Esquire, Aug 2011
The confessions of Colin Farrell.
Photos by Martin Schoeller
“Yeah, LA is home,” Colin Farrell tells me, surveying the eerie emptiness of the bar he’s chosen for our meeting. “But I have two homes—one I was born into, and another that I carved out through my own existence, which is a pretty profound thing to be honest with you.”
We’re on the roof of one of those exclusivity hotels, all discretion and nudge-wink—the Petit Ermitage in West Hollywood, hidden among the houses in the gay district. And we’re alone but for the night sky and a solitary waiter at the far end, probably because it’s midnight on a Sunday and who meets at that time anyway?
“… Being born somewhere, as you know—I assume you were born somewhere?—it forms you and shapes you. And wherever you go, it’s the prism through which everything is designed and colored. So Dublin will always be a part of who I am. Always. And to then leave? That’s a big fucking decision…”
First Colin’s people said “midnight at the Roosevelt Hotel”. Then they pushed it to one because “Colin keeps funny hours, he’s got to put his kids to bed,” before then changing the hotel. And then there was talk of a sauna. “He might take you to an all-night Russian bathhouse for a sweat,” said his publicist Danica. “He’s done that before.” So all in all, I’ve gotten off lightly—we could be having this conversation in towels.
“…Sure, I complained about the superficiality of LA. But then you realize that the world, whichever way its axis spins, you find superficiality in every corner. I experienced it in Tibet, I’ve seen it in Dublin. Los Angeles hasn’t cornered the market. So now I love it. Yeah. Which isn’t to say I don’t miss Dublin, but you’re always missing something aren’t you?”
He spreads his arms out wide and starts grabbing the air with his hands.
“The human heart, it’s tendrils reach in so many directions. One tendril is gripping onto something that’s satiating it and the other tendril is flapping loose in the fucking wind of desire going ‘no! if I could just…’.”
I’ve been with Farrell for maybe two minutes at this point. I asked him: “do you live in LA?” Some might have responded with a simple “yes”. But not Farrell. He doesn’t answer questions so much as wrestle them. The answers unspool in ribbons, occasionally poetic and sometimes overcooked, but always reaching for something true.
And he arrived ready tonight, vigorous, despite the late hour. A man with a golden tan and a bright plaid shirt, louche and unbuttoned, with black tattoos all up his arms—part pirate, part boy band. And he seems fully sprung. His eyes are dark and sharp, fiercely alert. It’s though he warmed up in the dressing room earlier.
This is a key time for Farrell, an upswing on his rollercoaster. He still looks so boyish that it’s easy to forget what a full and raucous legend trails behind him. It’s not uncommon for movie stars to have movie-worthy lives—the big screen can magnify everything—but with Farrell, you can tick every box. There’s the meteoric rise from humble beginnings, the riches and Bacchanalia and girls upon girls until, like an accidental Icarus, he fell—a spiral of box office flops and sundry addictions, the thudding crash of his stock. And now the Phoenix rises. That’s where we’re at. It’s a tale fit for the Greeks.
For the last six years, Farrell has inched his way back through smaller roles in smaller films, some wonderful (In Bruges), some forgotten (Ondine) and some daft (London Boulevard). Whatever the part, he’s always effective and often a highlight. In Woody Allen’s much-panned Cassandra’s Dream, for instance, his role as Ewan McGregor’s guilt-racked brother was the film’s only saving grace.
And this year sees a scaling up. Movies that threaten to make more of a mark. Horrible Bosses, he plays a hammy cokehead, his first bash at pure comedy—“with my fucking beerbelly and a bald cap, I was just short of having an eye patch and a parrot,” he grins. And then there’s a couple of remakes—first Fright Night this autumn, a vampire movie (does this explain the timing of this interview?), and then next year, Total Recall. “That’s two for two,” he says. “I could be really original and spend the rest of whatever my career turns out to be, doing only remakes.”
Of the two, Total Recall will be the test. A big budget action picture with the shadow of Arnie over his shoulder. If he pulls it off, it’ll be one of the most storied comebacks in Hollywood since Travolta in Pulp Fiction.
When they make the Farrell biopic—which they should, it’d be a riot—it will open in Dublin in the 80s, in the nouveau riche Castleknock neighborhood, with young Colin bunking football practice to get some shagging in. The youngest of four, he might have had a crack at football—his dad Eamonn played for Shamrock Rovers—but he preferred to scive and get his fingers wet. And he showed the same discipline when he turned to acting, at the delightfully named Gaeity School of Drama. So at the very least, it’s a story of a drama school dropout who would soon be hailed as the greatest actor of his generation.
Good looks, charm and raw talent took him from break to fortuitous break. First came a part on ITV’s Ballykissangel. Then Kevin Spacey spotted him in a play at the Donmar Warehouse and cast him in Ordinary Decent Criminal. After which Joel Schumacher came to London scouting for talent and Farrell squeezed in as the 41st and last actor of the day. Schumacher described it as like “falling in love”. Within months, Farrell was in Texas, playing a tough military hero in Tigerland, a movie that only a handful of people saw. Fortunately, that handful included Steven Spielberg and Bruce Willis, so after Tigerland came Hart’s War, Minority Report and Phone Booth. In record time, Farrell had entered the outer orbit of Hollywood stardom.
Some actors secrete themselves when the money rolls in, wary that audiences might not believe a man in a role if they know him from Heat magazine, or a sex tape, or Trivial Pursuit. But Farrell was too busy drinking and, famously, getting his cock out at parties to worry about any of that. He was shagging so often that had he notched his bedpost it would be whittled to a toothpick. With ties to Demi, Britney and allegedly Angelina too, not to mention the inevitable whoregasboard smorgasboard of playmates and strippers. And hookers, which he confessed to to ordering like pizza. His favorite topping he told the Sunday Times, was “anything burnt. I like black.”
His hype ballooned. He was either the Irish Brad Pitt or a classic hellraiser in the tradition of Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole. Pierce Brosnan tipped him for the next Bond. And America couldn’t get enough. It was as though they’d had forgotten that men drink and swear and shag girls, and that celebrities are capable of being honest. So Farrell became the “bad boy” du jour, their permissible rogue, the scamp lothario. And reporters would line up to listen to him, this half-cut Irishman, as he hurtled through interviews in between shags, making the riotous noise of a man of appetites having the time of his life.
“It was pretty loud ink,” he laughs. “It was kind of 3D. Like Braille. It came off the page. I had guys licking their lips to get in a room with a tape recorder because I was like bleaurgh!”
To Playboy he condoned heroin use and admitted to using prostitutes. To W, he announced that “sex is fucking wonderful man. Literally I come into town and bang whoever I can.” Perhaps the quote that sums it up is, “if I want to get up on the table with 15 pints in my belly and pull down my jocks and do the Macarena and I can’t because I’m afraid, then all this good fortune isn’t worth nothing.”
He was like a superhero from a boy’s magazine, living the life we all dreamed of, the way it was meant to be lived. We cheered him on: Go on Colin—shag those playmates! He was a vicarious pleasure. An antidote to all that whining about the pressures of fame. Farrel reminded us that being a celebrity also meant that you were minted and you could fuck anyone you wanted. And he responded to his good fortune without any sense of entitlement. He was like a lottery winner, both delighted and baffled by his luck. “I can’t make fuckin sense of it,” he said at the time, “because my head would be fuckin destroyed if I sat down and tried to figure it out.”
But where there’s luck there’s envy. “I think I probably annoyed a lot of people because I was having so much fucking fun,” he says with a shrug. “Because I didn’t even work—I mean I did but I didn’t. It happened when I wasn’t looking.”
What happened when you weren’t looking?
“That was my question! How did all this come about? It was so fast. Whatever converged to carve my trajectory through this town, it was ridiculous. It couldn’t be sustained.”
Farrell’s career was a bubble. A boom and bust economy.
“When you’re having more one night stands in a week than there are nights in a week, something is out of wack in the universe.”
Americans get Europeans wrong sometimes and I suspect—just a theory, mind—that it’s to do with their breathless fetish for accents, particularly British. They adore them so much that it clouds their thinking and they make odd choices. Like casting Russell Brand as the next Dudley Moore in Arthur 2.
With Farrell, his Dublin twang was romanticised as the brogue of broken promises and it was decided that Farrell was an action hero, a hard man and moral compass. But that’s not how Farrell comes across. It’s his boyishness that’s endearing. He’s amiable, cheeky, warm and somewhat fragile. A man of peace and mischief rather than action. A man of the people, certainly, but not an emperor.
Alexander could not have been a more fitting apex for Farrell. It was the story about a fearless and much-vaunted young man exploring new territory, apparently with future glories ahead of him, and yet he overreaches and finds himself in the wilderness, a long way from home—but so much for Farrell.
“It was the perfect summit,” he says. “Ideologically, creatively, monetarily. There was nothing small about it as an endeavor, or as a critical and economic catastrophe.”
To be fair, Oliver Stone’s tale of kohl eyed homosexuals conquering the known world in little shorts may have been better suited to musical theater than the period epic. But there was a logic to his choice of Farrell.
“I think Oliver saw I was fearless in the way that only great fear can design a man which is how Oliver saw Alexander,” explains Farrell cryptically. “In base terms—peer pressure makes people things that make them seem fearless, when the only reason they’re doing it is because they’re afraid of judgement. In that sense I was similar. I had a fears about life, death, success, the importance of it, the unworthiness of one to experience it when so many people don’t. And it propelled me into living in what seemed a reckless manner. I seemed not to care about the rules, when in fact, I cared about something very deeply.”
The failure of Alexander hit Farrell like a bus. On the way up, he’d kept himself in check by balancing any praise he received with his own less charitable view of himself. But when the reviews were bad, the strategy backfired. “If someone said ‘oh you’re great’, and I could say, ‘no I’m not’. But when it says in the paper ‘you’re shit’, then you possibly become shit squared. And then you’re in fucking trouble.”
The slide had begun. He failed to fully suppress a sex tape in 2005 with the playmate Nicole Narain (it was out for just long enough to be ripped and widely distributed). Then a crazed stalker self-published a biography called Colin Farrell: A Dark And Twisted Puppy, before trying to sue Farrell for $10 million (nothing came of it). And by the time he had another shot at a major movie (Miami Vice with Michael Mann) he was all over the place. Missing his cues. Showing up late. It was a turbulent shoot, disrupted by both hurricanes and Jamie Foxx walking off the set. And once it wrapped, Farrell checked into rehab. “It’s one thing to travel down a dark tunnel when there’s a little bit of light at the end,” he says. “But when you lose sight of the light…”
There’s all kinds of rehab these days—rehab for cheating on your wife, or shoplifting, or having gay sex in toilets. But Farrell’s was the old-fashioned kind. “I’m a garden variety drug addict,” he says. “I’d take anything until it’s all gone. So forget Hollywood, parties and fun and all that, at the end it was me on my own in a room with a kit of stuff every night. It was just shite and I was killing myself. My mum was waiting for a call to say I was dead.” He laughs. “You know, all that kind of stuff!”
Luckily, he hadn’t burned any bridges along the way. At root Farrell is a charmer, albeit a tortured one—and even then, his fragility has been key to his appeal. So when the time came, he had the support of not only his family, but also both his agents, his publicist and his lawyer. And also Joel Schumacher.
“I hadn’t spoken to him in three years, but he was there for me when I called and he’s still there to this day. If I texted him now—unless he’s knee deep in some handsome young lad—I’d get a text back. I love that man dearly.”
Six years on, he has only fallen off the wagon once. “I stepped off with great grace about four years ago, and well, ended up on my knees fairly quick! I had a two day reevaluation shall we say. But that was it.”
And now he’s all wheatgrass and push-ups. Bathhouses and yoga and green tea, which he has been sipping all night. “I came here straight from a Russian sauna. I fucking love a sweat,” he says. “I just love being healthy.” He grits his teeth, guiltily. “I know! I’m an absolute fucking turncoat, I’m not even joking with you. Every now and then I miss a night of reckless abandon, but not often. Like I say, you’re always missing something. I’ve just replaced the rituals of boozing with other rituals. Like fucking saunas.”
By some standards, sobriety has been a dampener. The former shag-happy quote slut in his 20s, is now a thoughtful father of two in his 30s given to long noodling exploratory answers. But that’s age too. And Farrell remains the most frank and unleashed actor in his bracket—it’s only by his own standards that he sounds somewhat toned down. Where once he blurted, now he cogitates. When I ask him about success for example, he shakes his head. “What is success? You can be successful at fucking things up. Maybe in the strivance for success, you’re failing at being comfortable in yourself enough to live a life that doesn’t need success…”
Clearly sobriety and contentment aren’t one and the same.
Even if Farrell’s most lurid stories are back in his days of stupor, tales about him continue to do a brisk trade. Earlier this year, a former girlfriend, the writer Emma Forrest, released a memoir, Your Voice In My Head (Bloomsbury) that was in part about her 2008 relationship with Farrell, whom she calls Gypsy Husband. But incredibly, Farrell hasn’t read it—a book by an ex.
“I’m not hiding from it,” he insists. “I’m not exercising some kind of passive disdain or rebellion against the whole notion of me featuring in that book. And I suppose I might feel a little bit betrayed if I did read it. But I don’t need to feel that.”
So you don’t even plan to read it?
“No, I have my own memories of that time. I knew she was a writer, so I knew there was a chance but truly, I’m fine with the book existing. I wish her every fortune with it.”
But typically Farrell has little to worry about. He comes off rather well, as usual—kiss and tell has never done him much harm, as the legendary headline attests: “Colin Farrell Makes Love Continuously For 48 Hours”. “Wow!” he laughs. “When did I do that? And why the fuck can’t I remember?”
There is one thing—Forrest describes him as wanting to have a baby with her one minute, and then ending their relationship the next. But that aside, he’s tender, he cries, he’s passionate and caring. She even describes him as “natural poet”. When he’s off on location, he sends her a single Werther’s toffee and has people come over and fix her gate. He’s every inch the fragile rogue with a heart. He’s what a girl wants.
Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that even now, after all that ink, Farrell’s not particularly paranoid about girls selling his story. If it happens, it’ll likely be complimentary, and as with Forrest’s book, he can always just turn the other way. It’s been over six months since he even Googled himself. “Google is just the opportunity to walk by a locker room at school and hear someone whisper your name to somebody else,” he says. “You can’t stop and listen. All you can do is keep walking.”
So will he read this interview when it’s out? “Will I? Will I?” He leans back and strokes his chin. Looks out at the bar ahead of us, now entirely empty—the waiter signed off a half hour ago. It’s past 2am and yet Farrell is as sharp as he was at the start.
“Well, a person’s perception of themselves is seldom in this world, on the money. So how can someone doing an interview get it right? There’s a thousand ways to play it on both sides, surely, so to my mind, it’s a dangerous rabbithole.”
Tonight he will go home to his boys—James, who turns 8 in September, and Henry who’ll be 2 in October—Farrell is separated from both of their mothers— in the hip Los Feliz district of LA. But not for long. Tomorrow he flies to Canada to begin shooting for Total Recall, potentially one of the most critical performances of his career.
“My life has led me to a place where you have to disempower the opinions of others, the weight they have on your life and your psyche …”
But for now, he’s in a on a roof in LA in the dead of night, under a deep ink sky, unspooling his thoughts and furrowing his brow. Always reaching for something true.