What I went through was a garden variety tale of an addict
In his most honest interview ever, Colin Farrell opens up to Barry Egan about addiction, fear, sacrifice, excess, God, fatherhood, sobriety, and the demands of “not knowing as a man what to do in a male-dominated society that puts high value on alpha behaviour’’
SOME movie stars, when their multi-million dollar budget film comes out, have a glass of Chardonnay and enjoy the moment. In 2004, when Oliver Stone’s epic Alexander was released, Colin Farrell received such a critical mauling for his performance in the title role that he got drunk out of his mind and vanished on a plane to Lake Tahoe. More than that, the young Brando from Castleknock — whose illustrious career was unravelling in front of the eyes of the world — hatched a plan, as he told the New York Times last week, to deal with the public humiliation: he not only got blind drunk, but he put on a ski mask so that 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 told Cara Buckley in New York Times of his Lake Tahoe degradation.
Thirteen years on, Colin Farrell has no need to hide from the critics ever again. Following on from director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster two years ago, he has just made one of the best films of his life (and of the year) with the spookily compelling The Killing of a Sacred Deer, also by Lanthimos. In it, heart surgeon Steven Murphy (played with a chilling detachment by Colin) finds himself faced with a choice of killing a member of his family after being cursed by 16-year-old Martin (played by Barry Keoghan) whose father died on Colin’s operating table a few years previously.
Instead of filing a malpractice claim, Martin brings horror to the idyllic middle-class home of Steven and his equally detached wife Anna (played by Nicole Kidman) instead. It transpires that Steven had a couple of drinks before he performed the openheart surgery on the boy’s father that resulted in his death.
“You should never have a few drinks when you are doing heart surgery. I think we can all agree on that!” Colin laughs. “He is a very proud man. Having had an understanding that Martin’s curse on the whole family is actually taking hold, he says a surgeon can never kill a patient. ‘An anaesthesiologist can kill a patient, a surgeon never can’. Later on, his anaesthesiologist friend says, ‘A surgeon can kill a patient but an anaesthesiologist never can’. I think those two lines, rewritten by each character to relate to their own individual perspective, represent the pessimism that people are in it for their own good; that people are looking out for number one. And I’m not saying that the director [Yorgos Lanthimos] believes that as a blanket rule...”
Does Colin believe that people are only out for themselves? “I don’t, actually. I believe the majority of the time, yes, but I think there are always exceptions. I don’t think there is one rule over every single person on the planet. I think choice comes into it. I do think that people act from altruism and if somebody acts from altruism and they feel good about it, well, then the more cynical amongst us will go: ‘Ah, they didn’t do it selflessly!’”
Colin’s character kills, or sacrifices, his son. Does Colin see The Killing of a Sacred Deer as a modern take of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in the Bible?
“Yeah. We have always looked for context in mythology, and the Bible to me is one of the great mythological books that has ever been written. I see it as allegory. The idea of sacrifice has always been a huge theme in the human experience, and there is no greater sacrifice than in this case the father taking the life of his child in the belief that there would be some resultant purification. That’s where Martin’s heart very much is. He is a very prideful man. He carries himself as if he is a God. He feels every day that he is cradling the creation of human life, the human heart, so that he can perform surgery. He is like Alec Baldwin in another film [ Malice] where he plays a surgeon and says: ‘Do you think I’m God? Let me tell you. I am God!’”
Is Colin religious? “I don’t align myself with any particular religion, or any particular philosophy on it,’’ Colin says, and he is searching for “even a proximity with regard to what our purpose in life may be. I have a mishmash of this and the other. But I tried very hard years and years ago to be an atheist, because I thought it was more interesting or I thought it had more intellectual validity or worth — and I couldn’t quite cross the bridge,” Colin says of atheism. “I couldn’t quite make it to the other side. I do believe in something that is bigger than us. To someone who is atheist they would say that is a cop out. But I think there are other realms. I think there are greater things than the eye can see or the brain can even comprehend, especially when we are only using 10pc of the brain’s capability. So we can only comprehend what we can comprehend,” Colin adds. “You know, our evolution as sentient beings? I am completely fine that there are complexities and mysteries that are way beyond the understanding of any human being. Having said that, I don’t find science and religion to be a dividing force. I think they can go hand in hand.
“I don’t know what I am,” he says returning to the original question of religious belief. “I struggle with it.”
In terms of his artistic, rather than spiritual evolution, does Colin feel he has gone through a transformation with indie movies like The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer?
“No. From the inside of it, it is really not so much [that],” he explains, meaning it is reductive to see his career as action hero box office hell to salvation in indie hipsterdom. (‘Hitting bottom after a string of macho roles in major movies, the actor has found fulfilment, and the best reviews of his life, in oddball films’, wrote one critic.)
“I feel that I am doing work that is more challenging to me as an actor and to me as a man. The work I am doing now is less physical. It is deeper. From the outside looking in. I see the results of the sculpture. But for the sculptor, who is creating the sculpture, it happens bit by bit, step by step. You arrive wherever you arrive as a result of a thousand choices and happenstances. So for me it is like the grandmother not seeing the grandchild for five years. ‘Oh my God! The size of you!’ But if you see the grandchild every day it wouldn’t be hugely dramatic. I don’t see the change that you have asked me about as such,” he says meaning metamorphosis.
Did you need to kill Colin Farrell, the big movie star, the big action movie star, in order that Colin Farrell could live?
He laughs. “I think the box office killed that for me, man! I rose very quickly through the ranks and had a lot of commercial success very early and couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I did a couple of big films that didn’t work. Then there wasn’t the opportunity to do big films and it sort of forced my hand and it took me to involve myself in a scale of work and intimacy of work that I do find fundamentally more interesting. Truly fundamentally,” he says.
“Even through the years when I was doing big films or more commercial films, or action films, I was still doing Intermission [in 2003] or A Home At The End Of The World  and still trying to do smaller films and sometimes it didn’t work that way. I was working with the likes of...martin Mcdonagh is an extraordinary director obviously,” he says.
After the multi-million dollar global flop that was Miami Vice in 2006, McDonagh approached Colin to play hitman Ray in In Bruges in 2008. I’d heard that Colin (after the critically beating of Miami Vice and Alexander in 2004) believed his presence in In Bruges would be a negative one and, as such, didn’t want to do it. Is that story accurate?
“I always wanted to do In Bruges,” he says. “I was feeling low enough on myself to allow that internal malaise to result in me saying to Martin, [despite] what I thought was an act of generosity [from Martin] and [despite] loving the material: ‘Look, man. People are going to come into the cinema — if they come in, that is; they might stay away! — with a load of baggage from the last few films I’ve done’,” Colin recalled what he said to the In Bruges director. “You have a relationship with your audience as an actor, whether you’re in a theatre or in film or on television.” I ask Colin what was his relationship like with himself at that time. He said in a 2009 interview in GQ magazine looking back on the deeply troubled period after Miami Vice and Alexander: “I didn’t want to die. But I didn’t want to live.”
How did he get his belief back as a human being, not as a movie star? “We all talk about that you can’t live in the past but there is a trap in that as well, especially if, like most of us, no matter what your individual story is, or however beautiful or hard it is. It certainly benefited me to go back. To reverse the clock a little bit. ‘So, OK. Hold on a second. I did that. Hold on a second. Where was I? What was I doing when I was a kid? Why did I do that?’ I kind of went through my whole life just to see where I made some choices and choices were based on fear; and how confused I may have been and I was trying to pretend that I wasn’t confused. All that
‘I’ve yet to meet a person whose sobriety has made their life worse’