Colin Firth: return of the king

What next for the Oscar-winning actor? Well, John Le Carré, for starters

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It’s taken a few months to sink in, but Colin Firth is finally getting used to being an Oscar winner. It is, he admits, rather nice.

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“At the time I felt like I was under the influence of some bizarre, rather blissful narcotic, but I wasn’t really processing anything and I joked that I would probably punch the air sometime in July – and it did sort of happen that way. It’s only now that a bit of time has gone by that I can appreciate how extraordinary it’s been.”

Firth won the highly coveted Academy Award for best actor for his wonderfully endearing performance as the stammering King George VI in The King’s Speech.

The film earned a total of four golden statuettes (including best picture) at the glitzy ceremony back in February, to go along with a remarkable haul of seven Baftas.

It was, he says candidly, a bit of a shock that a relatively small-budget British period drama did so fantastically well all over the world.

The King’s Speech cost around £10 million to make, which is small change in Hollywood blockbuster terms, and went on to notch up box-office receipts of more than £46 million in the UK and £85 million in the States – and that’s before DVD sales come into the equation.

“I’m sometimes a bit bewildered by that, really – there are no young people in it, there’s no sex, there’s no violence, no car chases and there’s no action and no vampires. Watching two middle-aged men in a room talking, slowly becoming friends, is not exactly a pitch you put out there if you want a film to tear it up at the box office.”

The awards were confirmation of what directors, and indeed audiences, have known for a long time – Firth is a class act. He’s been delivering diverse, captivating performances for years.

Since that break-out performance in 1995 as Mr Darcy in the BBC TV mini-series Pride and Prejudice it feels like he’s gone on to become part of the fabric of British cinema, and in a way he has, starring in landmark films such as The English Patient (1996), Fever Pitch (1996), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), The Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003), Love Actually (2003), Mamma Mia! (2008) and A Single Man (2009).

He’s bang on form in his latest role, too. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy he plays Bill Haydon, one of four men at MI6 headquarters – nicknamed by spooks as “the Circus” – who are suspected of being traitors.

He is, understandably, very pleased with director Tomas Alfredson’s dark and faithfully labyrinthine adaptation of John le Carré’s classic novel, which is set in the early 1970s at the height of the Cold War and stars Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Fans of the classic 1979 BBC mini-series, with the late, great Alec Guinness, will not be disappointed.

“I think Gary is absolutely stunning,” he says. “I find him incredibly complex. He’s recognisably Smiley and I think the people who loved the books and loved Guinness will love Gary in the role. But it’s very much Gary’s own Smiley. He doesn’t really reference Guinness, but the qualities are all there.”

Meeting le Carré – real name David John Cornwell – was a thrill for Firth, especially when the author visited the set and made a cameo appearance during a Christmas party scene at the Circus.

“It’s a bit like God visiting,” he laughs. “Particularly when it’s a writer of that stature, and we were all enthralled that he was there. There’s nothing like it. I don’t just mean God in the facile sense, in that we all look up to him, I mean that he’s the man who created the world that you are in.

“All the words that you are saying, the clothes you are wearing and the characters you are playing are products of this man’s incredible imagination – and there he is, the source of it all. There was a real glow on set that day.”

Firth, who celebrates his 51st birthday this week, was born in Hampshire, the eldest of three children to college lecturers Shirley and David. He first acted at school in Winchester and later studied at the Drama Centre in London.

He has been married to Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli since 1997 and they have two sons – Luca, aged ten, and eight-year-old Mateo – and divide their time between the UK and Italy. And just recently, one of the kids’ favourite toys was a little golden fella called Oscar.

“For a while it migrated around the house because the kids were playing with it and showing it to people. And also, I just wanted
to flash it about,” he laughs. “In the wake of it all, it felt like a big landmark birthday or a wedding anniversary – something like that where everyone is rooting for you.

“But that phase can only go on so long, and I’ve decided that it’s rather like Christmas decorations – you know, it’s appropriate to
leave them out for 12 days or something, bask in it, celebrate, but after a while it starts to get a bit sad.

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“After all, how long can you gaze at something that is fast going to become a past glory? In the end you have to pick your spot for it and then just look to the new things.”