You could blow a gasket trying to find something wrong with Colin Farrell. Granted, he has a bad habit or two: He smokes too much, he admits to drinking too much, he curses the proverbial blue streak, but these are all superficial things. He is living a life that millions and millions of men would love to live, and living it grandly.
Perhaps we mere mortals should think of him as living it for us. We get to watch and cheer him on and dream of what it might be like.
"I have what I have, whatever that means," he says in his soft Irish baritone, sitting in a cold white room at 20th Century Fox in New York. "But you know, the most ambitious person in the world might not be able to dream as large as I'm living, dream as large as I'm experiencing.
"The last three years have been insane, you know, just insane," he says of his rapid rise to stardom. "I just stay at the same pace. There's madness in the world around me, sure. There's nothing I can do about that. I just work as hard as I can work and play as hard as I can play."
At both he has excelled spectacularly. He's an even bigger star today than he was a week ago, because he's proved in industry parlance that he can "open a movie." Over the weekend his new film, "Phone Booth," a low-budget, high-tension thriller, grossed $15 million and took over first place at the box office. It's very likely that Colin Farrell's ineffable magnetism is what pulled moviegoers into the theaters.
Not enough that he is young (27), gifted and smart. No, he's got to be devilishly handsome too, with as penetrating a pair of brown peepers as ever shone from a screen, and great thick eyebrows that add to the visual intensity. "I do have big eyebrows, brother," he acknowledges. "Stick 'em on with Velcro every morning."
Farrell's combination of qualities, talent being but one of them, makes him a very potent presence. There's a commanding seriousness but also a boyishness that is pure charm. And though it is a part of the process he does not enjoy, he obligingly paraded that charm all over the tube in the days and nights leading up to the opening of the film, appearing on every talk show that would have him, and on all of them coming across as disarmingly genuine.
It was a performance in that he's much more quiet and introspective in person, but either on the air or off it, one senses prodigious explosive possibilities under the essentially gentle, fun-loving exterior. He has what James Dean and Marlon Brando had, and all those who've emulated them have aspired to: dangerousness.
"No publicist is controlling Colin Farrell," says Conan O'Brien, on whose "Late Night" NBC talk show Farrell was particularly funny last week, perhaps because they are kindred Irish spirits. "Fame is not wasted on him. He is really enjoying himself. As a talk-show guest he's great, because he comes to play."
On the show, O'Brien noted the "screaming girls" that follow Farrell from venue to venue. "They're all on the payroll," Farrell muttered.
He may not like the publicizing part of the job, but he accepts it. He goes on TV uncomplainingly and plays a slightly exaggerated version of his real self. To Regis Philbin on "Live With Regis & Kelly" he abruptly shouted a loud "Shut up!" that sort of shook the studio, and while it was clearly prankish, one could sense how formidable Farrell could be if truly rankled.
In People magazine and its clones, he is now a veritable fixture, not ducking paparazzi and talking candidly about how he fathered a child, due in about six months, with model Kim Bordenave. He "absolutely" will play a role in raising the kid, he says: "Oh yeah. Bring the child up in love. I'm psyched."
Liz Smith, last of the great New York columnists and someone who's seen it all, marveled about Farrell in her column the other day: "He drinks, smokes, looks as if he has never seen a bar of soap, expresses a devout interest in the opposite sex, uses profanity on every occasion. He's perfect!"
But, she added, "He can really act" and predicted "a nod" at Oscar time next year for his work in "Phone Booth." He has other jobs stacked up like planes waiting to land and is returning to Toronto to finish "A Home at the End of the World," based on a novel by Michael Cunningham.
This will be followed by a small role in "Veronica Guerin" and large ones in "S.W.A.T.," based on the old TV cop show, and then the magnum opus "Alexander the Great" under the direction of pugnacious Oliver Stone. The sparks ought to be flying on that set. Second-unit shooting has already begun, but Farrell won't be needed until late this year or early next.
His breakthrough film was "Tigerland" (2000), a grim tale of American soldiers in training for shipment to Vietnam, directed by Joel Schumacher, who is the man who discovered Farrell. The movie was not a blockbuster in any sense, but Farrell made a tremendous impression. Those seeing him for the first time and knowing nothing of his background probably wouldn't have dreamed he was born in Ireland and speaks with a heavy accent, because his Americanese was flawless.
"For 'Tigerland,' I spent a lot of time, six weeks or so, on my own, going around touring America's big cities to get the accent down," he says, having demolished a Big Mac and now puffing on a Marlboro. "I hadn't seen any of America or Americans except Los Angeles, so I wanted to get on the road and see the real America. I kept a journal and got a sense of the country and the people, the big cities and small, and spent some time with a great vocal coach.
"I also spent time listening to tapes and reading texts and newspapers, trying to get the sounds down. I think it was easier for me because I grew up watching American television, on a [expletive] diet of 'T.J. Hooker' and 'Magnum, P.I.' and 'CHiPs' and 'The A-Team,' shows that were all popular when I was growing up in Ireland."
His "Tigerland" character, an embittered cynic, was from Texas. His "Phone Booth" character, a glib publicist, is supposedly from the Bronx. He hasn't yet decided how he'll talk as Alexander the Great because "who the hell knows" what he sounded like? The odds are, Farrell will nail it.
Making "Phone Booth," he says, was "the most interesting job I ever did, and the most lacking in moments of boredom and the most lacking moments of loss of inspiration. It was just so fast. We rehearsed for three weeks. We also sat around a table and talked and tried to make sense and just made sure we all knew exactly what page we were on.
"And then we shot it in succession, in chronological order, Scene 1 through Scene 120 or whatever, which is, as you know, a blessing for an actor. Never happens. It was as close to theater as the filmmaking experience can really ever get. And for me, being on the set every day, doing eight- or nine-minute takes, it was just a gift. There was no time for pauses or overdeliberating what your character was going through."
How's that again? What was he saying? You have to pay attention. You can lose yourself in the resonance of that voice, in the charismatic way Farrell expresses himself, even in those infernally perfect good looks. Like, every little bit of stubble is in the right place and in the right proportion to the other bits of stubble. Farrell can grow a mustache and goatee by dinnertime. When he appeared in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report," starring Tom Cruise, he blew Cruise right off the screen. It's not likely Cruise will want to make a movie with him again anytime soon.
The Midnight Oil
Farrell may indeed go on long drinking binges, which he calls not binges but a term unprintable here, and he may indeed live and love the high life when he's not working -- he'd just spent five hours a few nights earlier at Scores, New York's plush topless lap-dance bar, and in a private back room of course -- but it hasn't taken a visible toll the way it has on many another young actor. There are no dark circles under the eyes or premature gray hairs or any outward signs of dissipation.
This, like many other things about Colin Farrell, may have to do with his Irishness. Or so he believes.
"When I'm not working, put a pack of cigarettes and a pint of beer in front of me, and I'm in good company," he says. "I'm the happiest little man in the world. Of course I could smoke less and I'm sure I could drink less, but there's girls back in Dublin who drink more in a night than I drink in a week.
"I get in trouble now and then, and they tell me it's a bad thing, but we Irish boys like to go out and have a good [that unprintable word], you know. And it can be during the week sometimes, and we still do the work, one hundred percent, to the best of our abilities, and our abilities are not diminished by the night before. It's something that's inbred, it's part of the [expletive] genes. So that cliche about the Irish is quite true.
"Not that we're a bunch of people that sit in a bar and talk to each other like a bunch of [expletive] morons -- it's not that. We are people who like to have a good time. We like to tell stories, and we like to talk to people. We are quite lyrical and emotional -- another cliche, I suppose. We've very proud. As a country and as a people, we want to be great. We don't necessarily need or have to be greater than anyone else. We don't even really concern ourselves with those silly competitions. We just want to be great ourselves.
"I don't know what it is. But I'm very grateful I was born where I was born. Our literature, our music. It's a small land, but it's a land that's full of passion and full of storytelling and full of music and full of song and full of laughter. I'm so proud of being Irish. No man is an island unto himself, but Ireland is an island unlike any other, a great one to hail from."
Conan O'Brien thinks Farrell's awareness of his roots, and the roots themselves, are what helps keep him from falling in love with himself. "The Irish want you to do well, but if you start to do too well, they'll take you down a notch," he says. "They don't want you to put on any airs. Part of the culture is that you can't take yourself too seriously."
Farrell often travels about with one or more members of his family in tow, his mum or a sister, and that is another thing that helps keep him honest, O'Brien thinks. He believes that Farrell is entirely on the level, that he's the down-to-earth rogue he appears to be. "If he's faking it, he's really good. He should get an Oscar just for that." (O'Brien, says Farrell, is a "goofy, crazy good boy.")
McConaughey or Grant?
Images of Farrell drinking in pubs with mates, carousing till all hours and wandering the streets -- memorably celebrated in a Vanity Fair cover story last year -- aren't necessarily all benign and merry. Devoutly heterosexual and unashamedly macho as he is, one wonders whether Farrell might harbor a homophobic streak somewhere, or what he and those randy mates would do if they encountered, say, a gay couple walking home from a different kind of bar.
"Sexual preference? Jesus, no, it means nothing to me," he says. "Or race or religion either." One of his mentors is "as gay as Christmas," Farrell says, "and so's my brother. I've been around gay guys since I was, oh, 16. They're just good pals. From Day One we got on, made jokes, and I thought nothing of it.
"How do I handle a gay proposition?" He doesn't blink. " 'Not interested, thanks,' " he says. "You know, it's amazing the changes in people. This fellow I know who eight [expletive] years ago would have been freaked to be in the same room with someone who was gay, now thinks nothing of it, just because society has opened up a little and the gay population has become more visible.
"These same people who would've freaked a few years ago -- well, they're not on their knees [bawdy slang], don't get me wrong -- but they know that a good person is a good person."
One might think that even Farrell's decision to become an actor would be mocked as slightly sissified by down-home cronies. "No," he says with finality. "My dad, when I told him I wanted to be an actor, he laughed and he said, 'A play actor? Ha ha ha ha.' And then the first [expletive] check came in and he said, 'That was a good idea.' You know it's not something tangible with acting, it's not something you make with your hands, it's not a service you provide anyone in particular except for maybe entertaining them and sometimes maybe provoking thought if it's a good piece."
But he likes it. And he does it well. Farrell for all his youth and zest for partying seems to have what few other men in his position would be likely to have, which is wisdom. Maybe the accent makes him sound wiser than he is, but there's something solid and stable beneath the Playboy of the Western World facade. And so he seems more than the actor du jour, the current buzz boy, the latest pop icon. He seems as if he could even become a movie star in the old tradition, a lasting presence like, yes, Cary Grant or Gary Cooper.
It's easy to overstate these cases. In the mid-'90s, one magazine cover trumpeted Matthew McConaughey as the man who would "save Hollywood," and another said he was "about to be as big as a mountain." And what has his career amounted to? Zilch. But Farrell seems to be on another level altogether, as if he could stay around as long as he wants and not wear out his welcome or fizzle like a spent comet.
How far does he want to go?
"I'm far enough already," he says. "I was far enough when I was working at home. I traveled a path that in its madness somehow seemed a natural progression in my life, in the chances that I had as a young man in Dublin. I did a play, and someone saw it, and an American agent came over and said 'Let's give it a go' and I said okay. And then I went to Los Angeles for three weeks and went to meetings and put myself up at the Holiday Inn."
And Schumacher took a chance and cast him as the lead in "Tigerland," which Farrell calls "an act of blind faith," and that was that.
Has it changed him, this crazy journey, these years of madness and ascending so quickly to the top? "I don't think so. I don't want to be obnoxious just because my head happens to be 35 feet and I'm on a cinema screen," he says. "That doesn't make me a special person or a brighter person or a better person or a nice person. That's simple [expletive].
"And I'd be called on it pretty quick."