Penguin actor Colin Farrell on becoming The Batman villain: “Its dressing up on steroids”

The Batman brings the villain Penguin back to the big screen – but you may have a hard time working out who’s playing the character. Despite the grotesque outer appearance, that’s actually the certifiably slim Colin Farrell underneath a whole lot of make-up. In fact, the actor spent four hours a day getting into the skin of Penguin, while the initial tests took eight hours to get the look right.

Speaking to Total Film in anticipation of The Batman, Farrell walked us through getting into the character. Turns out, the first discussions he had with director Matt Reeves were about the character’s psychology, with the look coming much later.

“Every discussion until I saw what Mike Marino, the makeup artist, had designed, was considering the character’s psychology and where he was at this stage of his criminal career. None of it was about inhabiting this character that ended up being in the film,” he says. 

Those first conversations were very much about how this version of Penguin had not “fully embodied the archetypical power” classically seen in the comic books. Instead, Penguin’s a mid-tier mafia member, running a club but still with a boss, John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, above him. Farrell worked on the character’s voice with a dialect coach, and the groundwork was laid. “I knew where I was going with that,” he says, “but I wasn’t fully comfortable until I saw the makeup. When I saw the makeup, it just all became really, really clear.”

“I was somewhat bigger when I met Matt,” he continues, “and he liked the weight that I had on for a TV series called The Northwater. I played a whaler and I put on quite a bit of weight. And Matt was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I love it. I think that’s Oz!’ And I was like, ‘Nah, man, let’s have a thin Oz because I’m not feeling great now, I have to lose this weight. There’s no way I was keeping it on, man.'”

The Batman

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

Luckily, the magic of the movies – and makeup artist Mike Marino – meant that Farrell could lose the weight and still look chunkier. He first set eyes on the final Penguin design in Reeves’ London office. “He got his computer and opened the fucking thing and he showed me the face on a bust that Marino had cut into, and it was still clay, still brown, and wasn’t coloured at all,” Farrell says. “And I just looked and thought, ‘That’s going to be me?’ That was the first time that I knew that I was going to be totally submerged beneath poundage of makeup.”

The first makeup test was out in Burbank, California. “It took about six or eight hours, and it was about 12 people,” Farrell explains. “Someone was there that had molded the teeth. Someone was there that had done the hair. Mike and his team were there, three or four of them were applying different pieces because it’s six or eight different individual prosthetic pieces. And once it all went on, honest to God, it overtook me, as I think it would most people. I started moving and talking and gesticulating with my hands and it felt like being a kid in the sandbox, man.”

Farrell went on to have a great time on set. “I have not had this much unbridled fun with something,” he says. “It was such a blast, man. I felt somewhat untouchable in it. You get such licence to have absolute freedom of motion and expression and articulation of thought and feeling. It was really, really cool. I had no idea what I was going to do without that makeup. And then when I saw the makeup, everything was clear, the way the character moved the way he sounded. 

“There’s a sense of history when you look at that face of Oz’s. It’s so caught up and so pockmarked, you almost pity him. I mean, it’s quite scary looking, and it’s quite an imposing character, but there’s also something that’s almost sympathetic to it as well, which is part of Mike Marino’s genius. So, as far as I’m concerned, I can’t claim full ownership of this character. If I get good reviews, I will. If I get shite reviews, I’ll blame the makeup artist. I’ll be nowhere to be found.”

The whole experience was, Farrell says, a pleasure as an actor: “There can be days on a set if you’re doing heavy material and it can be quite intense. And you can find yourself, as an actor sometimes, it can be quite upsetting or it can stay with you. Sometimes it can be hard to shake off. But essentially, you are playing dress-up, you are assuming the energy and the behaviors of someone else to tell a story. This was that on steroids.”

See Farrell’s transformation in The Batman when it arrives in cinemas on March 4. For more from the movie’s cast, check out our interviews with Andy SerkisPaul Dano, and Jeffrey Wright, as well as director Matt Reeves.

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