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Life is cruel, and life is beautiful – Colin Farrell

In an incredibly frank interview, movie star Colin Farrell talks to Barry Egan about dealing with sobriety, rehab, his struggles with life, fame, childhood bullies, Hollywood, the dark people he has met along the way, his two sons and just who is the boss at home

Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell
Colin Farrell with Tim Burton and Dumbo co-stars Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green and Danny DeVito

‘So it returns,” James Joyce wrote in Ulysses. “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” Colin Farrell has been on that Joycean journey of self-discovery for as long as he can remember.

The star of In Bruges, Intermission, Phone Booth and, now Dumbo, lives in a mansion high in the Hollywood hills but he lives more in his heart and in his head than within its fancy walls. With it all, Colin exhibits the charm of a man who is open to laying himself bare emotionally, albeit wittily. He shows regard for, and empathy with, people.

He talks intensely, sometimes very intensely, like a young Bono or a young Marlon Brando. In a tailored suit, polo-neck jumper and boots, hair swept back and pencil moustache immaculately groomed, Colin Farrell resembles a post-millennial mutant of a 1940s matinee idol crossed with an unapologetically eccentric peer of the realm with a dagger in his jacket.

I bring him a gift of a movie I think he might like – Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives Of Others.

Colin Farrell with Tim Burton and Dumbo co-stars Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green and Danny DeVitoColin Farrell with Tim Burton and Dumbo co-stars Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green and Danny DeVito

Colin Farrell with Tim Burton and Dumbo co-stars Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Eva Green and Danny DeVito

“Thanks. I love this film.” He immediately recommends The Rider. “It’s a film made by this Chinese director, a woman called Chloe Zhao. I think you’ll love it. She casts a bunch of actors who play versions of themselves. She cast the main guy’s father as his father and his sister, who has special needs, as someone who has special needs in the film. It is a weird hybrid of fiction and docu-drama. It is so moving. It overtook Paris, Texas as my favourite film of all time. It’s powerful stuff. The main guy in The Rider was a rodeo rider with very severe brain trauma. And that’s what the film is about – his recovery and his return, his potential return.”

Colin’s own recovery is a matter of public record. When he wrapped up filming Miami Vice in 2005, he went into rehab to confront his addictions, drink and drugs. He told me in 2017 that his mother had the greatest sleep that she had in a long time when he completed the rehab process.

“For a long time, I could put the brakes on,” he said then. “For a long time, I could go mad for three, six months, and then I could pull back for a few months to try to re-enter the atmosphere. Then suddenly I couldn’t find the handbrake.”

Last April, in a brave pre-emptive move, Colin checked himself into a rehab facility in Arizona after “fearing he could break his 12 years of sobriety”; and before, “going down that rabbit hole and using again”

We talk about being an individual not just in the movie world but in the actual world.

“I think that is something that one still struggles with. I think we all do. You know, trying to be honest with yourself, yet allowing yourself to be influenced by your environment, knowing that this experience of humanity is at its core a communal one. But there is, unavoidably, the individual’s journey through this communal experience. That seems to be one of the biggest rubs, as far I can see.”

Is it difficult to be on that journey in the movie industry?


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“No more difficult than working in a Starbucks and having the pressure of having to fit in with your work mates.”

Someone in Starbucks has a bad day and it is a bad day. You have a bad day and it is a bad day all over the media. Doesn’t that make it more difficult?

“Not really,” he says. “I remember – not to toot my horn! – but the day I won the Golden Globe in In Bruges and I went backstage afterwards and somebody said to me, because I had come out of rehab a year or two before that, ‘Do you find it hard for people who are in the public eye to go through a journey of sobriety or to deal with personal struggles?’ And I said: ‘No. Impossible’.”

He continues: “When I came out of rehab, I had a 3,000-sq ft house and two films lined up. What kind of f**king dope would I be to think it [being sober] is harder just because people are commenting on it? If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody around, does it make a noise? Who the f**k knows! Nobody will ever be certain whether it does or not. No, it doesn’t because nobody hears it. So what, it makes a noise and is aware of its own existence with the thud of meeting the planet. So if I don’t look at the comments and I step away from them, they don’t really exist.

“Now, I haven’t always been that strong to always stay away from that. But, for me, there are far too many beautiful things and provocations that have allowed me to grow as a man, as well as an individual and feel part of the global community.”

Colin was in Tokyo two weeks ago to promote his new film Dumbo – Tim Burton’s beautifully realised, big-budget take on the little elephant with big ears who can fly – and, he says, it was “wonderful being in Japan. I have been exposed to so much that it is beautiful, and while it is tricky at times to be commented on, and your every move commented on, I don’t live in that space. I don’t even feel I inhabit it. I was a lot more public once than I am now.”

Was that a conscious decision to protect himself?

“No. I don’t sit at home and make decisions based on what I think is best for me. Maybe I should!” he laughs.

“It is so moment to moment. It really is. You know – one ill feeling leads to a response to that ill feeling, that leads to the provocation of a thought that leads to an action that that thought gives birth to. And on it goes.”

And before you know it, you’re tied in 20,000 knots.

“Yeah! And you’re 42. And you’re OK, until you wake up that day!”

You’re 42? That’s the age at which Elvis died.

“I’ll stay away from the jacks today, so,” he laughs (in reference to the King’s death on the loo in Gracelands).

Colin, who was born on May 31, 1976, in Dublin, is home today from LA to promote Dumbo, a film in a sense about overcoming darkness and dealing with life’s villains. Colin plays Holt Farrier, a World War I soldier who lost his arm in the war and his wife to influenza, who returns to circus life to care for his two children and to save Dumbo from baddie billionaire VA Vandevere (Michael Keaton).

Has Colin met villains?

“Sure, they’re everywhere, aren’t they? In every school ground, in every classroom, in every work place in the world. They don’t have to be as dramatically contextualised as they are in film or opera to hit home. There is a certain distance that we’re offered by film or by theatre and it can fool us into thinking that it is only something we are observing. It is like allegory. We can think it is not about us and then the trick of something that is well designed [is] we are awash in the emotion of what we are observing. In life, it is a lot more immediate.

“So the villains that I have encountered in life… I have met dark people. I have met cruel people. I have met people who treat people meanly. They are the villains that would still stick with me. I am not going to mention names. But I could riff off two people from school.”

Really? Bullies?

“Bullies, yeah, yeah, yeah. And I could riff off, easily, five or 10 from my work in this business in the last 20 years. There is no point in doing that. But, they are the villains that have informed and taught me how I want to be in the world.”

Was it like Nietzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

“That’s nonsense as well. What doesn’t kill doesn’t make you stronger. What doesn’t kill you can sometimes make you more desperate and more despondent and lonelier.”

Can you learn from that?

“Ah, yeah, always. As twee as it is. I was asked, would I take back any of the films that I’ve done, any of the ones that didn’t work? Absolutely not. I might have wished they had worked a little bit better, but the essential experience I always have is [invaluable].”

Did he feel he was blamed for certain movies?

“No, no. I’ve just been in movies that have been shite! It was never my intention. But would I change them or regret them? Absolutely not.

“Let’s spend three months of our lives creating something that will piss people off over an opening weekend! Nobody goes into a movie for those reasons.” (He might well be referring to 2004, when Oliver Stone’s Alexander was released, and Colin got such a critical battering for his performance in the title role that he got drunk and vanished on a plane to Lake Tahoe. He told The New York Times in 2017, that to deal with the public humiliation, he put on a ski mask so no one would recognise him. “Where can I wear a ski mask and not actually be put against the wall by a bunch of SWAT cops?” he says of his escape to the ski town.)

“But look, this whole experience of being a human being – you tell me if I’m wrong – is an absolute mess.” He laughs. “It is a disaster of misinformation.”

Is it like going through the forest in the dark with a candle, and as soon as you are stupid enough to think you are enlightened or you have it all figured out, the candle blows out and you are back where you started: in the dark again?

“Yeah, basically. But, you’d be doing well to have a candle or walk through the forest by moonlight, because the sunlight can’t get through. You’d get an odd little dapple here or there, if you’re lucky. But we are all feeling our way in the dark. How do we set the clock back to zero, so we can all be untraumatised? And not inflict those who come after us with our trauma? It’s impossible.”

What is Colin like as a father then? “I have no idea. I think every parent inevitably f**ks their child up because that is part of the human experience. And if you can just f**k your child up less than your parents f**ked you up, then you are doing well.

“Being a parent is the hardest thing in the world and the most rewarding as well. It’s madness. A permanent tiredness. And I have just begun at the sweet age of 42 to reconcile myself with the fact that the candle has blown out, and that there is no candle, and that there are forces greater than me that arrive in the sky and disappear of their own volition. I am okay now with just being clueless, bundling my way through life. I don’t have to have any f**king answers at all. I give myself the key to that liberation. Even if it is self-hypnosis, I am fully committed to it. Life is a mess. Life is cruel. Life is beautiful. There is no such thing as sustained happiness in my experience. Those who have it, God bless them. And this feels like the thoughts of an optimist, by the way!”

“I would be knackered trying to keep up with those young fellas,” he says, referring to his sons Henry (nine) and James (15). “I go to work for a rest. I can be in my trailer and people are usually kind to you because you are an actor and then when you go home, it’s like, ‘who is the f**king boss here? It’s not me!’ My sons are well, well versed in the power of manipulation. ‘Daddy, can I watch 10 more minutes? But daddy, you said downstairs I could watch 20 minutes. You said that at 11.47!’ It feels like the trials at Nuremberg sometimes! They are amazing litigators, amazing!”

Who were Colin’s heroes growing up?

“Maradona,” he says, referring to the Argentinian football superstar.

“I wasn’t reared in a very culturally supine household. It was football, [Colin’s father Eamon played for Shamrock Rovers], school, and kids. There was no art.”

I know Colin’s big brother Eamon. This doesn’t sound like the house Eamon grew up in, I say.

“Well, Eamon is gay. So Eamon brought his own culture into the house. He was listening to Yentl and stuff like that from a very young age. But there was no musical theatre, there was no theatre. You got to go to the cinema once, there were no stories read at bedtime. There was no provocation for the imagination, ironically. Maybe that’s why I found myself so immersed in a world where I make my living by basically keeping my sense of wonder and my sense of imagination alive. Or else I’d be adrift in this job and I’d have no business doing it.

“But, yeah, Maradona was the first time I had any hero worship. Mexico 1986 was a huge year for me,” Colin says, referring to that summer’s World Cup. “There was also something beautiful – look, you see an athlete like Michael Jordan or a football player like George Best, or whatever it is, doing what they do. It is a creative endeavour. It is an art. It becomes an art. They transcend the limitations of the physical space.”

Did Colin want to be a footballer?

“I did want to be a footballer until I was about 14 or so. Then I knew. I just wasn’t good enough. At 13 or 14, there began to be a real separation between those who were putting the time in and those who weren’t. I was in the latter category.”

Was there a movie that Colin saw as a child that made him think, ‘I want to do that’?

“I always loved films. It was Indiana Jones, Back To The Future and Star Wars, Flight of the Navigator. All the really light entertainment films as a kid. Then a little bit later, it was Paris, Texas. That was my first experience of something that actually blew my mind, that stirred within me. When I saw E.T. for the first time in the cinema, I bawled my eyes out. I was allowed, I was given permission by what I was viewing to have this kind of emotional outpouring. I didn’t think I was given permission to have that at home. I didn’t think I had the permission to have that at school.”

Did he have permission to be himself emotionally growing up?

“I don’t think many of us do,” one of the greatest actors of his generation answers, “whether it is intended, or not, by parents. I think, somehow, there is this supplanting of a signal or information within us. I mean, I grew up in a time or a place where emotions were seen as weakness. To be masculine, or to be a man, or even a boy, you know, crying meant you were weak.”

And now, vulnerability is strength.”Totally. It always actually has been. It’s just been recognised as being permitted, and I certainly, with my children, allow them and dream of them being as emotionally frank and honest. I’m available to hold a space or leave them in their room if they need to be alone. All that kind of stuff. But at the time?”

Colin reflects on his own childhood. “I do remember watching E.T. and having this outpouring of feeling. Of course, at the time, I wasn’t conceptualising the importance of it… Which is one of the beautiful things about Dumbo, it does present this sense of isolation, loneliness, exclusion that I think children understand at a very young age. I was allowed to feel all that, and be awash with that, when I was watching E.T. So that was a huge thing for me.”

But E.T. wasn’t the trigger to become an actor?

“I didn’t know that being an actor was something you could do until my sister [Catherine] went to the Gaiety School of Acting.

“When I saw her play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was my first realisation of just the idea that somebody could actually do this and it could be something that you could put time and energy into and it might be worthwhile. I was probably 13 or 14. There was a time after that when Pacino and De Niro and all those lads… and Muhammad Ali. I was a big fan of him and how free and lyrical and graceful he was, and how bold he was.”

He could be talking about himself.

Next, he is off to New York to film After Yang, a movie “about loss and regret and to say goodbye”.

Saying goodbye, he asks about my own children, when I say parenting is the sound of one-handed clapping.

“It’s the same sound as a tree falling in the forest when there’s no one around!” He laughs and is gone, the star of Dumbo off to fly to America.

‘Dumbo’ is out now.

Sunday Independent

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