DATE May 7, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Colin Firth talks about his life and acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Colin Firth, is now starring opposite Renee Zellweger in the film
"Bridget Jones's Diary." Author Helen Fielding wanted him for the part.
In her novel, which the film is based on, Bridget develops a crush on Firth,
as she watches him star in the BBC adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" in the
role of Mr. Darcy. Firth's character in "Bridget Jones," Mark Darcy is an
homage to Firth's performance in "Pride and Prejudice." "Pride and Prejudice"
made Firth an unlikely heartthrob in England and in parts of America, as well,
when the adaptation was shown on A&E.
Firth also co-starred in "The English Patient" as the spurned husband and
in "Shakespeare in Love" as the unwanted fiance, Lord Wessex. He
starred as an obsessed soccer fan in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's
novel "Fever Pitch."
Let's start with a scene from "Bridget Jones's Diary." Bridget has overheard
Mark Darcy making sarcastic comments about her and its played on her
insecurities and made her angry.
(Soundbite from "Bridget Jones's Diary")
Ms. RENEE ZELLWEGER (Bridget Jones): I mean, you seem to go out of your way
to try to make me feel like a complete idiot every time I see you. And you
really needn't bother. I already feel like an idiot most of the time anyway,
with or without a fireman's pole.
Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Mark Darcy): Look, I'm sorry if I've been...
Ms. ZELLWEGER: What?
Mr. FIRTH: I don't think you're an idiot at all. I know there are elements
of the ridiculous about you. Your mother's pretty interesting. And you
really are an appalling bad public speaker and you tend to let whatever's in
your head come out of your mouth without much consideration of the
consequences. I realize that when I met you at the turkey curry buffet that I
was unforgivably rude and wearing a reindeer jumper that my mother had given
me the day before. But the thing is--what I'm trying to say, very
inarticulately, is that, in fact, perhaps, despite appearances, I like you,
Ms. ZELLWEGER: Ah, apart from the smoking and the drinking and the vulgar
mother and the verbal diarrhea.
Mr. FIRTH: No. I like you very much just as you are.
GROSS: Colin Firth, welcome to FRESH AIR. In a lot of your earlier
interviews, you talk about how you really wanted to put Mr. Darcy in "Pride
and Prejudice" behind you. So what was your reaction when Helen Fielding
asked you to play a part that was an homage to your portrayal of Darcy in
"Pride and Prejudice," thus continuing the whole thing?
Mr. FIRTH: I suppose I did it in the spirit of `if you can't beat them, join
them.' I wasn't strenuously trying to put it behind me. I think this
creates--the impression has been created to some extent. And, you know, I
found that the Darcy tag didn't really touch me unless I was speaking to a
journalist. So it really wasn't something that was disturbing me. If there
was any curse on it at all, I felt, somehow, instinctively, that doing this
other thing called Mr. Darcy--I don't know if it was some bizarre, negative
psychology attached to it, but I felt it might take that curse off. And, in
fact, it's been very interesting seeing my name being used--my actual name
being used in articles, now, rather than the Darcy name. So I think, at the
moment, to some extent, it seems to have worked.
GROSS: What was your reaction when "The Diary of Bridget Jones" was
published, knowing that the character in the book had a crush on you?
Mr. FIRTH: Well, that's--and you can't not be enormously flattered to
have--to start with, you know, to have made it to fiction--into popular
fiction feels like quite an achievement. In fact, it's one of the biggest
accolades, I think, modern society can accord you is that you have now
become, you know, part of the general canon of popular reference points. And
it was delightful. It didn't happen suddenly, because this had been
growing as a diary column for some time. But I was absolutely thrilled; I
GROSS: Now "Pride and Prejudice" is set in an earlier century. Your
language and attire are more formal. I'm going to ask you to compare your
acting style in each film; you know, like a literary adaptation vs. a
contemporary comedy. But first, let's hear a scene from "Pride and
Prejudice." And in this scene you first confess your love to the character
of Elizabeth Bennet, played by Jennifer Ehle.
(Soundbite from "Pride and Prejudice")
Mr. FIRTH (Mr. Darcy): In vain, I have struggled. It will not do. My
feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I
admire and love you. In declaring myself thus, I am fully aware that I will
be going expressly against the wishes of my family, my friends and, I hardly
knead out, my own better judgment. The relative situation of our families is
such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible
connection. Indeed, as a rational man, I cannot but regard it as such,
myself, but it cannot be helped. Almost from the earliest moments of our
acquaintance, I have come to feel for you a passionate admiration and regard,
which, despite all my struggles, has overcome every rational objection. And,
I beg you, most fervently, to relieve my suffering and consent to be my wife.
Ms. JENNIFER EHLE (Elizabeth Bennet): In such cases as these, I believe
the established mode is to express a sense of obligation. I cannot. I never
desired your good opinion and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly.
I'm sorry to cause pain to anyone, but I was most unconsciously done and, I
hope, will be of short duration.
Mr. FIRTH: And this is all the reply I am to expect? I might wonder why,
with so little effort at civility, I'm rejected?
Ms. EHLE: And I might wonder why, with so evident a desire to offend and
insult me, you choose to tell me that you like me against your will, against
your reason and even against your character? Was this not some excuse for
incivility, if I was uncivil?
GROSS: Let me ask you to compare your approach to contemporary romantic
comedy, "Bridget Jones," and dramatic, literary adaptation, "Pride and
Prejudice." You can talk about your physical carriage, your accent, the
speed you speak at. I mean, the speech is so much more formal in "Pride and
Mr. FIRTH: It is. I think one just, somehow, instinctively, adapts to the
requirements. You can't say, you know, `Can I have a light?' in a formal
Victorian way. You can't say, `Let me--allow me to tell you how ardently I
admire and love you' very easily in--you know, in a kind of Bronx accent or a
cockney accent of the year 2001. So I think, if--you know, as an actor, it's
essential that your sensitive to language. And I think that the language,
actually, informs the rest of it. I think that--I certainly find that this
is my starting point. My walk can change because of the way I speak. And the
way I speak will be informed by the rhythms on the page. So it's a process
which happens, I think, without much calculation.
I think--and this is--the "Bridget Jones"-"Pride and Prejudice" case is quite
a singular one, I think, because Mark Darcy, is, in fact, very much a
fugitive, I think, from another century. I mean, he's--I think this is part
of his problem. Mr. Darcy is very much an man of his time. He's isolated by
other factors, but Mark Darcy, I think, is not typical; is not, certainly,
typical of the Englishman of his age that I know. And I think that he comes
from a rather archaic family and I think that he's someone whose personality
is crippling him, in some way.
GROSS: I'm wondering how the clothes affect you. Like, in "Pride and
Prejudice" you're wearing frilled, high-collared shirts and in "Bridget
Jones," in the first scene that you appear in, your mother just gave you a
really silly sweater with a large moose head on it and, so, you know...
Mr. FIRTH: Yes. They affect you enormously. And I had a bit more of a
challenge, obviously, with Mark Darcy because I had to put on a ridiculous
sweater with a moose head on it and pretend that I was standing in a frilly
shirt and a frock coat. So I couldn't allow that costume to dictate the way
I was holding myself. I had to play against the clothes, in that case, and
therein lay the comic act.
GROSS: Just a question about your most famous scene from "Pride and
Prejudice." It's the famous pond scene. At the end of the story, you take
off your jacket and, with your shirt and pants on, you dive into a pond. And
although it sounds pretty inhibited to dive in with shirt and pants, for your
character, it's a sign of feeling more liberated and expressive. When you
walk out of the pond with your wet clothes clinging to you, you became a
heartthrob. Did you understand that?
Mr. FIRTH: Not really. It was so--that happened as a series of haphazard
decisions. I mean, it was almost an accident, really, that led to the whole
wet-shirt business. And I think, probably, if anyone had connived it a
phenomenon like that, they would have failed miserably. There was--if I
remember the original script, it was--had it down that Darcy dives in
completely naked. And, you know, I suppose he might well have done that.
And he's on his own property and it's a hot day. And--but the BBC didn't
consider that acceptable. And then there was some talk of underwear. And
then the--we heard that nobody wore underwear in those days. And then I
think there was an attempt to create underwear; the kind of--if they had worn
underwear, would they have looked like this? And I went to be fitted with
those and there was no way on Earth--and I can tell you now, had I worn
those, there would have been no heartthrob, you know, effect.
GROSS: What was this underwear looking like?
Mr. FIRTH: They were kind of knee britches. They--I think they were cotton
or silk. They looked like sailor's pants or something from, you know,
pirate. I can't remember very well, but they came down just below the knee
GROSS: Little pantaloon-y kind of things.
Mr. FIRTH: Yeah. Yeah; not flattering.
Mr. FIRTH: And so, in the end, I thought, `Well, what's second-most
spontaneous to taking all your clothes off and diving into a pond? I
suppose, really, not taking any of them off, really; you know, maybe just
jump in and--which is, basically, how I tried to play it. The jacket comes
off and the vest comes off, while he just sort of sits there and, you know,
thinks for a minute. And then in he goes. And in no way does anybody think
that that is going to start to--you know, that that's going to become a
famously remembered image.
GROSS: Did it affect your career in a positive way?
Mr. FIRTH: I don't know. I really don't know. It's so hard to quantify
these things. I think it must have done--I think that everything you do, I
suppose, takes you in one direction or another. And I can't see that it
would have been negative.
I do--I suppose I have a inclination--I've always, as an actor, had an
inclination towards playing unhappy people; people who might be considered
society's losers and people who are unattractive. I tend to find that work,
as an actor, far more interesting. And playing Mr. Darcy kind of took me a
little bit further away from that. And I think there was a slight misreading
of what kind of actor I was, as a result of that. I think there was a
feeling that this meant that, perhaps, I really was a romantic leading man,
when I'm not, actually. I'm a character actor. And I think that's been
confused because I--of this fairly neutral appearance that I have. But it
was interpreted as a leading-man performance, and it wasn't. Mr. Darcy was
absolutely a piece of character work.
GROSS: In two of your romantic comedies you were in fight scenes. In
"Shakespeare in Love" you're the man Gwyneth Paltrow is supposed to marry
but doesn't want to. And you duel with the man she's really in love with.
In "Bridget Jones," you have a fist fight with Hugh Grant, who's your
romantic rival for Bridget's affections. What's the difference, do you
think, between fighting in a comedy and fighting in a drama?
Mr. FIRTH: Usually, comedy is considered, in some ways, a more difficult
form. It's considered the more serious form. Drama; you have to be
disciplined for it. You put all your intensity behind it. You think, you
know, `Kill.' You think whatever. I think these things may be things you
have to work for and are not that easily attained, but they're certainly not
that complicated. I think, with comedy, they are because you've got to find
an absurdity somewhere in it, without looking as if you're trying to be
funny. I think that the minute any comic actor looks as if they're asking
for a laugh, they won't get one. I think that Hugh and I both had a very
strong, natural sense of the absurd. I think it was our own--hopefully, our
own self mockery that produced that fight. We didn't work very hard on it.
We just thought how would we fight? It's embarrassing to admit it, but that's
probably exactly how Hugh Grant and I would fight, if it came to that.
GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. He's now starring in the film "Bridget
Jones's Diary." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Colin Firth is joining us, if you're just tuning in, and he's now
starring in "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Let me ask you about your coming of age. I know your parents were both
academics. Were they college teachers?
Mr. FIRTH: Yes. Yeah. They're still doing it, now. They're--they
endlessly study and teach various courses. And they're just relentlessly
GROSS: And your grandparents were missionaries in India, I believe?
Mr. FIRTH: That's right, yeah.
GROSS: What denomination were they?
Mr. FIRTH: Well, again, I think that changed through the years. My mother's
parents were both Congregationalist ministers. That--I think that's my
grandmother, as well. And she was ordained in the 1930s, when it was not
that conventional in any church. And my father's father, in the end, was an
Anglican minister. He--they both were--well, all three of them, I should
say, belonged to the Church of South India for a while. My maternal
grandfather rebelled against the Church of South India over certain things.
And I think that's when he went Congregationalist. He became a doctor, in
fact. I think he went out there as a church missionary. This is my maternal
grandfather, and at the age of 38, he decided that he would be of better use
in that country as a doctor. So he decided to get medical training. The only
country in the world that would train a man of that age was the United States,
so he took his family to the United States and went through medical school in
Iowa for seven years and then went back to India and set up practice there in
GROSS: Did your parents practice religion and did you grow up in a religious
Mr. FIRTH: Yes. I think the word `religion' was always treated with a little
bit of caution in my household, but the short answer is definitely yes. My
mother's interest has always been very much in alternative, comparative
religions. She's very pantheistic. She has a lot of mystical interests and
the subject of her fairly recent PhD was death and bereavement in a
Gujarati community in Southampton, for which she learned Hindi and--but she
takes an enormous interest in a large variety of religions and tends to see
merit in all of them. My father--he keeps it much more close to his chest. I
think it's something very personal to him.
GROSS: So one more thing about religion. When you were growing up, did you
find this kind of cross-cultural exposure to religion interesting or too
kooky for you?
Mr. FIRTH: No. I found it fascinating. I mean, it was there from the
start. It was never kooky to me. In fact, the--I found it much more
difficult to adapt, I think, to a school environment where I was listening to
prejudices against those sorts of things. My first four years of my life
were in Nigeria; not that one remembers a lot about the first four years of
one's life, but it did make an impression on me, not least because the people
we'd known there continued to be in our lives, as visitors. And there were
constantly people from India. Both my parents were born and raised in India.
And so there was immense cultural diversity under my own roof throughout my
entire upbringing, and I consider that to be absolutely nothing but a
privilege. And so--and, to me, I suppose, it was the norm. And so I found
any kind of racist remarks or any kind of religious prejudices among my own
peers very, very difficult to take.
GROSS: What brought your parents to Nigeria?
Mr. FIRTH: My father was teaching. He--it was just curiosity. He took an
overseas teaching post in his job as a history teacher in a--I think,
a--what would be the equivalent of a high school.
GROSS: And where else did you love when you were growing up?
Mr. FIRTH: Well, mostly around England after that. We came back and we
traveled around the English provinces. father took a job in another school at
high school level for three or four years and then in a college. And so that
led to a couple of--two or three moves, I think. And then we were a year in
the United States in St. Louis when I was in junior high and then back to
England. And so most of my upbringing has taken place in England.
GROSS: Junior high is a tough time to change environments because I think
most junior high school students have so many hormones raging out of control
that they don't know what they're doing and often do really inappropriate
things. And it's a tough period. Was it a tough time for you?
Mr. FIRTH: I'd been bumped up a year because the English start school a year
earlier than the Americans. We go into first grade--the equivalent of first
grade when Americans go into kindergarten. So the reasoning was that I should
be put in a class of kids a year older than me. And it was a bit of a shock
attached to that because I was--you know, I was an elementary--you know, what
we call a primary schoolboy. And I found the kids around me at this high
school much, much more sophisticated. So it was a difficult adjustment to
I have to say, though, that some of the teaching I had that year is the best
teaching I've ever had. I still remember very clearly my--particularly my
English teacher and my history teacher, my science teacher. And I've
sometimes looked back over my school years and wonder if I really learned
anything at all, but I do look over that year and, despite the fact that it
was a mixed experience, I think--it's one of the only years I can single out
as having specifically remembered what I learned.
GROSS: Colin Firth is starring in the film "Bridget Jones's Diary." He'll
be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: The rare, original cast recording of the 1943 revival of Rodgers &
Hart's "A Connecticut Yankee" was just reissued. Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz
has a review. And we continue our conversation with actor Colin Firth. He'll
read an excerpt of his short story just published by Nick Hornby.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with actor Colin Firth. He's now starring opposite Renee Zellweger in
the film "Bridget Jones's Diary." He also co-starred in "Shakespeare In Love"
and "The English Patient." Now Firth has a short story published in a new
collection edited by the British writer Nick Hornby, who's best known for the
novel "High Fidelity," which was adapted into a film.
Firth starred in the adaptation of Hornby's earlier novel "Fever Pitch."
Firth played Paul, an English teacher and high school soccer coach who's
obsessed with soccer, or football as it's known in England. He's particularly
obsessed with the team Arsenal, which he's loved since his childhood. For the
first time in 18 years, his team has a chance to win the football league
championship, but it's falling behind. Paul's girlfriend, Sarah, played by
Ruth Gemmell, is a serious-minded teacher who has a hard time understanding
Paul's obsession. In this scene, she's come to tell him he didn't get a
promotion at the school where they both teach. Paul is depressed about the
(Soundbite of "Fever Pitch")
Mr. FIRTH: (As Paul) Do you understand what today meant to me? Do you know
how long I've been waiting for this?
Ms. RUTH GEMMELL: (As Sarah) Yes, I do, actually. Eighteen years.
Mr. FIRTH: (As Paul) Yeah, 18 years. Eighteen (censored) years! I wanted
Arsenal to win the league more than I wanted to do anything. And after that
stupid little interview ...(unintelligible) for about two weeks. Don't you
think I'd care about that more?
Ms. GEMMELL: (As Sarah) No. No, no, no. Of course, not. No, I know that
you care more about whether one team scores more than another team at a
football match. You really thought I came here to comfort you about that?
Mr. FIRTH: (As Paul) I did for a moment, yeah. I credited you with some
imagination. I actually thought you might understand how I was feeling.
Ms. GEMMELL: (As Sarah) Paul, it's only a game.
Mr. FIRTH: (As Paul) Don't say that, please! That is the worst, most stupid
thing anyone could say. But it quite clearly isn't only a game. I'm--I mean,
if it wasn't, do you honestly think I'd care this much? Eh? Eighteen years!
Do you know what you wanted 18 years ago? Or 10, or five? Did you want to be
head here, at North London Comprehensive? I doubt it. I doubt if you'd
wanted anything for that long. And if you had, and if you spent three months
thinking that finally, finally you were going to get it, and just when you
think it's there, it's taken away from you. I mean, I don't care what it is,
a car, a job, an Oscar, the baby. Then you'd understand how I was feeling
tonight. But there isn't, and you don't. So...
GROSS: You have a short story that is in a new collection of short stories
edited by Nick Hornby, who's best known for writing "High Fidelity," and there
was a movie adaptation that was made of that not long ago. You also starred
in the movie adaptation of "Fever Pitch," his story about someone who's just
obsessed with soccer, or football, as it's called in England. I'd like you to
read an excerpt of this story for us. And how old is the character in this
Mr. FIRTH: He's 11.
GROSS: And his grandmother is sick and is kind of losing her sense of
orientation, and that's, in large part, what the story's about: his reaction
to seeing this going on around him and watching his parents' reaction to his
grandmother's death. Would you read this excerpt for us?
Mr. FIRTH: `When I got home the next day, Mom and Dad were arguing about
Grandma. Mom was saying that the old lady would exhaust us into the grave and
outlive us all. I couldn't hear what Dad said. Grandma's room is getting
really stinky now. It had always been a bit stinky, but this was more toilety
now. It hadn't been irksome before, but it was now. When I went in, she
suddenly sat up in bed and said, "Where am I?" I said, "You're here in your
room, Grandma." And then she grabbed my arm and she said, "I'm over there.
I'm over there." And she pointed to her photo on the wall of her as a young
girl--Emma, in other words. And I said, "Yes, that's right. That's you."
`And then she pointed to her dressing gown on the back of the door and said,
"There, that's me. There I am." And her hand got tighter on me, which hurt.
Then she started saying my name over and over again, like, "Henry, Henry,
Henry," like that. "Henry, Henry, Henry." And I told her she was hurting me,
but she was shouting really loudly now, and she started saying nutty things,
like, "Put my voice under a walnut tree, Henry, Henry, Henry." That's when
Mum came rushing in, already all red and worked up, going, "Henry, what have
you done?" Then I got free and ran to the door.
`It's funny because then Mum's face changed, and she went over and hugged
Grandma quietly and calmed her down. She rocked her like she was two years
old. When I came out, I saw Dad had been standing at his door listening. He
shut it when he saw me. Later, in my room, Mum did the speech where she had
this patient, wise voice that she always uses for talking bollix, where it's
like, "When you're older, you'll understand that this is not bollix." She
said that Grandma needed me to let go of her, like I had to say goodbye, and
it would be like permission for her to go. I said I could see what she was up
to, and that Mom and Dad and Max and everyone might want her dead, but I
wasn't going to help her with her conspiracy.'
GROSS: Colin Firth, what inspired this story?
Mr. FIRTH: Don't know. I find it very, very difficult to answer any
questions about this. I don't know. I just made it up. It came out of my
head. There must be a better answer to this. It's a very odd thing. My own
grandmother died about two months ago, and for me, you know, to some extent it
was life imitating art rather than the other way around. Story has meant a
great deal to me from the beginning.
GROSS: In this character, your grandmother's a storyteller and tells her
stories all the time, though it's much difficult for her to do it toward the
end of her life.
Mr. FIRTH: Well, I found that interesting, too. I think that, you know, I'm
interested in the idea that, you know, one can have this passion for stories,
and the Grandmother, I feel, calls herself his muse at a certain point because
he listens to her stories, and then he recounts these stories to his
schoolmates and earns a certain amount of popularity for that. And I feel
that wherever one draws inspiration, that that is not necessarily going to be
an inexhaustible spring. I think that you've often got to go and look for it
somewhere else, and I think that when the voice of your muse gets scrambled,
what happens then? And I was interested in that because I would often find--I
thought I'd found an answer here. You know, continually throughout my life, I
perhaps have solved the problem, and then you find that, no, you can't
continue using that resolution. You've got to go and find it somewhere else.
And so I found that the whole business of language and of the loss of the use
of clarity of language was very interesting. And I think that the other
element was the relationship between the very old and the very young, and I
think that it's something that's hugely important. Our society probably
doesn't make quite enough of it. We put old people in homes. I think we're
rather afraid of seeing what happens to them. I think we have a very, very
big taboo in Western society about death. I think its a taboo that's arguably
bigger than sex was to the Victorians.
GROSS: And in the story, though, the boy has a dream just before his
grandmother dies that her dentures are talking; her dentures not in her mouth
are talking. And I know several people who've had death dreams or death
premonitions that had to do with teeth.
Mr. FIRTH: Oh, is that right?
Mr. FIRTH: Now that's interesting because this really was just some wacky
thing I made up. So I'd never heard that. So you're telling me that this has
actually come up as a bit of a syndrome?
GROSS: Well, it kind of rang true to me, I'll say that.
Mr. FIRTH: How interesting.
Mr. FIRTH: I wonder what that is. I don't know whether--I mean, teeth are--I
don't know. I would hate to even try to analyze it.
GROSS: Right. So you didn't have a grandmother who was dying when you were
Mr. FIRTH: No. No, I am in the extremely fortunate position of having had
all four grandparents alive still at the age--when I was 34. So, you know,
they've all gone now, but...
GROSS: If this isn't too personal, who was the first person close to you who
Mr. FIRTH: My mother's father.
GROSS: And this was just a couple of months ago?
Mr. FIRTH: No, that was six years ago.
Mr. FIRTH: But I hadn't experienced any death at all in my family until 34.
So one can carry a strange, irrational feeling inside oneself that nobody ever
dies in one's family. Of course, you know, intellectually you're waiting for
it, and you can see people getting older, but until you actually feel it,
there's a sense of immortality. And so it was--again, I say it was the most
enormous blessing in my life that I had these people around me for so long.
I had--there have been people of my age, friends, who have died for various
reasons, and that experience goes back to childhood. You know, a very close
friend of mine died on a motorcycle when we were both teen-agers, you know.
And so it's been kind of topsy-turvy. I've lost people who are young, but not
so many people who are old.
GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. He's now starring in the film "Bridget
Jones's Diary." His short story is published in the new book "Speaking with
the Angel." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Colin Firth. He's now starring in the film "Bridget
Jones's Diary." When we left off, we were talking about a short story he
wrote about the death of a grandmother.
Now, I mean, death is something you've had to deal with in movies; characters
die, characters react to people who die. I mean, you....
Mr. FIRTH: I myself have died, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And you've just done "Hamlet," where everybody dies.
Mr. FIRTH: Yes, that's right.
GROSS: So when you're, you know, doing a play or a movie in which there is
death, do you find that you have to think about death a lot and kind of
mentally take yourself to that place in order to get into the right place for
the role, or is that asking too much?
Mr. FIRTH: No, it's not asking too much, and I think that one does think
about it. I don't think of death as a horrible, morbid subject. I mean, this
goes back to this feeling I had of it being a taboo. I think it's not at all.
I think that it's actually--it can be seen as a possibly, you know, not only
reconcilable, but creative thing to take on board.
GROSS: Well, what kind of beliefs about death were you brought up with? You
know, we talked earlier about your parents and grandparents. You had a couple
of grandparents who were missionaries. Your mother you've described as being
more pantheistic, and she wrote a dissertation recently about religion, and you
were exposed to many different religions when you were growing up. What did
your parents tell you about death?
Mr. FIRTH: Well, I think that what I'm--I suppose the views that I'm trying
to expound probably originated there. As I said, my father doesn't usually
express philosophy very much in that area. You know, he allows doubts to be
doubts, and I think I would go along with that, really. I don't think I feel
very certain about anything from a philosophical point of view. My mother has
a very strong interest in concepts of the afterlife. Again, I don't think she
has a fixed view, but she has actually done research into the whole business
of, you know, clinical death, the death that takes place on the operating
table where people come back again, where she's interviewed a lot of people
and she's actually published stuff on that.
And so, you know, I have grown up with an awareness of concepts that death is
a transition, that it leads to something else, that it's--I remember being
captivated as a child by the idea of, you know, the analogy of the caterpillar
coming out of the cocoon and becoming a butterfly, and finding out that,
apparently, the ancient Greek word for butterfly was `psyche' and that, you
know, somehow it could be a release. And I do love that idea. And as I said,
I have no certainty. This is not built into a belief or a belief system or a
practice or anything.
GROSS: Or an ideology or anything, huh?
Mr. FIRTH: No, not really. But I do find those issues quite fascinating. I
don't necessarily know that the most important view of death is about that and
how glorious an afterlife might be, but I think that it's the one great
inevitability we all face, and I think that facing it can only be a good
GROSS: While we're talking about death and life, you have a new baby.
Mr. FIRTH: That's right.
GROSS: How's it changing your sense of yourself to be a father?
Mr. FIRTH: Well, it's not the first time I'm a father. I've been a father
for 10 years.
Mr. FIRTH: This is now the second time, and I would say it's probably--you
know, talking about my children, you know, is not something I like to do in
great detail. But I think it's certainly fair to say that I would consider it
the biggest and most important change that I've ever gone through. I think it
totally gave me a different sense of myself. I think the--you know, there are
an awful lot of cliches about this in the sense of priorities and whatever.
All that did happen to me. I found it a much wilder experience than I had
expected. You know, many, many years ago I didn't expect to want children. I
didn't want them. I didn't think, you know, that that was my script. And
then, you know, I changed my mind; I didn't have any children by accident.
And I was astonished at how much, you know--it just gave me a better
relationship with myself, I think, and tested me in ways which I didn't
I think my view of fatherhood previously had been middle age, slippers, pipe,
boredom and death, really; death in a bad way, just sort of slow death by
comfort. And, you know, I couldn't have been more wrong. I found it the most
invigorating and rejuvenating thing imaginable.
GROSS: Well, one more thing, and we only have about a minute left. You know,
earlier you read an excerpt of a short story you wrote that Nick Hornby
published in a new collection. Do you write a lot? Was this story unusual,
or have you been writing?
Mr. FIRTH: Writing's been a hobby of mine for years, and I enjoy it.
Just--as I said, I love storytelling. I read and I like to write and think
things up. I've never had a huge ambition to be published, so it has remained
a kind of hobby. I sometimes exchange stories with friends. I have a couple
of friends who also write a little bit. And it's often been just to, you
know, appeal to somebody's sense of humor as much as anything else. But, yes,
GROSS: And Nick Hornby knew that you wrote?
Mr. FIRTH: Yes. He was encouraging me to do it. He wanted me to--for quite
some time, actually, he'd been just giving me a little nudge every so often in
the belief that I could come up with something worth publishing. So I owe him
a great debt, actually, for making me finally actually put that into action.
GROSS: Well, Colin Firth, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FIRTH: Thank you. It's been a privilege.
GROSS: Colin Firth is now starring in the film "Bridget Jones's Diary." His
short story is published in the book "Speaking with the Angel," edited by Nick
Coming up, a new reissue of the 1943 cast recording of Rodgers & Hart's "A
Connecticut Yankee." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New release of "A Connecticut Yankee" cast recording
TERRY GROSS, host:
One of the rarest of all original Broadway cast recordings is the 1943 revival
of Rodgers & Hart's "A Connecticut Yankee." It's been commercially
unavailable since the days of the 78. The masters were thought to be lost,
but a master recording was found a couple of years ago, and Decca Broadway has
just reissued the album. Classic music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.
(Soundbite of music)
LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:
One of the happiest inspirations Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart ever had was
to turn Mark Twain's comic novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court"
into a Broadway show. Twain's cheeky, cheek-by-jowel juxtaposition of
Arthurian legend and contemporary America play to the special strengths of
Rodgers and Hart. In their witty blending of musical and linguistic styles,
formality and dignity show up the triviality and silliness of contemporary
lingo. And jazzy slang, in turn, punctures inflated, highbrow
(Soundbite of "A Connecticut Yankee")
Unidentified Man: ...thinks thou swell, thou witty, thou sweet, thou grand.
Wouldst kiss me, pretty? Wouldst hold my hand? For thine eyes are cued to
what they do to me. Hear me holler. I choose a sweet lalapaloosa in thee.
I'd feel so rich in a hearth for two. Two rooms and kitchen, I'm sure, would
do. Give me just a plot of, not a lot of, land, and thou swell, thou witty,
SCHWARTZ: Back in light-hearted 1927, before the Wall Street bust, "A
Connecticut Yankee" became one of Rodgers & Hart's biggest hits. In 1943, it
seemed like a great idea to revive a show in which the hero saves his hide
through particularly American ingenuity. Book writer Herbert Fields updated
the story a little. Hart added some of his cleverest, new lyrics. And
Rodgers added some tunes in the more sentimental style he had just embarked on
with his new partner, Oscar Hammerstein II in "Oklahoma!," the homespun
musical that marked a big turning away from the glorious era of sophistication
and wit that Hart embodied. It's a perfect emblem of this transition that
Rodgers & Hart's last show and Rodgers and Hammerstein's first were running on
Broadway at the same time.
The cast of "Connecticut Yankee" included matinee idol Dick Feran(ph) and, to
use her own word in the show, the hoydenish Vera Ellen, a pretty dancer
with an irresistible tomboy croak. I think Hollywood later kept her from
becoming a bigger star by having trained singers dub her voice. Here's her
real voice in the teasing "I Feel At Home With You."
(Soundbite of "I Feel At Home With You")
Ms. VERA ALLEN: (Singing) I used to be a hoyden. Boys were my hate. I was
a lady hermit. I couldn't be annoyed in making a date. Silly, I would term
it. You seem so daring, my heart grew frail. Now I like wearing my coat of
SCHWARTZ: The biggest star of "A Connecticut Yankee" was Broadway legend
Vivienne Segal, who four years earlier created the role of the wealthy society
lady who becomes bewitched, bothered and bewildered by her low-life lover in
Rodgers & Hart's most worldly-wise musical, "Pal Joey." This devilish catalog
song for Segal, as the bloodthirsty Morgan le Fay, was probably and fittingly
Hart's very last lyric.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. VIVIENNE SEGAL: (Singing) I married many men, a ton of them, and yet I
was untrue to none of them because I bumped off every one of them to keep my
love alive. Sir Paul was frail. He looked a wreck to me. At night, he was a
horse's neck to me. So I performed an appendectomy to keep my love alive.
Sir Thomas had insomnia. He couldn't sleep at night. I bought a little
arsenic. He's sleeping now all right. Sir Roger played the harp. I cussed
the thing. I crowned him with his harp to bust the thing. And now he plays
that harp for just the thing to keep my love alive, to keep my love alive.
SCHWARTZ: In some ways, so many of these classic theater songs are about
language itself, how playing with words can be exhilarating, touching, even
sexy. One of my favorite songs, "It Never Entered My Mind," is included on
the new "Connecticut Yankee" CD, along with several covers of songs from two
other early 1940s Rodgers & Hart musicals. It's sung here by Shirley Ross,
who is best known for introducing "Thanks for the Memory" with Bob Hope.
(Soundbite of "It Never Entered My Mind")
Ms. SHIRLEY ROSS (Singing) Once I laughed when I heard you say that I'd be
playing solitaire. Uneasy in my easy chair, it never entered my mind. Once
you told me I was mistaken; that I'd awaken with the sun and order orange
juice for one. It never entered my mind. You have what I lack myself, and
now I even have to scratch my back myself. Once...
SCHWARTZ: `Uneasy in my easy chair,' `orange juice for one'--Rodgers'
insinuating anthem caresses Hart's touchingly ironic lyric, which I think
stands up to any love poem written in the last century.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is director of the creative writing program at the
University of Massachusetts, Boston, and classical music editor of The Boston
(Soundbite of "A Connecticut Yankee")
Chorus: (In unison) Thou swell, thou witty, thou sweet, thou grand...
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Chorus: (In unison) ...lalapaloosa in thee. I'd feel so rich in a hearth for
two. Two rooms and kitchen, I'm sure, would do. Give me just a plot of, not
a lot of, land, and thou swell, thou witty, thou grand.
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