10:07 p.m. EDT April 13, 2014
(Photo: Stan Godlewski for USA TODAY)
"You're a bit part in a farce. You're not the star of some big tragedy. If you lose your sense of the absurd, you're likely to become miserable. Don't take this lofty position that the fruit baskets and first-class travel are vulgar. Laugh it off. You're not winning a Nobel Prize for science. We're not that important. Treat it as a rather enjoyable farce," says Firth. "All we do is what we like. We put on costumes and pretend, which is very similar to what I was doing when I was 5."
And yet, says Firth, treat your work, and those who do it with you, with respect. "Every so often, you get brought up short that you had a brush with something important. This story is important and you're entrusted with that," he says of his and Irvine's film, about a tortured World War II prisoner who forgives his tormentors.
Firth and Irvine have a pretty solid connection.
"If I have half the career Colin has had and could be half as decent…" muses Irvine.
Firth still makes ladies swoon for his portrayal of dreamy Mr. Darcy in the 1995 British TV adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and won a best-actor Oscar for playing a stuttering monarch in 2010's The King's Speech. And Irvine carried Steven Spielberg's 2011 epic War Horse before being hand-picked by Firth to play the youthful version of train engineer turned POW Eric Lomax in The Railway Man.
Seeing someone so chiseled and fresh-faced playing him is, admits Firth, "a little humbling, I'm afraid. Particularly as I'm being told that he does a better Colin Firth than I do. I think it might be time to retire."
But not before he and Irvine discuss and dissect all the perks and perils of their chosen careers.
On choosing their roles wisely: For Firth, who has starred in musicals (Mamma Mia!), romantic romps (Bridget Jones's Diary) and shadowy capers (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), it comes down to what feels right in the moment. Sometimes, he's up for a lark. Other times, he craves something more serious. "I find the criteria change every time. This one, heavily weighing in the scales was the importance of the story and why the hell wasn't it told," says Firth. And for Irvine, a World War II buff, it came down to the importance of telling this particular story. "It's also a movie about the very best in people. I can't relate to what Eric went through but I can't imagine forgiving someone. That's one of the most extraordinary things," says Irvine, who vacillates between big studio films and smaller fare like Railway Man.
On being a public figure: Firth, dapper and debonair as he is, is someone who lives his life behind closed doors, by choice. He's married to Italian environmental activist Livia Giuggioli, and has two sons with her, Luca, 13 and Matteo, 10 (and an older son from a relationship with actress Meg Tilly). "It's not my life plan to be private but I've never intended otherwise. I've never had an instinct to do it any other way. When I was Jeremy's age, I never imagined my work would put me in front of a camera. I liked doing plays. I didn't bargain for any level of recognition, really," says Firth. "My instinct to retreat when I'm not on is a driving force. I wear the same things most of the time when I show up now. It's a single body armor for that duty. And the rest is simply nobody's business." For Irvine, it's still a learning process when he's recognized. "When someone catches you off-guard, when you're out shopping, I often think I'm more nervous than them," he says.
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