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.''