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Colin Farrell

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A few months ago, Jim Carrey passed on Phone Booth, in which he would have played a slick publicist held hostage in the titular shelter. More recently, Edward Norton bowed out of the World War II drama Hart’s War. Their replacement? Colin Farrell, the hottest new miracle Spackle for sudden casting holes.

Cell phones all over Hollywood have been crackling with this news for the past few weeks. Thing is, if you plugged most moviegoers into the conversation, they’d stop the chatter cold with one question: Who the hell is Colin Farrell?

There probably hasn’t been this much gotta-have-him heat on a newcomer since Matthew McConaughey leapfrogged to stardom in 1996’s A Time to Kill. McConaughey rode in on three key assets: great looks, the blessing of director Joel Schumacher, and a killer Southern accent. Now 24-year-old Farrell is working the same advantages in a new Schumacher film, the wartime drama Tigerland. Looking like a gene-spliced amalgam of George Clooney (the dark eyebrows), Paul Newman (the wiry physique), and Russell Crowe (the cocky body language), the native Irishman seems utterly Dixie-fied as Roland Bozz, an indomitable nonconformist trapped in a next-stop-Vietnam training camp in 1971.

”I’ve done an awful lot of movies with unknowns who were coming up,” says Schumacher, ”including Julia [Roberts] and Demi [Moore] when they were in their early 20s. But I’ve never had this kind of reaction.” The movie was just yards of raw 16 mm footage on a viewscreen when producers, directors, agents, and studio execs began parading through the editing room and fighting to hire Farrell. Says the young actor: ”It’s mad that there’s a sudden surge on. T’ank God, says me. But who knows if it’ll fookin’ die next week?”

Says his director, ”Only God and the audience can make a star,” and so far, God alone has spoken. Despite strong reviews and a glowing reception at the Toronto film festival, the $8 million film has made just $79,000 in limited release since opening in early October. It probably didn’t help that print ads featured a shadowy array of soldiers’ faces, giving little hint of the picture’s gritty humor or of Farrell’s star-making performance.

That campaign is old news, says Sanford Panitch, production president of New Regency, which made Tigerland (it’s distributed by Twentieth Century Fox): New ads feature a solo shot of Farrell. ”It took Croupier six months to make $6 million,” says Panitch. ”We intend to have this picture playing through Christmas and make a big Academy push for it.” Prime target: a Best Actor nomination for Farrell.

In the meantime, the new It Lad says, ”I’m keepin’ me fookin’ head down,” as he wraps the Warner Bros. Western American Outlaws, in which he plays another twangy renegade, Jesse James. Farrell had a role in the cult British series Ballykissangel and a bit part in the Kevin Spacey drama Ordinary Decent Criminal (still unreleased in the U.S.) before his sister recorded the video audition tape for Schumacher that got him Tigerland. ”Joel had some good advice,” says Farrell, who will reteam with the director on Phone Booth in November. ”He said, ‘Fame gives you the opportunity to become the person you always were. The bad get worse, and the good rise to the occasion.”’ Let the ascension begin.

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