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Colin Farrell’s wild ride

This is how rumors get started: Colin Farrell was on French TV promoting Total Recall, in which he plays a man who discovers his wife (Kate Beckinsale) is an agent assigned to kill him.

Beckinsale happens to be married to Len Wiseman, who directed Total Recall. When asked if it was uncomfortable having to kiss an actress and then later hit her, Farrell replied “Kissing her is much more uncomfortable.”

“And then the interviewer was all shocked and goes ‘ Are you saying it’s more comfortable to hit a woman?’” Farrell recalls, laughing.

Fortunately, Farrell, 36, has had plenty of experience defusing — and surviving — media scandals. “I very calmly explained that in films, you don’t actually hit each other,” he says. “But you do kiss each other! Kate hitting me and me hitting her wasn’t so bad. But locking lips with the woman? While her husband is standing just a few feet away? It was a bit funky. There’s no lying that wasn’t a bit funky.”

Total Recall, which opens Friday, marks Farrell’s return to the blockbuster arena, his first starring role in a big Hollywood production since Miami Vice. That movie came out in 2006, the same year a sex tape featuring Farrell and a Playboy model hit the Internet rounds — just as the actor completed a stint in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse.

Instead of retreating into career-rebuild mode after the avalanche of bad publicity, Farrell kept working. Since Miami Vice, the actor has appeared in 11 movies, sometimes in memorable supporting roles ( Horrible Bosses, in which he sported the world’s worst comb-over, or Crazy Heart, in which he served as a humane foil for Jeff Bridges). Other films he made for the opportunity to work with a revered director (Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, Neil Jordan’s Ondine).

But the actor says he never made a concrete decision to stay away from big-budget movies. Instead, big-budget Hollywood was avoiding him.

“There weren’t as many offers for huge films as there used to be, because I had a couple of big films [ The New World, Alexander, Miami Vice] that didn’t perform well at the box office,” Farrell says. “And then the offers that did come in, I didn’t like.

“Look, in an ideal world, which we all strive to live in even though none of us ever will, I would do a different variety of things in terms of scale and genre, because it’s just really fun. But when you make a movie that nobody goes to see, you feel like ‘ Ugh.’ Because you’re not really making them for yourself. Movies aren’t an act of altruism where you’re being generous by giving some great gift to the world! You’re making stories that are meant to be shared.

“I started my career very young, and for years I went around thinking ‘ I don’t care if anyone likes it!’ That’s absolute horses--t. I’ve come to understand that I do care. I don’t live or die by it. But every time you walk onto a set, you kind of want people to go and see your movie. And if they do go — I don’t want to get greedy here! — you want them to like it, too.”

Director Wiseman says he offered the film’s starring role to Farrell because the actor has “a very rare combination of someone who comes across very vulnerable and very dangerous at the same time. The characters in this movie are playing head games with each other all the time. So you need an actor who can play both of those notes. What surprised me about Colin is how open and real he is. There are plenty of actors who have built a barrier around themselves, because they’re so used to playing a different persona in public. But you talk to Colin for an hour, and you feel like you’ve known him for years.”

That open-book approach to life initially led to trouble. Farrell was 24 when he starred in Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland, a gritty Vietnam War drama that earned him critical respect. But it also brought instant celebrity and the attention of the tabloid media, who couldn’t get enough of the brash young actor’s antics, such as the time he strode into a strip club in full view of paparazzi during the Toronto International Film Festival, almost as if he were daring the press.

“Shock! Horror! A 24-year-old actor likes seeing naked women!” he jokes of the incident. “At the time, it was mad. I was so young and honest to God, it felt like Hollywood had given me the keys to the city. There’s an element of fear in Hollywood. People are always worrying they’re going to miss the boat on the next cool thing, so they take chances they wouldn’t normally take. To be on the inside of that was insane. I was so suspicious of this idea of fame, of having to manner myself in a certain way, of tailoring my behavior. So I did everything I could to show that I didn’t give a f--- about any of the establishments that were in place. I did that for a while. And then that got really f-----g tiring! You run out of steam, and you become your own argument. I made some significant changes in my life, and I’m glad I did. I’m having more fun now. It’s not as loud! But it really is more fun in a weird way.”

Today, Farrell does seem happy and content, even if he sounds a bit cautious when asking your opinion of Total Recall (“I haven’t seen it yet,” he confessed during a promotional stop in Miami in July). He is fit enough to be the current cover boy of Men’s Health, and he has already completed several eagerly awaited films, including Seven Psychopaths, which reunites him with his In Bruges director Martin McDonagh, and Dead Man Down, a crime thriller co-starring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace.

But the actor doesn’t refer to this current phase in his career as a rebirth or second wind. For Farrell, all the ups and downs are part of the same long, exhilarating ride.

“I don’t really like the idea that hardship and pain are the only real things, and good, superficial, bright, shiny times are bull---t,” he says. “That idea doesn’t suit me. I prefer to respect both — the light and the dark. I’ll have 30 or 40 guests at movie premieres. My uncles and my aunties will fly over from Dublin, spend the day at Universal Studios and get sunburned, and then they’d arrive to the red carpet. I’ll see my uncle standing behind me on Entertainment Tonight sometimes! That’s one way for me to break through the illusion of it all and make this stuff seem real.”