Colin Firth turned 26 during the making of A Month in the Country. It was his third theatrical film, and the first in which he headed the cast.
The son of academic parents, Mr. Firth had been more interested in music, writing, and theatre than scholastic achievement, and he sidestepped university to attend London’s Drama Centre. Before finishing the course he was hired to take over the starring role of Bennett in the hit West End play Another Country. Two months later he landed the opposing role, of Judd (coincidentally played on stage by Kenneth Branagh), in the film version. His career before the cameras was launched.
When he reported to work on A Month in the Country Mr. Firth had only just recuperated from carrying the lead role in a seven-part Masterpiece Theatre television miniseries. “Lost Empires took a solid year to film,” said Mr. Firth. “Not on and off — more like, on and on. I’d never toured in a repertory company, so making this was a little like rep for me — and also a little like a life sentence.” A major difficulty lay in his role, the naïve and callow Richard. “Playing Hamlet was easier,” Mr. Firth said. “With Hamlet there are all sorts of opportunities to be funny, exciting, dramatic. But Richard is the narrator, the observer. He’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland. You can’t make her exciting, either.” Playing a meatless character for months on end left him bored and restless, even wondering if he wanted to remain an actor.
If his enthusiasm was flickering, his work on A Month in the Country caught and rekindled it. [Read more ...] Birkin was the first of a series of more complex parts which would move Mr. Firth decisively away from the “wet, sensitive, naïve” romantic roles he’d been chafing in.
By the time A Month in the Country premiered at Cannes in May 1987, Mr. Firth was onstage in London, earning excellent notices as a young American cuckolding his father in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms. Soon afterward he was starring in Tumbledown, a BBC television drama based on the memoirs of a Scots Guards’ officer who lost 40% of his brain to a sniper bullet in the Falklands. (Mr. Firth had been offered the part after Kenneth Branagh was vetoed by the subject as not “upper class” enough; ironically, while neither attended public schools, Mr. Branagh was a grammar school boy while Mr. Firth’s education had been entirely state.) Tumbledown was an unsparing look at the viciousness of war and the later abandonment of the wounded by the government; it provoked enormous political controversy in Britain. Mr. Firth’s gripping portrayal of arrogant, angry, often unsympathetic Robert Lawrence won him the Royal Television Society award as Best Actor, and was nominated for a BAFTA.
The story of Mr. Firth in the late ’80s and early ’90s is one of almost continuous work. “There’s some pressure on me these days to make out I’m more interesting than I really am,” he joked. “People keep asking me what my interests are and I feel I should say collecting stamps or train spotting. Anything. But it’s my work that swallows me up. That’s my interest.” He once decided to take a short break to visit his sister in California; while there he couldn’t resist jumping into a television version of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story. Shuttling between lead roles in films, on television, and on the stage, he won a reputation as a versatile and talented character actor who happened also to be blessed with the looks of a leading man.
In 1994 Mr. Firth accepted the role which more than any other would define him in the public eye: Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. When the BBC miniseries aired over six consecutive weeks in the fall of 1995, Britain went mad. Mr. Firth’s Darcy became an instant cultural icon. The press dubbed the hysteria “Darcymania” — and suddenly Mr. Firth was a national sex symbol. As his former acting teacher observed, “There was hardly a woman in England who wouldn’t crawl on her knees to Moscow for a touch of his nether lip.” Mr. Firth responded to the tsunami of attention with wary politeness and quizzical humor. Declining invitations to appear on chat shows, he went on working.
But in the end it would be a variation on the same role that propelled Mr. Firth to international fame. In 2001 he good-naturedly agreed to appear in Bridget Jones’s Diary, a romantic comedy based on Helen Fielding’s comic novel about a woman obsessed with his Darcy. Mr. Firth played Mark Darcy, a 20th century update of the character: proud, taciturn, and noble. The film was a smash hit, women swooned, and suddenly audiences around the world who had never read a word of Jane Austen were aware of Colin Firth. A journalist at the Chicago Tribune reported that Colin Fever had taken over “the female ranks of the Tribune, a certain percentage of which has become so besotted that it’s a miracle the paper gets out every day.” In 2002 the Los Angeles Times noted that fans were following a Firth press junket across the country like rock groupies. In 2004, when Mr. Firth appeared on the Today show in New York City, a shrieking crowd of women outside the building held up signs: “COLIN, WE LIKE YOU JUST AS YOU ARE,” a reference to one of his lines in the movie.
Once again Mr. Firth rode out the tidal wave with wry detachment. “You get to a certain age,” he said with a smile, “when to be described as sex-anything is something to be grateful for.” Though more at ease with celebrity, he continued to duck type-casting and to search out scripts with complexity that interested him, turning in immaculate performances as a Nazi in Conspiracy; as Vermeer in the luminous Girl With A Pearl Earring; as a disoriented widower in the mental thriller Trauma; as a psychopathic entertainer in Where the Truth Lies; and as a depressed and confused middle-aged hedge fund manager in the improvisational television drama Born Equal.
Mr. Firth is married and has three sons. He lives in London. In his free time he is a steady advocate for human rights and social justice. He has used his celebrity on behalf of poor nations, political refugees, and tribal peoples under threat of displacement. In 2006 he was named Campaigner of the Year in Europe for his efforts lobbying behind the scenes for Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign. An Oxfam spokesman said, “He has never sought the limelight for himself but has been one of the most hardworking and informed Ambassadors we have ever worked with.”
In 2008 Mr. Firth became the celebrity underwriter and spokesman for Ecò-Age, a “green” shop opened by his wife and brother-in-law in Chiswick. Even as he promoted the store, Mr. Firth made it clear that while his environmental intentions were the best, he himself hoped to improve rather than preach. At the Sundance Film Festival he pointed out gently, “How do you think I got here? It wasn’t on a camel.”