Colin Farrell left with warm feelings from work on 'Winter's Tale'

Acclaimed actor moved by story of transcendent love

Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay in "Winter's Tale." (Warner Bros.)

Many major actors have taken their turn working with a first-time director and experienced the feeling of uncertainty that goes with it. But for film star Colin Farrell, there was no hesitation committing to the lead role in his latest film, "Winter's Tale," given the first-timer was Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman.

"Akiva obviously is such a seasoned and highly-respected writer," Farrell told me of the "Beautiful Mind" scribe-turned-director in a recent interview. "I've known him 10 or 12 years. He's an incredibly passionate man and a deeply emotional person, so I knew that he would capture the essence of what Mark Halprin wrote."

Opening in theaters nationwide on Valentine's Day, "Winter's Tale" tells the story of Peter Lake (Farrell), a master thief whose life changes forever in 1916 when he encounters Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) in an attempt to burglarize her father's mansion.

Knowing there's an inherent good that exists in Peter, Beverly falls in love with him despite being ill with consumption and not long to live. But Peter's love for Beverly is so strong that tragedy, evil forces or the span of a century can't stop him from trying to save her.

Capturing the essence of "Winter's Tale," as Farrell describes, wasn't easy. After all, Halprin's critically acclaimed 1983 best-seller is nearly 800 pages long, but Goldsman, who had read the book several years ago, refused to let go of the idea of adapting it into a film because he felt such a strong connection to it.

"Mark's writing had such personal meaning to Akiva based on his own experience of love and loss. So when I read the script, as much as I knew it was a piece of fiction, I had the distinct feeling that somebody had lived through it," Farrell observed. "It imbued the whole experience with a greater profundity than it would have had if we were making a different piece of fiction. I had no concerns (about Akiva being a first-time director). Akiva was the right man to tell this story. He had lived with it a long time."

"Winter's Tale" boasts an impressive cast, including Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt and Eva Marie Saint. But just as important to the film was the setting of a mythical New York City past and present. Because Hurricane Sandy struck the area and the production at the beginning of filming, Farrell viewed the city in a different sort of light and the time he spent there touched him on a much deeper emotional level.

"Being in New York for five months was so affecting," Farrell described. "We arrived there about three or four weeks before Sandy struck and saw the destruction that it created. It delayed the production for a couple weeks, which gave us the chance to see how it hurt the lives of so many people. It gave us a chance to see how indomitable and resilient the city is, and how unified the people are. It was just astonishing."

While in the midst of filming, in fact, Farrell viewed New York City as more of a character in "Winter's Tale" than just a setting.

"Telling a story where New York is such a prominent character, it was really a blessing we didn't shoot somewhere else. It was a beautiful world to live in," Farrell said. "Sometimes you go to work on a film and you tell a story that has greater levels of ugliness, greater levels of hardship and greater levels of pain. But the pain in this is a sweet pain. It's the pain of losing and letting go of something that was beautiful, present and a light in your life -- and getting through that and realizing that love survives loss."

Making the film complete for Farrell, 37, was his first opportunity to work with Brown Findlay. Even though the actor hadn't seen an episode of the rising star's smash PBS Masterpiece series "Downton Abbey" before they started filming "Winter's Tale," it didn't take him long to realize why audiences have fallen in love with her. The mania, he said, even continued to the day of our conversation about the film.

"Everyone that's coming in to do interviews is awed by her presence. You don't have to see 'Downton Abbey' to be awed by her presence, though, because she's beautiful inside and out, "Farrell enthused. "Everybody is enamored with her because of her work, and enamored with her by just spending a few minutes together. She was such a dream to work with -- so easy-going, so present, so much fun and so open. From the first day on, there was no struggle and no tension."