Actor Colin Farrell has had to explore various depths of courage and creativity over his 24-year acting career, but literal depths is a new thing for the buoyant Irishman. Farrell tells RSNG.com how in playing John Volanthen, real-life hero of the Thai cave rescue, he had to overcome claustrophobia and a dislike of swimming…
RSNG You’ve done many movies where the rigors of being on-set must have been tough to keep navigating day after day. How did this one compare?
COLIN FARRELL, IRELAND’S MOST VERSATILE ACTOR “You get through it by the repetition, and it becomes more manageable over time, though I can safely say this film didn’t get any easier the longer we carried it on. It was tough from day one and tough on the final day, and it came with a sense of almost false achievement – and by that I mean when you make it through a rigorous script usually you know you have produced a piece of drama, a piece of art.
“In this instance, all I could think was I’d recreated a kind of reconstruction of what some incredibly brave guys, and boys, went through for real, without any of the comforts or rewards.
“So in a sense that feels like no satisfaction at all. I admit there should be some, but there wasn’t really much!”
RSNG Have you experienced this degree of challenge in a movie before?
COLIN FARRELL “Physically and mentally it was very difficult. Physically it speaks for itself, but mentally to have the courage and belief that you will be ok, even in very sanitized, safe conditions, is something else.
“I think all the cast really had to reach out for support. Of course I ventured mostly towards John Volanthen, who was unreal throughout the shoot.
“It was really important we got close to the real guys behind this story, in terms of presenting them properly; but more than that, they were actually the best guys to keep us calm and talk us down off the ledge.
“I’ve never had that in a movie before – this one was unique for so many reasons.”
The first thing you have to tell yourself is that as a diver your natural environment is not air – it’s water
RSNG Do any previous movies compare?
COLIN FARRELL “Of course I’ve had movies in the past that test you in different ways; ways you don’t foresee or imagine. The one that stands out most is Killing of a Sacred Deer. That was terribly bleak. I'd get to set and think, 'Jesus, what did I sign up for?'
“Every day, the tone was getting darker and more cerebrally twisted. There was amazing creative broth but some days you'd come off after 12 hours on set and just feel flat. And I was completely shattered when I first watched it back. This was different, but similar.”
RSNG You’re not a huge fan of water, right?
COLIN FARRELL “Not at all. I am a very basic swimmer – someone who doesn’t want to do all that stuff in the pool. I wouldn’t say water scares me, but I sure as hell don’t take any pleasure out of being in it.
“I did learn to dive for this movie, and if I ever found myself in a cave needing to navigate a way out, in theory I’d have a better chance than before. In reality though, I’d sit there and wait for help!”
RSNG This was a strange movie to want to take on then?
COLIN FARRELL “I guess in that respect it was [laughs]. I am also claustrophobic, so that didn’t help either.
“We had some really valuable psychology coaching before the whole thing began. The first thing you have to tell yourself is that as a diver you are meant to be submerged. Your natural environment is not air, it’s water. Once you get into that mindset you can begin to accept the conditions you’re in.”
RSNG As an actor known for his bravado and confidence, did your discomfort set you back?
COLIN FARRELL “Oh yes, I was constantly asking for support and encouragement from those around me. It was a tremendously humbling experience and one I’m really glad I took on.
“We all need to take ourselves back down from time to time, and get outside of our comfort zones. It’s important.”
RSNG You seem to have found a happy level as an actor recently by working on a variety of films – big and small. Is that more satisfying than always working on big studio projects?
COLIN FARRELL “I'm much more interested in the quality of a film and trying to be part of movies that people will find entertaining and not feel like they've wasted their money.
“I want to work with the best and most interesting directors and actors where I feel inspired and I want to give my best every day. That's the greatest pleasure you have as an actor, when you can experience that level of creative excitement and fulfillment.”
RSNG Was there a turning point for you where you felt tired of working on big-budget Hollywood films like Alexander which were shredded by critics?
COLIN FARRELL “It was after Miami Vice that I realized that I had lost my passion for working. It was a bad time personally and professionally and I knew I had to change everything.
“I feel so liberated as an actor now compared to that period in my career. Once I decided that I was only going to work on films where I had the chance to play interesting characters, it completely rekindled the spirit I felt when I first wanted to become an actor.”
RSNG Did your Hollywood glory days ultimately make you cynical about that world?
COLIN FARRELL “It can be very cut-throat. I have to admit that I didn't have much choice when it came to doing independent films, because when those big films didn't do very well, suddenly I wasn't getting those kinds of offers from the studios anymore.
“That's how it is in this business. When you're a star the studios will do anything for you but once things go bad suddenly no-one wants to know you.
“But this has been a very positive and rewarding new chapter for me and I love the kind of intimacy and intensity that I've been able to find as an actor with these kinds of movies.”
RSNG Is that the biggest reward that comes from doing smaller, more intimate films as opposed to those big studio films?
COLIN FARRELL “There's much less waiting around in the trailer and spending the entire day waiting to shoot maybe 30 seconds of film or one brief element of a scene, that you have on the big films. It’s much nicer spending genuine time with the other actors, spending time with the director, shooting different scenes, and feeling much closer to the material.”
I love making films more than ever because I'm not as attached to my work as I once was
RSNG You've gone through some ups and downs in your life. What do you think has been the biggest change in how you see yourself or the world around you?
COLIN FARRELL “I have long since stopped seeing myself as an actor first – I think of myself primarily as a father, as a man, as a friend. I'm focused on my life. First comes the family, my boys, then the job.
“And maybe that's why I love making films more than ever, because I'm not as attached to my work as I once was. I've realized that nothing is more important than my children.”
RSNG Did you not like the fame?
COLIN FARRELL “I loved it. I did, yeah. There were some great perks of the job but I was just struggling to maintain any level of normalcy, and desperately trying to cling on as best I could. Fuck, it's hard in that world when you're catapulted into this heavenly stratosphere. I enjoyed those days, very much. I had a great time. Would I go back and do it all again? No, god no.”
RSNG There's always talk that you're retiring?
COLIN FARRELL “No, no, I'm not joining Daniel [Day Lewis] at the retirees’ club just yet. Jesus, you say one thing and it's all the quit talk. I'm probably, not even probably, I'm undoubtedly doing the best work of my career, so it’s not exactly an opportune time to bow out.”
RSNG When you do retire, what will you do?
COLIN FARRELL “I want to get behind the wheel and keep driving for a few weeks. I want to get lost and close off that part of my life, temporarily. I emphasize the word 'temporarily' there. You need to switch it down every now and then.”
RSNG Do you feel, at this stage in your career, you have achieved and accomplished a lot?
COLIN FARRELL “I have never felt accomplished. I have never felt on top of my game. I still feel like I know nothing about acting. That's the appeal and the lure and also the pain of the job, never feeling like you fully get there, and yeah, I think on the whole, it's the appeal for me. I engage that eternal chase. I like it.”
RSNG What about the quality of the industry right now?
COLIN FARRELL “It’s constantly fluid, so as soon as you think that it’s a particular way, it’s constantly changing. I think independent film is alive and well and I think digital photography has meant that the power to tell stories cinematically has been put in the hands of anyone who wants to tell a story, which I think is amazing.
“As for the studios, it’s hilarious – they are always trying to figure out how to crack it and then maybe they crack it and then they saturate it and it stops working and then they have to crack someone else.
“And then the business is changing with Netflix and Amazon and all this, but then even that’s contracting. So the studios are shitting themselves and the premium channels are shitting themselves and agents are shitting themselves and actors are shitting themselves, so I think everyone is shitting themselves.
“And yet, the industry will survive – it will grow and it will change.”
WHAT NEXT? Find out how Alexander Skarsgård transformed himself into a viking warrior at age 45 in this RSNG.com interview…