Colin Firth on Hampshire, life at home with the family and why he considers himself an unlikely success story
- Credit: Archant
He captured our hearts as the iconic Mr Darcey and now Colin Firth is back on the big screen with the harrowing tale of The Railway Man - but it’s at home with his wife and children where he plays his greatest role
Colin Firth is an Oscar-winner and Hollywood heartthrob, but still considers himself an unlikely success story. His home may be on the silverscreen, but his heart remains in one place. “I do always look towards Hampshire and plan to return. I’m sure it will happen one day,” he tells us.
The King’s Speech star is both chatty and thoughtful, revealing true motivations and opening up about his childhood. “Work is not the driving force in my life,” he says. “I would rather spend more time at home than constantly living out of hotel rooms. I enjoy being able to lead a normal life and taking an active part in raising my children. That’s my real world.
“When I was young, we moved around an awful lot, and it was difficult never being able to settle in one place, but myself and younger brother and sister always had the love of our parents. Despite that, I guess because of the lack of a settled base for learning, I always took school to be something of an obstacle to what I really wanted to do, which was act.”
After stints living in Nigeria and the United States as a child, Firth and his family returned home to Winchester, then Eastleigh, and time spent at the latter’s Barton Peveril Sixth Form College really cemented a path forward.
“I think the real memories I have of Hampshire involve school – for good and for bad. Secondary school in Winchester, at what is now King’s School, was difficult. Authority was a big problem for me and we would grow our hair and hang out near the river doing things we shouldn’t.
“Getting into acting and art and all that stuff was a way of breaking free and expressing myself, I guess.”
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And it is an opportunity he has grasped with aplomb.
“I don’t think it’s acting that’s difficult - it’s just about ensuring the scripts are good really. I like films that subvert your expectations, looking for emotionally complex roles, because that’s what fascinates me about human nature and how men and women interact.”
Could those interactions between himself and wife Livia lead to a return to the county of his birth at some point?
“West London suits us very nicely at the moment,” he admits, “our other considerable distraction is Umbria, in Italy, where we have a place. I must admit, I am passionate about almost everything that’s Italian. My kids are fluent in the language and I love the lifestyle and the cuisine and sensibility the people have.
“I fell in love with Italy from the very first moment and I would like to feel that I have a more Italian way of appreciating life.
“Ultimately, my wife and my family are my pride and joy and my life revolves around them. I’ve been fortunate to have found some meaty roles as an actor but nothing compares to the love and care I found with Livia. I’m immensely lucky.”
Firth has such engaging appeal, not least because he’s a self-confessed web of contradictions through the roles he plays - a so-called ‘Hollywood heartthrob’ in one sense, yet often portraying rather stiff, introverted characters in another; he adopts, at times, a very proper British upper lip, side parting included, yet is a breathless and energetic force in the movie world who can seemingly do little wrong.
The greatest moment in his career, so far, came via 2010’s The King’s Speech. It was a film that relied on a simplicity of story – a true story, after all – yet gleaned an investment of emotion so far and wide that it saw the lead man scooping pretty much every Best Actor gong available, including a BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award.
Firth being Firth, takes it all in his stride. You can’t ever imagine him bounding around elatedly, as is the mode with some other winners.
“No... no, that wouldn’t really be me,” he smiles, “Someone noted the other day that I tend to play rather damaged men, and throughout the course of the films I generally get them to a point of being less damaged. Some end up fully repaired, others don’t, but it’s interesting to see the sorts of roles I am drawn to.
“I think the very nature of a good story means that, at some point, you’ve probably got to deal with a form of loss or dislocation, but yes, it would be fair to say I prefer the sorts of characters that offer you multiple layers to explore.”
The latest ‘layers’ Firth attempted to strip off showcased complexities of war, anger and forgiveness. The Railway Man is a brilliant homage to a true story; a harrowing and emotional journey that sees Firth play Eric Lomax, the WWII British soldier who was tortured by the Japanese at the notorious Changi camp, and later, together with his fellow POWs, forced to work on the notorious Railway of Death between Burma and Siam. Lomax later tracked down his chief tormentor, Nagase Takashi, in order to bring closure to that terrible chapter in his life. He subsequently wrote an autobiography that served as the basis of the film.
Released in January, The Railway Man also stars Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s wife, providing another interesting marker as to the type of role the actor craves.
“For me, there was a really heightened sense of responsibility when it came to telling the story as truthfully as possible. You have to be able to reflect the substance of the man and find a way to express the kind of trauma he suffered, plus how he dealt with that experience for the rest of his life.
“You also feel an added obligation to honour the memory of those soldiers who both died and survived the kind of horrific punishment they endured as POWs, so it was really important it was done properly.”
That Firth enters every role clutching such a tight moral compass is a credit. He has turned down jobs in the past simply because they are too far away from what he knows he can definitely achieve, and because of the fear he has of not doing justice to a script. Where that comes from isn’t clear; after all, the actor was brought up in a secure, loving and confident environment – his parents were both academics – even if the family frequently moved around.
That sense of security is something he has always tried to offer to his own children, Will, Luca and Matteo. He never, for instance, wants to be away on a film project for more than five months for fear of losing too much of “the really valuable time where your children change so much so quickly.” A Hollywood star he may be but it is clear that it is at home where he plays his greatest role.