Colin Farrell is lying on a couch at the Savoy, just about ready to kick off his biker boots. The Irish actor has just flown in to London from Los Angeles, where he’s lived for the past 15-odd years, and the jet lag is catching up with him. How times have changed.
It was a decade ago when we last met for The Recruit. Then, he was a Hollywood bad boy, filling his days of being wild with Playboy models, sex tapes and cocaine-and-whiskey binges and rehab all par for the course.
It coincided with a remarkable period in Farrell’s career, shortly after Steven Spielberg came calling for 2002’s Minority Report. “It was insane,” he reflects. “I had no idea what was going on – my head was spinning. All I could do was hold on and pretend that I didn’t care about any of it, because I just didn’t know how to manage it or know what I cared about. It all happened very, very fast, and it was a blast – but I’m glad it was torn down by these very hands, in a way.”
Now, at 37, Farrell is a changed man – calmer and quieter – as his recent CV suggests. Last November saw him in the sentimental Saving Mr. Banks, playing Travers Goff, the well-meaning but unreliable father to Mary Poppins author P L Travers. This month, he takes a rare step towards playing a romantic lead in A New York Winter’s Tale, the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. “I don’t think I’ve done anything that’s as unashamedly and unabashedly romantic as this film,” he says.
He couldn’t have put it better if he tried. Based on the novel by Mark Helprin, Farrell plays Peter Lake, a burglar living in New York in 1916 who falls for Jessica Brown Findlay’s well-to-do Beverly, who is dying of tuberculosis. A blend of romance and fantasy (there’s a flying white horse, time-travel and Satanic rumblings), Farrell calls it “incredibly sweet and incredible moving” – even if its protestations about universal love come straight out of the Hallmark playbook.
Despite his bad-boy image, Farrell is an old romantic at heart, he says. His first ever crush was Marilyn Monroe; he’d leave Smarties under his pillow for her. “I truly felt what we would call romantic love,” he smiles. More recently, there was his time spent with Elizabeth Taylor; they met in the last two years of her life, before she died in 2011 (he was one of the few non-family members at her funeral). Farrell calls it – in his mind, at least – “the last romantic relationship I had which was never consummated”.
On screen, though, it’s different. The only time he’s ever been a heartthrob was in Ask the Dust, Robert Towne’s stilted 2006 adaptation of John Fante’s novel. “I don’t know,” Farrell sighs. “There was heart in it, but I don’t know if anyone felt it!” That aside, Farrell hasn’t taken the romantic route. “I didn’t get offered many of them,” he shrugs. Instead, he took on films like S.W.A.T., Miami Vice and Pride and Glory. But macho posturing can only get you so far.
“I’m less concerned with being alpha now,” he says. Surely this is de rigueur for most male actors in Hollywood? “Yeah, but there’s an awful lot of that in me as well,” he replies. He’s referring to his Dublin upbringing, when his father and uncle both played football for Shamrock Rovers. His was a boisterous childhood (even if he did unsuccessfully audition for Boyzone and try out acting after Spielberg’s E.T. moved him to tears). “You grow up, you go to school, and you want to hold your own in the playground and the class.”
Long before he realised a desire to tap into his masculinity on screen, Farrell sensed he’d become an actor. “I’ve always loved observing people. When I was a kid, I used to drive out to the airport in my mother’s car at 2 or 3 in the morning and sit at the arrivals gate.”
After a spell at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre and on TV’s Ballykissangel (as the roguish Danny Byrne), he made his Hollywood breakthrough in Joel Schumacher’s Vietnam War movie Tigerland, which cemented his interest in tortured masculinity.
Sometimes, as in his Golden Globe-winning turn as In Bruges’ hitman, it worked wonders. But “investigating the very nature and fabric of testosterone” interests him “less and less now”, he says. “I don’t define manhood in the ways that I used to.”
Partly, this comes with being a father now to two boys, 10-year-old James (from his relationship with American model Kim Bordenave) and five-year-old Henry (whose mother is Farrell’s Ondine co-star Alicja Bachleda-Curus). “That’s part of my life now and that’s very much part of who I am. There’s an enormous amount of fear, strength, tenderness and uncertainty that goes into being a parent. It allows you to take everything you’ve experienced before and just puts it into very, very sharp focus.”
While he’s no longer with the mother of either of his children, Farrell seems too wrapped up in fatherhood to worry. “To be honest, the two lads keep me busy,” he says (the women in his life are currently his mother, Rita, and two sisters, Claudine and Catherine, all living in LA). He’s also slowed down his output, deliberately. “There was a stage a few years ago where I went from film to film to film to film,” he recalls. “I once did four films with just a week or two between each.”
More selective, Farrell is also aiming higher. He recently completed a new film version of Strindberg’s “bleak, beautiful” Miss Julie, directed by Ingmar Bergman’s long-time muse, Liv Ullmann. “God, she can tell a story!” says Farrell, admiringly. “She told me a lot about her days with Ingmar – she wouldn’t mind me saying that.” He’s also just signed onto The Lobster, a future-set love story with Rachel Weisz from the Greek director of the acclaimed Dogtooth.
Arthouses watch out – Colin Farrell is coming.
‘A New York Winter’s Tale’ opens on 21 February