Unlikely spy Colin Firth talks suits and espionage
IT IS the afternoon after the night of the world premiere before and the mood along a series of interconnected suites in Claridges is rather wilted. Since the espresso machine in the press holding area ran out of pods, the promotional engine for Kingsman: The Secret Service has been running on fumes. People wander the corridor as if in slo-mo, and the film’s youngest star, Taron Egerton, has crumpled into a sofa with a cushion, closing his eyes as the light fades outside. Only Colin Firth seems to have reserve power left: striding through a doorway in a charcoal suit that would not disgrace a Frenchman, and flashing an encouraging grin at the weary 25-year-old in the corner.
Suits are a cornerstone of the Firth image: urbane, enduring, and appealingly buttoned up. “It’s ironic really,” he says. “One of the reasons I became an actor was because I wouldn’t have to wear suits. When I was starting out, I’d thought, ‘Well I won’t become a boring middle-aged man in a suit. I’m going to be a free spirit.’ I only really came to understand a good suit when I made A Single Man and realised that it does the work for you; it affects your bearing and makes you look good.”
Directed by the fashion designer Tom Ford, A Single Man didn’t just make Firth look good, it won him his first Oscar nomination as a grief-stricken academic who hardly dared to loosen his cufflinks in case he fell apart. Five years on, Firth’s double-breasted suits in Kingsman represent a different kind of self-protection. There’s a line in this enjoyable mash-up of Bond agents, Men From Uncle and other dapper super spies which describes the Kingsmen as latter-day knights with suits as modern armour. Designed by Mr Porter, even the tailoring is bullet-proof.
Based on the comic book, The Secret Service by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar, Kingsman introduces a plummy elite circle who use Arthurian heroes as codenames and a Savile Row shop as their headquarters. Firth looks very Ipcress File with his dark-rimmed spectacles – and in one of the film’s umpteen in-jokes, the original Harry Palmer, Michael Caine, turns up as the leader of the Kingsmen.
Egerton is a new recruit; an unrefined petty criminal brought in by Firth and taught everything from table manners to occasion-appropriate footwear. To the trainee, and the audience, the Kingsmen are more like accountants than action men, but Firth’s Harry Hart can despatch a pub full of thugs without dislodging his glasses. For last night’s premiere audience, it was a moment as startling as Dame Judi Dench twerking.
Strictly speaking, this is not Firth’s first action role. “You didn’t see Bridget Jones?” he teases. “Hugh Grant and me in the street, pulling each other’s hair? That’s what established me as a killing machine.” OK, this isn’t even his second action role if you recall The Last Legion, which starred a cross-gartered Firth as the Roman commander Aurelius. Perhaps not one for the ages, but he did get to wave a sword around. However, Kingsman takes Firth to a new place, a place where he crunches bones with his bare fists and knocks out teeth with a business umbrella.
“This is entirely the director’s fault,” according to Firth. “Matthew Vaughn likes to mess with people’s expectations. When we first talked about it, I was as sceptical as anyone about taking it on, until he said, ‘One of the reasons I’m casting you is because you’re probably the last person anyone could imagine kicking off the villains.’ The improbability is the surprise. That’s why he cast Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate in Stardust. He likes to flip your expectations.”
Vaughn also wanted Firth, now 54, to perform as many of his own stunts as possible, and sent him to a team of trainers “so I could look as if I was beating the crap out of people”. I happened to meet Firth last winter; by then he had been working out three hours a day for six months and was looking very lean.
“I had a rather fine one pack,” he concedes. “I was completely out of my depth, and the first month was extraordinarily painful. I had this league of extraordinary gentlemen, including an Olympic gymnast, a champion Thai boxer, a special forces guy, James Bond’s stunt driver, an armaments guy and Jackie Chan’s trainer. At one point there were five men all gathered to help me do a somersault. If you are an older man, who has never been an athlete, the big challenge is moving the lower body, so there were squats and lunges just to get me going. I did some of my workouts in the back garden at home with them – which greatly amused my kids, who mocked me at every opportunity.”
Eventually, to his surprise, Firth started to enjoy himself. “I can’t pretend I loved the first month, but I did start to love the camaraderie with all these athletes trying to make me look as if I could fight them all, and win.”
“We’ve both got the bruises to show for it,” chips in Egerton, from his cushion. “Colin broke a tooth.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t going to complain when surrounded by all these guys,” says Firth. “Going back to pointing my suit at people and talking was hard to do afterwards.”
Firth and Egerton have been criss-crossing America and the UK for Kingsman for the past month, and so far the response has been positive, although inevitably given that many set-pieces revolve around high-octane fights and body count there have been questions about its 15 certificate carnage.
Last month he told a magazine that he was “still processing” his first brush with cartoonish violence. Has he reached any conclusions about Kingsman’s gun battles since then? A thoughtful man, Firth considers everything – politics, career, and family – quite deeply. His conclusion here is that the attention is “misdirected”.
“When you show any kind of aggression or brutality in drama – whether it’s from cavemen, through Greeks, Shakespeare or Webster, through to Punch and Judy shows – story-telling is going to contain violence. The question is why, and what effect are you trying to achieve?” he says. His co-star is listening, nodding. “Is it to titillate, is it to horrify, is it to repulse? There are certainly things that aim at that.”
In cinemas, or even just channel surfing TV over the past few months, Firth found more graphic scenes than in Kingsman: The Secret Service. “I’ve seen the death of children, I’ve seen scenes of torture, I’ve seen people’s insides spilling out, blood spurting everywhere; I’ve seen people exhibiting terror at being killed or shot. Kingsman has none of the above: the blood is more minimal than just about every action film that you’ve seen.
“I’m not going to try to pretend that it’s worthy – the film’s not trying to be that. It’s trying to go close to some edges because Matthew Vaughn is being mischievous and outrageous, but the action sequences are more to do with energy and intensity. This is Biff! Pow! Move on! It’s not dwelling on any suffering or cruelty. Of course, there’s a body count in the wild fight and action sequences, but then there’s a moment of grief and shock.”
This is the sort of discussion Firth enjoys, mostly because it’s new territory for him, unlike the where-do-you-keep-your-King’s-Speech-Oscar question, or his thoughts on Mr Darcy, a decades-old perennial now so hoary that he struggles to find new ways of expressing gratitude to his Pride And Prejudice launchpad. Yet there is one question that Firth claims he has never been asked which is: “Would you like to play James Bond?”
Naively, I thought every British actor got offered Bond, with dim memories of Ewan McGregor, Dougray Scott, Charles Dance, Gerard Butler, Hugh Grant, Idris Elba and a conga of other British names that have been attached to 007 over the years. “Really?” says Firth, surprised. Egerton comes to life again, like a dormouse at a tea party. “Everyone gets offered Bond?” he scoffs.
“I don’t know anybody who’d turn down Bond,” says Firth. “Certainly I wasn’t offered it. Not a sniff of interest.” In any case, along with the rest of the world, he thinks the current in-cumbent is doing rather well: “I know there was scepticism about Daniel Craig at first, and so it was very gratifying that when the film came out, it shut right up, because he was so brilliant.”
There’s a neat little swipe at New Bond in Kingsman, when Firth and the megalomaniac villain of the film, Samuel L Jackson, trade subtextual banter about the absurdity of spy movies. “Nowadays they’re a little serious for my taste,” observes Firth, as Harry. “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.”
Arguably Firth would have made a rather good Bond once his lower half had been sufficiently shaken and stirred. He can do the patrician style and bearing, and might have introduced an interesting shade of angst into Bond’s character. However I don’t think he’d enjoy reprising the same character in subsequent adventures, a duty that he and his Bridget Jones co-star Hugh Grant agree is “like putting on a wet bathing costume.”
It’s not as if he has to worry about where the next job is coming from either, although “there’s always the question of where the next good job is coming from”. Firth is measured about success. He says he never weighs up whether a role might be Oscar bait, and anyway, awards ceremonies are not his favourite thing because even if you win, you have stay sober for the rest of the night for a round of interviews that can go on until 6am the next morning.
Once The King’s Speech was released, everyone thought it was a surefire hit – “but every studio rejected it because it’s about two middle-aged men making friends. No sex, no car chases”.
Almost imperceptibly, Firth has slid the focus of recent films from romance to bromance: Kingsman is another film about two men making a connection. It’s been characterised as a latter-day Henry Higgins instructing a hoodie Eliza Doolittle about the value of good manners and fine tailoring, but Firth grimaces a little when the question of real-life mentoring comes up.
“We’ve been asked that a lot,” says Egerton, cheerfully. “He hates it when I say it’s lovely to work with your heroes.”
“If someone wants to put me in a paternal role, that’s great,” says Firth. “But people assume age gives you seniority in this business, when it doesn’t. When I was Taron’s age, the only people younger than me were kids. Now the people half my age are adults, and they are chasteningly talented, and mostly I think, ‘I couldn’t do that at their age.’ It’s a rethink that keeps me on my toes. And when Taron has a bad day, I can identify with that. Not because I’m thinking back to my youth, but because I had one myself the day before.”
The main difference between the two is the use of social media. Egerton regularly uses Twitter and Facebook, while Firth shies away from both.
“Your wife uses Twitter, doesn’t she?” says Egerton.
“Er, yes,” Firth admits. Livia, his wife of 17 years, has been carving out a career of her own, promoting environmental issues, and the pair of them campaign on behalf of refugees and fair trade. “Twitter works if it’s about a cause, I think.”
Professionally Firth is on a roll. He’s filming Genius in Manchester, where he plays New York publisher Max Perkins, who guided the likes of Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. Then there’s a thriller, Eye In The Sky, to be produced by Firth’s own company Raindog Films. Egerton is also doing rather well: named one of the stars of 2015 by Variety, he’s about to play gangster Teddy Smith opposite Tom Hardy’s Kray twins in Legend.
When the publicist comes to scoop them up, they both shake my hand as if they were polite bank managers rather than movie players. Egerton apologises for his jet lag and instinctively, Firth rebuttons his suit and shoots his cuffs to prepare for the next entrance. After so much bespoke wear, he must be ruined for mortal clothes. Can he bear to face the world decked out in mere jeans or tracky bottoms?
Firth breaks into a wide smile. “I’m afraid that I mostly do.” And off he goes, encased in his press-proof armour.
• Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) is in cinemas from Thursday