''In Bruges,'' ''Crazy Heart,'' and ''Ondine,'' are some of the best work of the actor's career

By Josh Rottenberg
Updated April 09, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

In an earlier era of Colin Farrell’s life, this would have been a four-alarm-hangover afternoon. It’s the day after St. Patrick’s Day, and Farrell sits at a table overlooking the pool at L.A.’s Roosevelt Hotel, smiling at how different this moment would have been just a few years ago. ”We would have been down there, to begin with, not up here — and we wouldn’t have been alone,” he says, pointing at the sun-dappled pool area crowded with young women in bikinis. ”It would have manifested itself into something completely out of all of our control. And you’d have gotten some great f—ing print.” Instead, this year, Farrell spent St. Patrick’s Day taping a guest appearance on Sesame Street, chatting with Elmo about the word investigate.

It’s been a decade now since Farrell vaulted to overnight stardom — hailed, with his scruffy good looks and easy, rakish charm, as ”the Irish Brad Pitt.” On screen, in films like Minority Report, Phone Booth, S.W.A.T., and The Recruit, he became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand and highly paid leading men. Off screen, he was the preeminent bad boy, an unapologetic hell-raiser whose exploits became the stuff of instant legend: epic tales of drinking and drugging; profanity-laced interviews where he’d overshare about sleeping with prostitutes and hanging out with crack addicts; endless romantic conquests; a 2005 scandal involving a sex tape. Then, following a string of high-profile box office disappointments — Alexander, The New World, and Miami Vice — and a stint in rehab, that old Farrell all but vanished.

In the past couple of years, a new Farrell — now 33, sober, and the father of two — has begun to introduce himself to audiences through acclaimed performances in a handful of smaller films: as an angst-ridden hitman in 2008’s In Bruges, for which he won a Golden Globe award last year; as a country singer in Crazy Heart; and coming this June, as a small-town fisherman who pulls up a mysterious woman in his net in the Irish fairy tale Ondine. In the process, Farrell has stripped away what he calls the ”noise and chaos” that surrounded him for so long. ”A few years ago, I realized I’d lost sight of why I went into acting in the first place,” he says. ”I had to go back and remember.” The question now is, will moviegoers set aside what Farrell calls ”the tawdry infamy” and embrace him simply as an actor, without all the fireworks?

Ondine writer-director Neil Jordan says that for all its improbable twists and extremes, Farrell’s story is actually an old one. ”It happens to a lot of people,” Jordan says. ”They go to Hollywood and end up doing a lot of huge films that don’t really display their talents. Then they take an opportunity to step back a little bit, and you can see what great actors they are.”

Raised in a middle-class Dublin family, Farrell showed no real interest in much beyond soccer and troublemaking until he took an acting class at 17. Five years later, after working on an Irish TV drama series, he found himself starring as a rebellious soldier from Texas in his first American movie, a Vietnam War drama called Tigerland, having won over director Joel Schumacher with a homemade audition tape. Even before the film was released, buzz began building around Farrell’s riveting performance. ”At least 100 people came to our editing room in a period of six weeks to see [footage of] Colin,” says Schumacher. ”Ridley Scott, Sam Raimi, Dick Zanuck, casting agents, executives — people started throwing offers and big numbers around.”

Farrell’s career exploded, and in startlingly short order he found himself cast opposite Tom Cruise in Minority Report, costarring with Bruce Willis in the World War II drama Hart’s War, and headlining Schumacher’s thriller Phone Booth. ”I was shot out of a cannon,” Farrell says now. ”It was all born of fear — the fear in this town that somebody was going to miss the boat. People were fighting each other to get at me. I was on the cover of every magazine. It was f—ing weird.” He shakes his head. ”F—, am I glad that’s over. I say that with a kind of conflicted gratitude. But I really am. There are some questions that are just too big for me, and one of them is, why me? I was a kid from Dublin. What the f— am I doing in Hollywood?”

Eager to make the most of his good fortune while it lasted, Farrell threw himself into the high life with abandon. Actor Jeremy Renner, who costarred with Farrell in the 2003 action film S.W.A.T., dimly recalls a wild trip to Mexico the two took on a break from shooting, a trip Farrell referenced this year as a presenter at the Oscars when Renner was up for Best Actor. ”It’s a little foggy,” Renner says, laughing. ”One night we ended up having a little too much fun and not remembering a whole lot. The details I do remember are kind of random, like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

Above all else, Farrell was determined not to let Hollywood change him. He felt an obligation to his friends and family back in Ireland not to compromise himself. ”If I’d known how to look at it in a clear way, I’d have known change is essential in life,” he says now. ”But I resisted that. The intent was noble enough, but I just put myself under arrested development.”

Even the birth of his first child in 2003 — son James, born to model Kim Bordenave, whom Farrell had dated — didn’t slow the actor down. Now 6, James suffers from a neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman syndrome, often characterized by severe developmental delay. ”I was like, ‘Not going to change me. I’m just going to be his friend,”’ says Farrell. ”It didn’t ever really work. The first three years of his life, I was definitely around, but it was eyeballing a gift horse in the mouth.”

In 2004, Farrell’s career hit its first major pothole when director Oliver Stone’s swords-and-sandals epic Alexander, starring Farrell as Alexander the Great, underperformed at the box office and was slammed by critics. ”The conventional wisdom is that Alexander was a gigantic disaster for Colin,” says Stone. ”He did a wonderful job, but he expected to be loved, as all young movie stars do, and he had some rough luck. He took it hard. He drew inside himself and became isolated.”

Despite positive reviews for his turn as Capt. John Smith in director Terrence Malick’s poetic 2005 period drama The New World, the film earned just $12 million, and Farrell realized his party-animal reputation was beginning to damage his career. ”I remember seeing a movie magazine and there was a picture from The New World of me on shore with my sword and this beautiful ship behind me,” he says. ”This picture was indicative of so much work by hundreds of people, and it was reduced to something like ‘Farrell wonders where the nearest pub is on dry land.”’ He winces.

By the time he began work on director Michael Mann’s ill-fated 2006 adaptation of the 1980s cop series Miami Vice, Farrell’s addictions had begun to spiral out of control. ”I was close to becoming really bad news,” he says. ”I was always very functional, but that was the first film where there were a couple of days I missed because I was f—ed. I can’t say I remember that much of it, honestly. But I know that my kind of romantic fecklessness had turned into something more debilitating personally and creatively, because the word was spreading that I wasn’t reliable.”

At the end of 2005, Farrell checked himself into rehab — or, as he puts it, ”went away for a six-week extended holiday” — a decision that he says was about much more than a desire to press the reset button on his career. ”I had issues way before I ever stepped into an acting class — my family were worried about me for years and years,” he says. ”The stuff I used to get up to, the way I used to drive and what I used to have in my system — I’m profoundly lucky that I got out unscathed and that I didn’t kill anyone.”

Even as he was getting sober, Farrell was waging a legal battle over a sex tape he’d made with Playboy model Nicole Narain, which he was trying to prevent from being publicly released. ”I didn’t really give too much of a f— about that — I just didn’t want it on demand in a hotel room,” Farrell says. ”It was a bit of a nightmare, and an expensive 14 minutes. But at the end of the day, it was something to be laughed at. I mean, who hasn’t…?” He catches himself and smiles. ”Probably a lot of people.”

Not long after rehab, Farrell was approached by writer-director Martin McDonagh about playing the role of a young hitman anguished over accidentally killing a child in In Bruges. Still feeling his way through this new chapter in his life, Farrell tried to talk McDonagh out of casting him, fearing his notoriety would overshadow the film: ”I said, ‘I’d love to do it. It’s brilliant. But I really don’t think you should hire me.”’ He laughs. ”I was glad he didn’t listen to a f—ing word I said.” Whatever inner turmoil Farrell may have been enduring, costar Brendan Gleeson says, it went straight into the character, who veers between boozy banter and moments of profound remorse. ”I was surprised at how tortured that performance was,” Gleeson says. ”There are a lot of laughs in the movie, but every day there was some horrible place Colin had to go emotionally. He never allowed himself to just phone it in.”

For his unbilled role in Crazy Heart as a country-music star who helps Jeff Bridges’ broken-down singer restart his career, Farrell faced a whole different type of challenge: getting on stage in front of 14,000 country fans and singing. ”I was s—ting myself,” he says, laughing. ”You’re outside your comfort zone — which, of course, is sometimes the most glorified place to be.”

Farrell hears a helicopter circling overhead and breaks his stream of storytelling. He looks up, following the sound. It must be his publicist, he jokes. ”She’s going to drop down on a ladder: ‘Stop talking!”’ Farrell values his family’s privacy more than ever — he and his current girlfriend, Ondine costar Alicja Bachleda, now have a 6-month-old son, Henry — but reticence is clearly not in his nature. Even without a few pints of Guinness to loosen his inhibitions, he remains largely an open book, a natural-born charmer torn between his desire to entertain with a revealing anecdote or unvarnished insight and the need to set sensible, grown-up boundaries. ”I still find it hard to censor myself,” he admits a little sheepishly.

With Ondine making its American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month and three other films already in the can — a World War II drama called The Way Back, the crime thriller London Boulevard, and a Kurdistan-conflict drama called Triage — Farrell would love nothing more than for movie-goers to see his work on its own terms. ”Colin wants to leave an impact,” says actor Shea Whigham, who’s been one of Farrell’s closest friends since the two costarred in Tigerland. ”Now that things are settled and the work is going well, he doesn’t want to rest on his laurels or his looks or his charisma. He wants to be great. We talk about it constantly.”

Farrell has put some distance between himself and the Hollywood life. Instead of partying at the Chateau Marmont, he’s been at his home in the L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz, he says, ”changing nappies.” Yesterday he brought son James to the Sesame Street set: ”It was magic,” says the actor, who has devoted himself in recent years to supporting the Special Olympics. ”It was really emotional.” Against this quiet backdrop, dipping into Hollywood last month to help present the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards felt strange: ”It’s never not weird, but I just haven’t been around any of this. I haven’t been out and about. I just went in the back door and was home on the couch in my pajamas by the time they called Best Picture.”

For a long time, Farrell scheduled his movies back-to-back, living in hotel rooms, missing the weddings and funerals of relatives and friends because he was working. He ran on fumes, partying until all hours and falling asleep in makeup chairs. Now, for the first time in a while, he doesn’t have a project lined up. It’s a new feeling, and he’s learning to get comfortable with it. ”For years, I was just like, what’s the next thing?” he says. ”I was coming from the philosophy of ‘make hay while the sun shines’ and a disbelief that this was going to continue.” He pauses. ”Now I don’t expect it to continue, nor do I expect it to leave. I just am where I am.”