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The Way Back - Colin Farrell interview

The Way Back

Interview by Rob Carnevale

COLIN Farrell talks about the pleasure of working with Peter Weir on The Way Back despite the difficulty he found in getting into his character… a Gulag survivor and Russian criminal that marked one of the least enjoyable characters he has ever inhabited.

He also talks about some of the emotional and physical challenges of completing the movie, which is partly based on a true story.

Q. I gather you didn’t see Valka as the character you necessarily wanted to play? Was it easy to research where this guy may have come from?
Colin Farrell: Valka was… I met Peter subsequent to reading this script. I think I can speak for most of us in saying that the most exciting prospect of working on this film was to work with Peter. I was such a big fan of his work through the years. And then reading the script I saw Valka as just a big stretch. He was incredible disparate to anything I had approached before. I had no relationship to that time in history, or to that country. And so I knew it would be a journey of discovery and that’s what it proved to be. Valka, to this day, was one of my least favourite characters to play. I found him very sad. He’s a very lonely fella. He’s somebody who is, at once, a victim of and a huge proponent of the system which shaped him. So, I found that really, really interesting.

Q. Was it nice to have a countrywoman on set in Saoirse Ronan?
Colin Farrell: Yeah. The latter part of that even more than the former… more than just being Irish, to have a female energy join the gang six or seven weeks in. You know, we were kind of sick at looking at each other at that stage and it was a welcome relief to have Saoirse come on. It was an absolute treat having her there.

Q. How was it for you working on the locations? And was it sad to have to leave the group when you did?
Colin Farrell: I was fairly ready to be honest with you! I was pleased to kick Valka to the curb. He was used to it… he’d had a lifetime of it. But it felt like a dour truth of the character was that he couldn’t contemplate… he felt from the outside looking in a little bit like he was the only one who didn’t really have anything to return to or anything to go towards. There was no love, there was no hope, there was no anything in his life. He wasn’t mournful or melancholy as a result of that. He was a very strange fella, so it was fine leaving him. I wouldn’t have minded going to Morocco because I do like the desert, and I wouldn’t have minded having a pot of tea in Darjeeling, but it wasn’t to be alas!

Q. And how was the challenge of shooting in such amazing locations?
Colin Farrell: The environment in this one… I didn’t have to deal with any heat or anything. It was just freezing cold in Bulgaria. When we arrived it was the middle of winter and it was dark about 3pm and snow over the whole city. Sofia was covered in two or three feet of snow. We started off shooting in the Gulag, which they replicated and built to extremely painful detail. It was beautiful as we were looking at it, as a piece of art, and something that was going to allow our story to begin to unfold. It was stunning looking but incredibly harsh at the time and incredibly foreboding and you just… as much as you could reach into your imagination and get a sense of what it would have been like to inhabit such a foreboding place, such a seemingly inhabitable place, for 10 or 25 years, you reach into your imagination, you take the cold that you feel on the day and you multiply it by infinity as much as you can.

The environment certainly did a lot of the work. Some of the walks that we went on in the snow… there was one particular shot that we did one day that was about 400 feet and it took us about 17 minutes! I think we ran out of about three rolls of film [laughs]. It was a bunch of actors who were really struggling and going: “Are we nearly there?” Praying to hear “cut”! So, it did a lot of the work for you and it smashed the line between reality and fiction. But I say that with absolute respect for the level of comfort that we still worked within. We still only worked 12 or 14 hour days and there was never a cup of tea too far away. But that was one of the moments where the line between reality and fiction was smashed and you literally were trying to get through what you’re trying to get through to the best of your ability without being conscious of anyone observing or anything. So, it was very helpful.

Q. How long did it take to apply and maintain your tattoos?
Colin Farrell: The tattoos… there’s an incredible significance to every single drop of ink that appears on any of these men’s bodies… much more so than a couple of drunk markings I’ve had on various nights in the past 15 years on my body! But each single one had to reference either a crime committed, an amount of time done, a particular standing one held within the criminal structure, so it was fun. Again, it was something that was very foreign to me, very exotic, as was the accent and the language. So, it was just another conduit into Valka. Peter gave me a couple of books that had a lot of the tattoos that were used, some photographs, some drawings. I went through them and designed Valka’s torso. It took about an hour and a half [to apply] at the start and by the end Mike had it down to about 25 minutes. He was pretty handy.

Q. We last see your character walking off into the distance. Did you ever wonder what might have happened to him afterwards?
Colin Farrell: Absolutely, yeah. It kept going through my head that he died in the first town that he made it to. He got stabbed in a tavern. It seemed that Russia was the safest place for him…

Q. Do you think he had a death wish after all that he went through?
Colin Farrell: Do I think he had a death wish? No, not at all! He certainly didn’t have a joy de vivre, if you know what I mean. The world of the labour camps, the world of the infrastructure of the criminal organisations, was something that made great sense to him, was something that he could exist within the confines of, or – as he would imagine it – the liberty of. It was the outside world that was the world that didn’t make sense to him. And that’s why I feel that when he walked off, the first town that he went to – which was probably back to the same town that they had just left, from where he had amassed that bag of goods – he probably might not have made it.

Q. What was the hardest scene to shoot for you, either emotionally or physically?
Colin Farrell: I don’t know scene-wise, but the thing I found the hardest was the inaction… or seeming inaction. You were always inaction walking, or sitting twirling the knife around. But it came to pass that each actor would have his moment, or his scene, every four or five days. It would be Jim’s turn, or Ed’s turn, and Valka would join in and say something that was more than a grunt. So, that was stuff we looked forward to. But we all had to be there at all times, of course, and the camera was constantly searching and looking into the group from behind, from the side, from the front… and there were various times you had nothing to do but walk.

But you had to stay focused and stay close to whatever you deemed were your character’s thoughts. It was a tricky thing, because I love to be active, I love to be involved and love to be expressing or attempting to suppress expression or whatever. So, it was an exercise in just being… or the patience of just being.

Read our interview with Ed Harris

Read our interview with Jim Sturgess

Read our interview with Peter Weir