Colin Farrell: ‘I was such a pisshead and a druggie I didn’t have many friends’

Life lessons from a man who’s lived a lot of life – without ever dipping into psychobabble.

We enter in masses beneath a mighty arch and encounter a stage emblazoned with the words “Leading you to Greatness”. This can mean one of only two things. A man in a uniform is about to shout about his plans for achieving Lebensraum or we’re at one of those motivational events aimed at making miserable people believe they can swim the Atlantic.

The presence of Boris Johnson on the schedule does little to clarify the situation. Happily (on balance) it’s the latter.

This is the Pendulum Summit at the Conference Centre in the commercial heart of Dublin. Founded in 2013 by Frankie Sheahan, the bash has a mission to “share its ripple of positivity throughout the globe”. If you already guessed that Tony Robbins has been a previous speaker, then you know where we’re going.

One might not immediately expect to find actor Colin Farrell among the huge men in suits with radio microphones strapped to their heads. He was a bit surprised himself when he got the offer.

“When Frankie and the whole team, bless them, had me on a flyer, underneath my name it said ‘self-mastery’ I said: ‘You have got to be joking. There is no way I am going up on stage to speak about self-mastery’. I don’t think there’s any mastery. Life is meant to be lived.”

The greatest thing about fame is that you can strike it off the list as something that doesn’t give you happiness

What do you know? As even that brief quote clarifies, Farrell is actually the perfect person for such a chore. There’s no fakery. He’s not flogging some self-help book. He doesn’t have a line in meditation tapes. But he has a story and he’s happy to tell it in vivid, unpretentious language.

Interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan – who knows what she’s at – he took us from childhood in Castleknock to sudden fame to addiction to rehabilitation to reinvention as a contemporary indie legend.

“I grew up in Castleknock – which is middle-class Dublin,” he begins. “It wasn’t very cultured. I remember wishing there were more stories about Ireland and more music in the house. It wasn’t a household where we were brought to the theatre…”

O’Callaghan points out that his poor old mum was actually in the audience.

“It wasn’t her fault. I kind of blame the old man,” he laughs.

Farrell reveals that an early viewing of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas clued him into a different class of cinema, but his early ambitions were to make it in sport. Then he scored a part in RTÉ soap Ballykissangel and he was away. A decent audition for Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland subsequently brought him to Hollywood. 

There is no person easier to interview than Farrell and he gives this huge crowd what they want – life lessons from a man who’s lived a lot of life – without ever dipping into psychobabble.

“The greatest thing about fame is that you can strike it off the list as something that doesn’t give you happiness,” he says. “Doing well in this business has allowed me to take care of my children. And when my nan and granddad were alive – I was 23 – I could put them in a beautiful home. That was amazing. That was a real pragmatic opportunity that came from me doing Ballykissangel and a couple of films.”

He even does O’Callaghan the favour of voluntarily progressing down paths the interviewer is cautious about gesturing towards. She mentions good reviews. She mentions bad reviews and he immediately summons up a famously disastrous Oliver Stone film from 2004. The one where Farrell conquered all the worlds worth conquering and then ran into the worst notices of his career.

“Are you asking me about Alexander?” he cackles. “No, no, no, that’s not a sore wound. Fifteen years later! I have learned again that the smallest violin in the world should not play for some of the hurt and the agitation I have had as a result of reading copious negative things about myself. I am trying to look at the negative less. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Farrell does a good job of explaining the pressures that he was under in those years. He inclines his hand to indicate a career progressing at 90 degrees to the earth’s surface. One producer claimed that he hadn’t seen an actor arrive with such an explosion since Robert Redford nearly 40 years earlier. After the Alexander disaster, he fled to a ski resort, as that was the only place he could justify wearing a mask that covered his face.

O’Callaghan wonders if his friends deserted him and – again voluntarily going where one would be cautious about asking him to tread – he summoned up memories of his dangerous excesses.

“I was such a pisshead and a druggie I didn’t have many friends,” he says. “I would just go out with who was around at the time. I went to rehab 15 years ago and when I came out they said: ‘You are probably going to have to change your friends. You are going to have to change the people you hang out with if you want to stay on the road to sobriety.’ I thought: no, I don’t. Because my friends are still back in Dublin doing what they always did. They were never part of what became my dark days.”

You don’t want to make shit films. You really don’t. I certainly don’t and I have made some real turkeys

He admits that, after Alexander, the studios did indeed stop calling. He was persona non grata. If you are the front of a $150 million dollar film and that film takes in $50 million then you are not going to get the opportunity to front the next tent-pole release. 

Farrell did something very wise for an actor approaching middle age. He tacked towards odder, more independent pictures such as Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. He was great in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Steve McQueen’s recent Widows. The man has a brand worth envying.

“You don’t want to make shit films,” he says. “You really don’t. I certainly don’t and I have made some real turkeys.”

O’Callaghan takes him through his current, apparently happy circumstance – he notes that he is rarely in the tabloids unless he’s going to Starbucks – and allows him to explain that he has never stopped marvelling at success.

She then (if Miriam will forgive me revealing a trade secret) confirms her professionalism by saving the most intimate question for the very end. You don’t want to get the talent in a bad mood if there are still another 20 minutes of chat to go.

How’s his love life?

“Oh no. Go back to me. I am talking about my relationship with my life and my kids…”

O’Callaghan points out that he’s evading like a politician.

“How’s your love life?” she repeats.

Oh, I love life,” he says as if mishearing. “I do love it. I grab it by the horns and knock it out of the arena.”

Now, there’s some top-notch acting for you.

Colin Farrell
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