Colin Farrell wanted a cigarette, but he didn’t have one on him. He was sitting poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel, which seemed like the kind of place where one would smoke. So he asked a pretty hostess if she had a pack; she did not.
“You want a cigarette?” asked an interloper standing nearby who had overheard the exchange. “I’m going to get you one right now.”
A few minutes later, the stranger returned, cigarette in hand. He asked Farrell what movies the actor had coming up, adding that he was producing a few.
“Good luck with it. Good luck with it, brother,” Farrell replied. “Thanks for the smoke.”
He sat back down in a bungalow and sighed.
“See,” he said, “you really can get anything.”
Well, sort of. Cigarettes and booze and drugs and girls and hotel rooms have all been at Farrell’s disposal since he became famous, he says. But the actor, who kicked a years-long substance abuse problem in 2005, has had a more difficult time earning respect as a leading man in Hollywood.
He’s certainly been given plenty of chances: In the last decade, he’s starred in a reboot of the sci-fi classic Total Recall, a remake of the vampire comedy Fright Night and the swords-and-sandals epic Alexander. None of them worked at the box office.
With his latest effort, Winter’s Tale, Farrell is trying his hand at playing a romantic hero. In the film, based on Mark Helprin’s lengthy fantasy novel, Farrell plays a charming thief who falls for an heiress stricken with tuberculosis.
The movie, which marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, faces a tough challenge, as it is up against the remake of RoboCop and several other movies aimed at couples celebrating the February 14 holiday.
Even if he isn’t a huge box-office draw, Farrell, 37, has earned a reputation as a compelling actor with a surprisingly wide range. In December, he earned strong reviews for his supporting role as P.L. Travers’ endearing alcoholic father in Saving Mr. Banks. He may have the looks for glitzy studio fare, but he often seems most at home in grittier independent films — In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, The Way Back — movies in which he has given some of his most well-regarded performances.
But even Farrell isn’t sure where he fits into the movie business. His resume of late, he admits, “paints a picture of a very confused actor who has no idea what the hell he’s into.”
Here’s what he does know: He doesn’t want to do any more films with guns. Part of that might be because he has two young boys and he’s begun to think about the effect violence in movies has on society. But he’s also interested in telling different kinds of stories now — ones with fewer explosions.
“The scripts I’m drawn to now are ones that deal in a greater degree of emotional and psychological minutiae,” he said. “I just don’t know that I want to be part of things that are superficially entertaining. … Without getting too high and mighty about it at all, I have to have a greater level of justification if I’m going to do something that involves that kind of violence again.”
He’s not just saying that, either. In the weeks leading to production on Saving Mr. Banks, director John Lee Hancock said, Farrell sent the filmmaker dozens of emails about his vision for the character. “You don’t often get letters from actors, and he was writing this beautiful stuff about what the character meant to him,” Hancock recalled. “He’s such a soulful guy with this Irish poet’s soul that I totally believed he could play a father a little girl would idolise.”
That Farrell is now able to come off believably as a role model of sorts is somewhat of a feat, given his history as a tabloid mainstay. Before he shipped off to rehab nine years ago, he was known as the ultimate Hollywood bad boy. He spent two years living in the Chateau Marmont, when he “had more money than sense,” his kids subsisting on room service club sandwiches. He filmed a sex tape with a Playboy Playmate (which she eventually leaked) and showed up high on the set of Miami Vice.
He’s been clean for nearly a decade, but the stories trail him. Even though, as he put it, “the worst thing I’ve done since then is sneak a … Subway sandwich into the ArcLight. And even that was only a 6-inch.”
By the pool last week, the only physical remnants of his edgy persona were the small silver hoops piercing his ears. His hair was held back with an elastic headband, as if he had just come from a yoga class, and beaded bracelets with tassels littered his wrists. Between drags of his free cigarette, he sipped green tea.
Farrell has lived in Los Angeles for years now. Two of his sisters as well as his mom, whose apartment he drives past almost daily on Sunset Boulevard, moved here after he got famous. But his roots are in Ireland, where he grew up in a Dublin suburb, the son of a professional club soccer player. Farrell went on to train at the country’s Gaiety School of Acting before landing his breakout role in Joel Schumacher’s 2000 film Tigerland, shortly after which Vanity Fair anointed him “the Irish Brad Pitt”.
Such labels, Farrell insisted, are no longer as important to him as they once were. He was disappointed, for instance, when Total Recall didn’t do well at the box office a couple years ago, but he didn’t take it nearly as hard as when Alexander flopped in 2004.
“I read every bad thing on Alexander. I think I wrote some bad reviews for Alexander,” he joked. “I read everything. I translated [stuff]. I read stuff that was in Farsi because I wanted to know every single word.”
Of course, his misfires have affected him in other ways. Total Recall, which cost $125 million, grossed less than $60 million in the US in 2012, which means “studios aren’t going to be running to put your number on speed dial on their cellphones,” Farrell said.
Maybe not, but Goldsman still wanted him for Winter’s Tale. More important, “the studio didn’t care as much [about Farrell’s track record] at this price point,” the filmmaker said, alluding to the movie’s modest $35-million budget.
“I didn’t really think about how the audience thinks of him,” Goldsman said. “I just thought about how I saw him, which is that there’s something very magnetic about him. He’s got a great, giant heart, but he’s shielded — and that makes you lean in.”
Which is all to say that even if Winter’s Tale doesn’t sell many tickets, Farrell will probably be fine. He’s already got another gig lined up: The Lobster, a dystopian love story costarring Rachel Weisz, which he’ll begin filming in Ireland next month. And when that wraps, he’ll come back to his home in Los Feliz, where he has his kids and his hikes and his movie nights — more, all told, than he’s ever had outside the world of film.
“A genuinely interesting thing has happened to me in the last year or two. I’m paradoxically more into the work than I’ve ever been, and yet in a way it’s less important to me than it’s ever been.”