“Jaysus. It’s getting bleeding crazy,” Farrell says of his overnight star status. “You couldn’t actually give it too much thought or your head would be destroyed.”
He still can’t believe what has happened to his career. It’s only four years [this interview took place in 2001] since Farrell made his debut in the Irish TV mini-series Falling For a Dancer, after he had opted out of Dublin’s Gaiety School of Acting. “I didn’t think I should have to pay £2,500 and take a year out of my life to be told that I was crap,” he says.
He gave up on school, too. After three years at Castleknock, where he played rugby (“because they let you get away with murder if you did”), and two years at Gormanstown, he finished up at Bruce College. “That didn’t work out either. I was just too busy messing around. So I took off to Australia when I was 17.”
Farrell hung around The Performance Place on Sydney’s Cleveland Street, where he made his stage debut in a play about the outlaw Ned Kelly. “It was perfect for somebody who’d never done more than ‘bangbang you’re dead’ playing cowboys and Indians in the back garden,” he says. “The play was terrible but it was the first time I’d rehearsed with a bunch of actors. And once back in Dublin I decided, feck it, I’ll give acting a go.”
He made his European stage debut playing a teenage autistic boy in Gary Mitchell’s In a Little World of Our Own at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
“It wasn’t exactly Chekhov, but it was great storytelling,” he says.
“It was like a movie on stage. Kevin Spacey came on a night off from his rehearsals for The Iceman Cometh, which was about to open on the West End. We began to hang out. He told me there might be a part for me in Ordinary Decent Criminals, which he was about to film with Thaddeus O’Sullivan. So Thaddeus cast me. I got an American agent, Josh Lieberman. I didn’t realize until I got to L. A. that Lieberman also represented Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Shue, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris.”
When Farrell was 12 he saw his big sister Catherine — he’s the youngest of a family of four — play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Gaiety School of Acting. “I knew acting was a possibility because she’d done it,” he says. “Catherine and I, more than any of the others, were always into the movies, staying up late as kids watching the old Hollywood black-and-whites.”
Without Catherine, Tigerland might not have happened. Farrell had been late for an audition with veteran director Joel Schumacher, who was in London checking out talent. “I was only five minutes late,” says Farrell, “but the old bastard had his coat on and was going out shopping. He’d seen about 30 or 40 guys and he’d had enough. We talked for maybe four minutes. I thought, well, feck that, there’s a plane ticket wasted.”
Schumacher remembers it somewhat differently. “Colin just filled the room with humor and charm,” he recalls. “I decided to have him read for the lead in Tigerland.”
Catherine filmed her brother in his flat in Irishtown. “She’s very good with a camcorder,” he says. “It was the most crucial few minutes I’ll probably ever do on film.”
Schumacher watched the clip back in L.A. and promptly offered Farrell the lead role of Bozz, a rebellious Texan loner who stands up to his drill sergeant. “Colin reminded me of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo ‘s Nest,” says Schumacher.
Farrell wasn’t bothered by having to talk American. “I grew up on The A-Team and all those TV shows,” he says. “Any star I watched was American. I’d been talking American in my subconscious since I was a kid.”
While he was still shooting Tigerland, Schumacher cast Farrell in the claustrophobic suspense thriller Phone Booth. “I’m in a phone booth in downtown L.A., gripping a receiver to my ear,” says Farrell, explaining his role. “At the other end of the line there’s a rooftop sniper who has me in his sights. If I hang up, he’ll kill me. The cops have come because he’s killed someone outside the booth. They think I’m the killer, and if I don’t come out, they’ll kill me.”
Immediately afterwards, Farrell moved to Austin, Texas for American Outlaws. “It was a complete change,” he says.
“I had to get over all the seriousness of Tigerland, where I was trying to find ‘the truth.’
“American Outlaws is a romantic-action-adventure comedy. Jesse James is a character I’ve been playing since I was two. It was great craic. I’d done a bit of bare-back riding when I was playing Danny in Ballykissangel, but nothing like this. All I had to do in Ballykissangel was trot two yards, get into the shot and get off. American Outlaws was the real stuff.”
For Farrell, home is still his small flat near Sandymount strand in Dublin. “There are a few nice pubs around the corner, and a chipper [fish and chip shop],” he says. “That’s all I need. I don’t have a toothbrush or a pair of slippers in L.A.”
He pads across the wooden floor, barefoot. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve skipped about 100 rungs on the ladder. So I don’t have to go and live in L.A. or do the scene there to get noticed. I can go there, do the work and get out. I’m in no hurry to get anywhere. I don’t have any plans. I don’t have a map. If you did in this business, you’d destroy yourself.” ♦