‘What I went through was a garden variety tale of an addict... you have to try to figure out what the true value of living is’
Colin Farrell, whose brilliant new movie The Killing of a Sacred Deer is in cinemas now, opens up to Barry Egan about dealing with addiction, fear, fatherhood and sobriety.
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, Farrell — whose illustrious career was unravelling in front of the world — hatched a plan, as he told the New York Times, 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.
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 with the spookily compelling The Killing of a Sacred Deer, also by Lanthimos.
In it, heart surgeon Steven Murphy (played 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 open-heart 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 among 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 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. 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 10% of the brain’s capability. So we can only comprehend what we can comprehend. You know, our evolution as sentient beings? I’m 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. I feel that I’m doing work that is more challenging to me as an actor and to me as a man. The work I’m 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 events.”
Did you need to kill Colin Farrell, 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.
“Even through the years when I was doing big films or more commercial films, or action films, I was still doing Intermission (2003) or A Home At The End Of The World (2004) and still trying to do smaller films and sometimes it didn’t work that way. I was working with the likes of Martin McDonagh, who is an extraordinary director,” 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 (2008). I’d heard that Colin (after the critically beating of Miami Vice and Alexander) 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’.
“You have a relationship with your audience as an actor, whether you’re in a theatre or in film or on television.”
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. 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 kind of jazz,” he explains.
All that fear and all you went through is pretty normal, I say.
“It is certainly not abnormal what I went through, sadly,” Colin says. “It is pretty much a garden variety tale of an addict, I suppose. And having an addiction and not knowing as a man what to do in a male-dominated society that puts worth and high value on emotions of alpha behaviour and pack mentalities and such. And it becomes carcinogenic.
“You know, if we as men don’t know how to deal with fears then it becomes carcinogenic. It results in violence and all sorts of madness. So, I had a look back and it was very garden variety stuff and I started dealing with it. That’s all. It was in the past. I was in a bit of a fog. When I met Martin (McDonagh) I was in a bit of fog and I had to understand myself and have a relationship, I suppose, with my own discomfort.”
Why did Colin decide to enter rehab after Miami Vice finished filming in 2006?
“I had just had it, man. I was done. For a long time I put the brakes on. I could go mad for three, six months, and then I could pull back for a few months to try to re-enter the atmosphere. I couldn’t find the handbrake.”
In 2000, after Joel Schumacher cast him in Tigerland, and then Phone Booth in 2002, the young Irish Brando from Castleknock was suddenly one of the biggest box office draws internationally. The brooding bad-boy of Hollywood was soon, inevitably, bent on self-destruction — he was swimming in a movie star pool of booze, class A drugs, beautiful women and self-loathing.
Farrell didn’t believe in self-censorship (he once told Playboy magazine in an interview that “heroin is fine in moderation”).
With neither drugs and alcohol in his life, how does Colin let off steam?
“Run around. Whatever. Go up on hikes. I go into nature a lot. I go on road trips and go to the cinema and hang out with my kids,” he says. (He has his two sons. His first son, James Padraig, was born in 2003 — James’s mother is model Kim Bordenave — his second son, Henry, with his ex, Alicja Bachleda-Curus, is eight.)
“I put on a bit of music. I just live it without being poison the way I was poison for years.” Is it difficult to have that kind of self evolution in a town like Los Angeles where he lives? “No, I think Los Angeles is a good place for it, actually. I’m not talking Hollywood. Hollywood is a state of being and also a zip code. But Los Angeles is a very forgiving city. You can be whatever you want.”
Be that as it may, is the industry that Farrell works in not difficult sometimes because Hollywood is more likely to push someone towards self-oblivion?
“Everything in life, every industry is hard, especially with the potential for the amount of money that is on the table. And if people think they can make a dime from you they will lavish you with great praise and gifts — and if the moment comes where they don’t, they will f*** you out the door without a second’s thought and without any concern for you. That is very prevalent.
“Look, in every aspect of life, no matter what you do, whether you are coaching a football club or you are the head of a Fortune 500 company or what people might refer to as a movie star — whatever you may be — you just have to try and figure out what the true value of living is; and to have a fulfilling and decent life. I am not saying I’m there, by the way.”
You sound closer than some of us, I say. “Not at all,” he says, dismissively. “Cancel this whole interview if it leads you to think that! I am all over the shop!”
But he is less all over the shop than he was? “Ah, yeah. That is for sure. That’s all you can do. If you move in the right direction, however slow you move, once it is the right direction that is a good thing.”
Did sobriety make him a better dad?
“Oh God, yeah. I can’t imagine. I have yet to meet a person whose sobriety has made their life worse.” And a better actor? “No idea. I’m truly not pulling your leg. I have no idea.”
His beloved big brother Eamon’s husband Steven Mannion was recently diagnosed with skin cancer.
“Steven has been through the wringer,” Colin says. “About six weeks ago Steven got some tests done on a mole on his back. It had started to bleed and like a lot of Irish lads, myself included, he said, ‘Ah, it’s grand, it’s nothing’. Then he went in and they did a biopsy and he was told that he had stage one melanoma. Then they did more tests and they found out that it had gone to his lymph nodes. He is only 33 or 34. He had his surgery and they removed his lymph nodes.
“I think they got it early enough. There is a bit of work ahead for Steve.”
- The Killing of a Secret Deer is in cinemas now