Radio interview 7 May 2001
National Public Radio's Fresh Air Program.
Host: Terry Gross.
My guest, ColinFirth, is now starring opposite Renée Zellweger in the film Bridget Jones's Diary. Author Helen Fielding wanted him for the part. In her novel, which the film is based on, Bridget develops a crush on Firth as she watches him star in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in the role of Mr. Darcy.
Firth's character in Bridget Jones - Mark Darcy - is an homage to Firth's performance in Pride and Prejudice.
Pride and Prejudice made Firth an unlikely heartthrob in England, and in parts of America as well, when the adaptation was shown on A&E.
Firth also co-starred in The English Patient as the spurned husband and in Shakespeare in Love as the unwanted fiance Lord Wessex. He starred as an obsessed soccer fan in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel Fever Pitch.
Let's start with a scene from Bridget Jones's Diary. Bridget has overheard Mark Darcy making sarcastic comments about her, and it's played on her insecurities and made her angry.
(Snippet from the I-like-you-just-as-you-are scene.)
Q(Terry Gross): Colin Firth, welcome to Fresh Air!
Colin: I suppose I did it in the spirit of "if you can't beat them join them!" I wasn't strenuously trying to put it behind me.... I think this impression has been created to some extent and - you know - I found that the Darcy tag didn't really touch me unless I was speaking to a journalist. So, it really wasn't something that was disturbing me. If there was any curse on it at all, I felt somehow instinctively that doing this other thing called Mr. Darcy.... I don't know.... has some bizarre negative psychology attached to it, but I felt it might take that curse off. In fact, it's been very interesting seeing my name - my actual name - being used in articles now rather than the Darcy name. So I think at the moment, to some extent, it seems to have worked.
Q: What was your reaction when the diary of Bridget Jones was published, knowing that the character in the book had a crush on you?
Colin: Well, you can't not be enormously flattered to start with. To have made it into fiction - into popular fiction - feels like quite an achievement. In fact, it's one of the biggest accolades I think modern society can accord you is, that you have now become part of the general canon of popular reference points. It was delightful! It didn't happen suddenly because this thing had been growing as a diary column for some time, but I was absolutely thrilled; I felt immortalized!
Q: Pride and Prejudice is set in an earlier century: your language and attire are more formal. I'm going to ask you to compare your acting style in each film, you know, like a literary adaptation versus a contemporary comedy. But first, let's hear a scene from Pride and Prejudice. In this scene you first confess your love to the character of Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle.
(Snippet from Pride and Prejudice: the first proposal.)
Let me ask you to compare your approach to contemporary romantic comedy, Bridget Jones, and dramatic literary adaptation Pride and Prejudice. You can talk about your physical carriage, your accent, the speed you speak at. I mean, the speech is so much more formal in Pride and Prejudice.
Colin: It is. I think one just somehow instinctively adapts to the requirements. You can't say "Can I have a light?" in a formal Victorian way. You can't say "Let me... allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you" very easily in a kind of Bronx accent or a Cockney accent of the year 2001. So I think, as an actor, it's essential that you are sensitive to language, that the language actually informs the rest of it. I think that ... I certainly find that this is my starting point: my walk can change because of the way I speak. And the way I speak will be informed by the rhythms on the page. So it's a process which happens, without much calculation.
I think the Bridget Jones-Pride and Prejudice case is quite a singular one, because... Mark Darcy is in fact very much a fugitive from another century. I mean, this is part of his problem. Mr. Darcy is very much a man of his time. He's isolated by other factors. But Mark Darcy is not typical... is not certainly typical of the Englishmen his age that I know. I think that he comes from a rather archaic family and I think he's someone whose personality is... crippling him in some way.
Q: I'm wondering how the clothes affect you? In Pride and Prejudice you were wearing frilled, high-collared shirts and in Bridget Jones - the first scene that you appear in - your mother just gave you a really silly sweater with a large moose head on it, so you know...
Colin: Yes, they affect you enormously. Um, I had a bit more of a challenge - obviously - with Mark Darcy because I had to put on a ridiculous sweater and pretend that I was standing in a frilly shirt and a frock coat. So I couldn't allow that costume to dictate the way I was holding myself. I had to play against the clothes in that case and therein lay the comic act.
Q: A question about your most famous scene from Pride and Prejudice: the famous pond scene. At the end of the story you take off your jacket, and with your shirt and pants on, you dive into a pond. Although it sounds pretty inhibited to dive in with shirt and pants, for your character it's a sign of feeling more liberated and expressive.
Q:When you walk out of the pond with your wet clothes clinging to you, you became a heartthrob. Did you understand that?
Colin: ... not really. It was so... That happened as a series of haphazard decisions. It was almost an accident really, that led to the whole wet shirt business and I think - probably - if anyone had connived at a phenomenon like that, they would have failed miserably. There was... if I remember it... the original script had it down that Darcy dives in completely naked, and - you know - I suppose he might well have done that: he's on his own property and it's a hot day. But the BBC didn't consider that acceptable. Then there was some talk of underwear. Then we heard that nobody wore underwear (laughs) in those days! Then I think there was an attempt to create underwear, the kind of "if they had worn underwear, would they have looked like this?" I went to be fitted with those and there was no way on earth... I can tell you now, had I worn those, there would have been no heartthrob.
Q: What was this underwear looking like?
Colin: They were kind of knee britches. I think they were cotton or silk. They looked like sailor's pants or something from pirate. I can't remember very well, but they came down just below the knee.
Q: Pantaloony kind of things?
Colin: Yeah... not flattering! So in the end I thought, "well, what's second most spontaneous to taking all your clothes off and diving into a pond? I suppose not taking any of them off, really. Maybe just jump in?" which is basically how I tried to play it. The jacket comes off... and the vest comes off while he just sort of sits there and... you know... thinks for a minute and then: in he goes! In no way did anybody think that that was going to... become a... famously remembered image.
Q: Did it affect your career in a positive... way?
Colin: I don't know. I really don't know. It's so hard to quantify these things. I think it must've done. I think that everything you do takes you in one direction or another, and I can't see that it would've been negative.
I've always - as an actor - had an inclination towards playing unhappy people, people who might be considered society's losers and people who are unattractive. I tend to find that work as an actor far more interesting. Playing Mr. Darcy kind of took me a little bit further away from that, and I think there was a slight misreading of what kind of actor I was as a result of that. I think there was a feeling that this meant that perhaps I really was a romantic leading man when I'm not actually! I'm a character actor. I think that's been confused because of this fairly neutral appearance that I have.
It was interpreted as a leading man performance and it wasn't. Mr. Darcy was absolutely a piece of character work.
Q: In two of your romantic comedies, you were in fight scenes. In Shakespeare in Love you're the man Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to marry, but doesn't want to, and you duel with the man she's really in love with. In Bridget Jones you have a fistfight with Hugh Grant who's your romantic rival for Bridget's affections. What's the difference, do you think, between fighting in a comedy and fighting in a drama?
Colin: Usually drama is considered in some ways a more difficult form - is considered the more serious form. Drama - you have to be disciplined for it. You put all your intensity behind it. You think kill', you think whatever. In fact these things may be things you have to work for; are not that easily attained, but certainly not that complicated. I think with comedy they are because you've got to find an absurdity somewhere in it without looking as if you're trying to be funny. I think, the minute any comic actor looks as if they're asking for a laugh, they won't get one. I think that Hugh and I both had a very strong natural sense of the absurd. I think it was our own, hopefully, our own self-mockery that produced that fight. We didn't work very hard on it. We just thought how (laughing) would we fight? It's embarrassing to admit it but that's probably exactly how Hugh Grant and I would fight if it came to that.
Q: Let me ask you about your coming of age. I know your parents were both academics. Were they college teachers?
Colin: Yes, they're still doing it now. They endlessly study and teach various courses. They're just relentlessly curious people.
Q: And your grandparents were missionaries in India, I believe?
Colin: That's right! Yeah.
Q: What denomination were they?
Colin: Well, again, I think that has changed through the years. My mother's parents were both Congregationalist ministers. That's my grandmother as well; she was ordained in the 1930s when it was not that conventional in any church. My father's father in the end was an Anglican minister. He... they both... well, all three of them I should say, belonged to the Church of South India for a while. My maternal grandfather rebelled against the Church of South India over certain things and I think that's when he went Congregationalist. He became a doctor, in fact. He went out there as a church missionary (this is my maternal grandfather) and at the age of 38 he decided that he would be of better use in that country as a doctor, so he decided to get medical training. The only country in the world that would train a man of that age was the United States. So he took his family to the United States and went through medical school in Iowa for seven years, and then went back to India and set up practice there in osteopathic medicine.
Q: Did your parents practice religion and did you grow up in a religious household?
Colin: Yes, I think the word religion was always treated with a little bit of caution in my household. The short answer is definitely yes. My mother's interest has always been very much in alternative comparative religions. She's very pantheistic. She has a lot of mystical interests. And the subject of her fairly recent Ph.D. was death and bereavement in a Gujarati community in Southampton for which she learned Hindi. She takes enormous interest in a large variety of religions and tends to see merit in all of them. My father keeps it much more close to his chest: I think it's something very personal to him.
Q: One more thing about religion. When you were growing up, did you find this kind of cross-cultural exposure to religion interesting or too kooky for you?
Colin: No, I found it fascinating. It was there from the start. It was never kooky to me. In fact, I found it much more difficult to adapt I think to a school environment where I was listening to prejudices against those sorts of things. My first four years of my life were in Nigeria& "not that one remembers a lot about the first four years of one's life& "but it did make an impression on me not least because people we'd known there continued to be in our lives as visitors. There were constantly people from India (both my parents were born and raised in India) and so there was an immense cultural diversity under my own roof throughout my entire upbringing, and I consider that to be absolutely nothing but a privilege! And so, to me I supposed it was the norm and so I found any kind of racists remarks or any kind of religious prejudices among my own peers very, very difficult to take.
Q: What brought your parents to Nigeria?
Colin: My father was teaching. It was just curiosity. He took an overseas teaching post in his job as a history teacher, I think, in what was an equivalent of a high school.
Q: And where else did you live while you were growing up?
Colin: Ah... well... mostly around England after that. We came back and we traveled around the English provinces. My father took a job at another school (a high school level) for three or four years and then at a college, so that led to a couple - two or three - moves I think. Then we were a year in the United States, in St. Louis. I was in junior high. Then back to England, so most of my upbringing has taken place in England.
Q: Junior high is a tough time to change environments because I think most junior high school students have so many hormones raging out of control that they don't know what they're doing, and often do really inappropriate things. It's a tough period. Was it a tough time for you?
Colin: I'd been bumped up a year because the English start school a year earlier than the Americans. We go into first grade (the equivalent of first grade) when Americans go into kindergarten. So the reasoning was that I should be put in a class of kids a year older than me. It was a bit of a shock attached to that, because I was an elementary (what we call a primary) school boy, and I found the kids around me at this high school much, much more sophisticated. So it was a difficult adjustment to make. I have to say though, that some of the teaching I had that year is the best teaching I've ever had. I still remember very clearly, particularly my English teacher, my history teacher, my science teacher, and I sometimes look back over my school years and wonder if I really learned anything at all. But [?] despite the fact that it was a mixed experience, I think it's one of the years I can single out as having specifically remembered what I learned.
Q: [Break] Back with actor ColinFirth. He's now starring with Renée Zellweger in the film Bridget Jones's Diary. He also costarred in Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient. Now Firth has a short story published in a new collection edited by the British writer Nick Hornby who's best known for the novel High Fidelity which was adapted into a film. Firth starred in the adaptation of Hornby's earlier novel, Fever Pitch. Firth played Paul, an English teacher and high school soccer coach who's obsessed with soccer, or football as it's known in England. He's particularly obsessed with the team Arsenal which he's loved since his childhood. For the first time in 18 years, his team has a chance to win the football league championship but it's fallen behind. Paul's girlfriend Sarah (played by Ruth Gemmell) is a serious-minded teacher who has a hard time understanding Paul's obsession. In this scene she's come to tell him he didn't get a promotion at the school where they both teach. Paul is depressed about the game.
(Snippet from the Kitchen scene in Fever Pitch.)
You have a short story that is in a new collection of short stories edited by Nick Hornby (who's best known for writing High Fidelity and there was a movie adaptation that was made of that not long ago. You also starred in the movie adaptation of Fever Pitch, his story about someone who's just obsessed with soccer or football as it's called in England.) I'd like you to read an excerpt of this story for us. How old is the character in the story?
Colin: He's eleven.
Q: And his grandmother is sick and kind of losing her sense of orientation and that's in large part what the story is about; his reaction to seeing this going on around him and watching his parents reaction to his grandmother's death. Would you read this excerpt for us?
(Colin reads from his short story Department of Nothing, pp71-72 in the UK edition)
Q: ColinFirth, what inspired this story?
Colin: Don't know. I find it very, very difficult to answer any questions about this. I don't know! I just made it up; came out of my head! There must be a better answer to this. It's a very odd thing. My own grandmother died about two months ago and for me it was, to some extent, life imitating art rather than the other way around. The story has meant a great deal to me from the beginning.
Q: In this character, your grandmother is a story teller and tells you stories all the time, though it's much difficult for her to do it toward the end of her life.
Colin: Well, I found that interesting too. I think that I'm interested in the idea that one can have this passion for stories and the grandmother, I feel, she calls herself his muse at a certain point because he listens to her stories and then he recounts these stories to his schoolmates and earns a certain amount of popularity for that. And I feel wherever one draws inspiration that that is not necessarily going to be an inexhaustible spring. I think that you've often got to go look for it somewhere else, and I think, when the voice of your muse gets scrambled, what happens then? And I was interested in that because I would often find I thought I found an answer here. Continually through my life I've perhaps solved a problem and then you find you can't continue using that resolution. You've got to go find it somewhere else. And so I've found that the whole business of language and of the loss of the use of clarity of language was very interesting and I think that the other element was the relationship between the very old and the very young. And I think it's something that's hugely important. Our society probably doesn't make quite enough of it. We put old people in homes - I think we're rather afraid of seeing what happens to them. I think we have a very, very big taboo in western society about death. I think it's a taboo that's arguably bigger than sex was to the Victorians.
Q: In the story, the boy has a dream just before his grandmother dies that her dentures are talking, her dentures not in her mouth, are talking. And I know several people who've had death dreams or death premonitions that had to do with teeth.
Colin: Oh, is that right??? Now that's interesting, because this really was just some wacky thing I made up so I'd never heard that. So you're telling me that this has actually come up as a bit of a syndrome??
Q: Well, it kind of rang true to me, I'll say that.
Colin: How interesting. I wonder what that is?? I don't know whether... I mean, teeth are... I don't know. I would hate to even try to analyze it.
Q: Alright. So you didn't have a grandmother who was dying when you were young?
Colin: No. No I'm in the extremely fortunate position of having had all four grandparents alive, still at the age when I was 34. They've all gone now.
Q: If this isn't too personal, who was the first person close to you who died?
Colin: My mother's father.
Q: And this was just a couple of months ago?
Colin: No, that was six years ago. But I hadn't experienced any death at all in my family until 34, so one can carry a strange irrational feeling inside oneself that nobody ever dies in one's family. Of course, you know - intellectually - you're waiting for it, and you can see people getting older, but until you actually feel it, you get a sense of immortality. And so it was - again I say it - the most enormous blessing in my life that I had these people around me for so long. There have been people of my age, friends, who have died for various reasons. That experience goes back to childhood. A very close friend of mine died on a motorcycle when we were both teenagers. You know, it's been kind of topsy-turvy, I've lost people who were young but not so many people who were old.
Q: [Break.Terry Gross starts by introducing Colin again.] Death is something you've had to deal with in movies. Characters die. Characters react to people who die.
Colin: I myself have died...
Q: Yeah. You've just done Hamlet where everybody dies. [sic!]
Colin: Yes, that's right...
Q: So when you are doing a play or a movie in which there is death, do you find you have to think about death a lot and kind of mentally take yourself to that place in order to get in to the right place for the role, or is that asking too much?
Colin: No, it's not asking too much. I think that one does think about it. I don't think of death as a horrible, morbid subject and this goes back to this feeling I had of it being a taboo. I think it's not at all. I think... it's actually... it can be seen as a possibly not only reconcilable but creative thing to take on board.
Q: What kind of beliefs about that were you brought up with? We talked earlier about your parents and grandparents. You had a couple of grandparents who were missionaries. Your mother, you described as being more pantheistic and she wrote a dissertation recently about religion and you were exposed to many different religions when you were growing up. What did your parents tell you about death?
Colin: I think that.... I suppose the views that I'm trying to expound probably originated there. As I said, my father doesn't usually express philosophy very much in that area. He allows doubts to be doubts and I think I would go along with that really. I don't think I feel very certain about anything from a philosophical point of view. My mother has very strong interest in concepts of the afterlife. Again, I don't think she has a fixed view but she has actually done research into the whole business of clinical death - the death that takes place on the operating table where people come back again - where she's interviewed a lot of people and she's actually published stuff on that. So I have grown up with an awareness of concepts that death is a transition, that it leads to something else. I remember being captivated as a child by the idea of the analogy of the caterpillar coming out of the cocoon and becoming a butterfly and finding out that the Greek word - apparently the ancient Greek word - for butterfly was psyche, and somehow it could be a release. I do love that idea. As I said, I have no certainty, this is not built in to a belief or a belief system or a practice or anything.
Q: ...or an ideology?
Colin: No, not really. But I do find those issues quite fascinating. I don't necessarily know that the most important view of death is about that and how glorious an afterlife might be. But I think that it's the one great inevitability we all face and I think that facing it can only be a good thing.
Q: While we're talking about death and life, you have a new baby?
Colin: That's right.
Q: How is it changing your sense of yourself to be a father?
Colin: Well, it's not the first time I'm a father. I've been a father for 10 years. This is now the second time and I would say it's probably....Talking about my children is not something I like to do in great detail, but I think it's certainly fair to say that I would consider it the biggest and most important change that I've ever gone through. I think it totally gave me a different sense of myself. There are an awful lot of cliches about this in the sense of priorities and whatever. All that did happen to me. I found it a much wilder experience than I had expected. You know, many, many years ago, I didn't expect to want children. I didn't want them. I didn't think that was my script. Then I changed my mind. I didn't have any children by accident, and I was astonished at how much..... It just gave me a better relationship with myself, I think, and tested me in ways which I didn't expect. I think my view of fatherhood previously had been middle-age; slippers, pipe, boredom and death, really. Death in a bad way, just sort of slow death by comfort, and I couldn't have been more wrong. I found it a most invigorating and rejuvenating thing imaginable.
Q: One more thing and we only have about a minute left. Earlier you read an excerpt of a short story you wrote that Nick Hornby published in a new collection. Do you write a lot? Was this story unusual or have you been writing?
Colin: Writing has been a hobby of mine for years. I enjoy it. As I said, I love storytelling. I read, and I like to write and think things up. I've never had a huge ambition to be published, so it has remained a kind of hobby. I sometimes exchange stories with friends. I have a couple of friends who also write a little bit, and it's often been just to appeal to somebody's sense of humor as much as anything else. But, yes, I do.
Q: And Nick Hornby knew that you wrote?
Colin: Yes! He was encouraging me to do it. He wanted me to for quite some time actually. He'd been giving me a little nudge every so often in the belief I could come up with something worth publishing. So I owe him a great debt actually, for making me finally actually put that in to action.
Q: Well, Colin Firth, thank you so much for talking with us.
Colin: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure.