Farrell is educated at St. Brigid’s National School, followed by secondary school at Castleknock College, an exclusive all boys private school and then Gormanston College in County Meath. He unsuccessfully auditions for the Irish musical group Boyzone around this time.
Farrell is inspired to try acting when Henry Thomas‘ performance in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial moves him to tears. With his brother’s encouragement, he attends the Gaiety School of Acting, dropping out in 1998 when he is cast as Danny Byrne on Ballykissangel, a BBC drama about a young English priest who becomes part of an Irish rural community.
Farrell makes his film debut in the Tim Roth-directed drama The War Zone in 1999, and is discovered by Hollywood when Joel Schumacher casts him as the lead in the war drama Tigerland in 2000. He then stars in Schumacher’s psychological thriller Phone Booth (2003) where he plays a hostage in a New York City phone booth, and the American thrillers S.W.A.T. (2003) and The Recruit (2003), establishing his international box-office appeal. During this time, he also appears in Steven Spielberg‘s science fiction thriller Minority Report (2002) and as the villain Bullseye in the superhero film Daredevil (2003).
After starring in the independent films Intermission (2003) and A Home at the End of the World (2004), Farrell heads Oliver Stone‘s biopic Alexander (2004) and Terrence Malick‘s The New World (2005). Roles in Michael Mann‘s Miami Vice (2006), the adaptation of John Fante‘s Ask the Dust (2006), and Woody Allen‘s Cassandra’s Dream (2007) follow, underscoring his popularity among Hollywood writers and directors. However, it is his role in Martin McDonagh‘s In Bruges (2008) that earns him a Hollywood Foreign Press Association Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy.
Farrell stars in the black comedy film Horrible Bosses (2011), for which he receives critical praise, along with the comedy-horror film Fright Night (2011) and the science fiction action film Total Recall (2012), both remakes, and McDonagh’s second feature, the black comedy crime film Seven Psychopaths (2012). He also stars in the Niels Arden Oplev action film Dead Man Down (2013), and as Travers Goff in the period drama Saving Mr. Banks (2013). In 2014, he stars as Peter Lake in the supernatural fable Winter’s Tale, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Mark Helprin. In 2015, he stars as Detective Ray Velcoro in the second season of HBO‘s True Detective, and also stars in the film The Lobster, for which he is nominated for his second Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. In 2016, he plays Percival Graves in the Harry Potter spin-off film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
In December 2005, Farrell checks into a rehabilitation treatment centre for addictions to recreational drugs and painkillers. He speaks about it on the Late Show with David Letterman after coming out of rehab and continues to do so in the years following. “There was an energy that was created,” he says of the time when he was addicted, “a character that was created, that no doubt benefited me. And then there was a stage where it all began to crumble around me.”
In 2007, Farrell joins other celebrities as a spokesman for the Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, China. He has also lent his support to the anti-bullying campaign Stand Up! organised by the Irish LGBT youth organisation BeLonG To in March 2012. He appears on The Ellen DeGeneres Show two years earlier to increase awareness of the subject. In 2015 he becomes an official Ambassador of the Homeless World Cup which uses street football to inspire homeless people to change their lives.