March 03, 2003 12:00 PM

There’s Colin Farrell, making out with Britney Spears,, oblivious to the cameras. There’s Farrell on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, cussing up a storm, oblivious to the censors. In a town flooded with Evian, he drinks heavily, smokes copiously and unabashedly admits his passion for casual sex. Even Ben Affleck is impressed: “Colin’s who I want to be reincarnated as. He’s having so much fun.”

That’s Farrell. An Irish rascal who roared onscreen in 2000’s little-seen Tigerland and stole eyeballs from Tom Cruise in last summer’s Minority Report, he’s now starring as Affleck’s nemesis in Daredevil, his second No. 1 movie of 2003, following The Recruit, a CIA thriller with Al Pacino. (He also received $8 million to star with Samuel L. Jackson in the upcoming S.W.A.T.) Why are Spears—who was spotted kissing Farrell after The Recruit premiere last month—and every studio executive in Hollywood so taken with him? Joel Schumacher, the director who discovered Farrell for Tigerland and worked with him again on Phone Booth (due April 4), cites “that allure, that indefinable something. In the words of Miss Piggy, ‘Some pigs got it, and some pigs don’t.'”

With his star rising and his salary escalating, Farrell, 26, could be living high on the hog by now, but he’s been wearing the same scruffy boots for years—”he kept getting them resoled,” says Schumacher—and still lives in his native Dublin, where he has deep roots. In the ’60s his father, Eamonn, 55, and his uncle Tommy were both famous soccer players for Ireland’s Shamrock Rovers; Eamonn now runs a health-food store while mother Rita, 53, is a homemaker. (Sister Claudine, 30, runs clubs and restaurants in Dublin; his other sister, Catherine, is 32; and brother Eamonn Jr., 34, runs a drama school in Dublin.) Farrell, the youngest, drifted into acting at the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin and broke through on the BBC series Ballykissangel in 1998. When he was just starting out, another actor from Ireland, Victor Burke, saw him down a pint of Guinness right before an audition. “His audition ended in two minutes flat,” Burke says, but “a few weeks later Colin rang me to say he’d got the job.”

In addition to his busy work schedule—he’ll soon begin shooting a film based on A Home at the End of the World, a novel by Michael Cunningham (The Hours)—Farrell still maintains a private life many men would envy. Though he says of Spears, whom he met when she stopped by the set of S.W.A.T., “we’re just mates, and we’re not dating,” Daredevil costar Jennifer Garner says jokingly, “He’s taking advantage of how adorable he is. And I’m glad for him. But he better not get close to my sister!” Farrell had a whirlwind, four-month 2001 marriage to actress Amelia Warner (Quills), who was then 19. The pair wed in Tahiti in July and called it quits by November. “Too fast, too young,” Farrell, who still has her name tattooed around his ring finger, has said.

Farrell also loves a good prank. Warner and another Irishman and actor, Neal McDonough, once joined Farrell in “borrowing” a tourist boat from a Virginia hotel, only to be forced to call in the Coast Guard when they found themselves lost in Chesapeake Bay. Farrell “loves beer, women, soccer, his mother and a good argument,” says McDonough. During production of The Recruit, director Roger Donaldson was away from the set watching on a monitor when “he stands up in the frame,” Donaldson remembers, “and he is butt naked. He has his pants around his ankles. I just let out this hoot of laughter. Colin didn’t crack a smile, didn’t give a hint of what he had just done.”

But Schumacher cautions that “there is a lot of depth” to Farrell. “He’s very good to his mother. He’s very good to his sisters.” Says Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson: “People don’t realize how much he cares about the work. He agonizes over things.” As for Farrell’s wild side, Johnson adds, “he needs a release. When he’s not working, he just needs to blow it out. He’d go crazy otherwise.”

Kyle Smith

Alexis Chiu, Carrie Bell and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Caris Davis in London and Mary Finnegan in Dublin

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