Thirteen years ago, after receiving the worst critical thrashing of his life for the film Alexander, the Irish actor Colin Farrell came up with what he felt was a brilliant plan to cope with the humiliation. "Where can I wear a ski mask and not actually be put against the wall by a bunch of SWAT cops?" he recalls asking himself.
The answer: Lake Tahoe, where Farrell spent the next few days masked and drunk and fighting the urge to apologise to potential moviegoers for wasting their money and time. No anecdote fully captures a person's complexities, but this one helps explain the widespread fondness for Farrell. A sensitive scoundrel is hard to resist, especially a movie star with the wherewithal to admit that a public excoriation was, in the end, a good thing.
"I was due for a kick in the arse. I really, really was," Farrell, 41, said during a recent interview. "Because I was annoying. I had so much, so quick. I was so cocksure."
Farrell has undergone a metamorphosis since then and continues to shapeshift. A decade ago, he was playing the generic action hero, or trying to, but the big movie star suit was not a good fit - for his films, or for him. He drew middling reviews and cemented a reputation as a badly behaved bed hopper with an insatiable appetite for alcohol and drugs. After finally flaming out, he entered rehab the moment his last big film, the 2006 Miami Vice, wrapped.
But rather than lick his wounds or hold out to come back big, Farrell came back soulful and small, turning in performances in the 2008 indie In Bruges and the low-budget Crazy Heart that drew accolades. Lest anyone get too comfortable, Farrell has veered sharply left again, into rigorous art house territory, starring in the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster, from 2015, and now The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Farrell met to chat in the cocktail lounge of his hotel near Piccadilly Circus in London, where he has been staying while filming Disney's live-action Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton. He has spent most of the past year on film sets and was aching to be back home in Los Angeles with his sons, ages 14 and 8.
"I say this as someone who is really aware of how fortunate I am; the world's smallest violin should not play for me," he said. "I'm just ready to step away from all of it. I really just want to go on a hike and see my boys and go on a road trip."
Before Dumbo, which he said he liked working on very much - "there are fire eaters and guys walking on balls and trapeze artists and Tim Burton running around with a stick. It's genius" - Farrell was in Chicago filming Widows with Steve McQueen, and before that working on Roman J. Israel, Esq. with Denzel Washington. And before that was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which was shot last summer in Cincinnati and, of Farrell's recent films, has perhaps affected him the most.
David, his Lobster character, was doughy, inward, guileless and desperately lonely, all of which felt especially poignant coming from a live wire like Farrell, who said he felt great liberation in being so contained. "There was no attempt and no desire, as written, to be in any way cool, any way interesting, any way suave," he said.
But Steven, the heart surgeon he played in Killing, is cunning and arrogant, and by the end of the production, Farrell said, he felt very depressed. He was drawn to the part by the same tug that drew him to The Lobster, finding brilliance in the twisted worlds Lanthimos creates. And in Farrell, Lanthimos said he found a true creative partner.
For all his work on big films, Farrell has long preferred smaller films anyway and the specific stories they can tell. When Martin McDonagh approached him to play a hit man for In Bruges, basically throwing him a lifeline, he almost turned down the part. He'd been in a string of bad movies and was still feeling the lingering burn of his Alexander the Great movie.
For Farrell, it was a shaky time. He was scant months out of rehab, having finally caved to his family's pressures to get straight. Asked what hastened his bottoming out, Farrell quipped, "Just existing." But really, he added, it was the intensity of sudden fame, which came fast after Joel Schumacher cast him in Tigerland (2000) and then Phone Booth (2002).
"Getting all these platitudes and things being said about you, and all these gifts, it wasn't in my DNA to believe any of this stuff," he said. "You try and match the hype, but I never believed it."
He was glad that those days were behind him, he said, not least because sobriety has made him a much better dad. His first son, James Padraig, was born in 2003 (James's mother is the model Kim Bordenave), and initially, Farrell figured he'd be his son's friend. "'Cause that's what a six-month-old grub needs," he cracked, "a 27-year-old drunk, high friend."
He had his second son, Henry, with his former girlfriend the actor Alicja Bachleda-Curus. Farrell shares custody of his sons and says he can't think of a decision he has made in the last dozen or so years without thinking about how it would impact them.
Now his life centres on the boys, his home in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles, yoga ("I said I love it, I didn't say I'm doing it"), and saunas ("very purifying"). "He was a wild guy, and now I think he's channelled all of that into his family, and his work," said the director Dan Gilroy, who said he cast Farrell in Roman Israel in part because he knew he could hold his own with Denzel Washington.
Farrell said he planned to take a long break, and he was open to what's next, be it action heroes, even though he loathes guns ("Hate em!") or, in the vein of Lanthimos's films, more unsexy roles, even if he might be somewhat alone in characterising them that way.
The New York Times