In the before times, there would be a bit of a box-office tussle next weekend. Brad Pitt in Bullet Train vs a new Predator flick vs Ron Howard’s treatment of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue. As it happens, only Bullet Train is in cinemas. The Predator stalks Native Americans in Disney+’s Prey. Howard’s Thirteen Lives plays on Prime Video.
Ah well. We still get to watch Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in a classy Howard production. The two stars are convincingly English as the real-life cave-diving heroes John Volanthen and Richard Stanton. While we are enjoying their banter about custard creams, we can ponder how it has taken so long for Farrell to stand before Ron Howard’s megaphone. After all, he has worked for everyone else.
The Castleknock Brando has appeared in films by (going backwards) Tim Burton, Steve McQueen, Sofia Coppola, Yorgos Lanthimos, Liv Ullman, Peter Weir, Terry Gilliam, Neil Jordan, Martin McDonagh, Woody Allen, Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone and Steven Spielberg. It is reasonable to ask if any actor has better managed his own career.
He went up like a rocket two decades ago and, after a worrying year or two in and about the tabloids, there seemed a possibility he might come down like a stick. That didn’t happen. Many is the millennial star you have forgotten.
He was, earlier this year, in the world-dominating The Batman. Well reviewed at Cannes last year, Kogonada’s After Yang will be with us soon. There is that new Ron Howard flick. Last week it was announced that Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, in which he stars alongside Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan, will premiere at the upcoming Venice Film Festival. His powers of survival are uncanny.
One should not overstate the brief slippage in his career. He was never banished to the lower depths. But there was a moment when it looked as if the trajectory might incline in a less happy direction.
Raised in western suburbs of Dublin, he famously auditioned for Boyzone, drifted towards the Gaiety School of Acting and, after early exposure in Ballykissangel, ended up landing a prize role in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland. Released in 2000, that Vietnam drama was hot enough to secure him “Irish boy makes good” headlines in all the domestic press. He then moved on to Minority Report for Spielberg in 2002 and The New World for Malick in 2005.
“After Tigerland it went mad,” he told me in 2017. “So many offers. So much money. I’m glad that stage is over. The hyperbole that was around me was crazy. There was that really swift and vertical trajectory. I was bold enough to travel to America. But I was still figuring out what it was all about. Then all that mad fame came.”
I first met him in 2006, just before the release of Mann’s Miami Vice. This was the fulcrum point. I remember him laughing bleakly at how “personal” the negative reviews were of his turn as Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s then-current Alexander. It transpired that he had recently checked into a rehabilitation center for addictions to recreational drugs and painkillers.
Given how brief was his period as – wait for the cliche; wait for it, wait for it – a “hellraiser”, it seems unfair that it still appears in every profile. But another actor might not have made it out. That other fellow may have retreated into hermetic mysticism or a life in goat farming. Farrell decided to take the work seriously.
“There’s no point having regrets,” he said to me in 2019. “It’s all done. The milk has been spilled, and you can clean it up as best you can. You’ve done what you’ve done. You’ve said what you’ve said. We hope that we can learn from our mistakes – grow from them – and move on.”
An actor cannot shape their career as a painter or a musician can. They are not left alone in the studio to produce new material. Every performer is dependent on the right offer brushing past their agent. But he or she does have some freedom to lean towards a certain kind of project.
As Farrell emerged from Bumpy Valley, he embraced a school of polished character acting. He could not shake off the matinee-idol looks. (Why would he want to?) But, like earlier dreamboats such as Montgomery Clift, he opened himself up to vulnerability. You can see that in the harried hitman from McDonagh’s In Bruges. You can certainly see it in the lonely hero of Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant, absurdist The Lobster, from 2019.
Opening his on-screen persona up to more nuance certainly helped him secure work with all those prestigious directors. Farrell continued to appear in flashy marquee pictures such as the Total Recall remake and the perfectly decent (unlike its sequels) Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. But, by the middle of the last decade, he was established as a tribune of independent cinema.
Every year at Cannes, some performers mark the festival out as their own. In 2022, Paul Mescal, an Irish actor young enough to have grown up with Farrell’s stardom, managed the feat with God’s Children and the ecstatically received Aftersun. In 2017, Farrell was there with two of the best received films in competition: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The operation was complete.
Moving towards less commercial lead roles has another distinct advantage. Stewart Granger, handsome British star of the postwar years, once noted that, rather than aging into character roles, he aged into older romantic leads. Not everyone can pull that off. As Top Gun: Maverick tops the year’s worldwide box office, nobody could reasonably claim that Tom Cruise, now 60, has not mastered the maneuver, but maintaining the sparkle must strain the psych.
Farrell, now 46 years old, is not yet cornering the grandad roles, but, in Thirteen Lives, with sensible glasses and suburban hair, he has been invited to give us a bit of a geezer (albeit one as superhumanly fit as diver John Volanthen ). “The old men found the boys,” a Thai character says when he and Viggo return with good news about the trapped footballers.
So the future looks bright. Given how well McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri performed with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oscar pundits will be sure to speculate about his chances of a nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin. Next he is rumored to be shooting a film with Rachel Weisz for the hugely admired American oddball Todd Solondz. He continues to choose well. His amicable manner puts no strain on cast or crew. Yes, few careers have been so well managed.
“It’s always a gamble. So many things have to come together for a film to work,” he said in one of our many encounters. “I’ve been lucky from the start, Donald. My first film was for Joel Schumacher. And then Michael Mann and Peter Weir and Terrence Malick. That happened right from the start. The real question is why they wanted to involve themselves with me. I never asked them in case they said: ‘Good point.’ Ha-ha!”
Thirteen Lives streams on Prime Video from August 5th
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