Colin Farrell on addiction, self-control and confronting his inner sex beast
With his latest film The Lobster earning rave reviews, the actor tells Donal Lynch he won't suffer for his art
There was a time, not so long ago, when nobody would have been all that shocked if Colin Farrell had not made it this far. He seemed on course to go the beautiful corpse route of Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger and other hard-living young stars of his generation. So to meet the 39-year-old version - fit, lean, and as handsome as ever - is to feel the reflexive suspicion of his LA-ish activities (rehab, hiking and yoga) slowly subsiding.
As with Russell Brand, clean living has both made Farrell's middle-class upbringing more apparent and given him a tendency toward baroque verbosity, but there is no doubt that sobriety becomes him. The body language is less frantic, the fingernails are cleaner than they were in that infamous home movie, and, blessedly, the new calm has not excised his sense of humour. He may have "ripped up the carpet and moved every table and chest of drawers" in his psyche, as he tells me later, but he's still the Farreller.
If the years of clean living have been good for Colin the man they have coincided with a more difficult period for Colin the actor, however. During the throes of his hedonistic hellraising, he was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, scoring a string of notable hits, but his last few films have mostly flopped, with his own performances enduring critical maulings. A New York Winter's Tale, a complex time-travel story, which also starred Russell Crowe and Will Smith, bombed at the box office, while Total Recall, Fright Night and Ondine were also poorly received. His performance in television series True Detective earned admittedly glowing reviews but there has been a niggling sense that he had yet to recapture his mojo as a leading man on the silver screen.
The Lobster might be about to change all that. A drama-comedy set in a dystopian future where loners are forced to pair up as a matter of life-and-death, the film won the Jury Prize in Cannes and has thus far scored 'universal acclaim' on Rotten Tomatoes. It may see the fulfilment of film critic Joe Griffin's prophecy that Farrell would emerge as a versatile character actor in middle age.
At its heart, The Lobster is a satire about dating mores and how constricted choice can ultimately benefit us, and for Farrell, who once cut a deep and wide swathe through the beauties of Hollywood, this central theme resonated.
"When I got to America first and a few movies did well it was like, well here's the keys to the kingdom, do what you want. The sweetshop was open and I could just take whatever my belly desired. Through that I learned that you have to please yourself, and look out for yourself, because nobody is going to tell you to stop. There is something about the choice we have as human beings that we don't utilise to the best of our ability sometimes. We have a lot more choice and power than we think. For myself, I've found that there's a reluctance to accept responsibility, because in doing that you accept ownership of the problems of loneliness."
His list of exes is of course legendary, including Amelia Warner and Liz Taylor, with Angelina Jolie and Britney Spears also rumoured. His last real girlfriend was his Ondine co-star Alicja Bachleda-Curus, who is also the mother of his second son, Henry, born in 2009. He could be forgiven for feeling somewhat jaded of romance. Emma Forrest, a writer whom he dated in 2008, wrote a novel with a thinly veiled version of him written into it, and, of course, the infamous sex tape with Playboy model Nicole Narain spurred a multi-million dollar lawsuit but was leaked anyway.
All that is water under the bridge now. He's not lonely these days, he says - he sees his two sons every day - but navigating life as a single man pushing 40 (even one with Farrell's celebrity), brings its own tradeoffs. "If there is a trick to finding a healthy relationship with sex and you find it out will you please come and find me?" he sighs. "Seriously, man, I'm not that hard to find. Of course sex addiction is real. There are chemicals that flow through the brain in a moment's sexual dalliance that are similar to those that appear when you take a substance. Anything that takes you away from your emotional and psychological self and gives you a hit, you can become addicted to."
The Lobster features a memorable performance from Olivia Coleman as a Nurse Ratchett-style hotelier who brutally forces her guests to abstain from casual sex and masturbation, as these are seen to mitigate against finding a partner. In the film, the men get their hands held inside a toaster if they indulge in onanism, but Farrell has a better, and more interesting, solution: "It's probably not great for your relationship if you wait until your missus is gone to bed and pop down to the couch with the iPad so you can have a pedal. It's not an amazing path to explore with regard to a cultivation of a depth of honesty. I hear and understand the idea of keeping the (sexual) beast chained up in the cellar, but my thing would be go down, open the cellar door, pull up a chair, sit in front of the beast and get to know the beast and ask him what his true purpose is."
He strives, but doesn't always reach, a similarly cerebral view of sex itself: "Look, I'm a red-blooded male so I'm not denying that or turning my back on it, but I love the notion that we, as men, can look at the reasons why we act the way we do rather than just grabbing the nearest thing to appease momentarily."
The presence of his sons in LA means that there, rather than Castleknock, is home now, he says, and he has much of his family around him as a matter of course: both his sister and her fiancé are part of the entourage on the day of our interview. "I have a fairly low-key life. I hike, I bring the kids to school and I go to the movies. It's no big deal. You're a father of two and you're 40 years of age. It would be tragic if I were behaving otherwise."
His younger son Jimmy (whose mother is model Kim Bordenave) suffers from Angelman Syndrome, a rare genetic disease that means he is only now in the process of learning to walk and will have difficulties with speech.
He sees old acquaintances who never hung up their dancing shoes and thinks there but for the grace of god. "Some people are still at it, I know people who were five years older than me and they're still doing it and they were popping pills in The POD (the now-legendary nightclub where he met Louis Walsh and almost got recruited to Boyzone) in the early 1990s. I don't know how the f**k they do that but God bless them. For me the path was intensely trod upon and short-lived."
Like Lot's wife in the bible, he has his moments where he is tempted to look over his shoulder at the debauchery that's gone. "At times I do think, as f**ked up as it all was, there was also something, just, you know, phwoar, engaging and dynamic, being in the crux of that much . . . whatever it was. That is appealing for a minute. But then, you know, you do the trick so many times you become the trick."
He's wary of the squeaky smugness of the recovered addict but can't help looking with concern at some of the younger stars, who act out the way he once did. "I see people who are very young in the press now and (they're) very successful at an early age and without mentioning names they're acting out a bit and maybe they need a kick in the hole, but at the same time I know it's a very strange thing to be 22 or 23 and literally be allowed to operate the confines of what, for everyone else, is socially acceptable."
As for the idea that these young upstarts may be moulding themselves into great artists through their excesses, he's dubious: "I used to have this notion that art can only be birthed through the present experience of pain, but I think art that nods to the semblance of pain or that shadow world inside us can be created through simple observance and compassion.
"I feel liberated from that self-perpetuating fallacy that you have to live in the shadows to be able to create a world that reflects light and shadow.
"There's so much horror in the world", he sighs, "if you've any kind of feeling you can tune into that."
The Lobster is on nationwide release from this Friday