In the frenetic sci-fi thriller Total Recall, Colin Farrell portrays an ordinary schmoe living a quotidian existence of factory grunt work, cheap beer, and quiet desperation—albeit on a dying Earth in the year 2084. But when the character impulsively decides to incept some happy memories into his brain through a fanciful service called Rekall, he discovers his life is a lie—an elaborate fantasy conjured by high-tech brainwashing—and that he must in turn battle valiantly to right his misdirected course and redefine his existence.
That plotline serves as a convenient metaphor for what Farrell now faces in returning to the type of big-budget blockbuster that established him on Hollywood’s A-list more than a decade ago. It’s been six years since multiplex audiences have seen the Irish actor’s star power shine in a big-budget popcorn film, his flinty performance in 2006’s Miami Vice serving as a kind of turning point in his career. That year held a trifecta of misfortune for the hard-partying heartthrob: a sex tape featuring Farrell and a Playboy playmate made the Internet rounds, he completed a short stint in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse, and began a longer stay in Hollywood’s unofficial movie jail with plum roles in event films suddenly off limits to him.
“I had burned so many bridges in the film industry that I couldn’t get a f--king meeting,” Farrell admits in the British edition of Men’s Health this month.
Viewed in that light, Total Recall—a high-octane, $200 million reboot of Arnold Schwarznegger’s 1990 blockbuster that arrives in theaters today—represents a kind of hail mary for Farrell, 36. It marks his second run at Hollywood glory, looking for a Robert Downey Jr.–like turnaround. That talented but troubled acting wunderkind succeeded in transforming himself from an unemployable mess of drug and drinking excess to one of moviedom’s most bankable action stars.
On the downside, however, pre-release tracking reports indicate less than blockbuster audience anticipation for Total Recall and the all-too-real potential that the film could fizzle at the box office, spelling bad news for Farrell’s comeback bid. Nonetheless, the fresh start seems to have imbued Farrell with uncharacteristic humility.
“I started my career very young, and for years, I went around thinking, ‘I don’t care if anyone likes it!’ That’s absolute horses—t,” Farrell said in a recent Miami Herald interview. “I’ve come to understand that I do care. I don’t live or die by it. But every time you walk onto a set, you kind of want people to go and see your movie … you want them to like it too.”
Farrell’s career began on a lark and heated up quickly. The son of a professional Irish soccer player, he initially set out to make a career in sports, but instead followed his older brother into acting school. From there, the young thespian found parts in small movies and London theater productions—which is where Kevin Spacey caught Farrell’s performance in a play. The Usual Suspects star suggested him to director Joel Schumacher, who cast Farrell in the 2000 soldier drama, Tigerland.
Then, in short order, came a series of increasingly coveted parts: a P.O.W. in the Bruce Willis star vehicle Hart’s War and a rookie spy opposite Al Pacino (Farrell’s movie idol) in The Recruit. Steven Spielberg cherry-picked the actor to portray Tom Cruise’s hard-charging nemesis in the 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report, while American auteur Terrence Malick hired Farrell to portray Captain John Smith in the elegiac historical drama The New World.
Farrell unsheathed his full frontal glory in the small indie movie A Home at the End of the World. And the actor suffered a bad platinum-blond dye job to portray Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic fiasco, Alexander. “[T]hink early Sean Penn with Brad Pitt’s glamour and you have a sense of how big his future could be,” The New York Times trumpeted in a feature titled “A User’s Guide to Colin Farrell”.
Meanwhile, with the words “Carpe Diem” tattooed on his arm and a devil-may-care attitude as palpable as his Irish brogue, Farrell never made any attempt to conceal his sexual swashbuckling to every size 1 actress in Hollywood who’d have him. And even in interviews, the Irishman did little to camouflage his taste for living la vida loca. “I’m single, I’m rich, and I’m a movie star,” Farrell told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. “If I can’t have fun at this, what’s the point?”
But high times have a particular way of catching up with young, rich movie stars. And by 2005, on the set of director Michael Mann’s legendarily over-budget and behind-schedule action romp, Miami Vice, Farrell began to finally appear the worse for wear. “Stars Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell have become slightly bloated, with Farrell sporting ‘beer boobs’ due to their constant partying in Miami,” Page Six diligently reported at the time. “Farrell, in particular, has been carousing at almost every hotel bar and club in town, at times drinking Vox vodka straight from the bottle.”
A publicist announced that the actor had begun a five-week rehabilitation clinic stay suffering from exhaustion and addiction to prescription painkillers. But on a BBC talk show in 2008, Farrell came clean about his extracurricular pursuits, admitting he was “fairly drunk and high for 16 years” and detailing the spiritual low point on Miami Vice that led to rehab. “So much of the work that I did, I was struggling so hard to keep my shit together,” he said. “A lot of my energy was going into trying not to have a complete meltdown. By the end of Miami Vice, I was just done.”
Hollywood was seemingly done with the actor as well. With leading roles in big movies in short supply, the last six years have seen Farrell branch out, turning in outsize performances in small films quite unlike the ones that established his stardom. The actor co-stars opposite Ewan McGregor in Woody Allen’s fratricidal drama, Cassandra’s Dream, turns in a charming performance in Neil Jordan’s 2009 mermaid romance, Ondine, and sang his own songs as a country-music crooner in Crazy Heart—low-budget affairs all. It’s all a far cry from his preening, macho turn in S.W.A.T. But in one of Farrell’s few Hollywood movies in recent memory, last summer’s bawdy comedy, Horrible Bosses, he portrays a balding rage-aholic, coke-head with perhaps the most horrendous comb-over in the history of film. And the actor nabbed a surprise 2009 Golden Globe playing a conflicted mob hitman in the Sundance hit In Bruges.
“It’s nice to get a pat on the back,” he told me that year. “You get pats and you get kicks in the ass through the years. The best way, I suppose, is to believe neither.”
These days, beyond simply maintaining his sobriety, the actor has turned into something of a gym rat. And rather than hit the party circuit, he’s helping to raise his two sons from separate relationships—Henry, 3, and James, 9, who suffers from the neuro-genetic disorder Angelman syndrome—in Los Angeles. With roles in anticipated movies including Saving Mr. Banks (which finds Farrell portraying the man who inspired the curmudgeonly father in Mary Poppins) and Dead Man Down (a crime potboiler in which he stars opposite the Swedish star of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace), Farrell has worked his way back in to Hollywood’s good graces, even if the jury is out on his box-office performance this weekend.
And with the third act of his career kicking off in earnest, Farrell seems to have made peace with his past. “I was so young and, honest to God, it felt like Hollywood had given me the keys to the city. To be on the inside of that was insane,” Farrell told The Miami Herald. “I was so suspicious of this idea of fame, of having to manner myself in a certain way, of tailoring my behavior. So I did everything I could to show that I didn’t give a [expletive] about any of the establishments that were in place. I did that for a while. And then that got really [expletive] tiring! You run out of steam and you become your own argument.”
“I made some significant changes in my life, and I’m glad I did. I’m having more fun now. It’s not as loud! But it really is more fun in a weird way.”