The union of the filmmaker Kogonada and the actor Colin Farrell might not have seemed obvious at first glance. Kogonada’s debut film, the excellent 2017 indie Columbus, is told with quiet remove—the camera is often placed quite a distance away from the lead actors (John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson). Farrell’s charisma can fill a screen, and some of his best performances (Tigerland, Minority Report, In Bruges) overflow with the kind of intense, improvisational energy that seems counter to Kogonada’s artfully composed style.
To hear Farrell tell it, that contrast is exactly why he relished the challenge of After Yang, the wonderful sci-fi film written and directed by Kogonada, which was released in theaters and on Showtime last week. Farrell plays Jake, a father dealing with the malfunction of his family’s robot, Yang (Justin H. Min), who was acquired to be a helper and sibling to Jake’s daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Though the film begins with Jake hurriedly trying to fix Yang to make his daughter happy, it soon turns into an odyssey through the robot’s hidden memories and feelings, essayed with care and sensitivity by Kogonada.
It’s a contemplative film that requires Farrell to strip away a lot of his natural charm, but the performance is one of the best the actor has ever given, and reminiscent of his haunted work in The New World and Miami Vice. He and Kogonada spoke with me about taking walks in the rain to discuss the ideas behind After Yang, the rigors of trying to keep your children happy, and how Farrell hunts for unique roles after all these years. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
David Sims: Tell me about the genesis of After Yang. How did you two link up?
Colin Farrell: I was told by the powers that be that there was a script coming my way for an intimate independent film. I hadn’t seen any of Kogonada’s video essays, and I hadn’t seen Columbus—I think it was criminally underseen—so I watched that one straight away and was blown away by it. It snuck up on me; I was rattled by the ending. The way he constructs his stories aesthetically, and the way the performance fills the frame, but also the way the spaces sit between the words that are spoken really allowed me to inhabit my own feelings and thoughts and prejudices. When I read the After Yang script, I had to stop on about page 40 or 50. I thought, I’m going to put the fucking kettle on and make myself a cup of tea here, because this is really moving stuff. Then I went back, and I finished it. There was no deliberation; I just really wanted to do it. Honest to God, it was a no-brainer.
Sims: Were you thinking of Colin when you wrote the script, Kogonada?
Kogonada: I don’t think I had the imagination to think that Colin would be interested. From Tigerland to In Bruges, he has a presence and a sincerity no matter what he’s in, large or small. I would have written it for him, if I thought I had that ability.
Sims: It’s a rarity among big stars, Colin—your eagerness to take a smaller part or film if that’s the role or story that’s interesting. The choices you make are democratic.
Farrell: In my own noggin, I’m not a big star. There are certain things I’ve learned over the last 20 years working in film. I don’t want to be too familiar or too comfortable. I’m still almost, if not fully, as confused a human being as I was as a teenager. The confusion just takes different forms; maybe I answer some questions, but others pop up. And it’s the same with acting for me. Honest to God, I have no idea what I’m doing half the time. But it’s really fun to do different things. I have no judgment for actors who seem to do more singular work, stuff that seems to be samey—I’m no better than or more worthy of any of that shit. But for me, I’m not curating a career or trying to be interesting; I just go where the wind blows. Sometimes you do it just for money, and sometimes you get spoiled.
Sims: Kogonada, your approach to storytelling is very specific and removed. Colin, when you watched Columbus, were you, as an actor, intrigued or worried by that approach?
Farrell: Nervous! John Cho’s a fantastic actor and so charismatic. But I looked at Columbus and I went, There’s a director who’s not interested, at least not purely, in charisma or pizzazz. K’s frames are beautiful and moving, by virtue of where he places the camera, but it’s not slick filmmaking, despite how concerned with the aesthetic he is. I thought, Jesus, there’s a director who’s really just going to want people to come in and be still, and who will allow us to be quiet. That was both incredibly exciting and somewhat unnerving. I was way more scared of doing After Yang than I was of doing, say, Total Recall. I knew I was going to end up asking questions of myself and being vulnerable in a way that not many films ask of you.
Kogonada: Colin’s like a judo master. I don’t think he comes into a film or a scene to impose himself in a certain way. He’s very aware of the energy of actors in a scene. He did that in Yorgos Lanthimos’s films, and his Terrence Malick film. He’s attentive to the environment.
Sims: I interviewed Lanthimos a few years ago and I remember him saying you understood his very unique perspective right away.
Farrell: I’ve been asked a couple times over the years, “As an actor, how do you like to work?” If I ever have a clearly defined answer to that, that’s probably when I should think about putting myself out to pasture. Some directors, such as Martin McDonagh, will want two, three weeks of rehearsal, and it gets pretty intense, and it’s an amazing process of discovery. And other directors, like Yorgos or K, will not want to do any rehearsal at all. And which do I like better? I couldn’t tell you. I love going off directors.
Sims: So what was the prep for After Yang?
Farrell: We had good chats, didn’t we? We had some dinner and coffee. We walked around Manhattan a little bit.
Kogonada: Yeah, in the rain.
Farrell: Yeah! That was a gorgeous day! We went to that artist-collective place. That was so beautiful and strange.
Kogonada: It was raining, and Colin was like, “Let’s walk.” But he didn’t need an umbrella. We were pretty soaked, but it was really lovely.
Farrell: I do get umbrellas, of course; it’s not like I don’t understand umbrellas. Not everyone wants to get wet, but for me, rain is such a beautiful thing.
Kogonada: Prep was mostly through the conversations that we had. We didn’t rehearse. I certainly trusted him, and there was an alignment of sensibility.
Sims: When you were writing After Yang, how did you go about depicting a realistic future that feels so natural?
Kogonada: I imagined a future that was neither utopian nor dystopian, that had been sort of humbled by an environmental catastrophe, that no longer could deny that things weren’t sustainable without harmony with nature. I didn’t want to see screens and gadgets; I wanted to conceive of a future that was more organic.
Sims: Colin, you’ve done a lot of sci-fi over the years. Is that a genre you’re drawn to?
Farrell: I was just thinking of Minority Report, when Kogonada was mentioning all the bells and whistles of technology. There are existential questions being asked in that film as well, of course, but After Yang was more pared down. I was very aware while doing Minority Report that I had to proactively, physically engage with the technology. Here, the Yang character is a manifestation of advanced technology, but I didn’t feel any sci-fi energy in this film at all. Justin’s performance is so beautiful—it’s just odd enough, it’s just delicately awkward enough, but it’s also incredibly human.
Sims: Your character’s relationship to Yang is interesting because it’s touched with awkwardness when the two of them are talking. We can see your character trying to figure out the extent to which he’s talking to a person or not.
Farrell: I think Jake’s journey back to his daughter and his wife and himself is articulated by that acceptance of the affection he had for Yang, which he didn’t even realize he had.
Sims: They start somewhat estranged, but the emotional distance is bridged.
Farrell: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a scene in a car in which my character says to Yang, after he’s malfunctioned, “You’ll be all right.” It’s a small moment, but for Jake to even consider him like that speaks to the growing intimacy between them. His desire to get Yang fixed goes from the necessity to placate and take care of his daughter to Yang being someone he actually misses. Whose existence he actually sees and appreciates.
Sims: I’m a fairly new parent—
Farrell: Good luck! How old?
Sims: She’s almost a year old, so she’s pretty small.
Farrell: (Laughs.) They grow, they grow. Keep watering her and making sure she gets sunlight.
Sims: I felt this tension over the fact that your daughter in the film is so upset, and I understood that urgency to please her, to fix this problem for her as quickly as possible.
Farrell: I don’t mean for this to be glib, but I kind of understand parents not wanting to be around, parents leaving. Going to work, or having affairs, or getting out of Dodge, and not turning up and doing the gig. Being a parent, in my experience, you’re reminded almost daily that you cannot make life instantly better for your children. It’s one of the most painful things in the world, knowing that you cannot create a safe, happy, peaceful world for your child; you just can’t.
Sims: I’m terrible with that! I get upset immediately if she’s upset! The alarm bells start going off.
Farrell: I know! It’s a gut-wrenching exercise in powerlessness at its extreme, because you love them so much and you want so much for them. His daughter’s emotional breakdown is hard for Jake to deal with. As grown-ups, it’s not like we arrive at the philosopher’s stone and get the answer on how to live a connected and balanced life. We don’t ever really come to a place where we can punctuate those concerns. We’re still dealing with our childhood as adults, aren’t we?
Sims: I have to ask about the opening dance number. More films could benefit from dancing, the surge of energy. How much effort did that take?
Kogonada: A lot from the actors and choreographers. In the writing process, it did come kind of organically. Yasujirō Ozu is a big influence on me, and I’ve always loved the beginning of Early Summer, where we see this multigenerational family in sync. He spends about 15 minutes just watching them function, doing breakfast, passing things to each other, and then it all sort of dissolves. I’m sure that was in my brain: seeing families in sync. The choreographer put it in a lovely way: It’s like a pop of confetti at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the film is the confetti falling. There’s also a martial-arts film I saw as a kid at home on a Saturday called The Kid With the Golden Arm. And it had a title sequence in which every gang member in these metallic suits showed their specialty. It’s an incredible credits sequence that’s always stayed with me.
Farrell: We went out to some dance studio in Brooklyn, five, six, seven times. It was loads of fun, it was physical, you got a good workout. And it was a good way for us all to get out of our heads, right at the start of the film.
Kogonada: I want to touch on what you two said, since we’re all parents—you feel more exposed and vulnerable than ever when you become a parent. Suddenly, you start crying about everything. Either you embrace that and allow it to become a part of you or you run away from it.
Farrell: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Kogonada: I think people sometimes want to frame this film as depicting the father as the hero, because he’s out to save Yang. But really the father is resisting that emotional exposure. He’s not a savior at all—the process of saving Yang is saving him.
Sims: So much of the climactic action in this film is Jake just being made to look at and understand Yang’s memories and his personhood. Colin, is it tough to do a film in which a lot of the cathartic stuff has you stationary—looking, sitting, watching—and you don’t get to do any transformative action?
Farrell: Contemplating it was terrifying. But the experience of it was beautiful. There wasn’t any loudness or movement or action scenes or witty repartee to get lost in and lean into. Instead, there was something so nurturing about the stillness and silence on the set. We had great laughs, at times. But it was very calm, always. And ultimately it became quite burdensome to attempt to play anything heroic. Every day, I think, “Jesus, I’m the furthest thing from a fucking hero.” I do accept and acknowledge the presence of heroism on the globe, but when it comes to heroism presented on film, this lacks that, totally. It was very liberating to not have that weight of Jake “doing the right thing.” The film’s not about him being a hero. It’s literally just about him returning to his family. Jake drops the ball. We all drop the ball as parents. It’s about how long you’re going to keep the ball on the floor.