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AT THE MOVIES : SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

He can act too

Colin Farrell had the look. Now there's more thought behind it.

January 17, 2008|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

Colin FARRELL, with his playboy rep and tabloid infamy, essentially started his career as a Hollywood star. Now he would like to concentrate on something else -- being an actor.

"It kind of happened in reverse for me," the Irish-brogued Farrell, 31, said recently in a secluded corner at a luxury-level Beverly Hills hotel. "Sometimes actors ply their trade, their craft, their art for a long, long time, and if they're fortunate enough the opportunity arises, they find success. But for me, I worked a little bit, did a little bit of theater, I did some TV in Ireland, and then all this [freaking stuff] started happening, and I went with it."

This week will prove a good test of how far he's come with "In Bruges," playwright Martin McDonagh's writing-directing debut, which costars Farrell, opening the Sundance Film Festival tonight and Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream," with Farrell and Ewan McGregor as brothers whose lives entangle with tragic results, landing in theaters Friday.

The roller coaster started for Farrell in 2000, after his performance in the drama "Tigerland." In quick order, often working back to back, he appeared in such films as "Hart's War," "Phone Booth," "The Recruit," "Daredevil," "S.W.A.T." and "Ask the Dust." Along the way, he began working with such high-profile directors as Steven Spielberg, on "Minority Report," Oliver Stone, on "Alexander," Terrence Malick, on "The New World," and Michael Mann, on "Miami Vice."

And there was Farrell's seemingly endless appetite for the extracurricular opportunities provided a wealthy, handsome young man in the orbit of Hollywood, which quickly turned him into a tabloid staple. It looked like a lot of living in a few short years.

Dressed casually in jeans, T-shirt and scuffed boots, when he removes a small fedora from atop his head it reveals a surprising amount of gray peppering his hair -- perhaps a sign that his fast years have caught up with him just a little bit. Farrell freely admits he has sobered up from those heady, hazier early days. And if it seems he has been away from the public eye for a while, staking out a lower profile, that's on purpose.

"The original intention was acting," he explained. "And then I was so fortunate, is one way to look at it, that I got all these incredible opportunities to work, and it all happened for me. And then somewhere, just to generalize, somewhere along the line I kind of was just doing it because it was there.

"I had to decide, literally, why am I doing it?" he said. "I had to just stop and think. And it just came to pass that I made the decision if I'm going to be away from my friends and family for four months, it better be because I'm doing something I actually care about."

Inadvertently or not, Farrell's first appearance at Sundance comes as he looks to launch this new phase of his career. The festival has long been a place where big-time Hollywood celebs come to refresh their credibility and reclaim a bit of their acting chops.

Robin WILLIAMS regained, briefly, a bit of goodwill from the media when he played up the creepier aspects of his persona in "One Hour Photo." Jennifer Aniston has dropped by Park City for a periodic refresher, swinging through with the indie-flavored "The Good Girl" and "Friends With Money." When Pierce Brosnan walked across Sundance screens in black bikini briefs in "The Matador" he was also striding straight into the post-Bond phase of his career.

"We're the halfway house that introduces them back into the world," said John Cooper, director of programming at Sundance, "They made the choice to work with these directors, to play these parts."

As to whether the festival can itself become starry-eyed and perhaps show films for their celeb-quotient media value, Cooper says that festival programmers have a different agenda for screening certain films with familiar faces.

"It's not because they're a celebrity, it's because they're good."

In both "In Bruges" and "Cassandra's Dream," Farrell plays men of simple tastes who are thrust into situations far beyond their abilities to cope. In "Bruges," he plays a fledgling hit man sent to cool his heels on a forced vacation in the storybook Belgian city. In "Cassandra" he plays a vice-addled garage mechanic who, along with his decidedly more together brother (McGregor), enters into an unlikely (and unlawful) pact with a very successful uncle.

Whereas Farrell's star rose based largely on his winning smile, bright eyes and healthy head of hair, both of these recent roles find him exploring aspects of tender uncertainty and emotional fragility that will likely surprise audiences looking for a flashy, flippant movie-star turn.

"I was unprepared for the degree of pathos and sensitivity that he had," Woody Allen said recently by phone from his New York editing room. "I knew he'd be a good kind of blue-collar brother, but I didn't realize that he had so much feeling, that he was able to summon such great depth of feelings."

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