Colin Firth is as flabbergasted as you are to watch him punching bad guys, flipping deadly pint glasses at people and using an umbrella for situations other than avoiding rain.
Clad in a bespoke suit and brandishing blades in the business end of his Oxford shoes, Firth stars in Kingsman: The Secret Service (in theaters Friday) as Harry Hart, a member of a secret super-spy organization. His mission is to take on the world’s greatest threats, but he finds a new challenge in training an apprentice named Eggsy (Taron Egerton).
The role is an unexpected but wholly entertaining departure for the 54-year-old British actor, whose career has been dominated by historical dramas and romantic comedies. Among the highlights: playing haughty Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice and the Oscar-winning role of a stuttering monarch in The King’s Speech.
Firth figures his James Bond fantasies ended around the age of 12. “I thought maybe someone might ask me to play a villain or something, but I never saw the role for myself — and certainly nobody on that end saw it for me either because I never got a call.”
Then Matthew Vaughn rang. The Kingsman director has a habit of taking an exploding pen to expectation — he cast tough guy Robert De Niro as a cross-dressing pirate in the 2007 fantasy Stardust. Vaughn saw the potential in surprising a film world severely lacking in manly heroes with Firth as an ultra-dangerous secret agent.
“I’m not a fighter either, but I wouldn’t be scared of some of the big iconic action stars out there in reality,” Vaughn says. “So all I cared about was that the audience’s jaws hit the ground seeing this David Niven-style, absolute dapper gentleman using his umbrella and his skills to beat the crap out of people.”
The filmmaker put Firth through six months of training, and the stunt team came back to Vaughn saying that Firth was almost too flexible and supple to believe.
The actor won them over and not just because he bounced back from a broken tooth, the director says. “They’re a bunch of tough guys thinking, ‘Who’s this pansy coming in?’ and by the end they absolutely adored him.”
Firth played Egerton’s mentor on screen and off — the 25-year-old actor calls Firth “just the most lovely man on the planet as well as being the most brilliant actor.”
By the time they got into the dramatic work, Firth had completed the vast majority of his action scenes — notably a pub takedown of some ne’er-do-wells bullying Eggsy, and a violent church scene with a body count that has to be seen to be believed.
Firth already misses the rough-and-tumble. “I would never have seen that coming. I’ve spent 30 years as an adult writing this off as a possibility. I actually feel a slight regret that I didn’t discover this earlier.”
He admits that he’s probably not ready for real fisticuffs — he viewed his fight scenes more as choreographed dance numbers than violent throwdowns.
“I daresay the skills I picked up are completely useless,” Firth says with a laugh. “All I’d be able to do is break into dance in front of somebody, and if the other guy wasn’t cooperating, I’m the man who’d be on the floor.”