Colin Farrell's fairy tale ending

The ex-Hollywood bad boy and Irish director Neil Jordan talk about the myths and charms of their new movie "Ondine"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published May 2, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda in "Ondine."
Colin Farrell and Alicja Bachleda in "Ondine."

Colin Farrell speaks in an Irish accent in the new film "Ondine," all right -- but it isn't his Irish accent. As part of what looks to be his ongoing mid-career self-renovation project, Farrell plays a divorced County Cork fisherman in writer-director Neil Jordan's new movie. This character, a recovering alcoholic named Syracuse (or Circus, to the local wags), speaks in the lilting, almost musical tones of Ireland's southwestern coast, an accent as distant from Farrell's native Dublin as New Orleans is from Boston.

When I suggest to Farrell that playing a Corkman might have been nearly as challenging as playing a Texan, as he did in his breakthrough American role in the 2000 film "Tigerland," he responds: "Probably more so. Dublin speech is closer, dialectically, to Texas than it is to Cork. And I grew up watching American films and programs on television."

If Farrell developed something of a tabloid reputation as a Hollywood bad boy by the mid-2000s, when he starred in inflated productions like Oliver Stone's "Alexander" and Michael Mann's "Miami Vice," he gives off no hint of star attitude today, either on-screen or in person. Since hitting that peak of fame and/or infamy (with a sex tape to match it), Farrell has focused on more modestly scaled projects with impeccable artistic pedigrees, working with Terrence Malick ("The New World"), Woody Allen ("Cassandra's Dream"), Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh ("In Bruges") and now Jordan, whose own transatlantic career ranges from "The Crying Game," a '90s indie landmark, to directing Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in "Interview With the Vampire."

Like so many of the characters in Jordan's films -- not just the two I have mentioned, but also "Breakfast on Pluto," "The Butcher Boy," "Mona Lisa" and "The End of the Affair" -- Farrell's Syracuse goes through a transformation that may or may not be supernatural in nature. In the film's very first scene, he literally fishes a woman from the ocean in his net. Miraculously, she isn't dead, and tells him to call her Ondine, the name of a water nymph from European folklore. Syracuse's precocious daughter, who is desperately ill with kidney failure, believes Ondine is a selkie, a legendary seal-woman who can shed her coat and live among humans, but who must return to the sea if her selkie husband comes to claim her. (This isn't the first movie to channel the selkie myth; see also John Sayles' "The Secret of Roan Inish.")

As played by willowy Polish actress Alicja Bachleda -- who is now Farrell's real-life partner and the mother of his 6-month-old son -- Ondine does not seem much like a mythological creature, and the guy who comes after her does not emerge from the sea. Still, Jordan manages the film's wistful balance between love story, domestic comedy and thriller gracefully, and makes the most of the glorious West Cork coast around Castletownbere (where he actually owns a house).

Farrell and Jordan were in town this week for the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of "Ondine" (which will open theatrically in June) and invited me to drop by their midtown hotel suite for a brief chat. Given our shared heritage, I wish I could tell you we stepped out for a few pints, but this meeting was all business, conducted over cappuccinos and sparkling water.

As ever, Jordan had a somewhat curt and professorial manner, suggesting a chess-playing Jesuit. Whatever his press clippings may suggest, Farrell was cheerful, polite, even expansive. And yes, interested ladies and gentlemen, he looked terrific -- a compact, athletic guy, rather small in stature, with the energy of a tightly wound spring.

Neil, tell me a little bit about why you settled on the selkie myth. Was that the starting point for this story?

Neil Jordan: I just had this image of a fisherman catching a girl in his net. And, you know, I began to write. I said, "This is a really interesting thing somehow, you know. Is she alive, is she dead? Well, if she's alive then what happened?" And then I thought that this was potentially quite interesting and I began to think about selkie legends. You know, I've made many movies in Ireland and a lot of them are quite brutal. A lot of them have been about violence, political violence, you know, the unforgiving nature of things.

And I thought, why does nobody make the kind of thing that Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats used to do, when they did that fairy tale thing? I don't want to be that innocent about it all, but why doesn't anyone do that? It's so lovely and so obvious and the landscape seems to suggest it. I just thought, OK, I'll go in that direction and see what happens. So I ended up with this story. It's a fairy tale that's kind of intermeshed with reality in a strange way. I didn't know what to make of it. I asked Colin if he liked it and said, "Do you want to do this?" and he said yes. That's how it happened, basically.

What did you like about the story, Colin?

Colin Farrell: Sometimes you read scripts and you feel like you connect to them and you have an understanding of the character, and I just felt that way. Maybe in three or four films, over all the scripts that I've read the last 12 years, do I feel that I really have an understanding of the guy. And maybe the understanding is a respect. You see something in a character that you wish you understood more of as a man. Syracuse's lack of self-pity at many times is something that was just astonishing to me.

With all the tragedy that had befallen him, which is very common mortal tragedy: a mother who died recently at quite a young age, a daughter who is terminally ill, a dissolved marriage, and a case of alcoholism in a very drunk town, and yet he completely lacks any self-pity. You know, he didn't carry himself in a woe-is-me way at all, and I loved that.

I also loved the fantastical element of the film. It's set as a fairy tale. It's a story that's very based in reality but has sort of fantastical yearnings. And we all, we're designed, we're conditioned to desire some element of fantasy or some elements of the fantastical in our lives, and even love represents that. Certainly romantic love, anyway. It's not impossible to attain, but it's nearly impossible to hold on to, to retain. But I just love that it unabashedly reached for that, that Syracuse seemed like he was looking for that from the beginning.

N.J.: What was interesting was, in a way, this man had to believe in this stuff. He has to believe in it, or he wants to believe in it. So to make that man real, I had to strip away a lot of modernity from him, strip away a lot of articulation from the guy.

C.F.: You see sharks move through the water. I'm not saying he's like a shark, but he's like an animal. He's wishing that thing would attach themselves to him. He's kind of severed all attachments himself. He's severed himself from the community. He's severed himself from his ex-wife. The only attachment he has is to his daughter. But he's kind of praying that something else will attach himself to him, and little does he know that it's going to be this woman, in the form of a possible mythological creature. But he suspends his disbelief for a while because it's a better reality. Sometimes we need to look outside the realms of our faces and the physical, quotidian world to actually get through. The harshness of that is sometimes ...

The portrait of the town was interesting to me, because on one hand it's almost like a traditional presentation of an Irish small town. It's old-fashioned, it's a little cut off from the world, it's a little culturally backward. And yet you can just feel the tendrils of modern life working their way in. To your mind, is that realistic or, I don't know, nostalgic?

N.J.: That's exactly what the town was like. It is what it is. We didn't interfere with anything, really. We shot in the local shops. We didn't even repaint colors.

C.F.: But it is somewhere between modernity and tradition.

N.J.: Totally, yeah, yeah. Often tragedy is sown in Irish small towns. There's all this modernity and yet there's all these weird shards of memory, of simplicity. They're often in conflict. It's horrible. But that is the way of it. We didn't do really anything to that town to change it or to prettify it.

So in Castletownbere you can go buy a woman's dress at a little shop in the town square like that?

N.J.: Absolutely.

You don't go to a big-box store at the shopping center just outside of town or wherever?

N.J.: No, no, no, no.

C.F.: It really is very self-contained. At McCarthy's pub, you can literally buy your bread and your cereal and a pint of Guinness. The first half of the pub is a grocery.

N.J.: In fact, there's a Wiseman's. A huge clothes store that sells Wellington boots and sou'westers and underwear.

C.F.: And then some gank piece of lingerie in the corner near the fishing gear.

Colin, you're a Dubliner. Was West Cork a new world for you?

No, not really. I'm fairly malleable, I think, when it comes to immersing myself in a variety of different realities and social structures. But I had also known Castletownbere a little bit because 12 years ago I did a BBC miniseries down there. The first paid job I ever did was down there in 1997 on something called "Falling for a Dancer." So I knew the place a little bit, and I loved the place. I loved the fact that it felt like it was kind of isolated. As an outsider coming in, I loved the fact that it felt that it was off the beaten track. And there's a great sense of community there.

With that comes rivalry, and all those things. Everyone knows everyone else's business, they really do. It's an impossible place to keep a secret. When you talk about it being incestuous, you're not basically saying that relatives relate to each other in a sexual way, you're talking about the sharing of information. As barren as the place is, in some ways, so are the people kind and welcoming, I found. I loved it.

There's that one shot where it seems simultaneously both welcoming and stifling, when Syracuse and Ondine come into the harbor aboard his boat. And everybody in town comes out to stare at this new woman, the "water baby." It captures the whole story in one moment.

C.F.: Yeah, there's a system in place.

N.J.: But it's also bad luck to have a woman on your boat. They do say that. It's sexist, but that's what they say.

Neil, you said earlier you wanted to balance the mythic element and realistic element. Obviously there's an explanation offered in the film, ultimately, for what's really going on. Is there a sense in which you want both things to be true -- the realistic and the magic -- or for Colin's character to simultaneously believe that both things could be true?

N.J.: Well, I think once there's a realistic explanation to events he wants to make the other story true. The poor bastard marries the girl, doesn't he? [Laughter.] He wants to force this happy ending, you know? And that's where the story, if it was a fairy tale, would have ended miserably. She'd get back in the water, he'd be back on his own and be an ancient fisherman. But in a way, he creates the fairy tale out of what turns out to be a realistic story.

C.F.: He can only suspend his belief for so long, as well. He's let the fairy tale run out of its road. They've come to the last chapter. The real world comes quite literally crashing in.

N.J.: But I don't know, he did genuinely save her life, didn't he? He gave her a new life when he pulls her out of the water. She's about to die. It's kind of complicated.

Colin, can you talk briefly about the career choices you've been making, including this film? You've done some smaller films, some Irish and British films, throughout your career, but in the last few years you've focused on working with directors like Neil, or like Terry Malick and Terry Gilliam and Woody Allen. Was there a sense that you wanted to back away a little bit after doing "Miami Vice" and other big pictures?

C.F.: I really believe it wasn't conscious. I know it seems like that from the outside looking in. It was just the opportunities that presented themselves. Like working with Woody Allen. Or when I got the opportunity to work with Martin McDonagh [on "In Bruges"], and I was a huge fan of Martin's. The ilk of film that presented itself to me that felt like really good options creatively, and really good ways to sate my creative curiosity were smaller, at least in terms of budget. Not in scope or certainly not in the realm of questions they were asking. It wasn't by design. I'd love to mix up bigger stuff and smaller stuff, not have a continuous beat in my career.

N.J.: It's really hard to do that.

Well, you've done a version of the same thing.

N.J.: Ah, I know, but believe me, it's hard. Well, it's not hard really. But people end up thinking you have different intentions when you do a big movie than a smaller movie.

C.F.: I know, and your intention is exactly the same. It really is. Because the acting might be darker or more thematic, but you're still making it to entertain people. Entertainment isn't always clapping or going "Yay!"

N.J.: And no matter what you do as an actor, whether it costs $200 million or nothing, you still have to engage your character.

Colin, is it really true that you're working on a version of Flann O'Brien's novel "At Swim-Two-Birds" with Brendan Gleeson?

C.F.: Brendan adapted that book and did a fantastic job on the script. It's there and ready to go. He's been trying to get the coffers up for a while now. But it's such an abstract piece.

Not the easiest thing to sell.

No, you know, not at all. In today's climate people are terrified of it. I think he's had to color-code the script to make the delineation between the world of imagination and the world of reality. It's a matter of finances.

I may be the only person in the world who's deeply excited about this. So you've got one booster.

He wrote a brilliant screenplay. We'll see.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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