Before he was an Oscar winner -- before he was a box office draw who could carry a film to $400 million worldwide -- Colin Firth was Mark Darcy.
After decades of toiling as a working actor in his native England, Firth found the role that transformed him into a global heartthrob in 2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary." As Mark Darcy -- yes, inspired by his Mr. Darcy role in the 1995 BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" -- he smoldered as an emotionally repressed lawyer falling for his polar opposite, the klutzy and vulnerable Bridget Jones.
He returned to the role again three years later in a 2004 sequel, alongside star Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant, who played the cad competing for Bridget's heart. But nearly a dozen years later, when the opportunity arose to play Mark Darcy again?
"Oh, there was doubt," Firth, now 55, recalled with a laugh. "It only started to pull me when I saw the script going in the right direction."
Firth agreed to sign on to "Bridget Jones's Baby," which hits theaters Sept. 16. The script that lured him in had many of the same elements: Bridget was still a little ditzy and Darcy was still a little cold and reserved. But this time around, he would have a worthy competitor — a charmingly dreamy American played by former "Grey's Anatomy" star Patrick Dempsey. And the stakes would be much higher than simply winning Bridget's heart.
Either man could be the father of Bridget's unborn child.
Dempsey, as it turns out, also had early reservations about joining the project.
"I was intimidated initially," admitted the actor, 50. "But I think everybody was kind of nervous because it had been such a long time since the last film. The real challenge was to not go down the same paths as in the past. I wanted to play the difference from Colin's quintessential Englishman with his unfortunate repressive nature. I was going to be very American -- more outgoing, more willing to adapt to a new situation."
What both of the characters had in common, however, was that both were generally good guys, with not a cad in sight. Dempsey's Jack Qwant, the founder of a successful dating site, is willing to put his business on hold to support Bridget -- even after their one-night stand at a music festival.
"He's a pretty convincing prospect, because a lovely guy makes for a pretty tough rival," said Firth, calling from his home in London, where his kids could be heard running around in the background. "Mark has a history of disappointing Bridget, and the audience has been through every step of that with her. You wouldn't blame her at all if she made a different choice."
Not that Bridget is all about the men, anyway. When we first met her 15 years ago, Zellweger's character was self-pitying: She obsessed over her weight, wasn't happy with her job and spent most of her time fixated on the fact that she was in her 30s and still single. At 43, however, she's more comfortable in her own skin -- a successful television producer who has conquered the scale. Sure, she'd like to be in a relationship, but it's not all she writes about in her diary anymore.
"I was concerned that Bridget shouldn't be defined by her search for a man," explained Firth. "I even questioned from very early conversations on the film if there should be men involved at all. The story only began to take shape and feel plausible when the men were pushed into the wind somewhat."
Just like in the previous "Bridget" films, the men do revert to outlandish antics to try to win the woman over. While there's no real hand-to-hand combat -- remember Firth and Grant wrestling each other in a public fountain? -- Bridget's new paramours are always trying to out-good-guy the other. When Mark thoughtfully brings her some tea, Jack is there to offer her a healthier super-juice.
It's a challenge for Mark, especially, who tends to keep his passions deep below the surface. After a long day of playing the character, Firth said, he'd often have to spend a few minutes doing some deep breathing just to relax his body again.
"You know, unclench a few muscles," the actor said. "It's nice to put on a suit and tie, but there were a few times it almost hurt to play him. I mean that frivolously, obviously. But he's stiff from the neck down.
"You almost want to tell Mark to just 'spit it out' sometimes," he continued. "He's still emotionally constipated. But he still has this burning passion for her. I find it quite moving that he's so passionately single-minded about her. It's not some misty-eyed, nostalgic thing -- it's pretty hot-blooded and sexual."