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People In Film | Colin Firth

Colin Firth | A Natural Spy

In Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY, Colin Firth plays Bill Haydon, a dapper and amiable British intelligence chief who is at once an icon and an enigma. Firth describes how his character is “very much looked up to by some of the younger members of the organization, with hero worship. They’re subscribing to his self-image; dashing, with a kind of glamour and rather cavalier – for example, he’s the one who rides his bicycle into the office and through the typewriter pool.” Of course, there’s also lots of hero worship directed at Firth himself, having received the Best Actor Oscar for THE KING'S SPEECH the year before. And there was hero worship from him to the others involved in the film. As he told Den of Geek, “when I heard it was Tomas Alfredson, and then I heard it was, like, John Hurt, and Gary [Oldman], it was absolutely irresistible.” And while Firth is not really like his character, he has suggested in an video interview with The Guardian that actors have a “capacity for duplicity [that] would be quite useful in the job.” Indeed Firth, who has gone from being a psycho to a spy, a dashing Darcy to a stuttering George VI, has demonstrated beautifully his talent for creative duplicity. But even more his role in TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY shows how comfortable and natural he is with the characters he embodies.  As The Playlist’s Oliver Lyttelton notes, Firth “has the most fun of anyone as the flamboyant, witty Haydon.”

Colin Firth | Growing Up as an Outsider

Colin Firth in 1979 at Barton Peveril College and in 1984.

While Colin Firth has come to represent the quintessential English spirit, having played both kings and common men, his childhood was spent around the world. Born on September 10, 1960 in Grayshott, Hampshire in Southern England, Firth found his early identity formed by living outside of the UK. Firth’s parents were teachers who took assignments internationally. Indeed, soon after his birth, Firth’s family moved to Nigeria, where he spent his early childhood. Later he moved to spend a year in St. Louis, Missouri, a period that confirmed his sense of being an outsider, especially after he returned to England. Firth explained to The Washington Post, “I am an outsider. I have always been….When I was in school in America, I was the Englishman, and then I came back and I was nicknamed the Yank.” But in drama Firth found a place where his sense of difference was not only accepted, but commended. He told The Sun, "I started acting at five years old, school pantomime, I was Jack Frost – that's when I got the bug.” And he continued in theater from then on. As he told The Observer, “School plays [were] always something where I was definitely praised and in demand; that wasn't true of most aspects of school life for me.”  So determined was Firth that at 14 he’d proclaimed that he was going to be an actor.

Colin Firth | Becoming an Actor

Colin Firth in ANOTHER COUNTRY.

After a stint at the National Youth Theatre, Firth entered the London Drama Centre, intent on learning his craft. Firth was eventually chosen to replace Daniel Day-Lewis in the West End play “Another Country.” His performance proved so good that the producers decided to cast him (not as Guy Bennett – that part went to Rupert Everett, who originated the part on stage—but as his foil) in the 1984 film adaptation. After working on several films, he turned his talents to television, taking the lead in the critically acclaimed BBC mini-series “Lost Empires,” about England after World War I. Through the 80s and early 90s, Firth distinguished himself by his sheer range of characters. He could go from being a sedate war-weary soldier who restores a church in A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY to a frantic movie-obsessed psychotic in APARTMENT ZERO to the real-life figure John McCarthy, the British journalist taken by Islamic Jihadists, in the HBO drama HOSTAGES. But in 1995, Firth was sent the script that would in many ways define his career and public persona. Offered the part of Darcy in the BBC production of Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice,” Firth, as he later recounted, hesitated: “I really didn't want to take part in a 'classic serial' type of costume drama….Purely because my memories of them were all from the seventies….All rather formal, rather stiff, and with stilted scripts.” In the end, Andrew Davies' page-turning script convinced Firth this was something different. But few predicted how the character who Firth feared might be “formal, rather stiff” would turn the actor into a romantic icon. The 1995 TV version of “Pride and Prejudice” turned out to be not only a hit, both in England and the US, but also flamed a phenomena that would be dubbed Darcymania. Firth told Now Magazine, “I didn’t actually look upon Mr Darcy as a romantic role—I took it on as a rather idiosyncratic character role…. The effect it had came as a complete bolt from the blue.”

Colin Firth | More than Mr. Darcy

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” and as Mark Darcy in BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY

While Darcy established his heartthrob status, Firth never indulged the stereotype. Throughout the 90s, Firth took parts that seemed to fly in the face of the Darcy mold. In the Oscar-winning THE ENGLISH PATIENT, he suffers as a Kristin Scott-Thomas’ betrayed husband, and then rises up as the football lover in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s FEVER PITCH. As the conniving Lord Wessex in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, he appeared more dastardly than Darcy-esque. In other work, like Oliver Parker’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, a romp that paired him again with Rupert Everett, Firth proved, according to Newsweek’s David Ansen, that his “comic timing is subtle and seductive”. But despite his best efforts to shuffle off the coil of romantic lead, the role of Darcy beckoned him, although in a different guise. When it came to casting Mark Darcy, the quiet hero in the film adaptation of Helen Fielding’s bestseller BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY –– a figure that shares more than just a name with Austen’s hero –– the filmmakers went straight to Firth. Indeed the Firth/Darcy connection becomes almost postmodern. As the film was rolling out in cinemas, fans were reading in Helen Fielding’s 1999 sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason how the book’s heroine interviews Colin Firth, whom she’s had a crush on since having seen him in “Pride and Prejudice.” When Firth then signed on to make the 2004 film sequel BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON, the screenwriters had to omit that interview.

Colin Firth | Finding his Voice

Colin Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH

While Firth received critical attention, and much female adulation, his career recently has risen to a new level. Of course, in lighter fare, like LOVE ACTUALLY, MAMMA MIA, and EASY VIRTUE, Firth has skillfully showcased those qualities that people loved in him as Darcy. But filmmakers knew there was much more to him. When fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford looked for someone to play the lead in his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s A SINGLE MAN, he turned to Firth. Ford explained to the New York Times, “Some actors fake things, but with him, whatever it is—the expression in his eyes, the subtle movement of his face—communicates what the character is feeling. He’s perfect because the character is so much about restraint, about holding yourself together on the surface.” Entertainment Weekly’s reviewer Owen Gleiberman highlighted what Ford saw when he wrote, “Colin Firth is an intensely likable actor, but in every movie I've ever seen him in he is always…Colin Firth: witty, diffident, with that resignation hanging over his every grin and grimace. In A SINGLE MAN, though, I felt as if I were seeing him for the first time.” This new take led Firth to being nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.  A year later, director Tom Hooper saw the same emotional depth in Firth when he was casting THE KING’S SPEECH. While Firth was wrong physically to play King George VI, there was an emotional connection, a deep-seated sense of humanity. As Hooper points out, “It's no surprise Colin isn't cast as a testosterone-fueled action hero. He doesn't get cast as the bad guy. It's not in his DNA.” In his review for The Wall Street Journal, Joe Morgenstern saw this too, saying, “what Mr. Firth makes of his role is sheer magic. Fear, forlorn hopelessness, self-irony, self-loathing, towering anger, unyielding courage, he plays it all with Shakespearean fullness and Chekhovian tact, and all by way of revealing the memorable presence of a good man.” With such praise, the fact Firth would win the Oscar for Best Actor seemed all but obvious.

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