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It’s true: Firth likes ABBA

Times Staff Writer

LONDON -- There was a time in Colin Firth’s youth when he regarded the music of ABBA with the same sort of disdain he saved for, say, reading a Jane Austen novel.

Austen?

“Wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole,” he said. “It seemed girl stuff.”

And ABBA, the musical inspiration for his latest movie, “Mamma Mia!”?

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“You wouldn’t be attracting the opposite sex by wearing an ABBA T-shirt,” he said, adding: “I was a Hendrix man.”

But at 47, Firth -- a star of the new movie version of the worldwide stage smash -- has found that one of life’s most exhilarating experiences is shedding preconceived notions about culture and entertainment.

To call him a Jane Austen fan these days would be an understatement: His decision to play Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1995 BBC version of “Pride and Prejudice” made him a Janeite pin-up, the wet shirt scene forever held on pause. And now, with his role as Harry Bright in “Mamma Mia!” -- which opens today nationwide -- the quintessential English actor has taken a fresh look at the band that he and his high-school mates in southern England once ridiculed and disdained.

The actor has been on the road for weeks promoting “Mamma Mia!,” traveling everywhere from Greece to Amsterdam.

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The stop in London, for the recent premiere there, was one of the most rewarding, reuniting the cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Stellan Skarsgard, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters and producers Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson.

Unshaven and casually dressed on the morning after that premiere, Firth sipped cappuccino at a members-only club near his home in a quiet outer London neighborhood. He explained how his cultural roots actually were planted deep in American soil and then somehow grew to include a Swedish disco band that sang in English.

“I think it’s time we all came out,” he said. “I think you either like ABBA or you’re lying.”

Firth is relaxed in a comfortable chair in a modern space more cafe than Mayfair club, overlooking a wide quiet road of fashionable shops and strolling pedestrians. (It’s one of the few places in London where it’s hard to find a passing cab.) The actor’s brother-in-law has a shop up the way, selling green furniture and household accessories. (The business plan was inspired by Al Gore’s efforts to stop global warming.)

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Firth and his interviewer have the place to themselves except for the noisy barista working the espresso machine and stacking crockery on the bar. The bright light of a sunny early morning in London floods in through banks of tall windows.

Firth brings to his new role not only an astonishing range of film and television experience but also a certain kind of intellectual masculinity, honed by years of reading William Faulkner and D.H. Lawrence and listening to American folk songs, along with a variety of English underground music and experimental jazz .

The son of an American history teacher who specialized in 1960s folk music and the civil rights movement, pop was never played in his boyhood home. “I came from a class and a generation of English people -- it wasn’t conscious snobbery, it’s just that pop was really for other people,” he said. “We were listening instead to Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez.

“The ‘60s had a big effect on me. I grew up with a fascination for America and a passion for America.”

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By the 1970s, he was listening to music that made him seem cool. “I was looking for the most obscure music I could find -- Soft Machine, Little Feat. Also Hendrix.”

Relaxed but reserved, his conversation is at first guarded but then eases into that English version of intimacy -- self-depreciating humor, dry and complex, like a good gin.

Like Austen, he understands how well irony mixes with a healthy dose of wit.

“There are so many reference points in ABBA’s songs,” he said. “You remember the first time you got beat up in the disco, ‘Dancing Queen’ was probably playing. You’d get an ABBA song stuck in your head and would hear it over and over while taking exams or when your girlfriend was dumping you.”

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And as the decades went by -- and Firth’s acting career flourished, making movies such as “Valmont,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “The English Patient” and, recently, “When Did You Last See Your Father?” -- ABBA’s music would pop up. The music seemed to have invaded the consciousness like a sonic kudzu vine.

“I’d listen to Little Feat, but not to the extent that people were listening to ABBA nearly 40 years later. It was quite extraordinary.”

Last year he received a call from director Phyllida Lloyd and producer Benny Andersson to ask if he would join the “Mamma Mia!” cast.

The idea both intrigued and terrified Firth.

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For starters, he’d had never sung outside his own shower.

“I tried to persuade them that I couldn’t sing,” Firth said. “Stellan and Pierce had the same experience. None of us had any faith in our ability to sing.

“I didn’t care about the dancing. I’m not really a dancer. You get what you’re given on that one.”

The casting crew told him, “We’re sure you can sing well enough.”

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Firth came to think of the men in the film as “the token amateurs, if you like. Just there to make everyone feel included.

“The whole thing has the feel of an exuberant hen night, or stag night,” he said. “Otherwise buttoned-up people letting their hair down for the evening.”

He started singing ABBA songs everywhere -- in the car, in the kitchen. (He lives in London and Italy with his wife and two children.)

“Certain people wanted to move out of my house at that time,” he joked.

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tina.daunt@latimes.com


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