Colin Firth talks about playing an old-school spy with nifty moves in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The film is based on the 2012 comic-book series The Secret Service, which was created by the Scottish writer Mark Millar and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons.

In Kingsman: The Secret Service, Colin Firth plays a genteel secret agent of an elite spy team that has its headquarters in London’s bespoke tailoring street, Savile Row. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
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When you think of cinema’s great action heroes, Colin Firth is probably not the first name that springs to mind.

But the star of the BBC TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and the Bridget Jones films gets to prove us all wrong in director Matthew Vaughn's new movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Firth plays Harry Hart, a member of an elite British spy team known as “Kingsman”.

“I think the jury is still out on whether I’m an action hero or not,” says Firth, with typical modesty. On the evidence of the film, he could give the James Bond star Daniel Craig a real run for his money.

Kingsman is based on the 2012 comic-book series The Secret Service, which was created by the Scottish writer Mark Millar (who also wrote the comic that inspired Vaughn's superhero yarn Kick-Ass) and Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons.

An old-fashioned but slick adventure, the movie is clearly indebted to suave 1960s television and film spies such as The Avengers' John Steed, Michael Caine's bespectacled Harry Palmer and, of course, early James Bond. As a result, Firth is elegantly cast as the gentlemanly Harry. Even so, going from The King's Speech to Kingsman is quite the leap.

Physically, it’s unlike anything Firth has done on screen.

“I have no athletic history,” he says. “It never occurred to me.”

Born in Hampshire to parents who were academics and teachers, Firth was “not a sporty fellow”, particularly at drama school.

“There were two kinds of drama student,” he says. “There was the kind who came every day in their sweat gear and did workouts and backflips, and the other kind who took their recreation sitting down, in a more sedentary way. I was definitely in the latter category.”

Despite looking trim, the 55-year-old admits it “hurt” to be introduced to a rigorous training regime at his age.

“I’ve done my bit of exercise just to stave off gravity over the last 10 years, but nothing like this,” he says. “I had 10 guys [with me] every day for three hours, and it was the league of extraordinary gentleman. They were all specialists at something. The six-time world-champion Thai boxer. Another was Jackie Chan’s trainer. Two Olympic-gymnast gold medallists. Military special-forces guy for the gun stuff. And this was all complete algebra to me. I had no concept of any of it.”

After a "month of agony", the actor who won an Oscar for playing a stammering monarch in The King's Speech began to shape up.

“To my immense surprise, I actually started to love it as much as I loved anything I’ve ever done,” he says.

His exuberance pours from the screen, not only as he dispatches villains with some nifty moves, but through his performance, too. And after filming was complete, he had withdrawal symptoms.

“I missed it terribly when it was over – and I still miss it,” he says. “There’s no way you can replicate that. I still exercise. But I can’t do it to that intensity, because I don’t have 10 guys and I’m not going to do three hours a day anymore.

“But this was for a specific purpose and exercise for a specific purpose feels very different. It’s not just pumping iron or being on a treadmill and going nowhere if you’re training for something.”

Doubtless, his wife, the Italian-­born Livia Giuggioli, approved of Firth's newfound fitness. But he isn't getting too excited about the prospect of a late career switch to action hero, as we have seen with Liam Neeson. When it comes to changes in genre and tone – such as his recent post-Oscar role in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight – he says that they ebb and flow.

“I think I’d have to look back over the whole thing and spot what might’ve changed [in my career] but I can’t in the middle of it. I don’t feel that it has,” he says.

He has returned to a more typical Colin Firth role since completing Kingsman, playing Maxwell Perkins, the literary editor whose clients included F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, in the forthcoming film, Genius.

But in his newfound thirst for more physical roles, Firth has been linked to a planned project about the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst.

Firth, though, dismisses any notion that he’s any tougher in real life than he was before.

“It won’t help me fight anybody,” he says with a smile. “I wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Kingsman: The Secret Service opens in cinemas on Thursday, February 12