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Colin Farrell: Hollywood's bad-boy comes of age

Reformed bad boy Colin Farrell tells Alison Singh Gee why he's quit hellraising and gun-wielding roles, ahead of his star turn in supernatural drama Winter's Tale

 

THE FIRST THING YOU need to know about Colin Farrell is that his signature libation is not what it used to be.

Maybe you'd expect the 37-year-old Irish actor - known for his starring turns in S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice, and his title role in Oliver Stone's epic Alexander - to be swilling a pint of Guinness, even at 10 in the morning. After all, this is the man with a "carpe diem" (seize the day) tattoo snaking across his left forearm, who famously took his partying to extreme levels.

But at the Four Seasons suite in Beverly Hills where we meet, Farrell is sipping something a little different - a kale shake from a nearby health food restaurant.

"Mmmm, bloody good," he says, almost lustily, as he licks some of the green juice off his fingertips.

Kale juice for Hollywood's former number one hellraiser? Really?

It seems a lot has changed for the Golden Globe winner (for 2008's In Bruges) in the 14 years since he burst onto the Hollywood scene as a 20-something in Joel Schumacher's Tigerland (2000).

After that portrayal of an American soldier taken to the Louisiana backwoods to participate in war games before a tour of duty in Vietnam, he was cast in predominantly gun-wielding roles, including playing Jesse James in American Outlaws (2001).

"They call them 'boys and their toys' movies," says Farrell, of the action-packed films in which he's featured over the years. "When those movies are done well, they can be graceful and entertaining. But, the truth is, I've always cared more about people than I have about guns."

And so, just as his choice of cocktail has radically changed, so has his choice of movie roles. Having recently been seen playing the father of Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr Banks, the actor is now here to talk about his leading-man role in Winter's Tale.

In this sweeping supernatural romance which takes place in Manhattan in 1916 and the present day, Farrell plays Peter Lake, an Irish thief who falls in love with Beverly Penn (played by a radiant Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey fame). She is a wealthy young woman dying of tuberculosis, who resides in a grand Manhattan house that Lake had broken into. Written and directed by Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind, the lushly shot film also stars Russell Crowe as a fierce Irish gangster.

"It's a very strange story - a pure tale of the forces of light and dark played out among the lives of the characters involved," Farrell says in his mellifluous Irish lilt. "Peter Lake is just an ordinary man trying to figure out where to get his next meal. And then he encounters love - a love he never thought was possible.

"The movie is very much a treatise to the idea that love is transcendent and ephemeral, and it also has some fantastical elements in it, like my character sits astride a flying horse. It's unlike anything I've ever done, and maybe unlike anything I'll be able to do again."

He pushes his black-framed spectacles back onto his nose, a visual nod to the intellectual he seems to have become, and says: "It's not being asked to shoot guns that's for sure. The film explores some really lovely, big themes - and I loved being involved with this story."

Shot on location in various parts of New York, Winter's Tale features an opulent scene that captivated Farrell's imagination.

"It was one of those nights you don't get very often, with all the women in evening gowns and the men in tuxedos," he says. "There were beautiful candelabras, and the place settings on each table were so fantastic. We shot in this very aristocratic but fictional part of upstate New York, in an old mansion, a place where Peter Lake would never be welcome - he'd have to break in to get in."

The Dublin-born actor loved being in New York. "It is one of those places you get to experience just by doing nothing," he says. "You walk down the street and you are held aloft by the energy of eight million people packed into a small piece of land."

His favourite thing to do there? "Just get out on the street and foot stamp. Go uptown, downtown, across town. Stop for coffee, sit on a wall. Grab a bench in the park and read a book. It's magical."

On the Winter's Tale's set, Crowe, whose career Farrell has followed for the past 15 years, taught the Irish actor a thing or two about acting.

"What he's doing is complete, full and rich," Farrell says. "Sometimes you can tell an actor is really enjoying the role they are playing. There's a heightened reality. You could say that about Al Pacino in Scarface. They give themselves freedom of complete expression.

"I felt that about Russell in this film. His character is so violent with a wickedly dry sense of humour. Russell is brilliant in this movie."

Many would heap similar kudos onto Farrell, who still snags some of the most coveted roles for an actor his age.

Farrell's father played for professional Irish football team Shamrock Rovers, then ran a health-food shop. His mother insisted on dancing and acting lessons for her youngest so,and Farrell eventually took steps towards performing.

He auditioned for Irish boy band Boyzone and was rejected. Then he was cast in the BBC television drama, Ballykissangel (1996). A few years later he was in Hollywood and reportedly commanded US$5 million per film by the age of 25.

But by the time Farrell was wrapping up Miami Vice in 2006 his partying had spiralled out of control. He was drinking nonstop and taking the full spectrum of recreational drugs.

"I just literally could not stop - I went mental for months at a time, cleaned myself up and then went on the set," he says. "It all happened very, very fast. I wasn't grounded enough in understanding what acting was to me or the concept of fame. Before I really got to discover myself through the lens of celebrity, suddenly it was all upon me."

He shakes his head, leans back and sighs. "And I had a lot of fun, a lot of fun. I was given the keys to the candy store. I really was and I was also confused by it."

He checked himself into rehab (he spent a month at Crossroads, Eric Clapton's deluxe treatment centre in Antigua).

"I had a lot of fun, and then I didn't have a lot of fun," he says. "So I'm kind of glad that period - not just the fame but the chaos - I'm kind of glad that's done."

Today he lives mostly in Los Angeles with his sons - 10-year-old James with model Kim Bordenave and four-year-old Henry, whose mother is actress Alicja Bachleda.

Being a father is what he considers to be his greatest role. "Having children changed my view of my world," he says. "Often we can only find a love for ourselves by finding someone or something else to love. So the arrival of James and then Henry made me appreciate life more."

He finishes off his kale cocktail.

"It certainly made me want to stick around longer."

48hours@scmp.com

 

Winter's Tale opens on February 13

 

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