Colin Farrell: 'I was going to walk away from acting'
From Rice Krispies as a child to drink and drugs at the nadir of his acting career, actor Colin Farrell has always been obsessive -- but it works both ways, for the public and movie industry once again can't get enough of the Dubliner, and this time, discovers Horatia Harrod, it's a more sobering experience for the star who thought about quitting acting after the failure of Alexander
Just before Colin Farrell became famous -- before he was acclaimed as the best actor of his generation; before he told an interviewer that he would never touch cocaine, but that heroin was fine "in moderation"; before his two sons were born; before he visited the Playboy Mansion; before he was sued by his stalker; before he almost died for the love of drink, drugs and prescription painkillers -- he took a trip around the United States.
He caught a train from LA, and rode it to New York and back, drove from Houston to Louisiana with his brother, Eamon Jr, and saw in the Millennium in New Orleans downing sugary cocktails -- "Hurricanes, as they call them" -- laced with rum. He stopped off in Austin and "stayed in a Motel 6 on my own", he says softly, "and ate at Denny's and went to strip clubs and found myself in bars and back at strange guys' and girls' houses."
He was about to play a young, Texan, Vietnam-era conscript in a film called Tigerland and he began writing a journal in the voice of his character, and reading and re-reading a book called Dear Mom: A Sniper's Vietnam, which became like his bible.
"I remember in Texas," he says, smiling ruefully, "at a bar in Austin, trying to put on a Texan accent, and someone going, 'What part of England are you from?' When I think about it, it was mad. More than the stuff that came later, that was the real exploratory time. There was a little window in which, I'm not going to say it was as clear or profound as saying goodbye to it all, goodbye to my anonymity, I wasn't a sage, but it was something akin to that."
A decade later, and Farrell has decided that he's "boring press". Aside from a continuingly complicated romantic life, which I have been warned not to ask about, he has, in the past four or five years, abandoned drink and drugs, settled in Los Angeles and concentrated on being an attentive father to his two young boys.
Even in Farrell's most dark, depressed days, he kept making movies, but after he left rehab in 2006, he rebuilt his confidence in a series of smaller, well-received pictures. Now, though, he seems to be gearing up to make bigger films again. First up is London Boulevard, a south London crime thriller-cum-romance directed by The Departed writer William Monahan.
Farrell's character is trying to put his criminal past behind him by working as a bodyguard to a neurotic actress played by Keira Knightley. They talked a bit about Knightley's own experiences at the hands of the paparazzi. "I felt we should talk about it," Farrell says, "but then I realised it's not really a conversation. It's obvious stuff. Especially having experienced it. You could literally go on all day: 'They did this and they said that and then they were there.' You'd get yourself in an awful tizzy about it."
Next year, there is more large-scale fare: Farrell stars in a remake of the Eighties comedy-horror Fright Night, as well as making an appearance in Horrible Bosses, a big studio comedy. "It frightens the f*** out of me," he says.
This Colin Farrell is a more circumspect character than the rowdy hellraiser of legend. Although we are sitting side by side on a sofa, I struggle to hear him -- he speaks rapidly but ever so quietly and his whole presence is muted, almost melancholic. He talks elliptically, lyrically. "I'll have to read this back to myself and try to figure out what I'm talking about," he says, as I scribble down a confusion of words, arrows and question marks.
Of course, Farrell is still handsome: full of eyebrow, tanned and compact in black boots, dark blue jeans and a slim-fitting, long-sleeved, white T-shirt. He looks tired, though. He arranges his legs gingerly on the coffee table in front of us and slides into an almost horizontal slump that I'm forced to follow: a most un-Paxman-like arrangement.
In the corner of the room sits his sister and personal assistant, Claudine, a pixyish beauty with vivid dyed-plum hair. She curls up on a chest, only turning to face us when her brother wants to confirm something he has said.
The Farrells are a close-knit family. Colin's other sister Catherine helped him make the tape that won him the lead in Tigerland. "He did the audition in his living room in Dublin with his sister holding the video camera," said the film's director Joel Schumacher, at the time, "and doing all of the off-screen dialogue in this thick Dublin accent. She's saying: 'Oh, Jesus, I don't want to go to Vietnam.' I would think Colin and his sister had a few Guinnesses before they did this."
Colin Farrell grew up with his siblings in Castleknock. "My Dublin wasn't the Dublin of sing-songs, traditional music, sense of history and place and community," he says. "It was kind of more nouveau riche, competition with the neighbours, a bit more privileged than the Dublin of lore.'"
The young Farrell had a romantic bent and escaped whenever he could to Manor Street, close to where his parents lived but "night-and-day different as regards the socio-economic situation that people there were living in". He felt more light-hearted there.
As soon as he made a bit of money as an actor -- playing Danny Byrne in the cosy BBC drama Ballykissangel -- he moved to Irishtown.
"I'm not painting myself as a down-home, modest guy," he says of his time living there. "I'm just saying that there was a sense of community that I think we all as human beings inherently want. I mean, we are tribal by nature, and sometimes success and material wealth can divide and separate -- it's not a new philosophy I'm sharing -- more than hardship; hardship tends to unify." Does he think his vision of working-class life was a wee bit rose-tinted? "I guess I had romantic illusions," he says, "but they were fulfilled."
There were four pubs within 40 yards of his front door, which also seemed no bad thing to the young Farrell. "I had a predisposition for certain addictions," he says. "I was addicted to Rice Krispies when I was seven. And I'm not even f***ing joking with you. Ask my mother."
Before Farrell became well known, he remembers going to a therapist who diagnosed him with depression, but also pointed out that consuming Ecstasy, hash, cocaine, whiskey, wine, beer and cigarettes on a weekly basis might not be improving his emotional health. Farrell pushed his intake even further when he hit Hollywood. "I thought, 'This is where I come from,'" he says. "'And I'm staying like this.' So I promoted a profound arrested development."
At that time, he bought into the tortured artist myth, too: "You develop such f***ed-up attachments that you need to be confused and in pain and high to create art." In a frenetic, demented sort of way, his addictions helped his career. He gave journalists exuberant, profane copy -- he laughs heartily when I say that he must enjoy being quoted back to himself (for example: "It doesn't take much to be a bad boy. But I know I'm not. Hitler was a bad boy").
Next to this grubby, gleeful character, Farrell's stage-managed peers began to look distinctly antiseptic. "There was an energy that was created," he says. "A character that was created, that no doubt benefited me. And then there was a stage where it all began to crumble around me."
In September 2003, Farrell started shooting Alexander. It had been Oliver Stone's pet project for more than a decade, and it was monumental in conception and execution. Budgeted at $155m, it was to be a three-hour epic shot over three continents. When the film reached Morocco, the 500 crew, alongside some 1,000 extras lent by the Moroccan Army, battled against burning 40.5C heat and vicious sandstorms. Don't even mention the elephants. Or the Greek lawyers who threatened to sue the film-makers for suggesting that Alexander was bisexual.
Holding the centre was Farrell. His hair, dyed blond and teased into a style more befitting a minor Swedish royal than the greatest military strategist in history, got bad reviews. Farrell and the film were eviscerated. "That was tough," he says, widening his eyes with the horror of the memory. "I say tough relative to a charmed life, but I'm not going to apologise for how much it affected me emotionally and psychologically." He laughs.
"I was going to walk away from acting. I couldn't buy a packet of cigarettes without feeling I needed to apologise to the guy behind the counter in case they saw the f***ing thing." He felt beholden to the crew, the extras, his fellow actors and to Stone himself.
The film bombed in the US and barely recouped its costs after being released worldwide. "That was a strong one," he says, shaking his head. "But if you're going to fail, fail spectacularly. Which is kind of what that film did, critically, creatively, financially."
Less than a year after Alexander was released, Farrell joined the troubled set of the big-screen version of Miami Vice. There were squalls: the budget kept inflating and the director Michael Mann was shouty and chaotic. Then there were storms -- Jamie Foxx walked off the production in the Dominican Republic after someone got shot by a man who was supposed to be guarding the set. And finally there were hurricanes: Katrina, Rita and Wilma, three of the worst in history.
As for Farrell: "I just completely fell to s*** on that one." He starts to laugh and looks knowingly at his sister, who joins in. "It was literally the first time I couldn't say to anyone around me, 'Have I been late for work, have I missed a day's work, have I been hitting my marks?' Because the answer would have been yes, yes and no."
As soon as the film wrapped up, Farrell checked himself into rehab. "For the first time ever," he says, "I lost the ability to be confident that I could make a change myself. I knew I was f***ed." So what brought him back? "A good old session in rehab." Another laugh. "A few tears and a couple of hugs with strangers."
He emerged from the clinic at the beginning of 2006 and walked straight on to the set of his next film, Pride and Glory. "I remember being asked by somebody in America, 'Do you think it's harder for celebrities to get sober than normal people?'" he says. "And I was just like, are you joking? I didn't come out unemployed, hadn't lost my family, my home; had all my teeth in my head. Could I have had it any easier?"
For Farrell, his are movie-star problems; he talks about them as though they were less consequential than the problems we civilians have to deal with. None the less, after his stint in rehab, he found it hard to regain his confidence. The emergence in the course of 2006 of a sex tape and a stalker -- author of a biography entitled Colin Farrell: A Dark Twisted Puppy -- were not encouraging.
When Martin McDonagh approached Farrell to take one of the leads in a film he'd written, In Bruges, he was reluctant to sign. "That's such a good indication of the sense of apology I felt for Alexander," he says. "I said to Martin, 'I'd love to be part of it, I think it's brilliant -- don't cast me in it, please.' I really did. Because people will come in and they will have preconceived ideas in a way that they shouldn't. Your work shouldn't have to undo s***. He was like, okay, thanks. You're cast."
In the couple of years since it was released, In Bruges has won a cult following. It seemed to restore people's faith in Farrell and perhaps his own faith in himself.
Film sets are where Farrell finds the same feeling of community he discovered as a young man in Irishtown. Coming back to Ireland to make Ondine, with Neil Jordan, was another cathartic experience.
"I loved it," he says. "The experience of doing the film's the thing. The watching of a film, an hour and a half or two hours, after four months is so reductive, such a let down. It really is." Farrell didn't take any payment upfront before they started shooting: "We had a handshake at the hotel, agents went bats***. But we just wanted to make the film."
Last week, Farrell was reportedly offered the part originally played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in a remake of Total Recall. He's yet to sign on the dotted line, but it sounds like it's the right time for him to take it on. "I'd like to make big films and small films, mainly because I'm a massive fan of film," he says. "The idea of doing an Indiana Jones, or even an Inception -- I love the grandiosity, how sweepingly entertaining films can be. And I think there's a place for films that pry more into the human condition."
Does he mind when people pry into his life, that people are just as interested in him as a man as an actor? He raises his eyebrows. "I'm not going to lie, there are more interesting ways to spend your time than answering questions about yourself," he says. "But if there were no questions to ask me, I might have a beef with that."