The Philantrophic Gentleman
Charismatic, compassionate, and intelligent, Colin Firth is far more than your average thespian, as he strives to bring about real change on an environmental and human level. In our rapidly changing time the world needs types like Colin Firth to exemplify decency.
By Karen Anne Overton
It seems that since the early days of Tinseltown, philanthropy and celebrity have linked arms. From glamorous benefit galas to well-documented trips to desperate war-torn regions, it is a fundamental part of the media machine to “give back” and, more to the point, to be seen to be giving back.
Very often, this form of charity campaigning is hooked on PR, where a subtext for a new film, global music tour, or fashion range provides a more believable platform for seeing an A-lister meandering around a village in Africa or exploring the rugged slums of Chennai. So what is it about Colin Firth’s particular brand of humanitarianism that sets him apart? Perhaps it is the vim and vigor with which he promotes his various endeavors, or the self-confessed activist’s brazen outspokenness, even when risking unpopularity. Or – in a time of social media and lip service where actions speak considerably louder than words – his continued grassroots devotion to projects in his own country, rather than just the big attention grabbers of the developing world.
“I’ve always felt a need to engage in the world in some way,” he begins. “My parents taught me those kinds of principles and, in my own way, I’ve tried to take a critical attitude toward society and not simply accept things blindly,” explains the 56-year-old. “My mother often campaigned for the rights of political prisoners and refugees, and I believe it’s important to support those people. It’s important that we listen to different voices who speak all kinds of experiences in the way we shape our opinions about things. I’m not a natural rebel, but I think we need to take a very critical stance at how our society functions.”
It transpires that Firth’s philanthropic fervor is inherent. Two of his grandparents were missionaries, and both his mother, Shirley Rolles, and father, David Firth – British academics – were raised in India. The actor spent his infancy growing up in Nigeria, where his parents were working together, and at the age of four he and his family moved to Winchester, England, although he also lived briefly in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972. This worldliness, he explains, offered a rare perspective, and his mother’s regular dinner invitations to refugees ensured that he and his siblings, Jonathan and Kate, saw the people chiefly affected by the “political problem.”
A long-standing supporter of Survival International – a human rights organization formed in 1969 that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal peoples and uncontacted peoples – Firth broke protocol during the promotion of ensemble rom-com Love Actually in 2003 to condemn the Botswana government’s eviction of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. “There is now what can only be described as an intimidation campaign to get the Bushmen off their land – land which they have lived on for millennia. Their water supply has been destroyed and they’ve been shifted off to relocation camps where the lives they’ve known are basically over,” he told the press at a London preview of the film.
“These people are not the remnants of a past era who need to be brought up to date. Those who are able to continue to live on the land that is rightfully theirs are facing the 21st century with a confidence that many of us in the so-called developed world can only envy.”
Firth refers to this need to stand up for those more vulnerable as “adolescent indignation.” He recalls his time living briefly in the States when his father – then a lecturer in American history – took his 12-year-old son to hear Senator McGovern speak during the infamous Watergate hearings, and also out canvassing in his role as chairman of the local Liberals.
In terms of the actor’s support network, it appears true that behind every great man is a great woman. Having married film producer and director Livia Giuggioli, 47, in 1997, the couple now split their time between Chiswick, London, and Umbria, Italy, with their two sons Luca, 16, and Matteo, 14. Firth also has a 26-year-old son, Will, from his relationship with actress Meg Tilly – and the actor cannot help but beam at the mention of his Italian spouse. “Meeting Livia has made me a much happier man. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without her. We’ve been able to enjoy a wonderful life together with our children, and spending time in Italy has been incredibly stimulating and fascinating for me. Italy is a country and culture that you embrace immediately,” he enthuses.
“There’s a warmth and charm that overwhelms and takes me out of my more subdued English personality. Italians love their food, their wine, their way of looking at the world, and it’s very infectious. Even the language, which I am still to master, makes you feel more exuberant.”
Alongside her work in film, Livia is an advocate for sustainability and ethical practice in the fashion industry, a cause which came to the forefront of our global consciousness in 2013 when the eight-storey Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed and killed more than 1,100 people – mostly women. Livia was familiar with the factory, having visited the garment workers four years previously as an Oxfam global ambassador, and was shocked by the dangerous work conditions: stifling heat with no ventilation, bars on windows, and seemingly constant work demands.
Devoted to raising awareness of the underpaid and overworked millions who toil to supply us in the West with cheap, disposable fashion, the stylish and stunning brunette has used the couple’s joint celebrity to promote the cause via various creative tactics. At the Paris premiere of The King’s Speech – in which Firth played King George VI – Livia eschewed the dazzling couture gowns usually worn to grace the red carpet, donning instead her husband’s discarded moth-eaten suit, recycled as a patchwork dress. She has also pioneered the “Green Carpet Challenge,” which has seen the likes of Stella McCartney, Tom Ford, and Academy Award-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran (who recently created Emma Watson’s responsibly-sourced Beauty and the Beast Belle costumes) clamoring to get the green seal of approval.
In 2007, she and Firth founded Eco-Age on Chiswick High Road. A veritable mecca for the environmentally-aware, this three-story green boutique has everything from organic face cream to recycled stationery, wool-knit toys to lampshades made from the shaved wood of fallen Norwegian trees. It also boasts a team of on-site consultants who can advise customers on how to make their homes more energy-efficient, and a corporate arm for companies that wish to improve their sustainability record – with Gucci, Net-A-Porter, and Marks and Spencer among their ranks.
With so many passion projects between them, not to mention high-profile careers and two teenage children, it is a true wonder the Firths have time for the glamorous soirees at which they are often snapped. The secret, according to Firth, is the indefatigable Livia. “My wife is firmly in charge,” he says with a wry smile. “She is always one step ahead of me, ruthlessly efficient, energetic, and tireless. She knows my weaknesses and my tendency to be rather too lackadaisical at times. I lead a lot of things out but she is pushing me from behind and clearing the path in front; that much is certainly true. There is always work to be done; the world is always evolving quicker than we realize, and certainly quicker than we can possibly be expected to respond to it. So uniting for shared, good causes, pooling resources, and sharing knowledge is the only way we can correct some of the world’s ills.”