Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan Interview
Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan are two of the leading lights of the Irish acting scene with starring roles in numerous Hollywood blockbusters and British award winners between them. Recently in London to talk about the arduous task of filming The Way Back, which tells the story of several escapees from a Russian Gulag in 1940, they spoke about the challenges of working on such a film.
Colin, was there a good deal you could research about your character, Valka?
Colin Farrell (CF): Saoirse was already cast so I didn’t get to go for my favourite part. I met Peter [Weir] subsequent to reading the script. And speaking for myself and the majority of us, I would probably say the most exciting prospect of working on the film was to work with Peter. I’d been a big fan of his work for years, and then reading the script I saw Valka as just a big stretch, it was just something that was incredibly disparate to anything that I had approached before. I had no relationship to that time in history or to that country. So I knew it would be a journey of discovery, and that’s what it proved to be.
Valka was, I think to this day, one of my least favourite characters to play. I found him very sad. A very lonely fella. Somebody who is at once a victim of and a huge proponent of the system which formed him, which shaped him. I found that really interesting.
What process did you have to go through to portray your characters in these circumstances? Did you have to lose weight?
Saoirse Ronan (SR): To be honest I didn’t really go on a diet or do any of those things, we didn’t really talk about doing anything like that, it wasn’t anything that was very important for me. I think Irena could have looked after herself when it came to food. I’m sure when she came across the boys she was starting to get a little bit desperate, but I didn’t feel like it was something I needed to do.
Was that the same for you Colin, and were you sad to leave this close knit unit early?
CF: I was fairly ready to be honest with you, by that stage. I was kind of ready to kick Valka to the kerb. He was used to it, after a lifetime of being kicked to the kerb. It felt like a kind of dour truth of the character, he felt from the outside looking in, like he didn’t 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. Nor was he mournful, nor was he melancholy as a result of that. It was a very strange vibe.
It was fine leaving them, I wouldn’t have minded going to Morocco, because I do like the desert, and I’ve been to Morocco before [to film]. And I wouldn’t have minded having a pot of tea in Darjeeling, but it wasn’t to be, alas.
What challenges did you face on the film?
CF: It was freezing cold in Bulgaria. We arrived there in the middle of winter, it was dark by three o’clock in the afternoon, there was snow blizzards through the whole city, Sofia was covered in two or three feet of snow when we got there. And we started off shooting in the Gulag, which they replicated to extremely painful detail. This beautiful – as a piece of art, and something that was going to allow the story to begin to unfold – camp, that was just incredibly harsh at the time, and incredibly foreboding. As much as you can reach into your imagination and get a sense of what it would have been like to inhabit such a foreboding place, such a seemingly inhospitable place for so long you take the cold that you feel on the day, and multiply it by infinity.
The environment certainly did a lot of work, some of the walks that we went on in the snow – there was one particular shot that we did one day, it was about 400 feet, and we ran out of about three rolls of film because it took us 17 minutes to get there. A bunch of actors really struggling, and going ‘Are we nearly there?’ and praying to hear ‘Cut!’ You know?
It did a lot of work for you, it smashed the line between reality and fiction in moments, and I say that with absolute respect for the level of comfort that we still worked with. We still worked only 12 or 14 hour days, there was never a cup of tea too far away from where we were working. And that was one of the moments where you literally are 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, yeah, it was very humbling.
Were you tempted to get any of the tattoos for real?
CF: I had to resist the deep urge to get Stalin engraved on my chest. 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 the couple of drunk markings I have of various nights in the last 15 years. Each single tattoo referenced a crime committed, an amount of time done, a particular status one held in the criminal structure. So it was something that was very foreign to me, it was very exotic, as was the accent and the language, 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, reams, hundreds of tattoos. I went and kind of just designed Valka’s torso. At the start it took about an hour and a half [to apply] and by the end Mike had it down to about 25 minutes. It was pretty handy.
What was the hardest scene to film for you, either emotionally or physically?
SR: I got food poisoning near the end of my shoot. I just felt awful. It was maybe 45 degrees or something like that. It was actually a really nice shot, I don’t know whether it’s in there but I’m sleepwalking and Gustaf, who plays Voss in the film, is guiding me along so I’m listening to his footsteps. So I had to keep my eyes closed and try and figure out where I was and walk forward and try not to bump into the camera or anything. And I had this just horrific pain in my stomach the whole day. So that was the toughest for me, but it was still great, still a great shoot besides.
CF: I don’t know about scene wise, but the thing I found hardest was the inaction. Or seeming inaction. You’re always in action walking or even sitting, whatever it might be. But it came to pass that each actor would have his moment or his scene every four of five days. So it was Gustaf’s turn as Voss, or Ed’s turn as Mr Smith, or Valka chiming in and saying something that was more than a grunt.
That was the kind of stuff you looked forward to, but we all had to be there at all times and the camera was constantly searching, and the camera was just looking into the group from behind, from the side, from the front, and there were days on end where you had nothing to do but walk and breathe. To stay focussed and stay close to whatever you deemed was your character’s gait, your character’s thoughts, where your thoughts went was the trickiest thing because I personally love to be active, I love to be involved, I love to be expressing or attempting to suppress expression or whatever it may be. So actually as an exercise in just being, the patience of just being, was interesting.