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Colin Farrell, Tom Bateman, & Sahajak 'Poo' Boonthankit Dive Into Thirteen Lives - Exclusive Interview

"Thirteen Lives," the new Ron Howard film now available for streaming on Prime Video, retells the true story of how people from around the world came together in 2018 to save twelve young soccer players and their coach who were trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave network in northern Thailand. In the film, Colin Farrell and Tom Bateman play John Volanthen and Chris Jewell, two of the British cave divers who help rescue the boys, while Sahajak "Poo" Boonthankit plays the Chiang Rai province Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn.

Looper got the chance to speak to the cast and crew of "Thirteen Lives" in four different group interviews. In our final interview with Farrell, Bateman, and Poo, we asked the actors about how they did research for playing these real life characters, how they handled the challenges of the intense diving sequences, and Farrell's increasingly busy schedule of new movies and streaming series.

Researching their real life characters

How do you go about researching your characters?

Tom Bateman: I was very lucky in that, as soon as I was offered the role, I got the opportunity to speak to Chris [Jewell], who I was playing, and he was so generous with his time. He gave me hours and hours, and all of the research we got from Ron [Howard] and all the research team, documentaries and articles, we were blessed, man. Personally, I could text Chris every morning, if I had a question. "What did you do in this scene? It's the second day. For breakfast, what did you do?" He'd tell me what he did and what he went through. The work was already done for us.

Sahajak "Poo" Boonthankit: Playing the Governor, I have never met the gentleman. I saw him every day on the news, so that plus the script plus Ron['s direction] is how I played him.

Colin Farrell: I, like Tom, had the generosity of John Volanthen, who I played, to lean into. John made himself really available for me. He was eight hours ahead, so we figured out times to get on and do FaceTime and have chats. He was incredibly open with me about his experience during this two weeks and also how he got into cave diving and some of the personal things in his life. 

It was enormously beneficial. While we were shooting, as well, there was times where I had questions that arose from what we were shooting immediately. I would get on the horn and text John, and he would respond. It was amazing.

Bateman: The practicality of doing something that's as different and separate from anything I had any experience in my life doing, which was ... I have scuba dived a few times, but this diving that we were doing, this felt so different. It felt like a different beast completely, so a lot of character work was inadvertently done by virtue of us all spending time in the pool, doing exercises that we hadn't done before.

The challenges of the cave diving scenes

That leads into my next question: What was it like performing the diving scenes?

Bateman: They were tough, man. They were amazing. Like Colin said, I don't think any of us had done actual cave diving before. It was a real experience. It was very demanding. But what you get ... There's not many people on the planet who have done this and can experience what it's like being in those caves. It was very scary, and it played into, if you got any anxiety towards water or small spaces, which I suffer from –

To be clear, were you actually in those caves? That wasn't sets?

Bateman: No, they were sets. It would've been impossible to film in the caves themselves, but [we had] amazing set designers, man. We got to walk through them dry, before they filled them with water. You could see the attention to the detail was incredible, and then they filled them with water. Once they turned those lights off, it's ... You've seen the movie. They are the real caves. It felt real. There was no point where you felt like, "Oh, they've taken the side off." It was constant. These were hard structures that we were working our way through.

Farrell: I'm getting flashbacks as Tom was talking about it. There was...

Bateman: That rock.

Farrell: Yeah. There was times where it was ... it was as controlled an environment as it could be and as safe an environment as it could be. We had safety divers. Every morning there was a meeting, it was really cool, where Bill [M. Connor], the First AD, and Ron spoke about what we were going to be doing in the upcoming day. Whether we were in the tunnels shooting in the caves or were shooting on dry land, there was a meeting every morning, which was a really beautiful kind of ritual to start our day. Those meetings, I found psychologically, were very beneficial, especially when we were shooting in the cave, because they let us know what we had coming up.

There was a moment when you get into the water, you get into the cave, you were surrounded 360 degrees, and the lights were turned off so that it could be dark. The more you shot in the caves, you'd probably get about four or five days, shooting in one tunnel system. The water got so murky that we'd moved to another tunnel system, and they'd emptied the tunnel system that we had been shooting in to refill it, so that the actors would be visible again.

The last two or three days before they dragged us out of one tunnel, the water got progressively dirtier and dirtier. By the last day you were shooting in the tunnel, it was murky. There was bits of paint that were floating by. You couldn't see too much. It was a bit gnarly. I didn't thoroughly enjoy myself.

Colin Farrell's return as The Penguin

On a different note, Colin, any updates on how "The Penguin" HBO Max series is coming along?

Farrell: No idea. I hear that it's going to be in the new year, maybe a January or February start. I read the first script, which was so good. It was so tasty.

Bateman: Yeah, man.

Farrell: Yeah, it was good, man. Hopefully it goes [through], and you never know in this thing until you're actually standing in front of camera and they say, "Action." [It could be at the] start of the new year.

You've been in four movies this year: "Thirteen Lives," "After Yang," "The Batman," and the upcoming "The Banshees of Inisherin." How would you compare these different experiences?

Farrell: Oh my God, night and day. Sweet and sour. Stones and Beatles. They were all so very different, and that was the exciting thing about them. Essentially, you're doing the same thing. You're telling stories, and you're bringing characters life and all that, but they were so remarkably different for me. I feel, the last two years, I've been really spoiled.

Tom, after acting in "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile," are there any other specific Agatha Christie novels you would want to appear in the movie of?

Bateman: I'm going to be honest with you, man. I haven't read any of the other ones. I've seen the David Suchet ones that they made. She's an amazing writer and her stories incredible, so maybe, but if you've seen the second "Death on the Nile" film, you know that I won't be coming back for any of those franchises.

Getting feedback from the real people

You talked with the people you were playing for research. Did you get any feedback from them after they saw the movie?

Farrell: Nervous wreck, man. Go ahead, Poo.

Poo: The actual people, I don't think they've seen the movie yet. We are waiting for it to hopefully air in Thailand, but if not, it will be on Prime anyway ... I'll have to wait until then to hear from them.

Bateman: We did hear that we were lucky enough to have quite a lot of the British divers at the London premier. Rick [Stanton, played by Viggo Mortensen in the movie] himself has been at all of them. We did get to meet them, and what was incredibly touching and a huge sigh of relief was they seemed to all really love it.

Poo: Absolutely.

Bateman: Chris came up to me and said what a great job he thought I'd done, but then every single person in it [did the same]. The big nod was, as we talked about, it was such a difficult shoot to do. All that underwater stuff was a real feat from everyone involved — every crew member, every cast member, and all of the divers said, "That's spot on, man. They've got it. It looks the business. It sounds the business." That's the feeling on it, so that was great to hear.

Farrell: Did they? That's cool.

Bateman: If you work that hard and everyone wants to make it as real as possible and it falls short, you'd feel a bit disappointed, but getting their seal of approval was pretty special.

Poo: Actually, last night at the screening, the Thai Consulate brought about a hundred Thai people to watch it, and they were all amazed.

Farrell: That's cool.

Bateman: That's so cool.

"Thirteen Lives" is now streaming on Prime Video.

This interview was edited for clarity.