Colin Farrell on Family, Irish ‘Civic Duty,’ the Power of Movies and Friendship With Elizabeth Taylor

All five best-actor contenders this year are first-time Oscar nominees. Two are newbies to the film industry, so that’s not surprising. But among the veterans, Colin Farrell is long overdue, after a 25-year career marked by breadth, daring and risk-taking.

In Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin,” Farrell meets all the criteria for an Oscar win: There’s not a false note in the performance, it’s very different from what you’ve seen him do, and you can’t imagine anyone else playing the part.

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In person, Farrell is 180 degrees from Padraic.

In a long conversation, he didn’t dwell on the movie, yet all roads led to Inisherin: Farrell spoke of a sense of community, of family, of friendship and the power of art — all topics addressed in the film.

About growing up, Farrell says, “I come from working-class stock. My parents weren’t into films. Now, films are the cornerstones of my relations with my two sons. We watch them and talk about them. Little moments in a movie can be so huge, and it’s important as a father to discuss them. I’ve always learned a lot from films.

“I have a brother and two sisters; we’ve all played a part in each other’s lives, as siblings do.” Older sis Catherine “was the real lover of film and I became a lover of film by proxy.”

When Farrell was 18 or 19, he was waiting tables in Dublin; his brother Eamonn dropped in and was horrified to hear Farrell say he felt aimless and “struggling in my own head.” Eamonn immediately took him to the Gaity School of Acting and waited while he filled out the application. “That was the start of thinking ‘I’m going to apply myself.’ It was a very gentle intervention and it was a big moment for me.”

He continued to love Hollywood movies and was exposed to alternative fare, like films by Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes and Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” (“that movie shook me to the core, in terms of the power and potential of film”).

Though Wikipedia defines Farrell as “Irish actor,” he is actually global, having worked with directors, male and female, from Ireland and the U.S., but also Australia, Bosnia, Britain, Denmark, Greece, Norway, South Korea and Taiwan.

With “Banshees,” he and Brendan Gleeson are working again with Martin McDonagh after “In Bruges.”Fellow “Banshees” Oscar nominee Kerry Condon says of Farrell, “There is something extremely expressive, vulnerable and honest about him, and he says it all without words.”

Farrell’s other directors include Tim Burton, Sofia Coppola, Terry Gilliam, Ron Howard, Neil Jordan, Yorgos Lanthimos, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Steve McQueen, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Danis Tanovic and Liv Ullmann.

Ullmann directed him and Jessica Chastain in “Miss Julie” and he says Ullmann “is an amazing human being; she has such heart and her emotions are so close to the surface.” (Unlike most actors during awards season, Farrell is happy to talk about others, rather than himself.)

In 25 years, Farrell has appeared in about 50 films, plus making TV and stage appearances. And 2022 was a banner year: Aside from “Banshees” providing him with one of his best roles, he appeared in Matt Reeves’ “The Batman” as the Penguin, Kogonada’s sci-fi family drama “After Yang” and Ron Howard’s “Thirteen Lives.”

But Farrell says his proudest accomplishment is “Being present for both my children.”

Asked about his philanthropic work — which includes fighting homelessness and bullying, and advocating LGBT causes and the Special Olympics — he says simply, “I could certainly do a lot more.” Then he steers focus to one of Hollywood’s prima philanthropists, Elizabeth Taylor.

“I got to know her in the last few years of her life. She was a consummate friend. She made an art of friendship, of being there for people.”

At one point, he hadn’t called her in several weeks and she wanted to know why. He told her, “I was going things a litany of things I didn’t want to annoy you with.” She said, “Stop. How am I supposed to be your friend if you only come to me with the good times?”

Farrell adds, “It was a lesson in humility. And we talked about extending that kind of friendship in a global way.”

Part of his outreach is working with DEBRA Ireland, a small non-profit dedicated to helping people with epidermolysis bullosa, or EB, a debilitating skin disease that creates constant pain. His “extraordinary friend Emma Fogerty” has EB and the two of them appeared on an Irish chat show.

“Emma is so brave and she talked about her condition and struggles, without any self-pity. It was in the middle of the economic downturn, near Christmas, which is the wrong time to ask people to put hands in their pockets to help out.” The chat show producers were stunned at the results: TV viewers donated “massive amounts, enough to keep the EB nurses on staff for the upcoming year.”

He cites this as an example of people’s innate generosity. “No one country is the greatest in the world. Every country has its strengths and faults. But one thing the Irish do well is support each other; there is a sense of civic duty, looking out for each other.”

Support and looking out for each other is one of the undercurrents in “Banshees,” which shows what happens when this works and when it is lost.

Almost all the topics that Farrell addressed in the conversation — family, siblings, community, generosity — they’re all there in the film. And they’re all there in his performance.

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