Now playing in limited release and expanding nationwide this weekend is Saving Mr. Banks, the new film from The Blind Side director John Lee Hancock. Based on a true story, the pic focuses on Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) twenty-year pursuit of the film rights to author P.L. Travers’ (Emma Thompson) novel Mary Poppins and the rocky relationship that formed between the two when she finally came to Hollywood. Loaded with great performances, a strong script, and the first time Walt Disney has been portrayed on screen, Banks is a likely contender for this year’s award season. The film also stars Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker, and Colin Farrell.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Colin Farrell. He talked about how he got involved in the project, what it was like to work with animals and kids, how he’s changed as an actor, if he likes to switch it up in each take, what he collects, future projects like Akiva Goldsman’s Winter’s Tale, Solace, Miss Julie, and more. Hit the jump for what he had to say.
COLIN FARRELL: It was a bad as immediate, “Yes I want to do it” as I’ve ever arrived at. It was as close to a no-brainer as I’ve experienced in reading. It was just so significantly different. There’s a sweetness to this film and it wears its heart on a sleeve in a way that’s very uncommon in today’s world—it’s quite a cynical world. It’s cinematically filmed as well, there’s a coolness that’s involved that is constantly strived for and there are subjects that this film approaches but they’re told within a darker way. I just thought that this was so sweet and it was funny as well—in the most whimsical of ways. The dialogue was beautiful, it had a certain lyricism to it, and I just felt the deep empathy for the character as well. So, it was a no-brainer. I got straight on the phone and said, “Hey, what happened, is it an offer?” They said, “Yes.” And I said, “Okay cool.” They went to bed doing the deal and then it all went to hell in a hand basket because it was scheduling issues. I don’t want the issues wherever there’s scheduling issues, and they’re like, “It’s not going to work.” And I thought, “Wow.” It’s very seldom that I would—this was one that if it didn’t work out, it would’ve hurt me a bit. There’s other things I’ve done where if it didn’t work out, I kind of had a “It’s not meant to be” kind of attitude. But this one would’ve been, “That sucks!” I wouldn’t have been happy at all.
How did it get worked out?
FARRELL: I think they just moved dates around and whatever I had obligations and some other actor had obligations, and whatever happened behind the scenes, I know John Lee Hancock was very—I sent John Lee an email I believe. I was told last night, I didn’t remember it but my agent told me, “You sent John Lee a long fucking winded email about why you loved the film and why you needed to do it,” and I was like, “Did I really? That sounds very unlike me.” But I’m glad I did and John Lee went to bat for me, I know. I think there might have been some expense incurred with some delays or something like that but John Lee went to bat and I’m glad it worked out.
They always say, don’t work with animals and with kids.
FARRELL: They lie. I mean, they don’t lie, they give their opinion but their opinion is wrong because you must only work with children. Because you only work eight hours—only work with children. Animals not so much, I’ve worked with drunk actors who hit their marks better than animals, of course. It was me and Ruth Wilson, three kids, a white horse, and six chickens but it was beautiful. It was this pastoral paradise, they shot in chronological order and it was so sweet, it was so much fun.
Now it’s just kids.
FARRELL: Just kids. Just Spy Kids 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8, that’s it. Me and Rodriguez and Austin we’re doing it, just green screen kids.
How do you prepare now versus how you used to prepare when you first got into acting?
FARRELL: I think I prepare in quite a similar way, only I think now I have a greater level of access to certain aspects of my own experience and a certain clarity with which I can address or adapt to a certain aspect of another person’s experience or people’s experience, whether it be a different culture or different socioeconomic background, or whatever it may be. I just feel more open, I feel like there’s more space in me. I’m not as clouded either, for me, in my personal life or my creative life. It’s more fun now but the preparation itself—I mean, I went to theater school in Dublin, I did a year in full time theater school and I dropped out because I got work with the BBC in this miniseries. I trained, it wasn’t Stanislavski, it wasn’t Meisner, it was little bits of this, little bits of everything. But I lean on everything in work and most of an actor’s work is done—rehearsal’s great—but most of it is done at home, in your hotel room, in the wee hours of the morning thinking and reading and feeling, walking around and listening to music. I approach work in very much the same way. It really just because an internal exercise, whatever skills. It’s great if you have to learn something new for a gig and designing a character physically is always fun but it does become an internal exercise in separating the wheat from the chaff.
A lot of actors prefer 2-3 takes and some love the David Fincher method. Which are you?
FARRELL: I’m between both, two or three makes me a bit nervous. It’s possible that maybe I’ve done ten takes, five different times, and each time they’ve used take two or three, that’s possible. I’m not saying it’s even the best but for my comfort level and for feeling like I left it in the ring, and there’s so much—and it’s a joy always—but so much thought and preparation goes in that if I only do two takes I’m like, “Wait a fucking—I’ve been thinking about this for a long fucking time.” There’s a bit of that, it’s like, there’s just a couple of things—I don’t know what they are—it’s not like I want to put my hand here, can I do this or maybe I’ll do this gesture, there’s just something that I just want to shake off so I can walk away from it. I’d say, honestly, six or seven.
FARRELL: At times, it feels like there’s an imaginary line that’s drawn through a box when you do a take. I’m not so conscious going into my scene that I want to do something different but maybe I’ve taught myself or learned through a newly acquire freedom in the last five, six, seven years, to just when I do something it’s like a system check unconsciously, it goes, “That’s done.” And the next time it will be different. I don’t know if it will be better or worse, or course, but it will be different. That’s one thing that’s kind of academically and clinically, I can say was different in how I worked before. Not so much in the preparation process but in shooting a scene. I know before, I would have an idea of how the scene was played and I would follow that idea every time. I try and do a line—I would do a line the same way but in my head I would try to do it better. I don’t even know what that means but you know what I mean? I would get on this train of thought and experience and just follow that down on one track. Whereas now I feel like if you’ve done the work and you understand whatever your version of the character is, you really can flip between various interpretations of lines and moments within the same scene and different takes, and none of them be wrong. And what you do then is leave it over to the director to mold your performance in a very extreme way.
Is there anything that you collect?
FARRELL: I collect… memories, of course.
I’ve ran into a lot of people recently that collect books.
FARRELL: I have a few old books. I have an early print of Ulysses and The Gingerbread Man and a couple of books of Yeats poetry that I bought years ago when I had too much money. So, I have a couple of books but nothing else. I’m collecting Disney films, DVDs. I love DVDs. I collect Disney films now because the kids, so we’re getting into the old school Disney now. We’re on a period of watching 101 Dalmatians, Aristocats, Lady and the Tramp, all those good old ones.
It’s almost like you’re promoting a Disney movie.
FARRELL: It’s almost like, yeah.
FARRELL: We were just talking about that. Not for life, no. Have we asked? Do we know for sure? Do we get anything? Man with children needs to know. I think if I do ask in the next month or two, I’ve been led to believe I get a free pass—how big of them, but yeah.
The trailer just came out for Winter’s Tale. Have you seen a rough cut yet?
FARRELL: No, I haven’t. I haven’t seen anything, I heard the trailer came out. How is it?
It’s good. It’s not what you expect and I’m curious what it was about the project that got you involved?
FARRELL: It should be beautiful and magical, and aesthetically incredibly engaging and pretty. Caleb, from what I saw on the monitor, did amazing work and the period lends itself to a certain type of beauty which is very classical. I read the script, again, two of the most emotionally involving scripts that I’ve read have been Saving Mr. Banks and Winter’s Tale. It was incredibly moving and very, very beautiful, and real old fashion love story—sweeping love story. Also, it has elements of—and I’m not comparing it to It’s a Wonderful Life—but has elements of what It’s a Wonderful Life has, which is the idea of stars having a wisdom of their own and stars keeping council over the affairs of humanity. And the idea that time folds in on itself and isn’t actually as linear as we feel and that love is transcendent, and all those themes which if not dealt within a really smart and really judicious way can be overwhelmingly cheesy. But Akiva [Goldsman] is so smart and he wrote such a beautiful script and he was such a wonderful director to work with. He’s been around enough films, he’s been around great directors, but just naturally inherently himself, he’s such a bright man. I’ll be fascinated to see what it is. It’s about as different as—this character is different from everything else. That film feels like a very unique film.
It also has a hell of a cast.
FARRELL: Great cast. Russell [Crowe], Will [Smith], Jessica Brown Findlay, William Hurt… I wish I had more to do with him [Russell Crowe] but he was phenomenal in what I saw. I haven’t seen any of my stuff but I’ve seen some of his. The director says, “Do you want to see some playback?” I go, “Yeah, but can you show me the other person’s take?” Because I’m a fan and I like watching actors and stuff. I’ll be interested to see what that is, man.
FARRELL: Miss Julie, that was tough. Miss Julie was a play that was written in the late 1800’s by a Swedish playwright essayist, poet, social satirist, commentator, called August Strindberg and it’s a very, very bleak properly Scandinavian look at the conflicts between the genders and the social classes as said in that period. Liv Ullmann, who adapted the play into screenplay form, changed the location of it from Sweden to Northern Ireland. We shot it in Northern Ireland which kind of politically and socially worked within the structure of the play. Jessica Chastain plays Miss Julie, who’s the daughter of a Baron of a very large castle, and I play Baron’s valet John, and Samantha Morton plays the kitchen maid. It was the three of us in a castle in Northern Ireland for five weeks, beating each other up and it was depressing, it was intense. It was tough and as I said, it’s a very wonderful play and Liv wrote the most extraordinary screenplay. As an actor in film, you seldom get the chance to read and mull over such exquisite dialogue. Whether that transfers cinematically, whether it’s gripping or engaging when it’s taken out of the theatrical space—the film has been made a few times, I think this is the fourth or fifth version. I had a wonderful time, it was something I just knew it was going to be incredibly unusual, it was a unique experience.
I’m sure a lot of people will be curious.
FARRELL: I’m curious. And Jessica, both Jessica and Sam—Jessica is Miss Julie.
She’s okay, she can act.
FARRELL: She’s alright. If the film is any good, she should win whatever.
Let’s talk about Solace.
FARRELL: Sean Bailey, who’s one of the big wigs at Disney, wrote that. It’s a big one for me, I met him subsequent to doing Saving Mr. Banks. He’s like, “Are you going to do Solace?” And I said, “Yeah.” I meet this executive for Disney and he says, “I wrote that.” I’m like, “Shut the front door.” He did something like ten or fourteen years ago, I think.
He produced Tron: Legacy, he’s done stuff besides being an executive at Disney.
FARRELL: He’s a good guy, he’s a good dude. So that, I don’t know what the story’s about. I’ve seen chunks, I think he might be seeing it on Monday—a rough cut. It was a tight schedule, the director was on a shitload of pressure because the film was bigger than the time they gave him to make it but what I saw—he did a two minute cut—and it was kind of extraordinary looking. It was very, very cool looking.
For people that don’t know…
FARRELL: It’s a genre film about a clairvoyant who used to work in tandem with the police and then lost a lot in his life and decided to live a life of isolation so sequestered himself away into a small town. Finally, there’s this case taking place where there’s a serial of murders happening and the police go to him to ask him to get re-involved and he’s hesitant at first and then he gets re-involved.
What are you thinking about for next year?
FARRELL: I have nothing lined up, reading various bits and pieces but nothing that’s grabbed my fancy yet. I have literally nothing lined up, which is fine.
When you sign on to a movie you have to play the game of promotion.
FARRELL: The promotion I’m good, I’m lined up.
For more on Saving Mr. Banks, here’s my interview with Tom Hanks.