From inner city Dublin to the red carpet of Cannes, it’s been quite a climb for Barry Keoghan. Esther McCarthy talks to the actor who first broke through in Love/Hate
AS A teenager, Barry Keoghan was walking around his neighbourhood in Dublin’s north inner city when he spotted a small ad in his local shop. He couldn’t have known then how it would change his life.
The ad was for Mark O’Connor’s film Between the Canals, one of three they would work on together. Keoghan’s raw talent on screen was apparent, and put him on the radar of casting agents.
“I rang him, I kept ringing him and he was like: ‘I’m waiting on getting funding’. I’d no idea what funding even meant. I was: ‘Yeah but where is this audition like?’” he recalls.
“From there then I got small parts. And I was: ‘You know what? I like this’. I liked it for all the obvious — it’s fun, it’s on camera, you’re getting paid. But I dunno… I don’t think any actor can really tell you why. It’s expression, obviously, but it’s a high you get, from being on screen and playing other characters. Telling these stories. You’re going through all your emotions, you’re touching on memories, certainly that’s the way I work. You’re being present.”
In person, Keoghan is gentle and funny, a world away from the dark characters — the criminal from Love/Hate, the troubled youth from Mammal — we have seen him play.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer sees him at his darkest yet. Keoghan is Martin, a troubled man who forms a connection with a surgeon (Colin Farrell) and his family, but his intentions prove to be sinister.
The pitch-black drama from Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) features a note-perfect cast including Nicole Kidman, but this is Keoghan’s film. For the 25-year-old who keeps a wishlist of directors he wants to work with, and who also impressed in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk this summer, it’s been an incredible year.
“It’s nice to be recognised and be part of a great film like that, or this. And to get to show my range this year: the naivety of George in Dunkirk and the menace of Martin in Sacred Deer. It’s every actor’s dream, and to do it under these two directors it’s a bonus.
“As actors we tend to bring emotions to it, to bring feelings to it, but Yorgos just wants you to internalise it by ten. It was refreshing for me to work that way. Not do a big back story, not come in to a movie going, where am I coming from, what’s my motivation? With this one I could go home and dig into a pizza at the end of the night and watch NFL. As dark and intense as this role is, I didn’t feel that way.”
Keoghan grew up in a part of Dublin where drugs touched the lives of many families, including his own. His mother, a heroin user, died when he was young. He and his brother spent time in foster care but were raised by his grandmother, who was his guest at the film’s recent Irish premiere.
He is proud of his roots and the community in Summerhill where he comes from, and hopes that his success can encourage others to pursue their goals.
“All I would say is it doesn’t matter where you come from. Like Jim Sheridan comes from the inner city and he’s one of the top ones, a top lad.”
He’s also a big advocate of youth clubs, having benefited from the NYP2 Neighbourhood Youth Project himself. “It’s the same in every inner city. But there are more opportunities in the inner city. The youth club was very good to me. They brought us away to Paraguay with (housing charity) Habitat.
“We went and we built homes for people there. I was 16, and that was an eye-opener, to see how grateful someone can be if you hand them a football as a present. There was a little kid and I remember the smile on his face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a smile like it. To witness that, and you go: ‘You know what? Things could be much worse’.”
As a youngster, Keoghan would watch movies from actors like Cillian Murphy and Colin Farrell, so getting to work with them both in the past year has been special — even though he gets hit by Farrell’s character in one key scene.
“He was so apologetic! ‘Sorry man did I hit?’ I mean this: him and Cillian, in one year I’ve worked with them two, two of the top Irish lads, two that I looked up to growing up. I see how they talk to people on set, they’re two family men, they’re both warm, lovely lads who look after you, look out for younger actors. Colin is such a gent and Cillian is too. It was just great to share the screen with them, and they made it so easy for me.”
Film is a passion but not his only one — his other hobbies include photography, while boxing is his great love and he has plans to box competitively.
“Boxing is something I’m very into,” he says. “I did it as a kid, in and out of clubs, messing around, training, not a lot of competing. But the last while I’ve been really at it. I was to compete in the Celtic Cup. I dropped weight to make 60kg. It was a three-day competition and three days before I got pulled out because of this,” he says, showing me his injured knuckle.
“I was devastated. It’s definitely something I’m going back to. It’s a ‘present’ thing. You’re there. It’s an art form, gorgeous to watch. You never fully learn, it’s like acting, you’re always thinking you can do better.”
Keoghan has that sense of natural curiosity that you often find in good actors. You get the sense he’s keen to learn from his on-set experiences and make the most of opportunities.
“Big time. I want to direct, I want to box, I want to set up my own company one day. I’ve it all written on my phone, and I’m ticking them off now.
“That’s the attitude I have. I want to not settle for one thing. Because I come from a place where I have nothing to lose. And that’s where that all came from.”
We’ll next see him in Bart Layton’s American Animals, based on the true story of an audacious heist in the US.
Is the wish list of directors he wanted to work with that he made as a young actor still there?
“It’s still there! I’m ticking them off, I’m not taking them off, because I want to work with them again,” he says. You’d imagine the feeling is mutual.
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