To prepare for his role in Peter Webber's film Girl With a Pearl Earring, Colin Firth became a Vermeer egghead.He obsessed over the Dutch painter, who died at 43, bankrupt and leaving behind a wife, 11 kids and 35 paintings. Firth studied his works in the Hague and at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. He read every piece of research he could find. He even learned how to properly hold a brush and grind his own paints.
Not normally such a compulsive, Firth says the research was exhausting but essential to play a character who was, on one hand, a most enigmatic and elusive man, and, on the other, an intensely eloquent and expressive person -- at least his magically lit art suggests as much.
"I became consumed with Vermeer, yes," says the 42-year-old British actor, best known as Mr. Darcy, first in the TV miniseries Pride and Prejudice and, later, in the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary. "It was sort of like chasing shadows, really. I felt I had to get to know him, but still maintain his air of mystery. It was very helpful to look at history. But in some ways I don't know how healthy it was to look at the paintings. They can drive you mad with frustration because you can't get a handle on them. They seem to have some sort of secret they won't reveal.
"It's a mystery to me whether it's helpful to the acting or not, to do this [amount of research]" the actor goes on. "But it was fascinating to me. It was a diversion and a source of interest and a great kind of perk of the job that I could throw myself at it to such an extent. In the end, it was useless, however, to speculate too broadly on what kind of guy he was because we don't know. He might have been someone who never stopped talking. We didn't see him like that. In the end, I just had to put the pieces together, and place myself in the middle of it."
Firth is seated at a table in an outdoor courtyard at Toronto's Intercontinental Hotel, looking nothing like the long-haired, conflicted soul he portrays in Webber's film, which will hit screens in early December. For one, he's got short hair. In the movie, he sports a shoulder-length wig that constantly needs a good brushing. He's friendly, warm and engaging. Firth is a serious actor, but one who likes to jump between different film genres, frothy comedy to dark drama.
The variety, he explains, keeps him from getting stale. Before arriving in Luxembourg to shoot Girl with a Pearl Earring, he'd done a spate of light-hearted romantic comedies ( What a Girl Wants, Love Actually and Hope Springs). This project put him back in breeches and a few hundred years in the past. Firth thinks it's good for an actor to be displaced, from time to time. It gives you new perspective, he grins. "A different head space."
In Girl with a Pearl Earring, which also stars Scarlett Johansson as Griet, a maid in the Vermeer household who becomes the painter's muse and the subject of one of his most beautiful works. In Tracy Chevalier's best-selling book that inspired the movie, dialogue was kept to an absolute minimum Webber's film stays true to the silence, which meant Firth and Johansson had the added challenge of conveying their growing affection through actions and a large number of penetrating looks.
"In this case, so much of the dialogue is interior," says Firth. "And it almost puts you in the position of the writer of that dialogue, an improviser of it. That makes what is said terribly important. And it makes the nuance incredibly important." Dressed in a sweater, faded jeans and boots, Firth is the picture of easy grace. He's serious but not stuffy, tall and slim. There is no artifice or ego about this man. He's well aware that his turn, eight years ago, as Mr. Darcy emerging from the fish pond in his drenched shirt, helped make him a sex symbol with scores of women. That image, though, just makes him laugh. "It's simply not something I ever think about," says the actor, married to the Italian documentary maker Livia Giuggioli, whom he met in 1995 in Columbia while making Nostromo. Giuggioli gave birth to the couple's second son last month. Another long-term relationship with Meg Tilly produced son Will, now 12, whom he visits frequently in Los Angeles. "Hey, I have a great life. I've got a nice home, great kids and a wife I love. So I feel blessed. But I consider myself a jobbing actor. I have to pay the bills. So I choose roles that interest me and allow me to get on with it."
After he finished Girl with a Pearl Earring, Firth picked another meaty, dramatic role -- this time, in a film called Trauma by Marc Evans (whose previous work includes My Little Eye). It's a dark story about a "guy who starts off in a very, very, very bad place, and it just goes down from there," says Firth wryly. He opted to take the part, though, because it meant exploring a psychological space he'd never explored. It also meant working with Evans, whom he describes as "one of the great unsung directors, who hasn't really had the audience in America that he should have. I've known him for many years and been dying to work with the guy. And I will do, over and over again, if I possibly can."
His next movie is back to the light side. In October, Firth will join Renée Zellweger to reprise his role as the aloof Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. "I like the emotionally wrought stuff," he explains. "And I like to experiment in comedy, romances, thrillers. If the script stimulates me. I give it a go. Taking lots of breaks in between to be with my family. The one thing about having kids is it gets your priorities straight. And besides them, nothing else really matters."
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