Enter the King

An audience with Colin Firth — actor, activist, chatterbox

  • Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

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    "It's people a tiny bit from the outside, who aren't completely easy in their English skin, who then communicate the unease of English people so brilliantly," says Richard Curtis, who co-wrote both Bridget Jones movies. (Curtis, born in New Zealand and peripatetic in his youth, should know.) Despite their veneer of charm, Firthian romantic heroes, even comedic heroes, betray an inner darkness. "When we were filming Bridget , I was abroad, and they kept sending me the rushes. And I sent back a few messages saying, 'Can Colin twinkle a bit more?'" says Curtis. "I thought his Darcy was a bit ferocious and unfriendly." The director passed along the note, Curtis recalls, "and then Colin looked directly down the camera and said, 'Someone tell Richard Curtis that is my f______ twinkle.'?" Curtis concedes that his leading man got it right. "If he'd stopped being tough, he wouldn't have been left with a character."

    Firth laughs when reminded of the incident. "It is the most lethal, deadly note," he says, unrepentant. "If there's one thing guaranteed to make you send out frozen vibes into the world, it's being told to twinkle."

    Inhabiting Outsiders
    Twinkle is too feeble a verb to describe the vibrancy of Firth's company when he's talking about the things that interest him. Politics is one of his primary passions. Invited in December to guest-edit BBC's flagship current-affairs radio show, Today , Firth had the show commission a study that discovered differences in the brain architecture of liberals and conservatives. "I wanted to find out what was biologically wrong with people who don't agree with me," he deadpanned.

    With success came a growing sense of responsibility. "The thing is, if you have been given the privileges we have — if you have this many perks — surely you can help out," Firth told the Times of London in 2007, explaining his backing for Eco Age, a green retailer and consultancy he helped found with his wife Livia Giuggioli, her brother and a family friend.

    Giuggioli, a native of Italy, is the creative director of the business. A documentary maker, she was the driving force behind a polemical film, In Prison My Whole Life , about Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther and death-row inmate since 1982. Firth executive-produced the film, and Marc Evans, who had worked with both Firth and Giuggioli, directed. Evans describes the couple as "naturally political, politically engaged," with a relaxed hospitality that mixes actors, public intellectuals and activists around their table for pasta lunches. (The couple have homes in London and Italy; their two sons were born in Rome.) More recently Firth spearheaded a British adaptation of the U.S. popular-history phenomenon The People Speak . The film came out last year and showcases, Firth says proudly, "dissenters, rebels and visionaries from British history" — the kinds of outsiders with whom Firth instinctively identifies.

    One historical figure with whom Firth felt little kinship was the hapless George VI. He remembers that as he prepared to star in his drama-school production of Hamlet , his acting coach advised him not to look to the Windsors for tips on how to play a royal. There's a stolidity, a niceness, to Britain's first family that is the antithesis of the Shakespearean idea of regality. Firth duly ignored them until he signed up to star in The King's Speech . Then, with autodidactic fervor, he devoured histories of the period, developing an affection for its protagonists. The experience hasn't blunted his republican impulses. Pushed by Piers Morgan on his CNN talk show to reveal his views on the institution of monarchy, Firth said, "I really like voting. It's one of my favorite things."

    That's a dangerous admission, since any celebrity who ventures criticism of the royals risks the ire of a far more powerful institution: Britain's notoriously abrasive tabloid press. Its columnists are liable to demand Firth's head the moment he's perceived as unpatriotic or too big for his boots. For the moment, Firth poses a grave problem for tabloid editors. Though his characters often lead double lives, he values his privacy but conceals little. "This [award] is all that stands between me and a Harley-Davidson," he said, accepting a Golden Globe last month. In reality, no midlife crisis threatens. "I'm rather enjoying aging," he says, and if he did get a motorbike, it would probably be a Moto Guzzi.

    "My life is pretty boring from a photo-opportunity point of view," he adds. "It would be very easy to catch me carrying a Sainsbury's bag." A few days later, the mass-market Daily Mail publishes a photo of Firth on his bicycle under the headline the king's spokes. Sadly for Sainsbury's marketing team, the plastic bag suspended from Firth's handlebars bears the logo of a different store.

    The question for afirthionados is what Firth will do with his increased star power. He's likely to use it to benefit causes close to his heart. But fame — or rather, the supercharged fame that has found him after decades of the common or garden variety — is unlikely to change his choices of movie projects. He's grounded by his family and has a track record of interspersing bigger roles and films with art-house movies and quirky cameos. His next film, a production of John le Carré's thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , is an ensemble piece; his part is "more than a cameo," he says, but definitely not a lead. Curtis says, "That lack of vanity, which means he risks things that are obscure, is also what makes him able to give such great performances, because he's not proud."

    "I think the great joy for his friends is to see him enjoying this success with a sense of Colin, really," says Evans. "He's so Colin about it all. Which is to say he's so graceful and ironic and yet heartfelt at the same time." And never at a loss for words.

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