COLIN FIRTH: THE MAN IN THE WHITE SHIRT

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Colin Firth is outstanding. So why isn’t he at his best more often? We revisit Isabel Lloyd's profile in light of his performance in "The King's Speech" ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009

Everyone knows who Colin Firth is. He’s Mr Darcy. He’ll always be Mr Darcy, despite the gaggle of not-Firths who’ve attempted the part in the 15-odd years since Andrew Davies’s dripping adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice”. Darcy was Firth’s high-water mark. Those rigid sideburns and burning eyes, that vulnerable mouth trapped between the points of a Regency collar, propelled him out of a wet shirt and into the fantasies of a million women, into the kind of fame where your name becomes shorthand for wholesome lust-object. Only recently, Monty Don acknowledged that he was the “Colin Firth of gardening”.

It’s a phenomenon that Firth observes as if he was his own audience. “That thing,” he calls it, “that thing you’re describing is…preposterous. The screen, the high profile, all that has an unnatural effect. Men my age [he’s teetering on the edge of 50] don’t get giggled over by a girl of 21.” Well, no, mostly not. Still, when Firth came into the Intelligent Life office a few months ago, rings of excited female giggling rippled out across the floor. “What”, asked a male colleague afterwards, “was so funny?”

For a man so loved by women, Firth is good at being gay. In 1983, aged 22, he launched his career on stage with Guy Bennett, the flamboyantly out proto-traitor of “Another Country”. He’s been wittily gay in “Relative Values”, secretly gay in “Mamma Mia!”. And in September, he was named best actor at the Venice film festival for his performance in “A Single Man”, Tom Ford’s first detour from fashion into film directing. Adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novella, the film follows a day in the life of George, an English lecturer in early-Sixties California who is grief-stricken by the death of his lover, Jim. It’s the sort of part—intensely emotional, dealing with Issues—that Hollywood laps up, and there are murmurs of an Oscar nomination. Firth himself describes the role as “career Viagra”. But when I ask where that particular dose of medicine might lead, he says, “I can only imagine I will continue as I always have. I don’t see trajectories as being manageable. I don’t see career ladders as dependable.” It’s a strangely downbeat answer.

There have been times before when he seemed about to leap up the ladder, if not shoot straight off into the galaxy: after his Royal Television Society award for the Falklands drama “Tumbledown” in 1988; after being cast as Valmont in Milos Forman’s (sadly outgunned) version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” in 1989; after, of course, “Pride and Prejudice”. Yet every time Firth has got a toe on the top rung, he seems to pause and then slide down a passing snake. Did Mr Darcy have to be reduced to Bridget Jones’s self-parodying Mark Darcy? Did the yearning Vermeer of “Girl with a Pearl Earring” have to be followed by the gurning father in “Nanny McPhee”? Compared with his peers from the extended drama-school graduation that was “Another Country”—Kenneth Branagh, Rupert Everett, Daniel Day-Lewis—Firth has spent much of his career apparently on the run from his own talent. Why?

 

THE SECOND time I meet Colin Firth, it’s away from the office and the giggling. He’s doing promotion for “A Single Man” in the inevitable hotel room in central London, and is dressed for a long day of press duty: sludgy-grey long-sleeved T-shirt, dark jeans, heavy black-rimmed glasses that may be an actor’s affectation (halfway through the interview he whips them off, the better to make eye contact and press home a point). Again, he’s likeable company, quick-witted and entertaining; but he’s both more considered and more eager to please than before, when he sat back and enjoyed being the centre of the room.

We start with the film. How did Tom Ford, a fashion designer who in the past had only ever shot perfume ads, compare as a director with others Firth has worked with—Richard Eyre, say, or Michael Winterbottom?

He’s off straight away, leaning forward into the question, sincere and pleased. His face is jowlier, slacker than in his Darcy days, and his unruly schoolboy hair—the sort that mothers want to ruffle—is mousey shot with grey. But his body is still trim, tall, light-boned, with a near-sculptural ratio of shoulder to waist to hip. You can see why Ford liked him: an actor who looks so good in a white shirt, wet or dry, is a gift to a director best known for his tailoring.

“Tom does everything with incredible simplicity,” he says. “There’s a kind of economy in the way he works his magic. Everything is taken care of in an almost surgical way, which means you don’t have to worry about anything. He carves out this enormous space for you to work in.”

Did he have no concerns that with Ford adapting, funding and directing, the film was an oversized vanity project?

This isn’t a question expecting a straight answer, but it gets one. “Before I met him, yes. But when we did meet, Tom intrigued me. You can’t not be intrigued—for a start, he’s an extraordinarily beautiful man. And he has this way of staring at you, it’s not eyeing you up, exactly, it’s more…” He trails off. “I felt he was a man not to be underestimated.”

He has a point, up to a point. “A Single Man” is a beautiful film. Too beautiful to be true. In Isherwood’s original, George lives alone and uncared for in a shabby, ivy-smothered house over a falling-down bridge; there are ants in the jam and the doorways are too small for two people to pass through. In Ford’s version, the house is a polished arena of glass and dark wood, where every hand-towel is folded, every coffee cup has a matching saucer; George has a housekeeper who adores him, and a bathroom filled with carefully aligned grooming products. Throughout, the dinginess and failure of Isherwood’s mocking, loving original is transformed into an ad-land fantasia, full of pouty-perfect girls and pink-lipped, speedwell-eyed boys. Where in the original George lusts hopelessly after a gangling, gormless student, in Ford’s world this youth—and everyone else he comes into contact with, from female secretaries and bank clerks to James Dean-lookalike hustlers—fancies him rotten, instantaneously. This, you think, is what it’s like being Tom Ford, not what it was like being George.

That the film works at all is down to Firth. In one extraordinary scene, George receives a phone call telling him first that his lover has been killed in a car crash, and then that the family will not welcome him at the funeral. The camera holds Firth in close-up for the length of the phone call and beyond, feeding on every detail of his reaction—a sideways flickering of the eyes, a tiny tremble of the top lip, a catch in the pace and depth of his breath. As he puts down the receiver, you feel the shock, the loss and the rejection roll over you just as it all rolls over George; it’s almost unbearable. This is acting pyrotechnics, just the kind of skilled display that wins awards.

But there’s a greater, subtler achievement. Despite the gloss that Ford brushes over everything, despite the plodding plotlessness of the storytelling, Firth has still managed to capture the George that Isherwood created. Read the book, then watch the film, and the man is there: troubled, vain, lustful, battered, removed, wry, alone. Yes, there are one or two moments when Firth is almost outshone by his “Dressed by Tom Ford” suits—I kept getting distracted by his perfect cuff-buttons in the lecture-room scene—but a lesser actor would have been straitjacketed by them.

If there’s clearly a lot of Ford in the super-buff surfaces of the film, is there much of Firth in its depths? “I don’t know,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to deconstruct [my performance] that way. Also it would mean getting into territory where I would be talking about myself in ways that a) I wouldn’t know how to and b) I wouldn’t want to, even if I did know how. I only know there must be something of me in there because George does still resonate. It doesn’t often happen, but this one really haunted me.”

He’s been haunted before, in particular by Robert Lawrence, the real, young, terribly damaged Falklands veteran he played in “Tumbledown”. Lawrence—who had had a third of his brain shot away by a sniper—was on set throughout filming; in the past Firth has called him, with an artist’s practical callousness, “a goldmine, an articulate soldier who will talk”. But his rendering of the man was anything but callous, switching from brusque nah-yah poshness in the early days to thick-tongued, bloody and bolshie survivor. The scene where he recites a feverish, repetitive litany of the dead to his mother as blood leaks out of him over the hospital pillow is a small masterpiece of understanding; there’s not a dram of melodrama in it, though most actors would have been fatally tempted to play to the tear-ducts.

“That one really did hang around,” he says. “Constantly. I dreamt about him.” Has he followed the stories of other veterans, in other wars since? “Yes, but I’m not a member of organisations. It’s not an area that I think I’m of much help. My instinct, though, is there should be another film made, about Lawrence now. There is an interesting story about veterans 20 years on that should be told. And you’ve got the same actor, the same age as him. We’ve still got footage from 20 years ago. Goodness only knows what sort of post-modern trickery you could do…a weird reflexive film within a film idea…”

Firth has become very animated. His body language has changed, his gestures have expanded, and he’s smiling—not at me, but to himself, excited by the idea he has just had. You sense that Firth is in the thrall of ideas: during our conversation he quotes Martin Amis and Graham Greene, self-consciously but accurately, and he speaks like one who cares about words, rolling out full sentences with a subject, an object and, as often as not, a punchline.

Firth clearly enjoys making people laugh. Perhaps a little too much. He often uses jokes as a way of dodging proper answers, to stop you pinning him down. He’s good at sidesteps. In a past interview, he admitted that “the thought of my children losing me, of me dying, disturbs me greatly.” It was a touching moment, this admission that his children’s potential grief grieves him. But then he segued straight into: “Personally, I’m not afraid of dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. That’s Woody Allen.”

And when I ask him to describe how he approached a particular role, he smiles charmingly and says: “Actors always sound terrible when we talk about our work as if it’s something serious. We have to be very careful to be frivolous with our comments.”

 

LOOK UP Firth’s name in a casting director’s address-book, and you’d find it under “a” for Archetypal Englishman. He has played the comedy version (the cuckolded, tongue-tied writer in “Love Actually”), the villainous version (a Blackadderish lord in “Shakespeare in Love”) and the subtle, smarter-than-he-first-appears version—decent Clifton, the young buffer who’s actually a spy, in “The English Patient”. Yet in reality Firth doesn’t have much time for England.

Both his major relationships have been with women from other countries—first the Canadian actress Meg Tilly, with whom he has a son, and now his wife Livia Guggioli, an Italian documentary producer and mother of his two younger children. Although from seven onwards he lived in the suburbs of Winchester, the childhood memories he most often refers to in public are of Nigeria, where he lived until he was four. And he says now that he doesn’t feel “very planted” in England; though he has a home in west London, he lived with Livia in Italy for a couple of years and still spends as much time as possible there. It’s a country he clearly adores; he says it has “inundated me with gifts”.

His Englishness may actually be something of the colonial. Two of his grandparents were missionaries. His mother grew up in India and America, his father grew up in India, his sister was born in Nigeria and married an Indian. He says that the “typical Englishman” he portrays is “rather difficult to come across in reality. You’re not likely to run into Mr Darcy anywhere.” Firth is the sort of Englishman who exports an idea of Englishness to the rest of the world, and is never that happy once back at home. Misses the heat, you know, the smells, the chance to be something other.

There’s also the suburbs, the common denominator for Firth and his friend Nick Hornby. “I’m a secondary-modern-educated white suburban male,” he says. “So something really chimed with me when I read 'Fever Pitch'. Nick was the same generation and grew up in Maidenhead, which is exactly like where I grew up, and what really resonated was this idea that boys from the suburbs don’t have any roots. You step out of school and into a cultural void. There’s no music from your part of the world that makes you want to weep into your beer. There’s been no artistic revolution or sacrifice. One ends up casting around for credentials of some kind, claiming some sort of Celtic blood, yearning to be a Delta bluesman—or in Nick’s case, Charlie George [the 1970s footballer]. I may be English, but my sensibilities reside in Rome. I may be middle-class, but my granny comes from Brum. Anything just to give yourself a bit of substance.”

Perhaps “Another Country” gave Firth the substance he was looking for. After playing Bennett on stage, he switched to Judd, his polar opposite, in the film: puffy-haired, conker-eyed, Communist, curt. The only actor ever to look hot in a grey tank-top, he also nailed a certain kind of public schoolboy, the sort with a soft heart beneath the stiff(ish) upper lip. He’s not, by his own admission, remotely upper-class, but so much success, so young, at playing it must have been seductive. His CV since only appears to show one descent into the lower orders: a Nottinghamshire miner in D.H. Lawrence’s “The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd”. The BBC broadcast it at the same time as “Pride and Prejudice”; it might have played in a coal-hole for all the notice anyone took.

Whether by choice or accident, he kept getting cast in high-status roles. Some were more successful than others. His Valmont, which appeared in cinemas a year after John Malkovich’s sinuous version of the same character in “Dangerous Liaisons”, had the right louche self-regard, but lacked the fatal cruelty necessary to motor the plot. The mix of confusion, tenderness and horror in Valmont’s face as he falls precipitously in love with Meg Tilly’s Mme de Tourvel is utterly compelling; but his rape of 15-year-old Cecile is a mere pantomime of nastiness.

That might be because you can’t see his eyes. Firth uses his face like a version of the old showbiz command: “Eyes and teeth, darling! Eyes and teeth!” Except for him it’s “eyes and no teeth”. The biggest surprise on meeting him in the flesh is the rabbitiness of his overbite; once you’ve spotted it, though, you can see how he uses it. If he pulls his upper lip up to reveal the prominent upper teeth—the source of that slightly fruity lisp—he becomes a comical Englishman, a force no longer to be reckoned with. When he needs to be handsome, he keeps his top lip down and dips his chin slightly. His mouth then looks like it was drawn on a Marvel-era superhero: a flattened W with a tick underneath, visual shorthand for reliability, strength, inner torment. And above it are his eyes.

 

WOMEN OFTEN coo about the softness, the intensity of the Firth gaze. In reality, his eyes are greeny-hazel, much lighter than they appear on screen, where they often read as bumblebee brown. And this could be the core of his appeal. Contrary to the press clippings, the sexiest scene in “Pride and Prejudice” was not the clambering out of a pond in a wet shirt but the moment when Darcy first sees—really sees, as opposed to snobbishly dismissing—Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet. Watching her as she crosses a room, his eyes first widen, then go black with desire. This is surely because his pupils enlarged as he looked at her. When asked how to “act sexy”, he has said it was very simple: “You just look completely and totally at the other person.” What indeed is more attractive for most women than being the object of a man’s undivided attention?

And what most women can’t understand is why, when they were enjoying themselves so much, he didn’t go on doing it. Post-Darcy, Firth’s career has shown an almost wilful refusal to settle, zig-zagging around like a hen in a farmyard, taking a peck of thriller here, a peck of romcom there—and playing a whole passel of the cuckolded, the stiff and the sexually unsuccessful. He’s now almost as well-known for stuffed shirts as white shirts. Was that because he didn’t want to take on Darcy’s love-god mantle?

“Probably. But I didn’t go round thinking ‘I don’t want it’. I’ve been presented as someone who resented and resisted it, or was reluctant. It wasn’t like that. It was more that I thought maybe I needed not to pursue it. To try other things.”

This is his most incoherent moment; he’s struggling to name something. Because, I ask, “it” was overwhelming? Because it was boring?

The answer snaps straight back. “Because it was boring. There is nothing you can do with it.”

Well, perhaps he was right. He had, he has, the poten­tial to be an outstanding actor, a true star (his old drama teacher once said he could be “another Paul Scofield”). And you can see that a lively mind would quickly tire of tall, dark and handsome: as with Clive Owen, the danger is of getting a kind of repetitive smoulder injury, where all you end up being allowed to do is glower at beauties. But his fear of being trapped may have led him down a different cul-de-sac, one where he daren’t display his own ability too openly. How else—other than needing the money—do you explain “Mamma Mia!”, “The Accidental Husband”, even, saints preserve us, “St Trinian’s”? One and two.

Certainly he displays an odd ambivalence about his career. “I generally feel I’ve done work I’ve been proud of”, he says, “in films I’m not particularly proud of. Conversely, sometimes I feel I’ve been the weak link in something that was otherwise very good.” Could he give an example? “No—I don’t want to draw attention to either.” Is there nothing he’ll admit to being pleased with? “There are things; the further back in history, the less I feel that was me and the more I can be objective about it. ‘Tumbledown’. ‘A Month in the Country’.”  

This was Pat O’Connor’s 1987 film of a J.L. Carr novel about two first-world-war veterans finding the beginnings of redemption in the Yorkshire countryside, and it is something of a lost gem. Firth and an equally young Kenneth Branagh give performances of complex maturity in a spare piece that is as much about silence as the words that break it. In that respect, it resembles the script for “A Single Man”, which Firth says he found attractive precisely because it was “not about dialogue—there were a lot of empty spaces that the actor was going to have to fill”.

He’s also on record as approving of “Shakespeare in Love”. Is that because the script is so smart? “Well, no, I thought it was intellectually very robust, but my fear was that it was going to be a pantomime for clever clogs, that it didn’t have any heart. And of course it turned out to be the most wonderfully romantic film. But then I have an absolutely flawless capacity to get things wrong. It’s quite extraordinary. If you want to bet on the horses, or the US elections, before going to Ladbrokes, get me to call it and then bet the other way. It never fails.”

Perhaps that’s why he keeps doing comic turns in tragically bad films. Firth is perfectly acceptable as a light entertainer, though occasionally lazy: he’s not above substituting camp—an arched eyebrow, a moue, a clunking double-take—for comedy. But there’s no comparison with what he is capable of in serious roles. He seems quite happy doing the lesser stuff; in fact he seems to need it. When I ask if he’d mind if he was banned from ever doing another light comedy, he says: “Initially I’d be fine, I’d be pretty happy. But I think it would get to me in the end. My sanity probably depends on my being able to send myself up.”

Is he right? In career terms, sending himself up seems to have dragged him down. But work isn’t just about work. When he was 27 and cast as Valmont—at the time, the male equivalent of bagging Scarlett O’Hara—a good friend gave him some advice. “ ‘If it all kicks off,’ he said, ‘don’t lose your sense of the ridiculous, your sense of fun. Keep your sense of the absurd.’ It was a piece of advice that’s stuck with me.” He says he uses his family and friends as “balloon prickers”, a kind of absurdity police who pop his ego whenever it’s in danger of overinflating. “They could ease up a bit, actually,” he says.

Joke, joke. It’s another of those sidesteps. But when you watch “A Single Man”, or remember Robert Lawrence, you can’t help wishing Colin Firth would take himself more seriously, more often.

"A Single Man" opens in America on December 11th, and in Britain on February 12th

 

(Isabel Lloyd is the assistant editor of Intelligent Life and a former features editor of the Independent. She used to be an actress in Alan Ayckbourn's company.)