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Electronic Telegraph  25 February 1999

My early life - as a nerd

He smouldered as Mr Darcy - but then brooding comes naturally to actor Colin Firth. Judith Woods meets him

  It is two years since Colin Firth shattered a few female fantasies and married a beautiful Italian. Yet when I ask him how his wife Livia is adapting to life in London, he tenses his brow into a welter of brooding, Mr Darcy-esque furrows.

 Although she loves the buzz of the city, there is the lousy weather to contend with, of course, and the absence of her family, who live in Rome. But as someone whose childhood was unsettled, and who chose an itinerant way of life as an adult, Firth has a deeper empathy than most for her predicament.

 "She misses the small talk, the verbal shorthand," he concludes. "When you are away from home, it's the trivialities you long for. You can talk about the big issues anywhere, but you have to be very familiar with a language and a culture to take part in the chit-chat."

 Firth is not a chit-chatty person. Definitely more a big issues sort; a fulminating-over-the-newspapers-at-breakfast type, whose toast probably goes soggy as he rails at the iniquities of the world.

 It is entirely in keeping that he should recently have become an ardent defender of the rights of asylum seekers in Britain. Indeed, as he launches into an earnest explanation of his views, I find myself imagining that, however lacking in gossip Livia may be, her human rights vocabulary must be up to UN interpreter standard by now.

 Firth met Livia, a 29-year-old English graduate, three years ago, when he was filming the BBC adaptation of Nostromo in Colombia, for which she was a production assistant. They married soon after, and live in the flat in Hackney, east London, that he bought in 1984.

 A move is afoot: the funky warehouse developments around the City appeal, but he concedes they are likely to end up somewhere more bourgeois - "Islington, probably", he says, looking slightly embarrassed.

 Firth, 38, who plays the marvellously caddish Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love, admits he has long postponed settling down. "I've always felt stimulated by change and travel and things that are new," he says. "But I don't have the strength of character to live a lifestyle that depends only on those things. As I've got older, I've felt the need to put down roots."

 Despite the fact that he has notched up a considerable body of work in the years since Pride and Prejudice - most notably Fever Pitch and The English Patient - the image of him as the smouldering Mr Darcy, all luxuriant dark hair and saturnine repression in snug breeches, persists.

 Reports of his affair with his then leading lady, Jennifer Ehle, further fuelled the Sunday teatime legend. Swept along on the choppy waters of the nation's female hormones, Firth was voted Britain's all-time favourite television actor three years ago.

 Journalists are supposed to be conscious of the chasm between life and art. All the same, meeting him is a bit like the denouement in the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy pulls back the curtain to reveal that the omnipotent Wizard is really a little man with a megaphone.

 Not that Firth is unprepossessing; he is tall and rangy, and so clean-shaven that I find myself wondering if he secretly waxes. His tousled hair is a neutral, dormousy brown, and the regular features of his grave, watchful face seem rather ordinary. "I'm considered attractive by some people, and I've been completely ignored by others, so I know I'm somewhere in the middle," he says, flatly. "I don't take pleasure from disappointing people. Maybe it's to do with putting myself across in a certain way."

 He may feel distanced from the role that has defined him, but for all his resolute downbeatness - he belongs to none of the London clubs favoured by his fellow actors and drives a 12-year-old Nissan - Firth is distinctly edgy about his image.

 Today, he has a cut on his nose and a bump on his forehead - left by a stereo speaker that fell on his head as he tried to position it on a wall. He wants to cancel the photo session, but then thinks better of it. "People might think me a luvvie," he grumbles.

 Firth takes such possibilities seriously, but then he takes most things seriously. The son of two university lecturers, he has a younger brother and sister, Jonathan and Kate, who are also actors. The Firths lived in Nigeria for the first four years of his life, before returning to Britain, where he did not shine academically, and failed his 11-plus.

 A year later, a teaching job took the family to America, where Firth attended a large junior high school in St Louis. It was an experience that left an indelible mark.

 "It was a really nasty school," he says. "I was an English schoolboy: grey shorts, grass-stained knees and a V-necked sweater. I was put in a class full of guys with very long hair, earrings and combat jackets with drugs slogans on their backs, who would bring guns to school. "They would talk about heroin - whether they were doing it or not, I have no idea - but they could all do the talk. I was still into train sets."

 Englishness, and his own contradictory attitude to it, is rather a preoccupation of Firth's. The only English boy in a school of 2,500, he found himself often having fist-fights. The carapace of cockiness that he developed as a defence mechanism served to provoke rather than to defuse tension.

 "I would try to endow myself with a swagger. You can imagine the combination really, it was pretty catastrophic - a swaggering nerd. The irony was that every kid in that school had some sort of nationally diverse extraction, whether Cherokee or Spanish. But the assumption was basically that America was the only place to live on earth, and everywhere else was a bit of a joke."

 When he returned to England, he encountered the same thing at the "dreadful" secondary modern school he attended in Winchester. He describes it as a "conservative, militaristic" place, where his artistic creativity was stifled. "Again, there was this feeling that England was the only country that mattered. We can be terribly smug about being English."

 Firth's schoolboy marginalisation was further underlined by the fact that his parents spoke in "posh" accents, read books and took the family on foreign holidays. His mother, who taught comparative religion, had always encouraged tolerance. Firth, on meeting none, broadened his vowels to blend in with his peers.

 While Sandhurst was the ambition of his classmates, he was drawn to the stage - he ended up at the London Drama Centre. When he left, he was cast in both the stage and screen versions of Another Country and later played a Falklands veteran in Tumbledown. Further work included the role of John McCarthy in Hostages, and the lead in Valmont, an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

 Although there has been a tendency to shoehorn Firth into upper-class roles, he is known for his versatility. Next week, he opens in a new American play, Three Days of Rain, a tale of a love triangle in which he plays a son in the first act, and the young man's now-deceased father in the second.

 Like many people who feel themselves to be living on the periphery, Firth has honed his observational skills. "There is a part of me that does have to pay for not belonging, but I consider my upbringing to have been hugely enriching and I certainly wasn't a victim," he says. "People with a predisposition to act come from all sorts of different places, but I do think it sometimes helps to be a bit fractured in terms of your identity. Acting with honesty doesn't come out of nowhere. I do think sometimes you have to upset your own equilibrium a little bit."

 His natural instinct for rootlessness was overturned when he met the American actress Meg Tilly, his co-star in Valmont, and mother of his eight-year-old son. The pair retreated to the Canadian backwoods, where Will was born. After six years, they split up "amicably" and he returned to England and acting. He has proved a devoted long-distance parent, sending his son tapes and letters and visiting him regularly in Los Angeles, where Tilly now lives. In that sense, I suggest, the relationship allows Firth to continue to spend part of his life on the move.

 "A shrink would probably say that's of my own creation," he says. "I don't feel I want to be there to put my stamp on Will, it's not a case of wanting to possess him. It's very simple; when you're not there, you miss him. If something's happening and you're away from him, it's fairly devastating. It's a ghastly thing to be away from your child, so you squeeze as much as you can into the time together."

 I ask him what will happen to this careful balancing act if he starts a new family with Livia. An expression of alarm seizes his face, before he withdraws into a long, pensive silence.

 It is not hard to believe him when he says that he can be difficult to live with. His introspection may make him a fine actor, but it can't be easy being Firth, a man who simmers with intensity and analyses everything to the nth degree. I ask him whether he is happy. Yes, he decides. A moment later, he changes his mind; no, he's not. Then, he settles for "optimistic". Finally, he comes clean.

 "I would probably give a different answer depending on my mood," he says. "I've been accused of being cautious in the past, but I suppose I just don't know how to define happiness."

Colin Firth will be appearing in Three Days of Rain at the Donmar Warehouse, London WC2, from March 1 to March 13 (box office: 0171-369 1732).© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 1999

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