Colin Farrell On 'Dumbo' And Working His Dream Gig With Tim Burton [Set Visit Interview]

Colin Farrell is flying high. Well, maybe not as high as an elephant with giant ears, but pretty close — the Widows actor finally got to collaborate with one of his longtime favorite filmmakers, Tim Burton, for Dumbo, the live-action adaptation of the beloved 1941 animated film about a clumsy elephant that learns he has a special ability that turns him into a circus sensation. It's the perfect kind of fairy tale adventure that would attract Farrell, who as of late has shown a preference for offbeat mystical dramas both big and small.

"There's things I read over the years that are somewhat fantastical and supernatural and have kind of a fairy tale element to them," Farrell said in an interview from the set of Dumbo. "And I genuinely, when I heard [Tim] was doing this, was like 'Oh god, what a dream gig to do.'"

But Farrell's got his work cut out for him. The actor is set to play a brand new addition to Dumbo, which in the 1941 version rarely depicted any goodhearted humans. It's Farrell's job to play one of the few sympathetic human characters in Dumbo: Holt Farrier, a single father of two who has returned to his life at the circus after years at war have separated him from his family and have left him an amputee. But another burden for the Golden Globe nominee is that he's the new kid in Tim Burton's team of all-stars, with Burton regulars Michael Keaton, Danny Devito, and Eva Green rounding out the cast of the live-action fantasy.

"Yeah, it seems like Tim has his own little traveling circus of a kind going," Farrell said. "And it's just nice to be part of it."

In our visit to the set of Dumbo in September 2017, we sat down with Farrell to hear his thoughts on flying elephants, fantasy, and just what he thinks about 10-year-old Tim Burton's Halloween costume.

This interview was conducted as a roundtable with other assembled journalists.

What's your reaction when they came to you saying, "Tim Burton is making a live-action Dumbo movie"?

Honestly, "Please can I do it? Can I be any part of it?" Because I've been just a fan of Tim's work for the longest time. I think Edward Scissorhands was one of the first films I saw of his and it's still one of my favorite films of all time, probably. So yeah the idea of something that was as sweet and fantastical, almost otherworldly while being grounded in some recognizable world that we can relate to under the director-ship of him is kind of a dream. There's things I read over the years that are somewhat fantastical and supernatural and have kind of a fairy tale element to them. Some things I read that never got made, one script in particular never got made but was beautiful and had some elements of Beauty and the Beast to it, so I've always been looking for something of that ilk. And I genuinely, when I heard he was doing this, was like "Oh god, what a dream gig to do." And that's before I read the script. And when I read the script, it was so sweet. And Tim is really good at figuring out the balancing act of honoring the sweetness of the original story or the intent, or the kind of allegorical element of what a baby flying elephant represents, with kind of real-world emotional concerns of families and friendships and damages of war.

So were you surprised when you read the script and it wasn't quite as fantastical as you expected, because of its historical real-world elements?

I mean, you put a flying elephant in there and it can't be anything but really fantastical, you know what I mean? And just like when I say fantastical it doesn't have to be supernatural, it can just be the circus world that exists within. It's such a world of dreams and magic and performance and like [Holt Farrier] represents, the nomadic existence of what life would have been to be in a traveling circus. So I didn't feel like the fantastical element that I expected was diminished at all. And I come to work every day and I see all this s***, it's amazing, it really really is. Twenty years of doing this job, it's one of the greatest pleasures I've had to arrive on set every day and see the beauty of the craftsmanship. And sometimes you go and work on a film that's a dramatic piece and it's set very much in the real world, with very much real-world concerns that affect us all at various stages in our lives — sickness, love, loss, fear — whatever it may be. And then sometimes you go to work on things that are just so bewitching in how you see the imagination of some very talented, very imaginative people made manifest in a physical sense and that's what this is. You just see the imagination of the production designers, the imagination of [costume designer] Colleen Atwood, you see the imagination of Tim at every turn and it's extraordinary to be around.

Can you talk a bit about interacting with the CG elements of the film? We're told how much the movie's grounded but there's still a bit...

Yeah to be honest, it's all practical sets, you know? I mean they couldn't get their hands on a flying elephant, they couldn't seem to locate one of those, so you still look at the tennis ball as it flies through the tent. Which is fine. But I was talking to somebody and they said they were on the set of The Lion King. And there's no human characters in The Lion King. [Jon]Favreau is directing and he's so clever, he's so bright, and I'm sure the film will be mind-blowing and beautiful, but there's nothing on set. Nothing. Just the fucking cameraman, and just blue or green or whatever their color of choice is. And this set, as you can see is all practically built. The stage is like nothing I've ever seen. And I've been lucky enough in the last 20 years to have been on some extraordinary sets like Alexander. But I've never seen anything like [Dumbo's]. We haven't shot any exterior shots — it's all stage. But there'll be skies and there'll be sunrises and sunsets, birds flying, clouds, I'm sure. But I feel like I'm existing in a practical world and it's not asking me to imagine too many things that aren't there save that flying elephant.

How did working with Tim Burton differ from what you expected having watched his films?

Honestly I didn't expect anything. In the years there's been times when I expected things to work and they didn't work, and you learn over time that expectation is not really your ally. Hope is your ally. He's just really wonderful to work with. He's deeply kind, so invested — not just emotionally, but physically invested in the film. To watch him on the set and how engaged he is and how frenetic at time his energy can be, and how he moves, it's just a joy. He's really kind to everyone and I think any of the crew and cast would jump through hoops for him, I certainly would. He really has a passion for it, you know?

People can accuse other people of doing things for money if the scale of their work gets bigger, or the cameras on which they tell their stories get bigger, but I can just tell you from being around Tim Burton, he's not going to work if he's not really passionate. Whatever the paycheck says, if he's not really passionate about something and doesn't think it'll connect to an audience and have some emotional reaction from the audience, he doesn't want to do it. So it's lovely been around him and he's so, so into it. He loves it so much. And like any of the incredible directors I've worked with, it's something of a passion and frustration with them. You can see that level of care and that level of intention, and they have the ability to drive through that. I was just talking to Yorgos Lanthimos at TIFF last week, and I was saying, "Yorgos, the work almost destroys you." I don't know if he sleeps when he shoots, sometimes he's miserable. But Tim in a similar vein you can just tell how by how connected he is to the process of making it, he's not isolated from the cast or the crew at all, he's very engaged in every single element. He loves it deeply. One would hope that that equates to a film that will connect with audiences, but as I say, expectations.

Can you tell us about your character, any specific training you've done for it, maybe some horse work?

Very little, I've ridden horses for years in various films. I'm not a great horseman by any stretch of the imagination. But I'm all right. I did a little more on this because there are some stuff coming up in the end of the film, some sequences. I play a character who's one-half of a double act called the Stallion Stars, and it was me and my wife who did various roping tricks and mounting tricks. And my character Holt went off to fight in the war and was away for five years, and by the time he comes back, the two children who they had together had been raised by the circus while he's been away and his wife has died. So he comes back as a single father ill-equipped to deal with parenthood, ill-equipped to deal with the changes taking place in the circus and the industry of the performers. And like everyone, to greater and lesser degrees in the story — certainly the adults because as with all things that happen in life, the children seem to have a greater idea of who they are — he's just trying to get his feet on the Earth again.

Dumbo has some true Tim Burton all-stars, like Danny DeVito, and Michael Keaton, and Eva Green. What was that like? Do you hope to do more Tim Burton works?

I don't know man, but honestly he's a dream. I'd do anything with him, anything. As much as I wanted to work with before I met him, I'd love to work with him a second time. He's just the best really. Just to picture him as a kid in his Halloween costume... Have you seen that?

No...

There's a picture online, I don't know what age he is because he's hidden underneath his creation that he and his mother made. He must have been about 10, I think. I assume it was in Burbank where he was raised. And it's a prototype for the character in Nightmare Before Christmas, Jack Skellington. It's such a testament to what happens in childhood and seeing your imagination — whether it's given or is compelled to exist within — manifest later in life. It's so touching! That idea that 30 years later, that child is still trying to figure out stuff and creating a story that goes out to the world and affected so many people. But anyway, working with Danny Devito, loved Danny all my life — Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, and Taxi. And Michael Keaton from Batman and Beetlejuice. Yeah, it seems like Tim has his own little traveling circus of a kind going. And it's just nice to be part of it, man.

We know the broad strokes of your character, but can you tell us a little about what drives Holt?

Life is kind of broad strokes, you know, dotted with moments of specificity. It's just that. If trying to find out how to be a decent parent doesn't drive you when you have kids, you're fucked. It's just that: He's a dad of two young children that he loves, but he's been on the front lines for years. He's seen men dying to his left and to his right, and some horrific things, and he comes back to a world that he knew a certain way and that world is changed. His family is changed. The last time he was home he had a wife, who was probably much better at relating to the children as mothers so often are, I think that's changing slowly as we see now that fathers are more involved in their children's lives. But this is not that time. So he goes back to a life that he doesn't know, and he doesn't know himself in that world. He's had to adapt to an environment that was very violent and very different and very harsh, and maybe he's become a little cynical. But it's all treated very gently, we don't get into all his PTSD, it's not that kind of gig. But...

Didn't he physically change?

Oh yeah, yeah he lost an arm. Thanks for that. He lost an arm! Yeah, so even that, just the loss of a limb alone and the kind of awkwardness or embarrassment of that is something he carries with him. Obviously, being a horseman and being someone who was involved in roping, that was a part of his show. But then fucking Danny's character sold all my horses while I was away. Because the circus has been struggling, the world is changing. So I come back and my horses have been sold, my act is done, and obviously I was one-half of a two-act play and my wife has passed away, and I'm without an arm, so I'm half the man I used to be. But yeah, it's a struggle to try to figure out his place, but mostly it's a struggle to figure out his place with his children.

Would you refer to this as a remake, particularly because the human side of the film seems brand new?

Totally [new], yeah. I will say the lads did an incredible job, [producers Justin Springer and Ehren Kruger]. And obviously Tim was heavily involved in working the script and heavily modifying it. Yeah it's a completely new narrative, and the once central thing that holds through in both the original animation and this is the flying elephant and the story of believing in yourself and finding something inside you that allows yourself to become the best version of what you never thought you could be. And that we're all, regardless of the things that sometimes society says, being outcasts, they're the things that make us all individual, and special, and beautiful regardless of how crippling a certain thing may be or how polarizing a certain physical attribute may be.

They wrote a really gorgeous narrative, a really beautiful story that's really kind of archetypical. There's the shyster circus leader with a heart of gold played by Danny, then there's the evil, megalomaniacal owner of the really big fantastical circus that's swallowing up all the smaller circuses in American and he's very ambitious, and he's very rich, and that's Michael. Then there's the one-armed cowboy back from the war who's lost his wife, and that's me. Then there the two kids who are really bright and really free, and live in a place of liberation, but they also have their scars and also have their wounds. Then there's the seemingly cold-from-a-distance lady of the skies, who's French and climbs her way up in a male-dominated world. So there's all these beautiful archetypes that I think the majority of the audiences will be able to find some kind of relatability to at least one of the characters. They wrote a gorgeous, gorgeous story.