I’ve had the idea in my head for a while,” admits writer-director Neil Jordan of the spark that birthed his latest feature, the Colin Farrell-starrer Ondine. “I just never sat down to write it, really.”

Then, in a seemingly incongruous turn of events, the Writers’ Strike hit in 2007, halting the studio project Jordan was working on and giving the Dubliner (not a member of the striking guild) a chance to write his script, based on the single image of a fisherman pulling up his net and discovering he has caught a woman.

“Whenever an idea is something that’s on your mind, it kind of stays with you,” said Jordan. “You don’t know why this is hanging around your imagination—you have to explore it.”

The result is Ondine, a patchwork of mythology and fantasy with a hard line of blue-collar realism pumping through it. Farrell plays Syracuse, a low-luck fisherman in a small Irish town. Even though he has put his hard-drinking, debauchery-laden days behind him, the few dozen residents of the Mayberry-esque village in which he lives still call him by his old nickname: Circus.

Once he inexplicably pulls up Ondine (played with lyrical grace by Alicja Bachleda) in the film’s first scene, though, his luck and outlook begin to improve. Seeming to cut through the murkiness of his latest haul is Syracuse’s daughter, Annie (Alison Barry in her first-ever role), whose dutiful research leads her to conclude that Ondine—the name itself a nod to European mythology—is a selkie, or a fictional beast that can shed its seal skin to become human.

Despite the fantastical subject matter, the entire flick is kept grounded by acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (known for his work with Wong Kar-wai, including In the Mood for Love, for which he won a Technical Grand Prize at Cannes), who infuses Ondine with equal parts realism and possibility.

While Jordan populates his small fishing town with plenty of memorably three-dimensional characters—most notably the priest (played by Jordan regular Stephen Rea) who Syracuse uses as a makeshift AA counselor—it is Farrell who is quietly peacocking here, continuing his recent career renaissance in impressive fashion.

Farrell deftly navigates around his many talented co-stars, letting them take over when appropriate. But he cleverly picks his spots, subtly showing off the acting skills he’s been so keen on reminding audiences of in recent years, including with his recent Golden Globe-winning turn in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges.

Andrew Gnerre, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Colin, what was your first step in preparing for this role?
Colin Farrell (CF):
To be honest with you, the dialect was something that was going to either polarize me from this character or be an avenue into him. Even though I’m Irish and was playing Irish, obviously there are many different dialects and vernaculars in that country, as small as it is. The West Cork dialect is different than Cork City and very, very different than Dublin. So that was something that I wanted to feel comfortable with.

I went down there a few weeks before we started filming. I spent a little bit of time down in Castletown about 10 years ago when I did a four-part miniseries [called “Falling for a Dancer”], where I was playing someone from the same area. Just remembering what I did with the accent at the time, through lack of experience and the lack of a dialect coach, I did a very modest, kind of fearful attempt at sounding like someone from that part of the world. I decided that if I was going to fail, I was going to fail hard.

MM: So you went out there on your own?
I went there three weeks before; myself and Neil, and Alicja and Alison were due to rehearse anyway. I spent a lot of time in the water with a man named Val McCarthy, who has been a fisherman in Castletown for 25 years, so we literally just went out on the water every day.

MM: Neil, do you like to do a lot of rehearsal in general?
Neil Jordan (NJ):
I do about two to three days of rehearsals, generally, but I don’t like to rehearse things too much. I prefer to rehearse things as we’re laying out the camera and the tracks. It’s better. As a writer, quite selfishly, I use rehearsal as a time to change the script.

MM: What sort of conversations did you and Colin have about his character, Syracuse?
Well the whole conversation on this was about what’s real and what’s not: To what extent he believes what his daughter is telling him, to what extent he’s convinced by it, to what extent his battles with alcoholism influence the way he looks at the world in general. Colin’s point was that he was somebody who needs to believe in the fairy tale. He needs to believe in something as sweet and as innocent and as simple that, really. He loved the character and he gave him this dimension that I found quite extraordinary. I mean, Colin is one of the best actors around. I had never worked with him before but I’d love to work with him again. It’s very rare that you find an actor who can, through the physical engagement with the part, find the character. There was very little psychological and motivational conversation between us.
CF: At its least, it was heavenly and honed, what Neil wrote; it really was there, either in the lines or between them. I was given a very clear picture from page one… He seemed to have a heightened understanding of who he was, where he’d come from, what he had been and what he found himself in at the moment, you know?

MM: That seems like something you’d be able to connect with.
You always want some kind of element of truth that you can draw on to play the character, whether it’s based on experience or belief or ideology or whatever it might be. You want some personal avenue. Then the rest is imagination. Some actors would agree that, in a film, you can feel like you’re pushing the film into being every day—that you’re corralling yourself, you’re helping others corral themselves, you’re organizing your move in the story. And other times, the story begins to let go of itself and you feel like you’re being pulled along with it. That’s the case with Ondine. In the second week, it began to take on a life of its own; we felt we were at the whim of the eternal film page every day. It was a beautiful place for us to find ourselves—both metaphorically and geographically.

MM: Neil was saying he essentially wrote the script for those locations, so everything was already there. Was that something you could feel when you arrived there?
Neil knows that part of the world very well. He’s had a home there for maybe 10 or 15 years and it did feel very contained; it really felt like our world was the only world that was existing for that eight or 10 weeks. We’d shoot a scene here and then we’d pick up the camera and we’d move down the road and shoot a scene there. And the whole community was a part of it; every single shop owner and pub owner and student—everyone was a part of it. Everyone was either an extra or they were catering or they were offering us somewhere to sleep. It was a really lovely collective.

MM: You guys essentially went out and made this small, independent, almost student-like film.
It kind of felt like that. I didn’t feel any of the worries or pressures that accompany the bigger films. It really did feel like it was a play that was unfolding itself. Kind of like “for one night only,” over 10 weeks.
NJ: I just wanted to do something very simple with the camera and the acting and the landscape really, without any effects whatsoever… I wanted to keep it that simple and I’m very happy because I think we did keep it that simple.

MM: Colin, what kind of director do you like when you’re on set?
I love direction; I love playing. The more I’ve had the chance to do this thing, the more I’ve come around to the belief that if you have an understanding of whoever it is you’re portraying and if you have reached some point beneath the skin of a character and you understand the emotional and intellectual cadence of the character that you can do 10 takes and each take can be quite different and yet remain true. You’re just informed by a different mood or a different kind of physicality of the same mood.

I like to work in tandem with a director. What was great with Neil was that we didn’t sit down and beat out pages and pages of back story; I think Neil knew that was something I kind of take on myself. But certainly on the set, in between takes, there would be back and forth, ‘What about this?’ and ‘What about that?’ The whole thing is intended to be a creative process and the creativity is beautifully represented by the relationship between the actor and the director.

MM: Neil, how does your directing change working with children like Alison Barry?
It doesn’t at all, really. The main thing I try to find is somebody who has never acted before—someone who immediately inhabits the part. If you manage to find that, you’ve gotten lucky.

MM: Almost any time you watch a good child performance, it’s not acting really.
It’s not really acting, no. And if you get that kind of performance, it often discomforts the other actors, because people spend their entire lives trying to learn that absence of technique. You need a generous person to play beside them and, thankfully, Colin was so secure in his character and in himself, he played it very well.

MM: Colin, how was it working with her?
It was lovely. It was really easy. Anytime you get to experience—through something you do yourself or in the proximity of someone else—a lack of habituated manner, it’s a really gorgeous thing; it’s very liberating. I experienced a lot of that by being close to her and watching her very closely in the scenes we did together.

MM: It’s great to hear you say that.
Neil drew my attention to something that said I was “generous” because I let her control those scenes or I let her upstage me or something along those lines. I didn’t let anything happen! (laughs) I had no choice! It was literally just sharing space with someone. She also seemed to lack the ambition that you sometimes find in people… the aggressive elements that sometimes accompany ambition.

MM: I know you’ve done some producing recently, but do you have any interest in directing at all?
I’ve thought about it, yeah. I’m still kind of bewitched by the whole acting process and it still is a very mercurial notion to me, so I’m kind of good at the moment. But I would love to at some stage—when I grow up, maybe. (laughs)

MM: Have the past few years of your career felt different to you? Because I think a lot of moviegoers can see a transition.
Yeah, sure it has. It’s felt different because it’s been informed by various things in my personal life. Also, on a more blunt level, the scale of the films I have done has been smaller, both the budgets and as far as the intimacy of the story and detail of the characters that have been drawn up by me and the writers. It wasn’t really as conscious a choice as it probably seems from the outside to step away from bigger pictures; it was just how I responded to an ilk of work that, as I said, seemed smaller in many aspects.
NJ: It happens in Hollywood; people are snatched up by big movies and you forget that they’re really good actors. They’re so exposed that you don’t see the acting—there are too many explosions going on around them.
CF: (laughs) It’s hard to compete with a couple thousand pounds of TNT. MM