Firth extols Coward's 'Virtue'

By KAREN BUTLER  |  May 20, 2009 at 12:05 AM
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NEW YORK, May 19 (UPI) -- British actor Colin Firth says he was well-versed in Noel Coward's work long before he signed on to star in "Easy Virtue," a film based on a Coward play.

Asked if he was a big fan of the scribe, Firth told United Press International in New York recently: "Yes. ... We grow up with it, really."

"I had done a Noel Coward film before," the 48-year-old actor added. "It didn't really get out there very much. It was a film of 'Relative Values.'"

Firth pointed out that 2000 movie, much like the upcoming "Easy Virtue," was about "an aristocratic family where the son brings home an American girl and the mother doesn't approve."

"I didn't play quite the same kind of guy," the film star said, comparing his "Virtue" and "Values" characters.

"I was the gay sidekick making the kind of acidic remarks," Firth said of his part in the earlier "Values." In "Virtue," a comedy co-starring Ben Barnes and Jessica Biel due in U.S. theaters Friday, Firth portrays a reserved World War I veteran who is trapped in an unhappy marriage and who is more accepting than his stoic wife is of his son's new bride.

"Coward, I think, it's quite sobering to remember how serious and emotional and intense some of his material was, as well," the actor noted. "Things like 'Brief Encounter,' I think, in British cinema, is one of the masterpieces of unspoken passion. You've got all this politeness ... Whenever 'Brief Encounter' was made, in the 1950s, this idea of politeness and drinking tea at a railway station with Rachmaninoff playing as the score and these huge tides of emotion underneath, I think, are quite compelling. I think Noel Coward brilliantly specializes in that sort of thing. It's an amazing place to look for undercurrents."

That said, Firth emphasized his contemporary countrymen aren't typically stuffy aristocrats, despite the perception he has helped perpetuate through some of his most famous screen roles.

"Actually, I don't think (English people) are very uptight at all. They're just not. It's a fantasy," said the star of TV's "Pride and Prejudice," and the movies "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually," "What A Girl Wants" and "Mamma Mia!"

"Mick Jagger. Johnny Rotten. Everyone keeps going back to the guy with the bowler hat and the pinstripes and the people I've played. They're not very common in England, really," Firth insisted. "I think we can mess with these stereotypes all we like, but no one ever says, 'John Lennon, typical English guy.' Why not? That's who we all grow up wanting to be. Having said that, I've probably done more to sell that other stereotype than anybody, but I don't think it's very real."

"Virtue" director Stephan Elliott said Firth and his co-star Kristin Scott Thomas hesitated at first about taking the roles of man and wife he offered them.

"Kristin and Colin both said to me they've done this film and I said, 'You haven't,'" Elliott said.

"We rolled Mr. Darcy in the mud," he boasted, referring to Firth's "Pride and Prejudice" romantic hero. "We fattened him up. We put facial hair on him. We let him dress like a slob and he doesn't speak during the film. He's got one big war speech and about five lines. ... (Firth) actually found it very difficult and we were jumping up and down on Mr. Darcy; we were killing him and in that instance he had never done that before.

"And both of them -- he and Kristin -- had never played 50 before and that's big for an actor. You think about how difficult that was to actually be the father and the mother of two grown-up kids ... That was big for both of them, to take that jump, of saying they're ready for the next level of their lives.

"And Kristin hated it. She's gorgeous and she turned up, we put a crappy wig on her and old-lady makeup and a terrible cardigan and she was almost in tears and that worked for me. She wasn't happy and I said, 'Then, we're going to use that.'"

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