In his latest film, The Way Back, Colin Farrell plays a Russian criminal who escapes from a Siberian Gulag during the Second World War. Inspired by a true story, the film is director Peter Weir’s first since Master and Commander in 2003.

Here Farrell talks about criminal tattoos, practising patience, and the challenges of filming in freezing conditions.

Q: What was the appeal of playing Valka?

Farrell: I’d probably say the most exciting prospect of working on the film was to work with Peter [Weir].I’d been a big fan of his work for years.

Then reading the script I saw Valka as a big stretch, someone incredibly disparate to anything that I’d approached before. I had no relationship to that time in history or to that country. So I knew it would be a journey of discovery, and that’s what it proved to be.

Valka was, to this day, one of my least favourite characters to play. I found him very sad… a very lonely fella… somebody who is at once a victim of and a huge proponent of the system which shaped him. I found that really interesting.

Q: What challenges did you face making the film?

Farrell: In terms of the environment, it was the freezing cold in Bulgaria. We arrived there in the middle of winter. It was dark by 3pm. There were snow blizzards through the whole city. Sofia was covered in two or three feet of snow when we got there.

And we started off shooting in the Gulag which they replicated to extremely painful detail. The camp was beautiful as a piece of art, and something that was going to allow the story to begin to unfold, but it was incredibly harsh at the time, and incredibly foreboding.

As much as you can, you reach into your imagination and get a sense of what it would have been like to inhabit such a foreboding place, such a seemingly inhospitable place for so long – for 10 years, 25 years. You take the cold that you feel on the day, and multiply it by infinity as much as you can.

The environment certainly did a lot of the work, for example, some of the walks we went on in the snow. There was one particular shot we did that was about 400 feet, and we ran through three rolls of film because it took us 17 minutes to get there.

It was a bunch of actors really struggling, and going ‘are we nearly there?’ and praying to hear ‘cut’! It did a lot of the work for you… it smashed the line between reality and fiction in moments, and I say that with absolute respect for the level of comfort that we still worked with. We still worked only 12 or 14 hour days, there was never a cup of tea too far away from where we were working.

But there were moments when the line between fiction and reality was smashed and that was one of the moments where you literally are trying to get through what you’re trying to get through to the best of your ability, without being conscious of anyone observing or anything. So, it was very humbling.

Q: Were you tempted to get any of the tattoos for real?

Farrell: There’s an incredible significance to every single drop of ink that appears on these men’s bodies. Much more so than the couple of drunk markings I’ve had on various nights in the last 15 years!

Each single tattoo referenced a crime committed, an amount of time done, or a particular status one held in the criminal structure. So it was something that was very foreign to me, it was very exotic, as was the accent and the language. It was just another conduit into Valka.

Peter gave me a couple of books that had a lot of the tattoos that we used in them. I went through them all and designed Valka’s torso. At the start it took about an hour and a half [to apply] and by the end Mike had it down to about 25 minutes. It was pretty handy.

Q: In the film Valka decides to leave the other escapees before they reach their final destination. What do you think would have become of him?

Farrell: It kept coming to me that he died in the first town he made it to, that he got stabbed in a tavern. I don’t know if there were any towns between that particular line of the border but it seemed that Russia was the safest place for him, somehow.

Q: After all he went through do you think he had a death wish?

Farrell: No, not at all. He certainly didn’t have a joie de vivre, if you know what I mean! Certainly the world of the Gulag, the world of the labour camps, the infrastructure of the criminal organisation he operated in was something that made great sense to him. It was something he could exist within the confines of or, as he would imagine, it the liberty of. The outside world was the world that didn’t make sense to him. That’s why I think when he walked off he went to the first town he found, maybe even the same town they’d just left. He probably didn’t make it.

Q: What was the hardest scene to film, either emotionally or physically?

Farrell: I don’t know about scene-wise, but the thing I found hardest was the inaction, or seeming inaction. You’re always in action walking or even sitting, whatever it might be. But it came to pass that each actor would have his moment or his scene every four of five days.

So it was Gustaf Skarsgard’s turn as Voss, or Ed Harris’s turn as Mr Smith, or Valka chiming in and saying something that was more than a grunt. That was the kind of stuff you looked forward to, but we all had to be there at all times and the camera was constantly searching, looking into the group from behind, from the side, from the front, and there were days on end where you had nothing to do but walk and breathe.

To stay focused and close to whatever you deemed were your character’s thoughts was the trickiest thing because I personally love to be active, I love to be involved, I love to be expressing or attempting to suppress expression or whatever it may be. So as an exercise in just being, the patience of just being, it was interesting.

By Jan Gilbert, Freelance Film Journalist