Colin Farrell: An actor who continues to push himself to the limit

Colin Farrell at the opening of "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" ©Shutterstock

Together meets Irish actor Colin Farrell. Farrell has received his first Oscar nomination for his role in The Banshees of Insherin.

Actor Colin Farrell has had to explore various depths of courage and creativity over the course of a 25-year acting career, yet at a time when the buoyant Irishman should perhaps be looking to wind down to rather more serene creative pursuits, he is instead ramping up for a return to the attention-grabbing, impact-driven nature of his early roles… even if the projects are less high-octane. 

This was no better exemplified than in last year’s portrayal of John Volanthen, the real-life hero of the Thai cave rescue, a project – through movie Thirteen Lives – that offered the 46-year-old a unique perspective into storytelling and, ultimately, survival. Coupled with the triumphant revival of The Batman, it was a stellar year for Farrell. 

Perhaps the appeal of the actor is in the way he has risen from bullish, action movies in the early part of his career (think Minority Report, Miami Vice, Pride & Glory and Total Recall), to thoughtful, emotive and psychological staples (The Beguiled, Saving Mr Banks, Artemis Fowl and others). 

That would explain his latest movie, The Banshees of Inisherin – a film set on a seemingly tranquil island off the coast of Ireland, yet one which harbours psychological drama that’s right up there with Thirteen Lives and Phone Booth

Your movie, The Banshees of Inisherin, starts off with two friends falling out, then evolves into a mysterious and complex tale of emotional complexity?

What attracted me to this movie was the fact it is a subject that, from the outset, appears preposterous. Padraic and Colm are friends on a quiet Irish island off the west coast, and seem set to stay that way for life, until Colm calls a halt to it. 

He tells Padraic never to talk to him again, and each time he does says he will cut one of his fingers off. 

Quite soon, the community realize that something which initially appears a petty falling out is escalating into an impasse that won’t be solved.

 The film is funny yet also disturbing, which really is the perfect combination for me.

 What strikes home is the madness of it all, yet its familiarity

Precisely. And that is where the truth lies.

From the outset it is a film that appears far-fetched in its positioning, but ultimately this is exactly what happens to people and to friendships. They disappear over time – sometimes quietly, sometimes very loudly.

We are sometimes the aggressors of this, sometimes the victims; yet it does happen every day.

For a film that has so much humour and comedy, there is a real sadness in how it evolves.

For me, the sadness is in not being able to work out what a situation really means.

I have been involved in some real psychological movies that challenge the viewer to his or her extremes, and this is right up there with all of them.

You feel pity and sadness for the characters, and no small amount of confusion”

You feel pity and sadness for the characters, and no small amount of confusion, and it’s hard to package it all together into something that makes sense.

There are a lot of movies you do that must be tough to keep navigating, day after day.

Some movies get easier the more you pursue them; others, like Thirteen Lives, are tough every single day… from day one to the final day. 

The interesting thing about that movie was that, usually, when you finish, you are relieved and can have peace with the movie. Thirteen Lives came with a sense of almost false achievement – and by that I mean all I could think was I’d recreated a kind of reconstruction of what some incredibly brave guys, and boys, went through for real, without any of the comforts or rewards. 

So in a sense that feels like no satisfaction at all. I admit there should be some, but there wasn’t really much! 

Had you experienced such a challenge in a movie before?

Physically and mentally it was very difficult. Physically it speaks for itself, but mentally to have the courage and belief that you will be okay, even in very sanitized, safe conditions, is something else. 

I think all the cast really had to reach out for support. Of course I turned mostly towards John Volanthen – one of the British divers involved in the rescue – who was unreal throughout the shoot. 

It was really important we got close to the real guys behind this story, in terms of presenting them properly; but more than that, they were actually the best guys to keep us calm and talk us down off the ledge. 

I’ve never had that in a movie before – this one was unique for so many reasons. 

Of course I’ve had movies in the past that test you in different ways; ways you don’t foresee or imagine. The one that stands out most is Killing of a Sacred Deer. That was terribly bleak. I’d get to set and think, ‘Jesus, what did I sign up for?’ 

Every day, the tone was getting darker and more cerebrally twisted. There was an amazing creative broth but some days you’d come off after 12 hours on set and just feel flat. And I was completely shattered when I first watched it back. This was different, but similar. 

You’re renowned as an actor who always has bravado and confidence. Do you still feel that as much as you did before, in your career?

I think confidence is one thing, but strength is when you are comfortable enough in yourself to ask for support and encouragement from those around you. 

I think confidence is one thing, but strength is when you are comfortable enough in yourself to ask for support and encouragement from those around you”

When I was younger that’s probably something I wouldn’t have done – I wouldn’t have admitted I needed help. As you get older you realise it isn’t a black mark against your name if you need to do that. 

We all need to take ourselves back down from time to time, and get outside of our comfort zones, and when we’re there, to be strong enough to turn around and ask for help. It’s important. 

You seem to have found a consistent and happy new level as an actor the last several years by working on a variety of films – big and small. Is it more satisfying working this way than being part of big studio projects?

I’m much more interested in the quality of a film and trying to be part of movies that people will find entertaining and not feel like they’ve wasted their money. 

I want to work with the best and most interesting directors and actors where I feel inspired and I want to give my best every day”

I want to work with the best and most interesting directors and actors where I feel inspired and I want to give my best every day. That’s the greatest pleasure you have as an actor when you can experience that level of creative excitement and fulfillment.

Was there a turning point for you in terms of where you felt tired of working on big budget Hollywood films like Alexander which were shredded by critics?

It was after Miami Vice that I realized that I had lost my passion for working. It was a bad time personally and professionally and I knew I had to change everything.

I feel so liberated as an actor now compared to that period in my career. Once I decided that I was only going to work on films where I had the chance to play interesting characters, it completely rekindled the spirit I felt when I first wanted to become an actor.

Did your Hollywood glory days ultimately make you cynical about that world?

It can be very cut-throat. I have to admit that I didn’t have much choice when it came to doing independent films because when those big films didn’t do very well suddenly I wasn’t getting those kinds of offers from the studios anymore.

That’s how it is in this business. When you’re a star the studios will do anything for you but once things go bad suddenly no-one wants to know you.

But this has been a very positive and rewarding new chapter for me and I love the kind of intimacy and intensity that I’ve been able to find as an actor with these kinds of movies.

Is that the biggest reward that comes from doing smaller, more intimate films as opposed to those big studio films?

There’s much less waiting around in the trailer and spending the entire day waiting to shoot maybe 30 seconds of film. It’s much nicer spending genuine time with the other actors, spending time with the director, shooting different scenes, and feeling much closer to the material. 

You’ve gone through some ups and downs in your life as is well know. What do you think has been the biggest change in how you see yourself or the world around you?

I have long since stopped seeing myself as an actor, first. I think of myself primarily as a father, as a man, as a friend. I’m focused on my life. First comes the family, my boys, then the job.

“I have long since stopped seeing myself as an actor, first. I think of myself primarily as a father, as a man, as a friend”

And maybe that’s why I love making films more than ever, because I’m not attached to my work as I once was. I’ve realized that nothing is more important than my children.

Do you not like the fame?

I loved it. I did yeah. There were some great perks of the job, and I was 22 and just struggling to maintain any level of normalcy, and desperately trying to cling on as best I could, but it’s hard in that world when you’re catapulted into this heavenly stratosphere. I enjoyed those days, very much. I had a great time. Would I go back and do it all again? No, god no. 

There’s always talk that you’re retiring?

No, no, I’m not joining Daniel [Day Lewis] at the retirees’ club just yet. Jesus, you say one thing and it’s all the quit talk. I’m probably, not even probably, I’m undoubtedly doing the best work of my career, so not exactly an opportune time to bow out.

When you do retire what will you do?

I want to get behind the wheel and keep driving for a few weeks. I want to get lost and close off that part of my life, temporarily. I highlight, I emphasise the word, ‘temporarily’ there. You need to switch it down every now and then.

Do you feel, at this stage in your career that you have accomplished a lot?

I have never felt accomplished. I have never felt on top of my game. I still feel like I know nothing about acting. That’s the appeal and the lure and also the pain of the job, never feeling like you fully get there, and yeah, I think on the whole, it’s part of the appeal for me. I engage in that eternal chase, I like it. 

What about the quality of the industry right now?

It’s constantly fluid, so as soon as you think that it’s a particular way, it changes. I think independent film is alive and well and I think digital photography has meant that the power to tell stories cinematically has been put in the hands of anyone who wants to tell a story, which I think is amazing. 

As for the studios, it’s hilarious – they are always trying to figure out how to crack it and then maybe they crack it and then they saturate it, and it stops working and then they have to crack someone else. 

The business is changing with Netflix and Amazon and all this, but then even that’s contracting. So the studios are shitting themselves and the premium channels are shitting themselves and agents are shitting themselves and actors are shitting themselves, so I think everyone is shitting themselves. 

And yet, the industry will survive – it will grow and it will change.