high.
Did you do well at school?
Not really, no.
Didn't want to, or it just wasn't there?
It's hard to say. I'd rather believe it's because I didn't want to. I was a passive resister, really. I resented the expectations that were put on me by people I despised, the teachers.
Do you wish you went to university?
I got conditional offers. I could have gone if I'd stayed back to retake one exam, just to up the grade a bit. For quite a while I felt there was something missing. Somewhere within what I think I would always declare has been my contempt for that, has been a sneaking envy. I think I romanticised great seats of learning. I'd read a novel years ago which made me yearn to have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge, preferably in the Twenties. You realise the experiences you're getting are more to be cherished than dreams. I do think as one gets older that fantasies, certainly from my point of view, stop outweighing your actual realistic objectives.
Why did you want to be an actor? It sounds like you weren't particularly demonstrative.
I was quite, I think. I think the pendulum swung. I think it still can do that. I can be extremely outgoing and extremely shy by turns. I think a lot of actors are like that. And in fact a lot of the best actors I've met – this was very apparent when I was at drama school – are quite shy people, quite withdrawn people, and the stage is a place where they can find a sort of external confidence. I often found that the most entertaining people who can do all the funny voices in the canteen were fairly limited on stage. I don't know what that's about.
Over the years, have journalists picked up and run with the ball of your teenage alienation and misery?
Yeah, I think they have. There is an enormous cult of personal archaeology into our own misery now, that it is basically in your pain that all the answers lie about yourself. I don't think all the explanations lie in unhappy things. You are just as likely to be formed by the positive things, the peaceful things. It's not a coincidence that it was very important to me to adapt socially wherever I went, going back to quite young childhood, and if that meant trying to alter how I came across to people I would make quite a considerable effort to alter. I would change my sense of humour, I would really try to assimilate, and I've ended up being an actor.
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