It can be tough being a Colin Farrell fan. For every person who recognizes the natural charisma and weight the 28-year-old actor brings to his roles, there are others who question his success. There are those who insist he has yet to prove himself, who resent his raucous behavior showing up in the tabloids, or who maintain the belief that he was created through publicity and not craft. Those individuals are probably not familiar with Farrell's work. Since his fearless and captivating breakthrough in Joel Schumacher's 2000 war film Tigerland, the actor has steadily been racking up a resumé of impressive performances. He was outstanding in small films such as Intermission and A Home at the End of the World, movies that most people probably weren't even aware Farrell was in. Audiences have instead come to know him from his big-budget blockbusters—Minority Report, S.W.A.T., Daredevil, and The Recruit—entertaining action-adventures that shouldn't be punished for being popcorn movies. And then there was his entrancing performance in the underrated thriller Phone Booth, a film in which you simply can't take your eyes off the actor—and not just because he appears in almost every shot. Over the course of 80 minutes, Farrell careens from confidence to devastation as his self-absorbed slickster publicist wages a war for his life against an invisible sniper. Again under the direction of Schumacher, Farrell is as flawless as his Brooklyn accent in a one man tour de force that showed not only that he deserved the sudden attention but also that he had great things in store for the future.
Now, Farrell is tackling his most challenging role yet, that of the driven, megalomaniacal, bisexual ruler Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone's historical spectacle Alexander. Despite being a pet project of Stone's for more than 15 years, the making of the film was marred with actor injuries, financial hurdles, and extensive media coverage of the supposed on-set romances of stars Farrell, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Jared Leto, and Rosario Dawson. None of this seems to faze the gregarious Farrell, who on this November afternoon is more concerned with the chicken sandwich his sibling has prepared for him. "Does this look suspect to you?" he inquires, eyeing a piece of meat that looks a little too pink for his taste. "I think my sister is trying to kill me, I swear it."
Over the course of our interview, Farrell is constantly in motion, getting up to fetch his cigarettes, gesticulating wildly, talking a mile a minute in that distinctive Irish brogue. His vocabulary is contagious: One finds terms such as "messer" and "darlin'" and a frequent use of the f-word appearing frequently in conversation. Take his response when he hears that a former co-star badmouthed Kilmer, his on-screen father. "Val is a delicious human being," he says, before launching into an expletive-laden tirade that ends with, "Val is a fucking sweetheart, I'm sure he's got a fucking dark side to him, we all fucking do." It's that same refreshing honestly and frankness the actor also brings to his on-screen roles—whether he's aware of it or not—that has directors from Steven Spielberg to Terrence Malick lining up to work with him.
Back Stage West: As someone who's a fan of your work, I'm curious if it ever bothers you that many people know you more for your personal life than your art?
Colin Farrell: It's funny that you ask that, because it's more of a frustration for anyone that knows me or cares about me. My family is sick of it. I suppose that I, to some degree, maybe misjudged the idea that people could know that you could be this and you could also do that. People seem to have to limit you to: Either you're a fucking messer, or you're a serious actor. You can't be a serious actor who likes a mess every now and then, like any young man. It hasn't really bothered me that much. Of course we all want to be thought of, by our peers and by people, as being good at whatever we do, whatever it may be, whether it's writing, taking photographs, being a chef, driving a fucking bus, you know? I haven't lost any sleep over it; I really haven't. But for my family and friends, they keep saying, "Stop focusing on the person."
BSW: It seems like you've been working nonstop since Tigerland. Do you regard that as your big breakthrough?
Farrell: It was my first American film. I'd had small parts in a couple of Irish productions. I regard it as, I suppose, my biggest break. The thing is, I always saw each job that I got, from the very first job 10 years ago to each subsequent job after that, as being a break relative to where I was at that time. They tell me now that it's kind of impossible for me now to get a break. I've kind of broke. Do you know what I mean? It's a strange position to find myself in.
But I saw each job I got as a break. When I auditioned for Falling for a Dancer—a four-part miniseries for the BBC when I was 19 or 20—I got it, and I couldn't believe it. It was the first job I did as a working actor. And then I auditioned for a play in London, a play I really wanted to do. And I got it. And that was a break. And then Kevin Spacey came to see that play, and, when he was doing a film in Dublin, he suggested me to the director. So I went and auditioned for the director, and then I got offered a small part in this small independent film [Ordinary Decent Criminal] that was shot in Dublin. That was a fucking huge break. So each thing was just a different level of break or different stage, but each thing was an incredible opportunity that I just lapped up. And then Tigerland subsequently was the biggest break of all. And certainly was the beginning of this five- or six-year odyssey that I find myself on.
BSW: And how are you enjoying it?
Farrell: I love the job. I don't like much of the shit that comes with it. Small fucking price to pay, though, for getting to do what I do and getting to do what I do with who I get to do it with. I mean, I've worked with some incredible actors. I've worked with some amazing directors. I've seen places in the world I probably wouldn't have seen. I mean, I really have been blessed. And I enjoy it. If I ever stop enjoying it, I really will walk away from it. I really will.
BSW: Now you're headlining Alexander, a $150 million historical epic. Do you feel intense pressure to carry this film to success?
Farrell: I didn't feel the pressure at all during the experience, based on the size of the movie, the scope of the story, the epic nature of it, or, obviously, the budgetary cost. Or the fact that I was headlining it, playing a character called Alexander in a film called the same. I didn't feel any of that pressure; I really didn't. I purely felt the pressure that I always feel about the work. Would I be found out this time? Am I shite? Can I act? Will I do it justice, or will I just be bland and uninteresting? Would I have the goods to do Oliver's writing justice? So it was the kind of pressure, personal pressure, which I always put myself under, but I put myself under much more, because I knew this was a much more demanding experience and a much more demanding role—emotionally and mentally and philosophically more demanding than anything I've ever tried to do before. So with that in mind, I put myself under terrific pressure, but it was a very personal pressure.
BSW: Oliver Stone has a bit of a temperamental reputation. How did you get along with him during such a long and demanding shoot?
Farrell: Great. I loved him. I love him still. He's fantastic. He's just an incredible artist, an incredible filmmaker, and a genius writer. A man with wads of integrity to spare, so much integrity. I mean, he's got enough integrity to remain true to himself, and that's all he will do, is remain true to himself. And that in itself is art; it's not about pleasing the masses. It's about having a vision; it's about not wanting to but needing to do something. Needing to tell a story, needing to paint a picture, needing to write a song, needing to sing it, needing to whatever. Oliver has needed at times in his life to tell many stories. And he's remained true to his own vision and his own purpose. And that, I think, takes an enormous amount of integrity. And he's fought against the system. Not because he wants to ruffle feathers, but because the system has, at times, come down on him, accused him of being left-wing, unpatriotic, kind of a buffoon—all these other fucking things that anyone who knows the man knows aren't true. And I don't know him that well; I mean, I've danced with him closely. But anyone that knows him even a little bit would know that the things he's been accused of being are so far from the man. He has an incredible level of compassion. You see it in his films. He couldn't make the films he makes. He couldn't question humanity, and why we do what we do to each other consistently, time and time again, unless he had an amazing empathy, an amazing compassion for people of all races.
BSW: You were talking about some of the amazing people you've worked with. Do you ever get intimidated?
Farrell: Oh, yeah. I mean, working with Pacino [on The Recruit] was just unbelievable. And it wasn't … I mean, the piece wasn't exactly The Merchant of Venice, but I'd fucking do it all over again. No regrets; I loved it as well. It wasn't the "high drama at the OK Corral" moments you would dream of, but I just got to be on a set and work with him. Fuck, I got to work with Al Pacino. It was insane. I got to sit in the car with him while they were setting up the cameras and talk to him. I got to ask Al Pacino what his favorite movie was that he did.
BSW: What did he say?
Farrell: It was an indefinite answer, but it was an answer. He took a long beat and said, [imitating Pacino's voice] "Scarface was pretty close." Fucking genius. So, yeah, I was intimidated. But you know, these people, they could inspire intimidation, having met them. They make you pretty comfortable pretty quick. You know? Pacino was great with me. Spielberg was great with me. All these big names. I just worked with Christopher Plummer, who, to me, is fucking almost godlike. Chris became my drinking partner. We stayed in the same hotel, and every night I'd be in front of the bar, and he'd walk into the room and go, "Dahhhling, I've been waiting. Where've you been?" You know, I had such a laugh with him; we just had a great fucking time together. And he'd regale you with stories, and you could ask him various things about different stages in his career and his life. It was just a joy to be around him. It's thrilling; I've gotten to work with these people and have a drink with these people and have a bite to eat with these people. Because I'm a film fan, first and foremost. Before I was an actor. I grew up watching a lot of these people. And, just being an absolute fan of various pieces of their work, to actually meet them and work with them is crazy. So I am very much a fan; I get excited. And then it becomes normal, and you see that they're people, and you never lose sight of the fact that it's an honor and a privilege to be in their company. It's not because of who they are, what they are. Because there are people that I would meet, and they would let me down as people, and I wouldn't be interested in being around them.
BSW: Do you remember when you first realized you wanted to be an actor?
Farrell: I suppose when I went to drama school. I was 19, 20? Before that, I think I had done my fourth workshop when I was, like, 16. And then I went away from it. I went to Australia when I was 18 and did a play for a year. This theatre was putting on a play, and one of their actors got a commercial and couldn't do it, so I jumped into his part two weeks before the play was opening. And then I went back home, and then I went away again. Obviously I thought of being an actor at that stage, but I certainly hadn't thought that it was something that I'd do. It was just something I was messing around with. And then I finally got to go away to theatre school, where I really immersed myself, and only then looked at it as a possibility of what I might spend a lot of my time doing and thinking about.
BSW: Were you surprised to find yourself taking it so seriously? Or did you take it seriously?
Farrell: I think I always took the work very seriously. That doesn't mean I don't like to have a laugh on a set; I'm always joking around. Even in grammar school I always tried my best, and thought a lot about the work, and took it home and mulled over it. You know, late at night I'd be thinking about scenes and re-playing them back in my head. And I'd imagine the scenes that had yet to be done. I've always loved it. It's always been sort of a challenge, and I had times where I kind of hated acting. I love it, and I kind of hate it as well.
BSW: What do you hate about it?
Farrell: Just at times, it just seems like ... you feel like a cheat or like a fake. And nobody else knows. Sometimes you feel like it's just a dream, what you do. You pretend you're someone else, you say someone else's lines. You steal someone else's ideas, or thoughts, or emotions, and make them your own. You feel like a rapist in a sense, and that's all kind of hard. At times I feel kind of stupid doing it. It's probably just because I never got the feeling that I've done great. Never, ever. Or even done really good.
BSW: You mean you've never been happy with your performances?
BSW: Have you seen some of them? Have you seen Phone Booth?
Farrell: Yeah, I know I did.... I know at the end of [Phone Booth], I did one piece at the end where I have a fucking breakdown that was good. The thing that's good about [acting] is the thing that's bad about it: There's no science. There's no right way to do it. There's no wrong way to do it. And that's the thing that at times is so liberating, and it's so freeing and allows you to embark on many avenues of exploration, but it's also that thing at times that makes you go, "I wish that there just was a right way, and I could just do it. And know that I got it right." You know, so it's fucking yin and yang.
BSW: How do you feel about Alexander?
Farrell: I'm so proud to be part of it.
BSW: And your work in it?
Farrell: I have … I don't really want to get into it.
Farrell: Yeah. It's boring [to talk about].
BSW: So what draws you to films? Is it the script? Or people involved?
Farrell: It has been both. For the first while I just couldn't get my head around the fact that I was a working actor and that I was receiving offers and stuff.
BSW: Did you say yes to everything?
Farrell: I said yes to quite a bit. To, like, Hart's War, when it was offered. Straight away I said yes. Obviously Phone Booth was a joy to do and work with Joel again. With S.W.A.T., I was beginning to know that I had more choices, but I wanted to work with Sam Jackson. I mean, it is what it is, and it was made for the reason that it was made. I wanted to work with Sam and have a bit of fun. And I did that. Now I'm kind of picking more based on the directors. I think I've been so fortunate that I got to work this last year with Oliver. Then Robert Towne, then Terrence Malick. [Farrell recently completed the films Ask the Dust and The New World, respectively.] So I'm kind of just into being put through my paces with good directors. If you've any chance of anything being pulled out of you, you have a chance with these men. Do you know what I mean? So it's just about maximizing the situation. Again, taking advantage of the good fortune that you find yourself in—or that I found myself in.
BSW: Out of curiosity, do you still have to audition?
Farrell: I did for Alexander. I hadn't in ages, and it was lovely. It was great to have to. Oh, it was great, it was so fucking great to go in and actually have to try and fucking win something. And not just go, "Will I be happy doing that?" I prepared a piece the night before, the week before, a few days before. Just a monologue. And then went in and did that a few times. Oliver also gave me a couple of scenes to read, and then I read them, and it was great. I came in so invigorated. It had been three years since I auditioned.
BSW: That must be a nice luxury to have.
Farrell: It's a great luxury. It's a fucking fantastic luxury. But it was really nice to go in and have to work for something.
BSW: That must make landing the role that much sweeter.
Farrell: It was great. The sweetest.
BSW: You talked about times when you really didn't want to act but would come back to it. What got you through the uncertain times and brought you back to acting?
Farrell: I just wasn't in a place where I could make any decision in respect to anything that I wanted to do with my life at all. My feet were ... if they were on the ground, the soles were drenched with water, and I was slipping everywhere. I was kind of all over the place. And I was just unfocused and uncentered. I wouldn't say I'm the most centered and focused person in the world now, but I was much worse. So I did an acting class. And I went away from it. Finally I made a decision that [acting] was something that I wanted to do, foolishly enough. I decided I wanted to spend my time dressing up and playing make-believe and taking it seriously. And I haven't stopped since. BSW