NEW YORK — Blaspheme! That was the collective reaction of Colin Firth fans to news that Matthew MacFadyen was taking on the role Mr. Darcy to Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet in a big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s evergreen “Pride & Prejudice,” opening Friday. Firth, of course, spawned a global base of ardent and, let’s face it, slightly scary fans — including Bridget Jones — when he played the romantic hero in the BBC’s seminal 1995 version.
“People are very proprietary about Darcy,” says MacFadyen, 31. “They’re like, ‘you will not f— this up.’” But MacFadyen, who brings a broodier beefcake appeal to the character, is unfazed by the comparisons. As if he’s been living under an Austen rock, he claims to have never read the book or seen Firth’s series before taking on the role. “I was an Austen virgin,” he admits. Since filming, he has read the book — “It’s glorious,” is his review — but hasn’t seen the flick.
Neither is he one of the tortured thespians who must immerse themselves in a character. “People ask how I prepared and want me to say, ‘I came to set on a horse and ate roast pheasant all day.’ That’s bollocks. You learn your lines, show up and then go home to have a fight with your wife.”
While MacFadyen missed Firth’s star-making vehicle, he did catch Firth’s performance in 1989’s “Tumbledown.” MacFadyen, who was barely a teenager at the time, said it helped push him down the acting path. “I remember seeing Colin and thinking I’d like to do some of that.”
Well-known in his native England, MacFadyen has starred in the hit television series “MI-5,” and such movies as “In My Father’s Den.” But now, he’s searching for a project that is more “smiley,” as he puts it, having noticed that his résumé is padded with dour dramas, including his next film “Middletown,” a religious story set in Ireland. The trend started with his very first television gig: “Wuthering Heights” in 1998. “Oh yeah. That’s another broody one,” he muses. “Oh, the moors, oh Cathy. Oh bugger, lighten up.”
But he admits Austen’s deft satire and classic caricatures offered a a little levity. So, too, did shooting the film. The reality of the sweeping, tear-inspiring climactic scene — when Darcy does his best Byronic stride across a misty field toward his true love Lizzie — was anything but romantic gravitas, he says. “I’m shortsighted, so I couldn’t see Keira and the director was waving his red jacket, screaming, ‘Left! Turn left,’” MacFadyen recalls. “The audience is weeping for Darcy and I’m actually looking at a North Face puffer.”