Despite the many roles he’s played over his career, including his Oscar-winning turn in The King’s Speech, Colin Firth remains synonymous with the iconic character on which he made his name: Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Despite the 2005 film adaptation starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen, it’s the TV mini-series arguably remains the best-loved take on Austen’s novel – particularly thanks to Firth’s turn as Darcy.
It may come as a surprise, then, that Firth has voiced some regret about taking the role of Darcy in the first place. In addition, you might not have known that, as well as having legendary chemistry on screen, Firth and Elizabeth Bennett actress Jennifer Ehle also enjoyed a brief romance in real life.
Colin Firth was 34 years old and had been a working actor for over a decade when Pride and Prejudice came around. Once dubbed part of the ‘Brit Pack’ (a new generation of emerging, edgy British actors in the 80s which included Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), the Hampshire-born Firth notched up plenty of theatre, film and TV credits, yet without attaining typical celebrity status.
Firth met American actress Meg Tilly on the set of 1989’s Valmont (an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, rivalling the Glenn Close-led production), and a relationship ensued. The actor lived with Tilly in Canada for a number of years, fathering their son William Firth (himself now an actor), before they split in 1994.
The recently single Firth found himself offered the role of Mr. Darcy in the BBC mini-series based on Jane Austen’s classic novel, but initially he wasn’t interested, largely because he was totally unfamiliar with the source material. “I didn’t have the slightest clue on earth [who] Darcy was. I hadn’t read any Jane Austen at all, chiefly because when her novels were offered as potential coursework at school, I thought they’d be rather, well, sissy. And I certainly never dreamed of lifting an Austen off the library shelves or at a bookstall.”
Still, on reading the script Firth “was only about five pages in when I was hooked,” but he remained unconvinced that Darcy was the part for him. “I couldn’t see there was anything to play because the character doesn’t speak most of the time. I thought this is just a guy who stands around for hours driving people to despair.”
Firth wasn’t the only one who needed convincing. BBC 1 controller Alan Yentob thought the actor was “not handsome enough” for the role, and writer Andrew Davies, who adapted Austen’s novel, admits “I never saw him as a Darcy,” also based on looks. “I was doubtful about him because of his gingerish hair and Mr Darcy with that colour hair would not have been right… The only answer was to dye his hair to a dark brown going on black for the part.”
Firth could have contested this (as he points, out, “if you read the book there is no physical description of [Darcy] except that he is tall”), but he went along for the sake of winning the part. Then, once Pride and Prejudice aired and hearts went aflutter at Firth, any questions about his sex appeal were thrown out of the window – particularly when it came to that scene in which Elizabeth encounters Mr Darcy in a soaking wet shirt, after he takes an impromptu swim.
The wet shirt scene has become one of the first things people associate with Pride and Prejudice, which is somewhat ironic as it was entirely the invention of the TV adaptation and does not happen in Jane Austen’s book. Moreover, as written in the original script, it would have been considerably racier: Firth explains, “The wet shirt scene was supposed to be a total male-frontal nudity scene, because that’s how men went bathing in those days.” The BBC would not agree to this, hence it was changed to have him still clothed.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies insists the scene “wasn’t just for titillating the audience, it was about nature and culture. It was my notion that Darcy was a natural man but he spent all his time constrained by the demands of society… He had a few hours in which he could be blissfully alone, blissfully himself.”
Intentional or not, the scene sent pulses racing and is still talked about to this day, as is the smouldering chemistry between Firth and co-star Jennifer Ehle. This may not have been entirely acting, however, as in a classic life-imitating-art scenario, Firth and Ehle became a couple in real life after meeting on set, and were together for about a year. Remarkably, given the intense interest in Pride and Prejudice, their romance managed to stay out of the papers. Firth recalls, “[the press] only discovered it after it was over.”
Jennifer Ehle says much the same thing: “By the time Pride and Prejudice came out, we were not a couple. The way our so-called ‘affair’ was reported was so wrong. We were two single people in a proper relationship which ended.” They seem to have parted amicably, as Ehle describes Firth as “a very nice guy and a great actor.” Ehle married writer Michael Ryan in 2001, and they are still together; Firth wed Italian producer Livia Giuggioli in 1997, but they divorced in 2019. (He’s since reported to have been dating American writer and producer Maggie Cohn.)
We might assume that Firth and Ehle having real feelings for one another would help their performances, but Firth contests this. “I actually find that if you’re involved with an actress that you’re having to tell a love story with, it’s more difficult. I don’t find it easy to draw on it. Your relationship, your feelings aren’t the same as those of the characters. She’s not that person. And you’re not telling your own story. So I think you have to put all your own stuff aside completely and reconceive your relationship as other people.”
Pride and Prejudice was a British ratings smash that proved popular internationally and won accolades at the Emmys and BAFTA Awards: Ehle was awarded Best Actress, although Firth lost out on Best Actor to Robbie Coltrane in Cracker. Not that missing out on major awards hurt Firth’s career any; having been established as the small screen’s biggest heartthrob, he was suddenly awash with high-profile job offers.
Through it all, though, Darcy was the role everyone associated him with. The actor’s career has been littered with callbacks to his signature role, most notably when he appeared opposite Renée Zellweger in the Bridget Jones movies as Mark Darcy, a character inspired by Firth’s own performance in Pride and Prejudice. Firth also re-enacted his famous wet shirt scene in 2007 comedy St. Trinian’s.
Even so, Firth has often found Darcy to be something of an albatross on his neck. He’s insisted the role “wasn’t the most rigorous or challenging thing I’ve done,” and asked if he’d play the role again, he flatly replied, “No, I’d be bored s**tless.” The actor also half-jokingly complained, “If I spent 20 years training to be an astronaut, the headlines would still say ‘Darcy Lands On Mars!'”
On other occasions, Firth has spoken more diplomatically: “This was a great role and it was a major event in my career, certainly. But I don’t think it was all that helpful, because It tended to create this image that can restrict what kind of roles you are going to be able to find. Looking good and strutting around is very boring. I wanted to do other things as an actor.”
Above all, Firth remains bewildered by how his performance as Darcy made him such a sex symbol, as he explained in 2016: “Women being attracted to him took me by surprise. I thought it would be quite fun and liberating to play someone who was completely and utterly dislikeable, unsympathetic, judgemental and snobbish.
“I didn’t have to think about bringing charm to the role – the way I saw it, I just had to stand there and make everyone hate me… then this weird thing happened where people liked him, which wasn’t what I was expecting at all! We’re 20 years on and I still don’t understand it.”