“Lemons,” you hear one of the men say, his Irish accent somehow getting inside even that soft, short word. “Some lemon slices would be great.” They appear and the yellow is the same yellow as the pack of American Spirit cigarettes that sit atop the table. He grabs at the pack, pulls a fag free, lights it, exhales, and drops a wedge into his glass of Diet Coke.
Inching a bit closer, you can better make out their voices. The one in black—t-shirt, jeans, boots, tattooed arms—he’s the important one, the Irish one, the one telling all the stories. The other man, he’s incidental, unnecessary. Leave him out for now. Maybe he’ll be important later. Probably not. Let’s just keep a bit of his back in the frame and focus on the handsome one facing us in short, cropped hair, silver rimmed sunglasses, exhaling thoughtfully. His name is Colin Farrell and he is talking about purity.
“You have to be careful about how you cast your purity,” he says, speaking of his native Dublin in light of his move to Los Angeles four years ago. “I thought I came from a much purer place and life was so superficial here. When I came out here first, I was continually reminding myself how pure the culture I came from was. I came here and I went down that very obvious route. Over time, I just began to realize you can find superficiality anywhere. But I lambasted the place—everyone was full of shit and this that and the other. But I found a decent bunch of mates. And I love nature, man. I love the city. It’s kind of magical.”
He gets a foothold, lurches back, tugs at the thick rope and pulls the net up out of the water and there’s a woman inside it. A beautiful woman. The future mother of his now six-month-old son, Henry. Her name is Alicija Bachleda, a Polish actress who also sings. There she is, like magic, entangled in netting, draped in seaweed, unconscious but alive. And so begins the film Ondine, directed by Neil Jordan. The film he’s here on this rooftop garden to talk about.
It’s an unabashed fairytale, in which Farrell plays Syracuse, an alcoholic fisherman trolling the sparse waters of Castletownbere, County Cork, divorced and focused on raising his sick daughter, until he finds and revives this woman he fishes from the sea. She may or may not be a Selkie, a creature from Irish folklore who can shed their sealskin and live on land for a brief time before they have to return to the water. Yes, yes, by your cynical expression it’s apparent that a film with a girl in a wheelchair, a mermaid-like thing, and a divorced drunk fisherman might tug too hard at some heartstrings you might not even have anymore.
“If you really have no space for sentiment at all, then you might not go for it,” Farrell admits. “On the other hand, it’s a really harsh story. It doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of life. I’m playing a character that just lost his mother, his daughter is terminally ill, he’s a recovering alcoholic in a really wet town, and he has a recently dissolved marriage behind him as well. He’s not having that much fun, you know what I mean? I didn’t experience anything like the life Syracuse experienced, albeit there were a couple things when I read the script where I thought, ‘Okay, I know a little bit about that.’
“His life, as we find out, is quite a simple life,” Farrell continues, blowing cigarette smoke upward, pausing. “But that’s so derogatory. A simple life. What the fuck does that even mean?”
“A lot of people aspire to simplicity,” says the other man at the table, faceless, with no discernible accent.
“I think they do, to some degree,” agrees Farrell. “I know I would now. I would aspire to simplifying things, to having fewer complications in my life. Which doesn’t mean less drama. What I would deem now to be the purest sense of drama is as simple as observing the sun rise. That’s pretty dramatic and it happens once a day.”
If you’re familiar at all with this Irish gentleman Colin Farrell, you may be staring directly at the Diet Coke. You might even have been fixated on it, might still be thinking about it right now. A Diet Coke. Doesn’t quite fit the picture does it? This is the bloke that tore up Hollywood on the heels of his star turn in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland about a decade ago now. He’d appear on the late shows, most of his conversations sounding like emergency broadcast signals, a long shrill bleep to block out his “fuck” this and “fuck” that.
See, he was Irish and young and newly crowned. The lights were on him and he was lit. He liked to knock them back and do a few other companionable recreations in the dark. He fed the storm in his brain, the lightning from flashbulbs, only to find out in the nick of time that the limitless terrain does indeed have a limit, an edge to tumble over and off. So he stopped. A Diet Coke. Five years of Diet Cokes now.
“I don’t remember Miami Vice at all. It was like seeing a film I wasn’t in.”
The other guy—the one with the questions, whose back is turned—he didn’t have the guts to say it at the time, but he senses a restlessness still living uncomfortably in Farrell. His leg bounces, he moves both hands through his hair frequently, he takes off his sunglasses, puts them back on. He’ll stub out a cigarette in the thick glass ashtray which is right next to his lighter, which he’ll pick up after the smoke dissipates, move it through his hand, rediscover it’s his lighter and that its purpose is to provide flame for a cigarette, so why not grab another one, and soon he’s smoking his third in less than a half hour. Idleness and its medicine: whatever’s at arm’s length. Right now, that happens to be American Spirits, soda, wedges of lemon. Not very long ago, this table might’ve been decked out differently.
“I was controlling what I thought was my own personality,” he says of his early days, out of the gate, adrift. “I didn’t even know myself. Unbeknownst to me, I was designing a character, which we all do in life. We do it from an early age. We find out how we can fit in. Survival makes us design a character that we think will keep us in good stead to get through this life. It happened to me very aggressively when all this fame came at the age of 22. So what I did was, I pressed pause on my potential development. And I don’t mean that to sound as grandiose as it sounds. But I put myself in the class of suffering from arrested development. It’s a really unnatural decision to make, to say, ‘I’m not going to change, no matter what happens.’
“And what I ended up doing was becoming more of what I was at that stage,” he continues. “I became louder, and bigger, and more. I thought in a warped way that it was me maintaining my roots, maintaining some connection to where I came from. And it wasn’t. It was just me running rampant.”
“So that’s all in your past now?”
“No! I have no answers. I’m not saying I’m content and at peace. I just believe I have a little more of an understanding of who I am. I was accused of speaking really frankly and making no apologies and speaking my mind all the time. I’ve spoken much more frankly in the last five years, but I just haven’t been as loud or as cantankerous. The kind of braggadocio I had before was cloaking a massive amount of internal confusion. It was the inability to truly seek an answer to the question that plagues us all—who am I?”
“So what do you do when that existential dread comes back and it feels like you need to medicate it with something, anything?”
“Sit with it man. Sit. Fucking boring ass sit with it,” he says. “A good mood can pass into a bad mood, but a bad mood does the same thing. Just realizing that life is transitory, you give up the reigns of trying to control every single bit of minutiae of your own journey. You somehow receive more control in a way, by not needing so much control, by not trying to manufacture your own mood. But I still get, fuck it… There are moments when I’ve been depressed in my life and it’s weird how awash I was with smiles and laughter and joviality before. I’m actually much happier now and it’s strange to say that. There’s still peaks and valleys and all that kind of stuff. The peaks are not as high, but the ones I experience, I feel deeper. And the valleys certainly aren’t as low. I feel… pure.”
Coming full circle, as we ought to, back to purity. It’s one of those stupidly beautiful Southern California days that drowse you imperceptibly into idleness. The breeze carries the Irishman’s smoky exhalations away from the table, up through the ivy-draped latticework, dissipating above the swimming pool like the aftermath of a mute firework. One or two bathers appear to be asleep. The pause between answer and question stretches languidly.
It is all so alarmingly calm. Actors exist to be noticed. The loud, debauched tumble of a contemporary like Robert Downey, Jr. was followed by a loud, debauched rebirth into explosive look-at-me franchise films: thousands of tiny Downey iron-men, bedecked in bright Chinese plastic, overfilling clearance bins at Toys Я Us, the actor’s sequels fizzling out in last outpost cinemas on faraway islands, serving only to creep up the final ticket tally into the boastful billions. There will be no action figure to accompany the arrival of Syracuse from Ondine, a quiet man on a leaky boat battling drink and myth and family circumstance in the last outpost of his very life. Real people don’t make very good toys.
Farrell’s choices these days are practically yogic exhalations—profound, affective, quiet. His scream onto the scene with whiskey breath and fuck as a favorite epithet has passed, packed away quietly and privately like quilts into an attic. His performance in Ondine is clear and measured, completely in service to the film and its small story. His Golden Globe for In Bruges (Best Performance in a Comedy or Musical), punctuated the cultish, comical thriller–beloved by those who’ve seen it but by no means a barnburner in terms of revenue. Even his turn in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus—asked alongside Jude Law and Johnny Depp to finish the role left in limbo by Heath Ledger’s death—came and went with Farrell’s contribution the most significant, yet the least talked about.
He’s currently trying to drum up the cash to shoot a film version of Flann O’Brien’s beloved Irish novel At Swim-Two-Birds, directed by friend and In Bruges co-star Brendan Gleeson. So, instead of tumbling like a drunkard through the saloon doors into a mess like Oliver Stone’s Alexander (like he did famously six years ago with insurmountable bar bills to prove it), Farrell is making decisions that mean something. To him.
“Usually, I find about two weeks before [I’m done with a film], I get a bit agitated,” he says. “You’re just tired of living in a world where you are in some way feeling the affliction of your character and you want to go back to feeling whatever your own afflictions are. But this was the one time in twelve years that I was like, ‘God, I’m gonna miss Syracuse.’ I’m really gonna miss him. I just had an enormous amount of respect for how he viewed his life. And his lack of self-pity. With all the trauma and pain he had to experience, he was so fearful to connect. It’s fucking terrifying for him. He lacks this self-pity, which I don’t. And if I see that in people, it’s one of the most astounding virtues a person can have.”
Farrell hasn’t let a lack of self-pity halt his pursuit of healing causes. His recent vocal support of his brother Eamon’s same-sex marriage, in the face of stifling ancient Catholic restrictions, inspired Farrell to pen an open letter in support of BeLonG To, an organization working for gay rights and tolerance in Ireland. It’s a muted and affecting plea, written with eloquent pathos and a far cry from who he’s been expected to be for the better part of his career—loud, elusive, sardonic, apart, never nakedly forthright.
"[My brother] made me aspire to his strength and goodness,” writes Farrell. He goes on, “The mother and father of all emotions, the queen and king, are love and fear. Love unites, it brings us closer to an understanding of the possibility of beauty amidst all the confusion and pain that life can bring. Hate is a disease.”
But, of course, somehow fittingly, the letter was a bit overshadowed by the arrest of “Colin Farrell” after a brawl in London that same month. Turns out it was a “doppelganger” of sorts, not Farrell, but the paparazzi still flashed away in blind hope that they indeed caught the “real Colin” engaged in his old, familiar imbroglios that sell photographs. “They really went for it in The Daily Mail,” he laughs, dismissively, then pauses into another calm beat before speaking again.
“You change. I live a really private life. This is about as public as I like to get. Even though this is private between you and I, I know it will reach an audience, but I’m not trying to present anything today as much as I once was. I’m not trying to present a different man. I’m not trying to present a life change. I’m too busy trying to figure out what the fuck is going on in my own life.
“I’m not saying that any of this means I’m better. Nothing I’m saying means anything, really. It’s just fucking words,” he smiles. “My opinion will change as soon as I get in my car downstairs, I’m sure.”
At this, he seems eager, ready to go, but not rudely. The man who is not Colin Farrell mumbles something about the mother of his new baby boy. Seeming like an actual journalist now, he half-heartedly apes interest in a scoop, getting the actor to talk about the actress he doesn’t talk about to the press.
“Yeah, let’s keep that off the pages,” Farrell suggests.
“I was just going to say that this film, Ondine, will always have a special place in your life now, because…”
“I have a son! Little Henry.”
He beams. His hyperactive hands now mime holding a toddler up in the air playfully. He puts his sunglasses back on, gathers up his things strewn about the table. Keys, wallet, lighter, smokes. He stands and pats at his pockets, reaches out a hand for a shake.
“I should get back now and play with my little Henry.”
The men in the white coats are quietly at work, setting up the bar. Bottles of tequila are lined up carefully. A special brand, boutique and expensive, is set up out in front with a small sign describing in detail its exotic contents. There’s a hum of anticipation in the air, the feeling of an impending fête. It’s Cinco de Mayo in Los Angeles, when all the gringos get drunk all over town just because it’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s what’s expected.
Colin Farrell nods at the barkeep and carries on walking. He’ll take the elevator to the lobby, give his ticket to the valet, and drive off in a silver four-door. He’s going home to play with his new son. That’s not much of a surprise ending, but it’s pretty damned pure.
Photography: Michael Muller for StocklandMartel.com.
Photography Assistants: Chris Beyer, Leland Hayward, and Billy Howard.
Styling: Laury Smith for OpusBeauty.com.
Styling Assistants: Kahlee Jackson and Ashley DiPilla.
Grooming: Barbara Guillaume at BarbaraGuillaumeMakeup.com.
Prop Styling: David Ross for ArtMixBeauty.com.
Production: Laura Katzenberg.
Digital Tech: Ricky Ridecós at RickyRidecos.com.