A fter this interview, we went for a drink in a wine bar underneath the arches near Trafalgar Square. It's a hoary ploy: switch off the tape and fish for indiscretions. Except in this case it wasn't a ploy. I first met Colin Firth 10 or 11 years ago when he wrote a piece for a magazine about filming A Month in the Country. The article was as detailed and sensitive as his performance, but in his eagerness he had written way too much and volunteered to come into the office to help cut it back. These were the days before he had a son living in America, when he could commit himself to to long stints in the theatre, and he charmingly put up with occasional visits backstage. So, the formal interrogation done and dusted, the drink was a chance to catch up. But it would have been wasteful, seeing as how we were in a public place, not to conduct a spot of impromptu research into the key question. At street level, exactly how famous is the man voted "greatest human being of all time" (as he puts it; the award was actually for favourite actor) in the BBC's recent 60th-birthday poll?
It's dark in the bar, and busy, and no one seems to recognise Mr Darcy. Not the barmaid, who refuses him a bitter (unavailable) and pours him a tumbler of Amontillado instead. Nor the woman who taps him on the shoulder as we leave: you'd think she'd be after an autograph, but all she wants is our vacated place at the table. True, he's not wearing a pair of sopping- wet breeches, but somehow he just doesn't look like the Colin Firth we know and lust after. The features have been reconfigured into ordinariness. That bottled passion, the turbulence that broiled behind the pupils, that noble, damaged-goods look that found its perfect outlet in Mr Darcy, is off on vacation. The eyes have it not.
This shrinking anonymity can't go on much longer. In the way that actors sometimes will after a big hit, Firth seemed to duck out of public view after Pride and Prejudice. You may have seen him collect his ridiculous BBC gong, or look glum as Robbie Coltrane beat him to a Bafta ("a very cold environment," he says, explaining how the cameras caught him with that expression). The tabloids doorstepped him at his house in Hackney for a while, and the Sunday Mirror ran a picture of him bringing home a new Hoover ("Mr Darcy does the household chores"). But he was mostly invisible. In the next few months, though, the work he's been doing since Pride and Prejudice will be appearing on a "and then four buses come all at once" basis. Nostromo, BBC2's four-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad's dense epic, begins in early February; The English Patient, Anthony Minghella's film of Michael Ondaatje's Booker-winner, which is already being tipped for Oscar triumph, follows in March; Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby's expansion of his best-selling memoir, opens in April; and A Thousand Acres, Firth's first American role, should premiere in the States in May. The only way to avoid him will be to board a plane - something Firth himself does on a regular basis. He's frequently in LA, seeing his six-year-old son by Meg Tilly. And he's been picking up Italian in Rome, where his girlfriend Livia Giuggioli has her home.
Colin Firth was rarely "resting" in the dozen or so years before Pride and Prejudice came along. He belongs to a group of actors whose careers were all rocket-launched by one work (see also The Big Chill and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). Between the play and the film, Another Country introduced audiences to Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Daniel Day Lewis and Kenneth Branagh - but Firth was the only one of the quartet deemed adaptable enough to play both lead roles: on stage he was Bennett, the incipient traitor; in the film he switched to Judd, the Trotskyite firebrand. Although he was subsequently to be found all over the place doing high-profile work - embittered Falklands casualty Robert Lawrence in Tumbledown, John McCarthy in Hostages, or A Month in the Country's shell-shocked trench veteran - he plainly didn't rise as fast or far as the other graduates of Another Country. He decamped to British Columbia for several years, possibly out of pique, and voluntarily took the whole of 1989 off. I dredge up a memory of a conversation in which he privately admitted to a sense of grievance. "Had you not laid claim to the memory I'd probably seek to deny that," he says now. "I can't quite remember how I felt about it at that time. If you feel yourself marginalised slightly you can resent it and cherish it at the same time. I think you have a tendency to cling to the idea that you haven't sold out, that you're not mainstream because you're too good to be mainstream. And at the same time you whinge about the fact that you're not mainstream, privately or otherwise. But it's never eaten into me because I have always been involved enough in something."
A publicist who worked on one of his films says that, before Darcy, "you couldn't give him away to the press". It was somehow consistent with Firth's career trajectory that he took the saturnine lead in Milos Forman's Valmont, only to see the adapta-tion of Laclos's novel beaten to the tape by the more blockbusting Dangerous Liaisons. The now- legendary story is that he hummed and haahed before accepting Mr Darcy, acutely aware of the burden of expectation that would come with the role. He talks of a "fear of success", how it's possible "to gravitate towards things that are doomed". He did turn down roles in a couple of huge British films, but it speaks well of his judgement that the actors who accepted them have not necessarily prospered. In fact his only really epic flop was Lost Empires in 1986, a craven attempt by Granada to revisit Brideshead with JB Priestley's novel about the pre-war music halls. In episode after episode, Firth looked on prettily while others had histrionics: an apt visual metaphor for his whole career. Until, that is, he grasped the nettle and said yes to Darcy.
Firth approached the role of Darcy no differently from any other he's played. Ever since Judd in Another Country, he's been cast for his ability to keep it all in, not let it all hang out. "I don't find that I can define a character very well until I've given him big problems to deal with. If Mr Darcy wants to have sex with Elizabeth Bennet, or he wants to scream at somebody or he wants to leave the room but he's denying himself, you can create an inner struggle which creates a certain tension. Hopefully."
Though he's always been a pin-up to both genders (William Boyd, whose Dutch Girls gave Firth his first television lead, once told me how a burly crew member suppressed his feelings till the end of the shoot and then planted a huge kiss on the vulnerable hero's lips), it was Darcy that made Firth sexy. He was in Italy when his mum phoned with the news that Darcy fever was sweeping the nation, hoiking him up the league-table of leading males. The glad tidings must have been a comfort after the BBC's Nostromo shoot in Columbia: beset by corruption, riot, a nearby murder, shooting, illness and miscellaneous gremlinry, it was as if the ructions in Conrad's masterpiece had seeped out onto the set. Firth found the location "very interesting for the first couple of months", but after three more didn't come away "with a huge fondness for the place". He plays Charles Gould, an Englishman who takes his porcelain bride to a fictional South American republic called Costaguana, to re-open a silver mine which has fallen into neglect since his father's murder by natives. Gradually, as Gould's obsession with the plainly symbolic mine and its buried treasures intensifies, the marriage falls victim to his metaphorical infidelity.
The novel is famously irreducible - "I was almost resentful of how difficult it was to get through it," he says - but for Firth the lead role basically came down to another study in humourlessness and withdrawal, another furtively disturbed Englishman. So why play it? "It was curiosity. I felt that there was an awful lot more to Gould than met the eye. I found myself in the strange position of doubting what Conrad said about him - that the character had no sense of irony - and I wondered whether that was a foreigner's perception of an Englishman. It would be quite possible for a man like Gould to have a very strong sense of irony and for it to be invisible to somebody from Poland." On a less cerebral level, he was attracted by the horse-riding, the explosions and the steamship - "a boy's own instinct actually to go out on the big adventure, a childhood sense of why I wanted to be an actor".
There Must have been something in the water in the Firth household to make two of the fam- ily want to tread the boards (his younger brother Jonathan is also an actor, rising fast). Their father was a history teacher who took up posts abroad: Colin spent his first four years in Nigeria, and later another year in St Louis. His bookish parents brought him back to Hampshire, sent him to a state school where he felt alienated, and encouraged him to read and follow their footsteps to university. But he was a "passive resister": he did the reading but not the studying. Acting seemed a better option, and after a couple of backstage jobs, he got a place at north London's Drama Centre.
One of the mantras he learned to repeat there was "Make it more important to you". "The actor," he explains, "has got an awful lot of freedom to do a performance superficially, or to go further with it. It's quite conceivable that you'll have an actor playing a scene in which his mother is dying who isn't asking himself what that really would be like." Of course in Pride and Prejudice it can't have required a huge leap of imagination for Firth to picture himself in love with Miss Bennet, as he and Jennifer Ehle were an item at the time (just as he and Meg Tilly had been during Valmont). Later, in the bar, Firth is talking about his discovery of Caravaggio in Rome, and the transparent carnality of the relationship between the artist and some of his juvenile sitters. Well, Firth-watchers have been there too. Can a real-life subtext make the love scenes easier?
"You mean with Jennifer? No, I don't think it did. I don't know. It's impossible to know what it would have been like if things had been different. You can't know. But I actually find that if you're involved with an actress that you're having to tell a love story with, it's more difficult. I don't find it easy to draw on it. Your relationship, your feelings aren't the same as those of the characters. She's not that person. And you're not telling your own story. So I think you have to put all your own stuff aside completely and reconceive your relationship as other people. So I think it stands in the way, to be honest."
For Fever Pitch it's reported that Firth methodically coached himself to love, not his leading lady, but Arsenal - although rumours of his infatuation have been exaggerated: he hasn't been to Highbury once this season. Still, the film has provided Firth with his most autobiographical role yet. There's a key speech where the narrator Paul tries to explain to his girlfriend why football makes him feel less rootless. "That was what made the connection for me," says Firth, who, even more than Hornby, is not really from anywhere. "That was the thing that struck me most when I read the book." Paul finds it easier to be emotional in the company of a thousand strangers on Arsenal's North Bank than in bed with his girlfriend. That pathology is echoed in Firth, who is "aware of the ironies of being on stage and being able to cope with feeling extremely exposed, and then in some personal relationship or other not being able to."
Of his three new cinematic roles, it's hard to spot the weakest. Fever Pitch is a delightful detour into comedy, of which he'd like to do more ("I don't often get the funny lines, it's true." Why not? "No one's realised I can do comedy"). The English Patient, in which he plays an uncomplicated pilot johnnie cuckolded by Kristin Scott-Thomas, has surprised everyone in the States.
And just look at the cast of A Thousand Acres (yet another adaptation, this time of the novel by Jan Smiley, which loosely relocates the travails of King Lear to agrarian Iowa). The patriarch is Jason Robards; the three sisters are played by Jessica Lange, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jennifer Jason Leigh; and it's directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, who made Proof and How to Make an American Quilt. Firth's in the Edmund role, straying closer to Shakespeare than at any time since drama school. It also takes him deep into planet Hollywood for the first time. But Firth can't stand the home of stretch limos and Stalinist anti-smoking laws (he has a Marlboro habit and, after our interview, drives off in a C-reg Nissan Cherry Maxima for an evening with Hornby). So it would be consistent with his bizarre and fitfully brilliant career if he continued to make fatherhood his only reason for going to LA.
`Nostromo' (a four-part series) starts on 1 Feb, BBC2. `The English Patient' is released on 14 Mar. `Fever Pitch' is released on 4 April.
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