Colin Farrell: ‘LA is superficial, but you get that in Dublin too’

Colin Farrell at the world premiere of Dumbo, in Los Angeles. Photograph: Charley Gallay/Getty for Disney

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Dublin 4 and Colin Farrell, livelier than a whippet with a scent of fresh meat, is here to gnaw his way through whatever gets flung into his basket. He has flown home for the premiere of Tim Burton’s live-action remake of Dumbo. Nice work. But the grind must get him down. What’s the worst aspect of the business?

 “Talking about yourself,” he says without pausing. “I imagine people look at me and think: God, he loves talking about himself – because I seem to do it so freely. I am a much more private person than I present. I have no desire to talk about the films. I have no desire to talk about the characters. I have no desire to talk about myself. But if I am going to sit down and talk, then I am going to enjoy it as much as possible.”

You would need to be an intergalactic egotist to savour talking through the big break, or brief fall from grace, 50 times in the same morning. But Farrell makes the best of it

He ain’t kidding. If you’ve read an interview with Farrell before, you will – unless the journalist is some sort of monster – have heard how tolerant he is of the same intrusive questions. No prodding is required. You merely open the lid on a jar of Colin and allow the good stuff to come flowing out.

 No actor enjoys this stuff. You would need to be an egotist of intergalactic proportions to savour talking through the big break – or the brief fall from grace – 50 times in the same morning. But Farrell makes the best of it. I have always been particularly impressed by the good-natured way he doesn’t answer certain questions. He references a veteran US news journalist in his reply.

“It wouldn’t have been this way with Mike Wallace, but oftentimes if somebody asks a question you can answer a different question and they won’t follow up,” he twinkles. “Everyone has been tricked into believing there’s some status at play. The person who’s answering the questions has more power? That’s not always so. The interviewer can always walk away. Okay, they may lose their job. But you can always give an answer that is completely irrelevant to the question that was asked. And you get let away with it!”

Has he just done that? I don’t think so.

“Ha ha! I was thinking as I was talking: am I doing exactly that now?”

Colin Farrell on the set of the film Intermission, in 2003. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Colin Farrell on the set of the film Intermission, in 2003. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Colin Farrell in The New World, from 2005
Colin Farrell in The New World, from 2005

I remember watching Farrell fielding questions at the Irish premiere of The Recruit back in 2003. It was supposed to be a Q&A with the audience, but a tabloid journalist managed to sneak in a question about rumours (invented, so we won’t mention names) of an affair with a then-prominent movie star. Farrell didn’t answer the question. He didn’t refuse to answer the question. He responded: “Did you get that off the internet?” The journo couldn’t even write: “Colin Farrell denies affair.” Clever. He’s always known what he’s up to.

“That’s it exactly. You get hung so easily,” he says, gesturing towards my recording device. “And this is why print is more dangerous. It’s put down as fact. It is constant. It is eternal. But I may walk out of this room and my opinion may change in five minutes.”

The flow relaxes for a beat as he ponders an encounter with lawyers some years ago.

“I remember doing a deposition in Los Angeles – I won’t go into what it was – and they brought up something I said to present an image of somebody whose beliefs were counter to those I was presenting that day. ‘When did I say that?’ This deposition was in 2006 or 2007. They said it was in an interview in 1999. I said: ‘That was f**king 1999! Can I not change my opinion?’ ”

Colin Farrell has been through any number of trials. There were noisy entanglements with booze and drugs, lies about who he has dated. But he has always seemed impressively unflappable

Here’s the point. Farrell is now a sprightly 42. He has been through any number of trials. There were noisy entanglements with booze and drugs during his early years in Hollywood. He’s dated more than a few famous people. There have been lies about him dating many more. But he has always seemed impressively unflappable when moving before the public. He’s a natural.

That engagement started a long time ago. Farrell was raised in leafy Castleknock to hard-working parents. His dad, Eamon, played football for Shamrock Rovers before becoming a businessman. His uncle Tommy also played for that team and there were suggestions that Colin could have followed in their footsteps. He would have handled the post-match interviews well.

“No. I wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I wasn’t hungry enough. I wasn’t disciplined enough. I wasn’t committed enough. Funnily enough, I am very disciplined doing what I do now. The only thing I wanted to do outside sport and acting was journalism. There was a similar through-line with acting in terms of an interest in people. That was all I wanted to do. But I didn’t finish school. I didn’t get my Leaving. That was a disaster.”

Yeah, it’s turned out pretty badly. Couldn’t become a footballer. Failed to become a journalist. Had to settle for working with Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Terrence Malick and, now, Tim Burton.  

“Yes, this is all plan C. This isn’t even plan B you’re looking at. You’ve got it, man.”

Farrell has admitted that he wasn’t a movie addict as a teenager. But he was good-looking and he had a way with language. He was persuaded to enter the Gaiety School of Acting and, before graduating, secured a role as Danny Byrne in the BBC series Ballykissangel. A substantial hit in the millennial years, the show rode the rising confidence in a newly buoyant nation. In 2000 Farrell was cast as a US soldier in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland and he was properly away. 

Colin Farrell with Matthew Davis in Tigerland, from 2000
Colin Farrell with Matthew Davis in Tigerland, from 2000
Colin Farrell with Angelina Jolie in Alexander, from 2004
Colin Farrell with Angelina Jolie in Alexander, from 2004

The crash came around 2005. His performance as Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s Alexander drew negative reviews and, as vultures circled, he entered rehab for addiction to painkillers and recreational drugs.

He has never shied away from discussing that period. He certainly seems to have learned from it. I wonder if he is, in some perverse way, happy that it happened. Those experiences look to have given him perspective. He is now committed to the quiet life and to helping raise his two sons. The contrast with the earlier excesses is remarkable.

“There’s no point having regrets,” he says. “It’s all done. The milk has been spilt and you can clean it up as best you can. You’ve done what you’ve done. You’ve said what you’ve said. We hope that we can learn from our mistakes, grow from them – and move on.”

Throughout all that he never lost his enthusiasm for the acting lark. Farrell now chooses the work with care. He’s been brilliant in two eerie Yorgos Lanthimos films: The Lobster and The Killing of a Secret Deer. He did similarly good work in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Steve McQueen’s Widows. I get the sense he still retains a sense of play.

Dumbo is not a kitchen-sink drama. You are not going too much into the emotional effect of being an amputee. You have to make it presentable to families and to children

“Yes. That’s all I do,” he says. “It’s dress up. It’s make-believe. It’s a continuous extension of the imagination. That’s a beautiful thing about it. That sense of wonder is something the world forces us to grow out of a little bit, as we grow through our teenage years into adulthood. My job demands those things stay fertile. That’s one of the beautiful things about what I do.”

In Dumbo, the latest of Disney’s live-action translations of its animated hits, he plays a circus worker who, after returning from the first World War with a missing arm, is tasked with training the titular flying elephant while raising a young family.

“It’s not a kitchen-sink drama,” he says. “You are not going too much into the emotional effect of being an amputee. You have to find that balance between something that honours the struggles the characters are experiencing and also makes it presentable to families and to children. That’s Tim’s job and he does it very well. But I am still thinking about America and about how men behaved at that time. I am thinking about the idea of masculinity at that time.”

Talk of masculinity reminds me of the last time Farrell and I met. It was the London Film Festival in 2017. That event played out in time to the revelations concerning Harvey Weinstein’s mistreatment of women. We were all still processing the changes that were about to sweep across Hollywood. #MeToo and #TimesUp were brewing. What are his feelings now?

“Hands have been forced,” he says. “People have had a chance to have their stories listened to in a way they hadn’t been listened to. Women have had the opportunity to demonstrate their honesty and the experiences they’ve been through. That’s an amazing thing.”

He goes on to explain that he’s not really part of the Hollywood scene. He’s not at the parties. But he is certain there has been a necessary shift in attitudes.

“Patriarchal power is never a good thing,” he says. “We are, as men, very base. Our base tendencies tend to rule if we are given carte blanche and we don’t have a watchdog system policing us. Men are not getting away with what they once got away with. And it’s about time.”

It’s good to hear no pettifogging about “witch hunts” from Farrell. Too many of his colleagues, when such subjects are raised, have sought to deflect attention away from the victims.

“I don’t live in that space,” he says. “I have too much to do making lunch and getting the kids to school. I am not being evasive here.

I was just thinking recently that I am doing a shabby job of instilling a sense of Irishness in my sons. One is half-American, half-Irish. The other is half-Polish, half-Irish. We will see where it takes them

Let’s talk a little about that. Farrell’s older son, James Padraig, who has an intellectual disability known as Angelman syndrome, was born in 2003. His mum is the model Kim Bordenave. He and the Polish actor Alicja Bachleda-Curus, his costar in Neil Jordan’s Ondine, have a young boy called Henry. Farrell is no longer romantically linked to either mother, but he spares no effort in finding time for the lads.

I wonder if he thinks of them as Irish.

“I was just thinking recently that I am doing a shabby job of instilling a sense of Irishness,” he says. “Every St Patrick’s Day I will go into the school and read a few aul’ stories: Finn McCool, leprechauns and stuff. That’s been lovely to be asked to do that. Do I think of them as Irish? I don’t think of them as being stamped by or confined by any particular nationality. I believe in the passing of genealogical information. They have Irish blood. They have Irish cells in their body. There may be a price to be paid for that. They are both expressive. They feel deeply. We are an expressive people. We feel shockingly deeply.”

He alternates Christmas duties with the mums. This December, James and Henry will be coming to Dublin.

“We will give them a good old lash. Get a few pints into them.”

Hang on. Has that much time passed already?

“I am joking about the pints,” he hastily corrects. “Mind you, James is 15 now. Jesus. Henry is 10. James is non-verbal. Henry has a very thick American accent. One is half-American, half-Irish. The other is half-Polish, half-Irish. We will see where it takes them.”

Colin Farrell with Rachel Weisz in The Lobster, from 2015
Colin Farrell with Rachel Weisz in The Lobster, from 2015
Colin Farrell at Dumbo’s London premiere. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty for Disney
Colin Farrell at Dumbo’s London premiere. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty for Disney

Time does pass. Farrell’s brief wild years now look like a distant blip in the rear-view mirror. For close to 15 years he has lived a quiet, clean life in the outskirts of Los Angeles. When not working, he looks after the kids and goes for long walks. Outsiders are often a little unkind about LA. It’s the city of plastic. It’s the city of ego. All that stuff.

“That’s all very low-lying fruit,” he says. “If you want to talk about the superficiality, you can. But you can get that in Dublin if you go to the wrong nightclub on a Friday night. But yeah, there is not the same sense of community that you get here. There is not the same sense of people looking out for one another. It is a more individualistic society.”

He’s going somewhere with this. Farrell remains a great enthusiast for Southern California.

“What LA does offer me – aside from the life it’s given my family – is nature,” he says. “The light is extraordinary. The sunrise. The sunset. The hikes. California is like Elysium. The nature is enlivening. I have an ever-increasing need to be surrounded by nature and to be in nature.”

Films maybe can be poisoned by my very presence in them. But even the films that I think don’t work as films I got something from. There’d be no point regretting

There is a lot of Colin Farrell about these days. Widows has just left cinemas. Dumbo has just arrived. In 2017 he starred in three prominent releases. He recently shot Tate Taylor’s Eve with Jessica Chastain. Later this year he will star in an epic BBC series about 19th-century whalers called The North Water. Does he have time to sleep? Does he get a chance to go on those much-cherished hikes?

“Yeah. I have done all right,” he laughs. “Last year, after Dumbo, I didn’t work for 8½ months. Who gets that amount of time off? I haven’t had that amount of time off in 20 years. This year is going to be very busy. But it was lovely having that time off.”

Can we tease any regrets from the man? Let’s try again. He has said there’s no point moaning about personal embarrassments. But there must be the odd professional quibble. There are films he shouldn’t have done. Maybe there were offers he turned down that he should have grabbed.

“No, not at all,” he says. “Films maybe can be poisoned by my very presence in them. But even the films that I think don’t work as films I got something from. There’d be no point regretting.” 

He has another brief ponder.

“Personally, I have regrets. Every time I hurt somebody I regret it. But no, not creatively.”

TWO DECADES OF COLIN FARRELL ON FILM

The War Zone (1999)
Significant supporting role in Tim Roth’s gruelling tale of sexual abuse.

Tigerland (2000)
Decent Vietnam drama from Joel Schumacher that is best remembered for introducing Farrell to Hollywood.

American Outlaws (2001)
Tolerable western featuring Farrell as a young Jesse James.

Minority Report (2002)
Farrell is a futuristic copper in Spielberg’s Philip K Dick adaptation.

Intermission (2003)
Comes home for Mark O’Rowe’s ensemble riot.

Alexander (2004)
Farrell is the Macedonian hero in Oliver Stone romp.

The New World (2005)
Captain John Smith in Terrence Malick’s most underrated film.

Miami Vice (2006)
Michael Mann’s remake of his own series. Super-cool.

Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
Arguably Woody Allen’s worst film. But Farrell’s only release that year. 

Colin Farell with Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice, from 2006
Colin Farell with Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice, from 2006
Colin Farrell with Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges, from 2008
Colin Farrell with Brendan Gleeson in In Bruges, from 2008

In Bruges (2008)
Cult hit featuring Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hoodlums in Belgium.

Ondine (2009)
Attractive, touching fable from Neil Jordan.

The Way Back (2010)
Epic Peter Weir drama set in Russia during second World War. 

Horrible Bosses (2011)
Farrell does comedy. It’s a hit.

Total Recall (2012)
So-so remake of the Schwarzenegger vehicle.

Saving Mr Banks (2013)
Farrell is Australian in biopic of Mary Poppins creator PL Travers.

Miss Julie (2014)
Opposite Jessica Chastain in Liv Ullmann’s take on Strindberg.

The Lobster (2015)
Brilliant, dark parable from Yorgos Lanthimos.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
Farrell shines in enjoyable Potter spin-off.

The Beguiled (2017)
An injured soldier in southern Gothic from Sofia Coppola.

Widows (2018)
Dodgy Irish-American politician for Steve McQueen.

Dumbo is on general release