theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Colin Firth | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Colin Firth
theartsdesk Q&A: Actor Colin Firth
The best interview ever with the Oscar-winner as he talks about what made him an actor
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, shot out of the blocks. Firth was the only actor to play both lead parts, one onstage, the other on film (1984), but he took the slower road to outright stardom and only now is he clearly the bigger cheese than Rupert Everett, Kenneth Branagh and possibly even Daniel Day-Lewis. For years as a young actor he laboured somewhat in their shadow. He was in a film adaptation of Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangéreuses, but not the one which cleaned up at the box office. He spent a lot of time in Los Angeles but not for professional reasons; his son by Meg Tilly was growing up there.
Then in 1995 his 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 the long shadow cast by Mr Darcy. Notwithstanding his presence in hugely popular hits like Shakespeare in Love, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually and Mamma Mia!, he has only finally escaped it with these two films. Whether one, or indeed Firth himself, sets any store by these things, the roles of a bereaved American homosexual and a tongue-tied English monarch have won him two consecutive Baftas. The King's Speech has also earned him a Golden Globe. It's more or less the same trajectory Helen Mirren took for playing Firth's character's daughter in The Queen. And now the Oscar is his too.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 trimming. By several thousand words. I helped with the cutting. Of the several times I have interviewed him subsequently, it has always struck me how, unlike the majority of actors, he talks in carefully fashioned paragraphs about the business of being an actor, of being Colin Firth. To mark the moment his career peaked, theartsdesk publishes a conflation of those several conversations, held over a number of years.
JASPER REES: Is it fair to say that on the whole you play withdrawn people? There's not much throwing your arms around.
COLIN FIRTH: Another Country was a pretty demonstrative character. In fact, because that character was so demonstrative and ebullient I felt that if anything I was going to get typecast that way. Because I played the character in the film who's a much more contained person it went that way instead. I think that's the only one really.
Another Country launched several careers at once, but yours seemed to lag behind the others out in the fast lane. They got further faster. 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 it and cherish it at the same time.
Watch a clip from Another Country
It did seem somehow typical that Valmont was beaten to the tape by Dangerous Liaisons.
I don't know whether it's possible that one can engineer that out of a fear of success. That you somehow find yourself gravitating towards things that are doomed, or whether you sabotage moments of potential success.
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. You do the things that interest you and then other people, when they look for you, they're looking for that possibly. No, 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.
And come to a resolution.
Not necessarily. Just to explore it really. I don't really know if I believe particularly in resolutions. I do believe in looking for them. It fascinates me to deal with it. A lot of the stuff I've done I feel that there hasn't been any healing for the character in the end.
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.
If he's having a row, I could have chosen to make that frightfully easy for Mr Darcy - thrown off debonair remarks and not really given a shit
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 can I make this person? It's more to do with how high can I 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." The actor has got an awful lot of freedom to do it 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. You constantly see performances where you just don't believe that that means that much to that person. You've got a choice where you can scream and cry about it or you can be very stoical about it. Not always but very often you've got a lot of scope. I tend to believe that even if your performance is not demonstrative that you can convey the difference. 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: if you choose to give yourself an obstacle, 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, I think. I was actually trying to deal with contradictory impulses.
'You must allow me to express how ardently I admire and love you': Mr Darcy declares himself
The speech where 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. That 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. It was very odd actually. We rehearsed it the day before, we gave it unusual attention. We did a rehearsal of it, what's laughingly called a rehearsal in films, just a walk-through for the camera, the director gave me some technical notes, and we thought we might as well try one, because it was basically shot in one, like a bit of theatre. There was hers and mine, but each of our reverses was shot in one. And it just seemed to click. It was only two takes. We did that and another version of it. I think I only did it twice.
One of the by-products of that performance was that you yourself were interviewed as a character in Bridget Jones’s Diary and her character fell in love with someone called Darcy. How did that come about?
Helen [Fielding] came to visit Fever Pitch, the set, and actually it’s all in the book. I had started to read it. I didn’t get The Independent. I’d seen it out of the corner of my eye. The Darcy factor. Just to have a look. I told her I liked the… I didn’t even know what to call it... diary, column. I tell you what was interesting. She behaved in a perfectly serene and composed way, because she’s Helen Fielding, she’s not Bridget Jones. But I felt a little bit shy and clumsy and embarrassed and felt I was the one making the faux pas and saying the wrong things. She then wrote up a Bridget Jones version of the visit to the set, which is very funny, didn’t echo my recollection of what happened, although Nick [Hornby] said it was very close to what had happened. She wrote a thing about having followed me inadvertently everywhere around the set until eventually I said, “I am going to have to go on alone from here because it’s the men’s toilet.” I don’t remember that. Nick says it’s true. So she then wrote it up. Where Bridget Jones gets an interview in Rome - that all happened. We did stage all that. We basically had lunch as Colin and Helen and then she stuck the tape recorder on and went into Bridget and I did Mr Darcy, a rather serious actor who just wants to get on with the interview. And it was very funny.
'It was particularly brilliant when you came out of the water and everything': the same interview is re-enacted with Renée Zellweger
Did Pride and Prejudice change your life?
It might have done. 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. What it coincided with was there were other things going on in my life at the time. I had met someone that 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 at that time 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 that hasn’t had it happen. I was someone who wouldn’t have taken it seriously as a threat until it actually happened. 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 peaking 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 it’s probably the only thing. But it’s basically mostly gone away.
It’s very simple. To be attracting that kind of attention on a regular basis you have to be doing things which are extremely newsworthy to a mass popular audience.
Did you choose work based on a fear of maintaining that kind of profile?
Possibly but I think that was going on before that as well.
In the film version of Hornby’s book Fever Pitch, your character makes a speech in which he says he doesn't come from anywhere. You moved about a lot as a child.
That was the thing that struck me most when I read the book. I was abroad when I read it and I'd have to paraphrase but he said something to the effect that a middle-class suburban male when he steps into a comprehensive school steps into a cultural void. We don't even have the old cricketing and empire values, not that one should cherish those, I don't think. We also have the things to weep into our beer about; where we came from, we don't have the songs that make us cry, we don't have that sense of pride in our identity, and so we go around trying to invent it, wishing we were a Delta bluesman or Charlie George or someone.
That chimes in 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 credibility.
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 down the line, secondary mod, so I felt a little bit of an outsider.
I devoted a lot of my childhood to reading. I read The Iliad and The Odyssey when I was about 14
Were you basically a toff dumped among yobs?
It is reductive but it's true really. I spoke with a regional Hampshire dialect. I spoke with 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 a bit hard to say. I'd rather believe it's because I didn't want to. I was a passive resister really. I just resented the expectations that were put on me by people I despised really, the teachers.
Did your parents expect you to go to university?
They were disappointed and alarmed. I kept hanging in by the skin of my teeth. I stayed until I was 18. I did A levels. I got conditional offers from various universities. I just hung in. I could have gone if I'd stayed back to retake one exam, for instance, just to up the grade a little bit. So I did very, very little work, and I would tend to have one or two teachers who had faith in me.
'I like coming here': Colin Firth accepts his Bafta for The King's Speech
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. I don't know whether it's the simple fact that most people would assume that once you've got a script you're all right. There's a funny syndrome where one can be intimate with a large number of anonymous people and you actually can't with one person. I've felt aware of that, I've felt aware of the ironies of that, of being onstage and being able to cope with feeling extremely exposed and then in some personal relationship or other not being able to.
Have journalists picked up and run with the ball of your teenage alienation and misery?
Yeah, I think they have. I’ve thought about this. You will get asked questions which tend to focus in on possibly… there’s more storytelling to be had out of the unhappy points in one’s childhood. 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 really think that operates on so many levels now, not just when people go into therapy but also for people who want to understand anything about anybody: they want to know where all the wounds lie. And I increasingly recently realise that I don’t think all the explanations lie in unhappy things. Some of the explanations are not to be found at all. You are just as likely to be formed by the positive things, the peaceful things. I definitely, definitely have been affected by moving about, largely positively I think now. It’s not 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.
It might be too pat to say that one led to the other. I think there is a multitude of reasons for everything, but I do think that it played a part in it. It made me curious as a child. I was exposed to new things and very, very different things. It’s not just the travelling I did. It’s the fact that my parents were both born in India. India still features very largely in the family. It’s very important in the family. There have been Indian people in the house ever since I can remember, and Nigerian people as well. People from other countries were always around and I had absolutely no stomach for racism at any time in my childhood. Funnily enough, looking back I wonder if sometimes I’m not that proud of how much of a chameleon I was. I sometimes wish I could have dug my heels in and been myself a bit more.
I’d read a novel which made me yearn to have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge, preferably in the Twenties
Do you wish you'd gone to university?
I’ve certainly been through all that. For quite a while I felt there was something missing.
Have you become an autodidact?
Yeah. I’m very conscious of how undisciplined it is, but I quite like that as well. A close friend of mine, who is very much an autodidact as well who didn’t do the university thing but did free reading, decided later in life to do an undergraduate course in English and American studies. Because he hadn’t done a great deal in his time he read and ended up being one of the most widely read people I’ve ever met and actually found that university stultified that a bit. Somewhere within what I think I would always declare has been my contempt for that has been a sneaking envy that I want to be able to do the talk. It’s not just that. I think I romanticised great seats of learning, that I wander round Oxford and look behind these stone walls and think of GE Moore in a leather armchair and wisdom. I’d read a novel years ago which made me yearn to have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge, preferably in the Twenties, and I went through this phase of wanting to be a part of that. 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.
Watch a clip from Tumbledown
My father is very helpful on this, because he has spent his life on academia. Because I have tended to go with such gusto and enthusiasm into the world of what I happen to be doing, particularly if it is something I don’t know well, I had just come back from Argentina and I find Argentina fascinating. I had read a lot about it beforehand. I had also just done Tumbledown and we weren’t that far on from the Falklands and I started reading Argentinian literature and by the time I got there I knew quite a bit about the place and I was able to walk the streets and recognise streets from novels I’d read. It became quite a big fascination. I remember coming back and talking to my dad and saying, “If my life continues like that, there is really no point in throwing that away in order to go and do a BA somewhere.”
Instead of reading the set texts you were in them.
Well, yeah. In a way, who needs to write essays about it if you can put the costume on and act it out? I had never read Jane Austen until I did Pride and Prejudice and then I read the lot. You can inhabit it. It’s an enormous privilege which normally if you want to enter into that sort of material you would have to go and do a course on it. It’s very odd how what you do and what is presented of your work is so disproportionate. Actors constantly say this actually. Performers often hear about perceptions of comebacks or disappearances when the person themselves hasn’t gone anywhere. By the same token, because Darcy looms so large in people’s perceptions of me, it’s a big part of who I am and what I’ve done. From where I stand it was a five-month job with a lot of holidays. I showed up and stood up at the back of a room and then I’d go away for two weeks and come back and do a scene. I’ve had to live with it as well in terms of the result, but I have to remind myself sometimes that it was still just one job.
One more time for the road, watch the trailer for The King's Speech
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