Enter the King

An audience with Colin Firth — actor, activist, chatterbox

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Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

There's nothing Colin Firth likes more than to talk. "I talk endlessly," he says during a lunch that comfortably proves the point. Helena Bonham Carter, his co-star in The King's Speech, has remarked, "The only reason I knew when we'd started filming is because he stopped talking."

Yet Firth's best work — and there's much to admire among his 66 screen roles over 27 years — hinges on the drama of things left unsaid. Firth has given three turns as the taciturn Mr. Darcy: first in the BBC's 1995 dramatization of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and later as Darcy's comic alter ego in Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. He missed out on the Best Actor Oscar last year for A Single Man, in which he played a quietly grieving professor. Now he's tipped to win for his portrayal of the stammering George VI, a figure literally unable to give voice to his feelings. Like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, Firth finds himself celebrated as much for his silences as for the words that punctuate them.

Blame it on his extraordinary face. He's not extraordinarily handsome, though at 50, Firth easily retains a square-jawed plausibility as a romantic lead. Nor is he yet extraordinarily famous, though even before his latest clutch of awards he was nearing the degree of celebrity that simultaneously imprisons and empowers those who have it. His face, however, is exceptional in its ability to convey not only a broad palette of emotions but also the reflex, almost at a cellular level, to smother them. With wordless eloquence, Firth communicates the struggle between raw instinct and civilized restraint that defines a particular kind of Englishness.

And that is an irony that would torment many of the characters he plays. Like them, Firth is not what he seems to be. One wellspring of his talent is the outsider sensibility he brings to every part, including the most important of all: being Colin Firth.

Putting On Accents
There's a clue in the way he speaks the Queen's English, with a purity that is more often found among wealthy expatriates, their accents and vocabularies preserved in the aspic of distance. Playing Darcy — Austen's and Helen Fielding's — solidified public perceptions of Firth as an uptight toff. He'd long before tried the role on for size in his first movie, Another Country, set in an elite private school. Firth made his debut in London's West End in the play on which the film was based, as Guy Bennett, a defiantly gay schoolboy and, Firth says, "one of the most flamboyant characters I have ever seen onstage. If I had played him in the film, I probably would have been typecast very differently." Instead Rupert Everett, who played Bennett in the original production, reprised the role for the 1984 film, and Firth was cast as the repressed Tommy Judd.

The schoolboys of Another Country have been born to privilege. Audiences tend to assume that Firth was too. In fact, he spent formative years outside England — and as an outsider. "It's probably an identity I found for myself, this so-called quintessential Englishman," he says.

Born in a small town in southern England in 1960, Firth soon found himself transplanted by his parents, both teachers raised in India as the children of missionaries. The family settled in Africa and then, after a spell back in the U.K., moved to Missouri. He was thrust into a St. Louis junior high school at 12 and began to learn the chameleon like skills that initially helped him blend in but would come to help him stand out.

Those skills came in handy at the English school that followed, where his schoolmates were "overwhelmingly working class," he says. "I wouldn't have survived in that school if I was well spoken." He demonstrates the rustic-sounding burr that provided protective coloring. His current voice solidified at drama school and, with it, the beginning of assumptions about his Englishness. "It's amazing how the stereotype persists. The likes of me have something to do with it," he says ruefully. "But when I hear people talking about a typical Englishman, I wonder why they completely ignore Sid Vicious or John Lennon, who were far more flattering to the self-image of the boys I knew growing up. We pierced our ears and learned guitar. That's what we aspired to. We didn't think, We'll grow up and put on a pin-striped suit."

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