Sam Keeley failed his Leaving Cert but his love of acting has seen him succeed, writes Esther McCarthy
Sam Keeley is glad he listened to his career guidance teacher at school. After failing his exams, Keeley was bewildered about what move to make next. Even though he’d never acted in his life, she suggested a drama course — and put him on the path to a life-altering career.
“I failed the Leaving Cert, miserably, and I was a singer/songwriter. I wanted to make an album,” the man from Tullamore, Co Offaly, tells me. “My secondary school guidance counsellor said, ‘We’ve got to get you doing something.’ I sat down with her and she basically went through a lot of courses that I could possibly do. I didn’t want to do anything, really.
“I wanted to work for the UNHCR, build houses, but you needed maths to do that and I’d failed maths. She said, ‘What about a drama degree? If you did a drama degree you could move on to study film, become a critic, there’s a lot of avenues there.’ I loved film, and I’d always followed certain types of actors’ work.
“I learned a two-minute monologue from Philadelphia, Here I Come! I’d never even acted before in my life. I got into this course and when I got in there I got bitten by the bug. I read everything and I fell madly in love.”
Keeley left that course eight months later to take a leading role in the dark drama, The Other Side of Sleep, from Irish filmmaker Rebecca Daly. He felt stressed at taking on such a role so early in his career — but was adamant he was going to make the most of his opportunity.
“It was incredibly scary. I went into the deep end because Rebecca’s film was very full on and the character I was playing was a very damaged young man who was being accused of murder.
“I’d been singing in bars, playing music and got a good reception, but never as good a reception as when I started to act. I kind of knew I was on to something if I kept my head down and just kept working. To just stay
focused. I thought, ‘You know what? There’s no other choice. There’s no other option for me, so I’m going to keep at it.’”
Keeley has rarely been out of work since, honing his skills on dramas like RTÉ’s Raw and E4’s Misfits before the film roles came in — he impressed enough in What Richard Did to gain an international profile, going on to star in movies including Anthropoid, Burnt, and The Siege of Jadotville.
This week, his new film The Cured opens in cinemas. Shot on location in Ireland, in a post-zombie apocalypse where those cured are being reintegrated into society, David Freyne’s directorial debit also drew the attention of Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and US star Ellen Page.
“She was fully invested from the start which was cool,” said Keeley, who had no idea the Juno and Inception star was coming to Ireland until he saw a press release.
“I had signed on and I was in India at the time on location on another film and I got a call from my agent to sign a press release for Cannes. Then I saw it, ‘Sam Keeley and Ellen Page’ and I thought ‘what the f**k?!’
“I think it’s a testament to Dave’s script. He wrote it himself and he’s a wonderful being in terms of how he sees the world and how he listens. He’s not concerned about showing off as a director and I think that probably appealed to Ellen in a very big way.”
Keeley’s profile is only set to increase, with no fewer than four more movies set for release in the coming year. They include Adventures of a Mathematician, about the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and Second World War action thriller Peace. He’s glad his career guidance teacher saw an actor in him as a teenager. “I love it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The Cured is released on Friday