Colin Farrell, who stars in the new romance "Winter's Tale," photographed in New York on Feb. 9, 2014. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / February 9, 2014)

Colin Farrell wanted a cigarette, but he didn't have one on him. He was sitting poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel, which seemed like the kind of place where one smokes. So he asked a pretty hostess if she had a pack; she did not.

"You want a cigarette?" asked an interloper standing nearby who had overheard the exchange. "I'm going to get you one right now."

A few minutes later, the stranger returned, cigarette in hand. He asked Farrell what movies the actor had coming up, adding that he was producing a few.

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV

"Good luck with it. Good luck with it, brother," Farrell replied. "Thanks for the smoke."

He sat back down in a bungalow and sighed.

"See," he said, "you really can get anything."

Well, sort of. Cigarettes and booze and drugs and girls and hotel rooms have all been at Farrell's disposal since he became famous, he says. But the actor, who kicked a years-long substance abuse problem in 2005, has had a more difficult time earning respect as a leading man in Hollywood. He's certainly been given plenty of chances: In the last decade, he's starred in a reboot of the sci-fi classic "Total Recall," a remake of the vampire comedy "Fright Night" and the swords-and-sandals epic "Alexander." None of them worked at the box office.

With his latest effort, this weekend's time-travel love story timed for Valentine's Day, "Winter's Tale," Farrell is trying his hand at playing a romantic hero. In the film, based on Mark Helprin's lengthy fantasy novel, Farrell plays a charming thief who falls for an heiress stricken with tuberculosis.

The movie, which marks the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, faces a tough challenge, going up against the remake of "RoboCop" and several other movies aimed at couples celebrating the Feb. 14 holiday.

PHOTOS: Biggest box office flops of 2013

Even if he isn't a huge box-office draw, the 37-year-old Farrell has earned a reputation as a compelling actor with a surprisingly wide range. In December, he earned strong reviews for his supporting role as P.L. Travers' endearing alcoholic father in "Saving Mr. Banks." He may have the looks for glitzy studio fare, but he often seems most at home in grittier independent films — "In Bruges," "Seven Psychopaths," "The Way Back" — movies in which he has given some of his most well-regarded performances.

But even Farrell isn't sure of where he fits into the movie business. His résumé of late, he admits, "paints a picture of a very confused actor who has no idea what the hell he's into." Here's what he does know: He doesn't want to do any more films with guns. Part of that might be because he has two young boys and he's begun to think about the effect violence in movies has on society. But he's also interested in telling different kinds of stories now — ones with fewer explosions.

"The scripts I'm drawn to now are ones that deal in a greater degree of emotional and psychological minutiae," he said. "I just don't know that I want to be part of things that are superficially entertaining. ... Without getting too high and mighty about it at all, I have to have a greater level of justification if I'm going to do something that involves that kind of violence again."

He's not just saying that, either. In the weeks leading to production on "Saving Mr. Banks," director John Lee Hancock said, Farrell sent the filmmaker dozens of emails about his vision for the character.

WATCH: Cast, crew of 'Saving Mr. Banks' discuss the film

"You don't often get letters from actors, and he was writing this beautiful stuff about what the character meant to him," Hancock recalled. "He's such a soulful guy with this Irish poet's soul that I totally believed he could play a father a little girl would idolize."

Shedding darkness

That Farrell is now able to come off believably as a role model of sorts is somewhat of a feat, given his history as a tabloid mainstay. Before he shipped off to rehab nine years ago, he was known as the ultimate Hollywood bad boy. He spent two years living in the Chateau Marmont, when he "had more money than sense," his kids subsisting on room service club sandwiches. He filmed a sex tape with a Playboy Playmate (which she eventually leaked) and showed up high on the set of "Miami Vice."

He's been clean for nearly a decade, but the stories trail him. Even though, as he put it, "the worst thing I've done since then is sneak a ... Subway sandwich into the ArcLight. And even that was only a 6-inch."