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Colin Farrell unravels mystery of the missing woman and himself in neo-noir 'Sugar'

Colin Farrell patrols Los Angeles in style as private eye John Sugar in new series, <em>Sugar</em>.
Sugar/Apple TV+
Colin Farrell patrols Los Angeles in style as private eye John Sugar in new series, Sugar.

Updated April 13, 2024 at 2:21 PM ET

Colin Farrell has been in Hollywood long enough to know a few things. Like how to choose a role, what makes a character tick and even the city of Los Angeles itself. He navigates all that and more in the new series, Sugar on Apple TV+.

Farrell plays John Sugar, an LA private eye with a passion for classic cinema and a knack for violence, albeit reluctantly. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that like his character, "films have been a visual accompaniment and a psychological and emotional accompaniment" throughout his life. The series leads him on an investigation into a missing woman from Hollywood producer royalty that brings him close to the dark underside of the city and his own mysterious demons.

Colin Farrell spoke with Scott Simon on Weekend Edition Saturday about what makes Los Angeles an appealing setting, movies that play in his own head and and humbly having choice as an actor in Hollywood. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited transcript below.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Scott Simon: Why did you want to play John Sugar?

Colin Farrell: Initially because I heard it was shooting in Los Angeles (laughs) and that was the initial attraction, truly. I spent a lot of time, Scott, on the road and anywhere between 5 to 8 months of the year. And I have kids and so it gets a bit ... I feel a bit long in the tooth to be spending so much time away from home. So that was the initial attraction. And then when I read the material, I read the pilot and it became apparent to me pretty quick that not only was it being set in Los Angeles, but if you've seen the show, Los Angeles is very prominent. It's very much a character and very much what John Sugar, the character, projects his idealism about the world and about movies and and the kind of cultural importance of films through the lens of Los Angeles as a living, breathing, undulating city.

Help us understand what amounts to the art house cinema he has playing in his head, of classic film clips. And, inevitably, I wonder if as a kid growing up in Castleknock, Ireland, you used to play film clips in your head, too?

I did. They were a little bit more contemporary clips that I played in my head. They were a little bit more in the vein of the Back to the Futures and the E.T.s and the early Spielberg stuff: Jaws and Close Encounters. But films have, as music also is for many of us, films have been a a visual accompaniment and the psychological and emotional accompaniment for me through my life. So, you know, John Sugar, he has an innocence to him, a purity to him. And he leans into old films as kind of a reference for how the world works. And he just loves it as well. He's just charmed by the old world.

Colin Farrell teaches his new furry friend Wiley about the classics in <em>Sugar</em>.
/ Sugar/Apple TV+
Sugar/Apple TV+
Colin Farrell teaches his new furry friend Wiley about the classics in Sugar.

Look, he's not Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. John Sugar, in one 15-minute span, he speaks Japanese, Arabic and Spanish. He dresses in classy suits. He drinks hundred-dollar shots of whisky without blinking. And by the way, he says he's metabolically incapable of getting drunk. He throws around the Benjamins, as we say, and he's fighting some kind of health challenge. Is he the real mystery here?

Yeah, there's obviously, Scott, there's the two mysteries at play. There's the case that he is, you know, as often happens in narratives born of the genre that this show explores. There is a case at the center of the show that begins to get under the protagonist's skin. And it begins to become threateningly more and more and more personal to his well-being, to his mental well-being, his emotional well-being, and his physical life. And then there is this parallel mystery, which is who is this man and where does he come from? And why do the declarations he makes about not liking violence and not liking hurting people, but he's so proficient at it, apparently from the opening scene in the show, all those questions. He was both, when I read him, Scott, a really vague character in regards to the information that I had on his background and also very specific in regards to his proclivities and his abilities and his behaviors. So it was a bit of a mystery for me as well because when we started filming, we really only had the first two episodes that were really marked out and a lot of it was almost building a plane mid-flight.

What was it like to work with Fernando Meirelles? The great Brazilian director. I think City of God is probably still his best known film.

Did he do The Constant Gardener as well?

I believe he did, yes. One of my favorites films, too, yeah.

Did he do that? God, such a ... Yeah. Fernando Meirelles was amazing. Amazing. Conventional reason could say this story is set in LA, LA is a prominent character in the narrative, and we should have somebody who knows the city, and understands. ... We had the total opposite. Fernando has, through his experience as a filmmaker over the last 30 years, he's visited LA from time to time and had a couple of screenings and a few interviews. He's never lived in LA. He doesn't understand the city. I'm living in LA 25 years, and I don't understand the city, and I mean that as a compliment. But he came in with child's eyes and he was really, really curious. And he was really curious about the kind of chasm between those who have and those who don't and the absolute kind of decadence and affluence of certain parts of the city and the kind of more working class, hardboiled aspects of other parts of the city. And I just felt like I was on a journey of exploration with him. But within the structure that we had, it was as loose as it could possibly be. And Fernando was always saying, you know, he wanted it to feel like jazz, to feel as much like it was in the moment, as improvisational as it possibly could. And and it felt like that. So he was wonderful, man. He was wonderful, playful. Playful.

You've gone back and forth in much of your career between blockbusters and then artistic projects. Like maybe The Banshees of Inisherin, for which you were nominated for an Oscar. How do you decide what to do?

Depends, really. I have done through the years jobs that were predominantly, of course, for the money and to be able to provide and all that stuff. And I'm also fortunate enough, like a kind of fortune that is a very, very, very low percentile, which is just having a bit of choice. It's not like I can do anything I want. There's plenty of directors and scripts that go to other actors, of course, before they come to me, and it'll always be that way. But I have a really lovely little bit of choice as well. There are times where I have two or three things on the table, and that's kind of really uncommon. And it's something that is indefinable really, Scott. You read something and honest to God based on wherever you are on that day, the sleep you had last night, the relationships and how they're going in your life. Wherever you are in life, you'll read something and it might not on the surface seem like it's reflective of anything that you can recognize you're dealing with in the present. But something about it will either irk you or provoke you, or please you or make you uncertain or whatever it is. So it's that kind of thing, you know, it really is. And I just love doing different things.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michael Radcliffe