It’s kind of hard to remember now, but around the time Colin Farrell starred in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland, he was being already hailed as “the next big thing.” This is usually the recipe for one of two things: either immediate superstardom or, more likely, disaster.
Yes, Farrell became a star, starring in big-budget movies like Minority Report, Miami Vice, and Alexander – to mixed results – but, looking back, it doesn’t feel like the Colin Farrell we know today started until 2008’s In Bruges. And since then, Farrell has become, almost strangely quietly, one of our more consistently great and favorite actors working today – even if people don’t quite realize yet he’s one of their favorite actors.
(Related: I’ll never forget the sound the audience made at an early screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them when Farrell’s character turned into another character, as the audience realized Farrell wasn’t going to be in these movies anymore. It was a collective, shared grown.)
Now, Farrell plays the lead in Tim Burton’s reimagining of Dumbo. In one of his most earnest recent performances, Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a veteran of the first World War who comes home without his left arm. While he was fighting, his wife has died, leaving him alone to raise his two kids — who he barely knows anymore — while working at the circus. Once the main attraction, Holt can no longer perform as an ace shot, horse-riding cowboy, so he’s been put in charge of the elephants. And as you probably know, there’s something awfully special about the new baby elephant.
Ahead, Farrell explains why he had never even seen the original Dumbo until recently – and that, while working with Burton, Michael Keaton, and Danny DeVito, he expected more Batman Returns references. He also takes us through that incredible Widows long tracking shot he’s in – which is considered to be one of the best, if not the best cinematic shot of 2018; even Farrell says he’s never seen anything like it. And Farrell professes his love for Conway Twitty’s version of “The Rose,” which played a big role in his season of True Detective.
Conway Twitty come up on a playlist yesterday.
Oh, The Rose?
Oh, such a great song. His phrasing in that song is ridiculous. Bette Midler wrote it, didn’t she?
I know she did the original version. On True Detective people thought it was an Elvis impersonator.
Yeah, Conway was never for mass consumption.
Except “Tight Fittin’ Jeans.”
[Laughs] “Tight Fittin’ Jeans.” Yeah. True.
If Dumbo were real my first comment would be, “Man, you worked with an extremely talented elephant. One that thing can do amazing things.”
Yeah, it was pretty extraordinary how well-trained it was.
When was the last time you saw the original Dumbo?
Probably about three months before I got on the plane to London to shoot the film. I had never seen it when I was a child.
No, I had grown up on various titles from the Disney canon: Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians. The Jungle Book was a big one for me when I was a kid. But, for some reason, I think this one, I don’t know if my parents were even aware of it. I mean, it was 1941 when it was made and so it wasn’t my generation’s animated film of choice, so I think it’s cool that a whole new audience can find this film for the first time. Although it’s loved and people who do know of it seem to have a great deal of affection for the original animated film, it’s not as well-known, of course, as Beauty and the Beast and various other ones.
I think I saw it in a theatrical a re-release when Disney used to do that.
What did you think of it? Do you remember?
Well, it’s weird because watching it today, it’s very strange. At one point Dumbo gets drunk on champagne.
It’s like Tim Burton says, what he remembers, seeing it when he was a kid, was a drunk elephant. A drunk elephant and totally inappropriate un-PC characters.
You never know quite what you’re gonna get with any Tim Burton movie. He kind of wears his heart on his sleeve with this one. It’s a very earnest movie, and you’re at the heart of the earnestness.
I mean, it is a very earnest movie. It is a very sweet movie. I know Tim was concerned with just keeping it simple. It’s a story about families, broken families. The children are contending with the loss of their mother still, who died while my character was away fighting in the first World War. Dumbo and his mother are separated. They experience a forced separation. So there are things that are very complicated, but Tim wanted to deal with them in a very sincere, very very simple way. Look, there’s cruelty in this film. There’s avarice. There is sadness and pain and Dumbo’s the quintessential outsider. But, at its core, is this kind of kindness and deep, deep empathy which is the thing that I truly loved about the tale, you know?
What Tim Burton movie made you want to work with him?
Edward Scissorhands is a pretty affecting film for me. I mean, I saw Pee Wee’s Big Adventure when it came out first, my brother showed it to me. And then I saw Beetlejuice, which I loved and was purely entertained by. But for emotional resonance, Edward Scissorhands was the film that really kind of moved me. It’s funny, both of my sons love that film as well. It’s one of their favorite films.
And then 26 years later you played a character that turned into Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Yeah, it wasn’t lost on me. Also, myself and Johnny had played two characters that Heath turned into. Heath Ledger when he did…
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
Johnny and I have crossed paths — well not crossing paths creatively, we played the same person. We played the same person twice.
I remember the press screening of Fantastic Beasts, when your character disappeared someone let out an audible, “No!”
Aw, that was very kind of them.
Did Danny DeVito and Michael Keaton make a lot of Batman Returns jokes on set?
Not a single one.
What a wasted opportunity that was.
I was worried you were going to feel left out.
No, honestly, it was probably such a familiar energy to step into – the shared familiarity between Danny and Michael and Tim – and the ease that they all had was a lovely thing to just kind of step in line with. I think Tim creates this familial experience, and energy. I don’t even know whether he knows he’s doing it, or he does it intentionally, or it’s just by virtue how inclusive he can be in the whole process, but it just felt like one big kind of chaotic family.
Did you feel a little left out of The Favourite? After doing back-to-back movies with Yorgos Lanthimos, it’s kind of weird you weren’t in it. I associate you two together.
That’s cool. No, I received such personal and creative fulfillment working with Yorgos on the two films that we did, on The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I didn’t feel that at all. I was delighted, to be honest, for him and for the recognition and the attention that he was receiving as a result of The Favourite. And Olivia Colman, who I worked with on The Lobster. I have such a deep affection for Yorgos. I was just thrilled for him.
You were in what a lot of people consider the best tracking shot of 2018, the one inside the car in Widows.
Yeah, it was a bold choice.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Yeah, Steve McQueen a very bold filmmaker. He’s obviously coming from the world of visual art and he has a keen, keen aesthetic sense. So, I had never seen that before. Look, I’m doing this job more than 20 years, so to see a director do something with the camera, or frame, or set up a shot in a particular way that you’ve never even seen anything close to before was pretty extraordinary.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.