Barry Keoghan has a big Marvel role on the way, but he’s still happy to return home to play a tough guy in a new Irish thriller, writes Esther McCarthy
He's gone from young acting wannabe to Marvel movie star at the age of 27. And Barry Keoghan again shows the on-screen intensity that has made him one of our most in-demand stars in Irish thriller Calm With Horses.
He plays a member of the feared Devers family, whose drug dealing and propensity for violence has made them a powerful and brutal force in the west of Ireland. Keoghan’s character is a close ally to and manipulator of Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), a tough former boxer who carries out many of the Devers’ nastiest tasks, but is looking for a way out.
It’s a remarkable debut from British director Nick Rowland, who was already on Keoghan’s radar. “First-time filmmakers always want to tick every box. But with Nick he has a vision,” says Keoghan. “He’d done this short film called Dancing in the Ashes for £4000 and it was it was just incredible. When I’d seen that I wanted to sign up to his movie.”
Despite the tough subject matter, Keoghan describes shooting the movie in Tully Cross in Connemara and Kilkee in Co Clare as a “magical” experience. “It was beautiful to come home and do it — Irish crews are the best as well.
“West of Ireland people are really nice. They get excited when they see the camera. Up here [in Dublin] it’s a norm, you see people shooting on the street. They’re inquisitive. It’s very welcoming.”
Ever since Keoghan first spotted an ad in a shop in Dublin’s north-inner city looking for locals to star in a low-budget film, he has seized every career opportunity with both hands. That film was Mark O’Connor’s Between the Canals, where he landed a leading role.
Bitten by the acting bug, he started compiling a list of people he wanted to work with and huge projects have followed since, including an eerie turn in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer and as a young boatman in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
As his career progresses, he has become more immersed in method acting like one of his favourite actors, Daniel Day-Lewis. “He’s one of the greats. The method is the way for me, to stay in accent as well. I like to be the character and I think staying in character and staying in that world and in that mood is definitely very helpful. You find new things and you settle into habits and them habits lead you to certain actions.”
The Marvel casting is huge for him. In fact, seven years ago he tweeted the late, great Stan Lee, asking him: “Stan Lee please make me a superhero”. He recently completed filming opposite Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek in Marvel’s The Eternals, about a race of immortal beings who secretly live on Earth to protect humans from their evil counterparts. “That’s gas, right?” he smiles at the prophetic nature of the tweet to Lee.
“You know what? It hasn’t even settled with me though, that I’ve done a Marvel movie and I emphasise Marvel because it’s the biggest company in the world making movies and they smash the box office every time.”
Having not worked for almost a year when he got the call as he was waiting for the right project, he was elated to be cast as Druig for the Eternals shoot. It was three weeks before filming began and he hit the gym to get in the best possible shape for the role.
“I really wanted to do this movie, so happy days. For me, it’s all about the filmmaker. I really wanted to come on board because of Chloe Zhao — she did The Rider, a fantastic indie film. I want to be in strong stories from Dunkirk to Chernobyl. It’s about the right choices, you know, and then all the other stuff comes and follows.”
Keoghan says stepping onto the sets of such a big project can feel overwhelming, but like he did with Dunkirk “you get over that in a few days”. He loved getting to work with “strong women” like Hayek and Jolie.
The actor is referring to his aunt and grandmother, who raised him following a period in foster care as a child. His mother struggled with drug addiction and died when he was twelve.
Given his own upbringing, it meant a lot to him to recently spend time with young people at a centre for wolves in California. He has long held a great love for the animals.
“How I got involved was that they deal with kids from hard backgrounds and really, really tough backgrounds from foster care to underprivileged areas. They have wolves in this gorgeous habitat up in California where they’ve all the space in the world and they get looked after so well.
“A lot of them come from people that wanted to have a wolf and thought it was cool and couldn’t keep up with it. Basically, the programme is the wolves help the kids get out of their shell, and vice versa, because wolves are very shy. I dropped them an email and they were very welcoming to me. I wanted to go up and give my piece. Just to go up and share my story and to be around them because these kids, some of the toughest backgrounds they come from.”
Keoghan has spent a good deal of time in the US recently, embracing big-city life in New York and travelling to LA for work and meetings.
Hollywood and Marvel may have come a-calling, but he has no notion of cutting ties with the Irish filmmaking industry — Calm With Horses was one of the most powerful projects he was offered in recent years, and he keeps a keen eye on what our native filmmakers are developing.
He singles out directors such as Cathy Brady, whose feature Wildfire will be released this year, Lorcan Finnegan whose sci-fi movie Vivarium has been getting strong reviews in advance of release later this month, and Lee Cronin, whose horror thriller Hole in the Ground was released internationally last year.
“I come home here and everyone’s so proud and happy, but again they’re not: ‘Oh my God!’” he laughs. “They’re like: ‘Ok yeah, well done on that’. And it is very humbling. I like being home. It’s nice to come back, reset the batteries and get reminded of where you came from.
“We have brilliant, brilliant filmmakers, and it’s also to stay in touch with them because I want to be part of their stories and their projects. We are the best storytellers.”