As one of Great Britain’s most well-known exports to Hollywood, 60-year-old Colin Firth has certainly enjoyed more than his fair share of the limelight. More than once over the course of his 35-year career – no short span in the gadfly showbiz world – he has found himself hitting the headlines. And not always in a good way. While, quite often, such coverage has been a hymn of praise to one of his thespianic tour de forces (most notably in The King’s Speech and A Single Man), sometimes it has been his oft-tempestuous personal life that has notched up the column inch. Most recently, this has seen the spotlight turned on his divorce from Livia Giuggioli after 22 years together and his nascent relationship with BBC newsreader Joanna Gosling.
Despite having spent quite so long under the public gaze, there are several aspects of the actor’s life that remain relatively little-know. Few, for instance, would guess that underneath his charming, quintessentially British gentleman-like façade lies a complex, multitalented individual whose interests go well beyond high-profile dramatic roles and actually extend to humanitarian work and a somewhat all-consuming love affair with guitars…
The son of two academics, Firth and his siblings followed their parents around the world as they moved from post to post. Although he was born in the British county of Hampshire, he actually spent the first four years of his life in Nigeria, where his father, David Norman Lewis Firth, was serving as a government education officer. He then went on to spend one of the last of his pre-teen years in Missouri, before returning to England to complete his education.
Typecast as Darcy
Though he was very much part of the ’80s-era Brit Pack – a rabble-rousing group of aspirant UK actors that numbered Gary Oldman, Rupert Everett and Daniel Day-Lewis among its members – his big international break didn’t come until 1995, when he played the romantic lead, Mr Darcy, in a TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Recalling the role that changed his life, he says: “It was a major event in my career, certainly, but it created this image that restricted the kind of roles I was able to find subsequently. Looking good and strutting around is all very boring and I found I wanted to do other things as an actor.”
In a perhaps bizarre bit of typecasting, he has played a character with a stutter in three different productions. The most notable incidence was 2010’s The King’s Speech, where he starred as the faltering King George VI. Maintaining that playing stuttering characters, was actually something of a burden, he now says: “I had to learn to stammer. Then play someone trying desperately not to. It somehow put my left arm to sleep as I must have been locking something, pinching a nerve maybe. In the end, this semi-paralysis lasted three or four days.”
In addition to his Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe wins, his various other recognitions include a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, being appointed to the Order of the British Empire for his services to drama, and an honourary degree from the University of Winchester. If that wasn’t enough, Time magazine also designated him as one of 2011’s 100 most influential people.
In 2000, he added writer to his impressive list of achievements, publishing his first short story – Speaking with the Angel. The piece appeared in a compendium edited by best-selling author Nick Hornby and helped to raise funds for the Treehouse Trust, a school for autistic children.
A Secret Neuroscientist?
Just over a decade later, in 2011, he revealed yet another hidden talent when he was cited as the co-author of a brain imaging study in Current Biology, a leading scientific journal. While he may not be a fully trained neuroscientist, he and BBC Radio 4 science correspondent Tom Fielden jointly commissioned and edited the study, which set out to prove a link between political leanings and structural differences in the brain.
Though the world mostly knows him for his onscreen work, he is also a highly-regarded humanitarian. This is down to his long-standing support for a variety of causes, including Survival International, an NGO that defends the rights of tribal peoples, the UK-based Refugee Council, which aims to support refugees and asylum seekers, as well as Oxfam, an organisation that aims to help alleviate global poverty.
Buoyed by his work with Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign, the actor later gathered a group of like-minded individuals for the launch of Eco, an eco-friendly West London shop. Not only does the store specialise in fair trade and eco-friendly products, it also gives advice on how to make spaces more energy efficient.
In something of a more quirky bent, his love of guitars manifests itself in a somewhat surprisingly visceral fashion. Acknowledging this, he says: “I sort of fetishise them as objects. I just think they’re beautiful. I play just as an excuse to hold one, something I could probably do for hours, just as something to cuddle.”
Firth has gone on the record claiming his favourite projects are those that illuminate the struggles of everyday life. In particular, he enjoys roles that reflect the ‘violence, hysteria, fear, paranoia, weakness, cowardice that everybody lives with”. While such emotionally-wrought story lines often crop up on the award-winning actor’s CV, his oeuvre actually runs the gamut from gritty dramas to rom-coms and period pieces, with five of his performances standing out as particularly memorable.
FIVE MUST-WATCH COLIN FIRTH PERFORMANCES
1. Pride & Prejudice (1995)
It was this TV adaptation of Jane Austen’s much-loved novel that first launched Firth onto the world stage. His portrayal of the male romantic lead, Mr Darcy, received widespread acclaim and continues to stir the hearts of women the world over.
2. Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
This iconic rom-com starring Firth, alongside fellow Brit actors Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant, gained a cult following and grossed US$280 million worldwide, before spawning two sequels.
3. A Single Man (2009)
It was his portrayal as a homosexual British professor living in ’60s Los Angeles, struggling to deal with the death of his long-time partner, that saw Firth take his first Academy Award and a Golden Globe or two.
4. The King’s Speech (2010)
Perhaps the most critically acclaimed and widely known work in the actor’s oeuvre, The King’s Speech, a true-to-life biopic documenting British King George VI’s battle with a life-long speech impediment. It was this role that saw Firth pick up countless acting accolades.
5. Mamma Mia! (2008, 2018)
Flexing his singing talents, Firth joined a star-studded cast in this fun yet heartfelt movie adaptation of the beloved Abba-inspired musical as Harry Bright, a British banker and one of the protagonist’s three possible fathers.