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Wednesday 4 October 2023 Dublin: 14°C
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# dumbo
Colin Farrell: 'Ireland is a marvel - the same-sex marriage referendum was extraordinary'
The Dublin actor talks to us about his pride in Ireland, and his role in Disney’s reimagining of Dumbo.

IT’S BEEN AN interesting road for Colin Farrell to get to the point he’s at today. He started off a young, cheeky Dubliner starring in Ballykissangel, going on to end up in Hollywood through a unique mix of charm and talent.

He was open to taking advantage of whatever the weird world of Hollywood had to offer, and saw the down as well as the upsides to it. That meant some moments the 42-year-old probably doesn’t want to dwell on now. But no matter, as he has come through those times to become an actor who makes interesting, intelligent choices each time he selects a new film. And an interviewee who, even in the pressured junket environment, makes a short chat feel like an intimate conversation.

When meets the Castleknock native in a plush Dublin city hotel room, he’s in the midst of an intense three-day trip home from La-La Land to promote his latest film, Dumbo. It’s not – repeat, not – a remake of the 1941 Disney animation. Instead, it’s a reimagining, with Tim Burton, a man who does a great job in reimagining reality, at the helm. 

Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a father of two who was a top circus performer alongside his wife. But then World War I happened, and he went off to fight. He returns home, at the start of the film, after losing an arm to the war and his wife to influenza. That the metaphor for his broken spirit doesn’t feel too laboured is testament to the film’s light touch across a number of areas. 

Farrier returns to work again in Medici’s circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito in a role channeling the spirit of Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia). One day, an elephant living at the down-at-heel circus gives birth to a calf with – you know this bit – huge ears.

All the animals in this film are CGI, but the new Dumbo is a big-eyed beaut. So begins the story of his journey to flight. Along the way, Holt and the Medici gang get involved with a dodgy entrepreneur (Michael Keaton, playing V A Vandevere), and befriend a trapeze artist called Colette Marchant (Eva Green).

I tell Farrell, who’s puffing away on a vape as we’re introduced, that the film had me a bit teary-eyed. “I don’t want to say what people should or shouldn’t be moved by, but I feel at its core it’s a moving story,” he says in response. “And there’s obviously the story of this innocent at its centre that is forcibly removed from its mother, and ridiculed by everyone because he’s born with this quite extreme difference physical difference he has, that which is shown to be magic throughout the telling of the tale. But it’s also got this human component in the story of a father returning to his children and all that kind of stuff.”

This isn’t a guy who’s stuck for words. Watching the film, one of the major themes is how people perceive us, and how easy it is to care about what people think. Was this a theme that resonated with Farrell, himself no stranger to tabloid gossip?

“I suppose the pressure that a lot of us put ourselves under as a result of our concerns to how we’re perceived is huge, particularly now with the advent of social media, you know,” he says thoughtfully. “How one is perceived by the world around [them] is a very prominent experience that today’s youth find themselves in. You know, they’re deep waters to be treading.”

Walt Disney Studios / YouTube

He describes Holt Farrier’s various struggles. “He’s got his own grief and his own shame that he wasn’t there to help his children through their grief and their loss,” he says. “And he’s also apologetic to everyone that he meets, because he sees the reactions off everyone, his kids see that he’s missing his arm, Danny DeVito’s character Medici, his boss, the owner of the circus, looks at his arm, and he’s a changed man… it’s a very blunt symbol, the fact that the missing arm represents a greater chasm or break that exists within him.”

So it was very simple when I read it in the script, it was very clear to me that his journey was one of just an emotional reconciliation with himself through reconciling with his children, and obviously Dumbo plays a huge part in bringing him back together with his kids.

‘Kids are dealing with sickness and grief’

Farrell praises how Tim Burton dealt with such tough, adult, subjects in a kids’ movie. It can be hard to negotiate the line between moralistic storytelling and an exploration of human emotion.

“I think Tim did a really bang-up job of honouring some of the more difficult aspects of being a human being, whether it’s being a child or being an adult, dealing with grief, dealing with loss, dealing with difference, dealing with injury, dealing with sickness,” says Farrell. “They’re all paid attention to, all those themes and issues are paid attention to in this film, albeit not in the heaviest way, and they shouldn’t have been dealt with in the heaviest way, but in a respectful way.”

Farrell himself is particularly known for his work with children who may be in hospital or dealing with illness or disability. His son, James (15) has Angelman syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.

The actor says he thinks it was “lovely” to see darker themes in the film. “Because I think kids from all over the world are, unfortunately from young ages, are dealing with sickness and dealing with grief and dealing with loss and I think children can take it to a certain point,” he says.

Dumbo is “not a Ken Loach film, it’s not kitchen sink drama”, says Farrell, but Burton ”was very, very clear that he didn’t want things to be over sentimental as well, he’s very respectful of the intellect of children the ability of children to process a lot”.

Though Farrell says he is “fine with brainless entertainment”, he doesn’t believe this iteration of Dumbo is that. “Not just speaking up my own stuff, when I read it first I was like ‘god…’ … again we’re not delving too deep into it because we don’t need to, we’re just presenting these characters, each of which are struggling with something that inevitably we all struggle with,” he explains.

Some of us unfortunately at very young ages deal with sickness and loss and I was really impressed that this film could have as much light and as much hope and as much heart and as much kindness and compassion at its centre, while also dealing with some of the heavier darker themes of what it is to be a human being.

We move on to the changes that Ireland has seen in the past few years, and what that it like to see as someone now ensconced in the USA. “This country is a marvel, it’s a marvel you know what happened with the same sex marriage referendum, that was extraordinary stuff, you know,” says Farrell, his face lighting up. “[I'm] very proud to be from here.”

He says he doesn’t notice that much change when he returns to Ireland, though his trips can often be short. “The people feel just as vibrant and forceful and generous and kind and as deep as they always have,” he says. He notices “more coffee shops” and a quicker pace of life. More affluence, too, ”or maybe there’s a bit more separation between the rich and the poor which is never a good thing”. But he says he loves returning to Ireland. “I love coming home, it’s very enriching for me.” 

Taking risks

What must be enriching for him too is this phase in his career. In recent years, he’s been making some interesting decisions. The move comes after upheaval in his personal life, which he’s been very frank about, where he dealt with addictions that were affecting his progress. He’s also come through some low points careerwise, with his role in Alexander being so badly panned that he went around wearing a ski mask on holidays to try and escape the glare of the press. But since those low points, things have gone on an upwards trajectory, and the former wild child is a much beloved Irish celebrity.

Two of his most interesting roles recently have been in The Lobster and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, both directed by Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos (who also directed the Oscar-winning The Favourite).

In these, Farrell is far from the wise-cracking, gun-toting lad he has played in films like In Bruge. He’s deadpan, and in the Lobster, deadbeat. It’s thrilling to see someone play a role that’s so unexpected. But was it a conscious decision to go for such risky roles?

“There’s no real decision to take more risky roles, just like there’s no decision to go ‘I want to do a children’s film now’,” says Farrell. “Just very much rolling with the punches and seeing what presents itself and just drawn to different things at different times. And your mood might change day-to-day so it depends on what you read at what time – but it’s fun to do different stuff.”

To work with Lanthimos was “extraordinary” he says, joking that “this fella wasn’t bad”, in reference to Burton. Whatever Farrell is doing right now, it’s clearly working.

Dumbo is a children’s movie that’s miles from the likes of the Lobster, but he doesn’t phone it in. Holt is charming, though troubled, and gets his rewards in the films denouement. Now, where will Colin Farrell go next?

Dumbo is in cinemas now.

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