Kingsman: The Secret Service co-stars Colin Firth and his 25-year-old Welsh co-star Taron Egerton hold forth on their new spy film and the state of the British man in 2015
“I call this the established actor pose,” quips Colin Firth draping himself over an armchair in Claridges, to the delight and amusement of ShortList’s photographer. “Oh God, the pressure’s on me now to say something absolutely hilarious,” laughs 25-year-old Taron Egerton, Firth’s co-star in the forthcoming Kingsman: The Secret Service and a young man on the cusp of announcing himself as one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood.
As you’ll almost certainly know, Kingsman is the new action-spy film directed by British auteur and comic-book fan Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class). Expect a genre-busting mash-up of James Bond, Austin Powers and The Ipcress File, as a dapper gentleman spy (Firth) trains a council estate tearaway (Egerton) in the art of old-school British espionage.
Hence ShortList is about to question the Oscar-winner and his young Welsh co-star (Egerton is pretty much fresh out of drama school) to find out what they've learned from each other, and what defines British gentlemen in 2015…
THE BRITISH MAN
Who is the British man you admire the most? Who transcends generations and possesses the qualities that every man should aspire to?
C: Michael Caine. He’s a masterclass in not being precious. Someone asked him what the secret to being a film star is, and he said, “I don’t blink.” OK, he might have been being a bit arch, but there’s something to be gleaned from everything he says.
T: I have to say, my one-on-one scene with him [in Kingsman] is one of my favourite scenes in the film. I’m really proud of it. In between takes I asked him about specific films from my childhood, and while I’m aware that The Muppet Christmas Carol is not the pinnacle of Michael Caine’s career, for me it has such a place in my heart.
C: It’s a brilliant version of A Christmas Carol.
T: [Laughs] Me, my mum and little sister still watch it every year. He’s the most warm, approachable guy.
Chivalry and fair play are internationally recognised hallmarks of a British man. Are they still relevant today?
C: There are constant backlashes and counter-backlashes, driven by newspaper articles along the lines of ‘Where have all the real men gone?’
T: But you can bet your life that if you took a girl on a first date and you didn’t offer to pay the bill, they wouldn’t be best pleased!
C: [Laughs] I’m married to an Italian woman, and in Italy you’re still supposed to enter a restaurant or public space first.
T: What, so you don’t open the door for her?
C: No, the presumption – historically – being that if there’s any danger you’re first in the firing line, so to speak. It’s actually rude to usher a woman in first.
Kingsman sees a veteran gentleman spy take a young protégé under his wing, starting with a trip to a Savile Row tailor. Is a sharp suit still important for a British man in 2015?
T: I’m naturally quite a scruffy bugger, so it was lovely to have a jaunt into the world of bespoke tailoring. To me, the reason men look good in suits is that it lends them a certain status; it’s the equivalent of a suit of armour.
C: And they solve a lot of problems. If you can get the suit right, and it’s not doing something that’s going to look weird next year, it covers a multitude of sins.
Is that why your wife calls you the ‘King in Spanx’, Colin?
C: [Laughs] Are they the ones that pull your gut in?
T: Oh you do not have a gut!
C: Er, I think it may be a reference to the tight costumes in The King’s Speech and Mamma Mia! I’ve been in some less-than-gentlemanly costumes over the years…
Colin – as a man who’s famous for wearing a bad Christmas jumper in Bridget Jones’s Diary, do you have any style advice for Taron’s generation?
C: Well, it comes back to the same thing: one turn of the wheel and yesterday’s embarrassment is suddenly cool. And vice-versa. That’s something every young man should remember...
T: At 17 I did the whole straightened-hair-over-the-eye thing – a bit like Justin Bieber, but not as good looking. That was my style low point.
C: You have me at a terrible disadvantage here, because I grew up in the Seventies. Thank God there was no Facebook and that most of the evidence was destroyed shortly afterwards. As a Marc Bolan fan, I started growing my hair long in the late-Sixties. You had some leeway because there were government ministers and policemen with the big sideburns, you still had a generation of teachers saying, “Get your ’air cut!” Of course, by the time it had grown, it was exactly the moment that long hair became extremely unfashionable.
The rules of courtship have changed dramatically over the past two decades. Do you think modern men are too reliant on the likes of Tinder?
C: I’m curious about this, because my dating days pre-date technology. What is this thing called Tinder?
T: So Tinder is an online dating app, you swipe right if you like someone…
C: So it’s not considered the last resort of a lonely heart?
T: No, it’s forward-thinking, and a way for men who are not as confident to ask someone out.
C: So Tinder is actually a nod back to the era of courtly love, when a man had to compose a song rather than just saying, ‘Do you fancy some?’ in the pub. I think using courtship skills – the written word – gives men a chance to formulate something that doesn't depend on just spluttering face to face. Perhaps Tinder affords men the serenity to craft a decent overture?
Is the concept of asking a girl out face-to-face alien to the Facebook generation?
T: Actually, I have asked a girl out Kamikaze-style. I stopped her on the Tube and said, “I think you’re gorgeous, I think we should go for a drink some time.” It’s
terrifying, but ultimately so much more rewarding.
C: You reckless romantic. How did it go?
T: Oh God, this is going to be printed... Er, I took half a day off drama school and we went on a date. But, as much as I could do with a bit of Tinder right now, it’s always going to make a better story if you offer someone an umbrella in the rain. When kids ask their parents how they met in 10 years, the answer is going to
be, “I DM’d yer mum on Twitter.” It’s hardly the start of a romantic novel, is it?
Colin, as an Oscar-winning actor at the top of his game, what career advice do you have for Taron?
C: Taron is brilliant. Matthew [Vaughn] scoured the world and this is who he chose, and you can see why. He’s got a brilliant eye for casting, as we’ve seen without exception in all his films. The fact that Taron has taken to it so naturally is really no surprise. In terms of acting, the truth is that it’s probably still just as mysterious to those of us who’ve been doing it all these years. Why does it work sometimes and not others?
T: Which is certainly more refreshing than someone making out that acting is this nebulous, mystical thing. It’s quite simple: you pretend to be someone else.
You both knew that you wanted to be actors at a young age. Do you think young men with unconventional ambitions are taken more seriously now?
T: I went to a fantastic secondary school and they were incredibly supportive. To say that they didn’t try to gently coax me out of it would be lying – but nor did they damn it.
C: My experience was quite the opposite: scorn was poured. My careers advisor had no faith in my prospects whatsoever. It was ‘Leave school at 16 and get a job’. Luckily, my parents were very imaginative and supportive. Although I do remember my mother watching a film in black and white and pointing out lots
of people in the background and saying, “See all those people? They’re all actors.” It hit me that I was much more likely to be one of them than the one talking in the foreground.
Social media is now part of the fabric of life, whether it’s tweeting about an amazing burger or tackling a project at work. Is it a good thing?
C: Social media has immense power. There’s a long conversation to be had – and it’s raging – about the democratising opinion. There are some issues around its abuse. Trolling, for example.
Nobody would troll Colin Firth, surely?
T: No chance, he’s universally adored!
C: [Laughs] I think men are trying too hard to keep up with technology. Is it making us more connected? Or compromising the other connections that we need? Everyone’s buried in this thing [gestures to phone].
T: I’ve just got back on Twitter. I found it a bit intrusive in the past, but I have friends who are actors and musicians and it’s nice to be able to highlight each other’s work in a positive way.
C: It’s a dangerous thing, because whether you’re in the public eye or not, somebody, somewhere, is probably talking about you. It would drive you mad if you could hear it all. I don’t know that we have the constitution to face all the truth people are thinking. Would you eavesdrop behind a door on all the people talking about you? Because even people who like you would probably say things that wouldn’t please you to hear. So yes, there may be a storm on Twitter, but you don’t have to live in the middle of it. It’s a controversial thing to say, but if you want privacy, the internet’s not the place to find it.
Much like leather trousers, is there an age beyond which men should avoid the word ‘LOL’?
C: I do believe I’ve heard the word ‘LOL’ a few times. There’s a very funny thing in Modern Family when the guy goes, “Oh I’m up with all the lingo. WTF: Why
T: [Laughs] The only thing you ever need to know about ‘LOL’, Colin, is that no one’s ever actually laughed out loud while writing it.
In the film, there’s a scene where Colin’s character tells his young prodigy that “Being a gentleman is nothing to do with the circumstances of one’s birth”. Do you think that’s something we need to instil in the next generation of British men?
C: Very often, what you see – particularly on stage – is just an illusion. I’ve got this reputation for playing men in suits and being rather buttoned up, but in fact I’m actually a secondary-modern boy. Out of my friends of my age, it’s those who did go to public schools that still display their tattoos in their fifties, and are obsessed with playing guitars and riding motorbikes. They wouldn’t dream of dressing up to look like an establishment figure.
T: Absolutely. There’s a saying: ‘The king doesn’t play the king – the court plays the king.’ In other words, it’s how everyone reacts around a man that truly defines him.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is at cinemas nationwide from 29 January