The Irish actor and rising star discusses his role in Nick Rowland’s latest film Calm with Horses – a tale of drug-dealing, fraught friendship, and redemption set in the west of Ireland
Barry Keoghan is fast becoming the new Tilda Swinton. At least, that’s what I suggest to Keoghan, who, like Swinton, is transforming himself from role to role. The 27-year-old Irish actor came to prominence as creepy Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, then avoided typecasting by playing an art thief in American Animals, a war hero in Dunkirk, and a liquidator in Chernobyl. “Tilda’s so good in Suspiria,” he says, nodding in approval. “Definitely. I want to change physically, vocally, and mentally – everything.”
When Keoghan speaks to Dazed, he’s noticeably in shape, having recently wrapped on a Marvel movie, The Eternals. He’s in London to discuss his spiky, scene-stealing turn as Dympna in Nick Rowland’s Calm with Horses. Set in the west of Ireland, Rowland’s gritty crime-thriller follows Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), a bulky ex-boxer who’s torn between two worlds: his estranged girlfriend, Ursula (Niamh Alghar), and their autistic five-year-old son; and the Devers family, a menacing criminal gang to whom Arm offers himself as hired muscle. Out of the Devers, the most sympathetic to Arm is Dympna, but even he can’t be fully trusted.
Trouble comes in Arm’s way when he’s asked to avenge the Devers after one of Dympna’s sisters is molested by a family friend. In the 2014 short story by Colin Barrett, Arm smashes in the culprit’s skull and later regrets it. In Rowland’s film, Arm is pressured into committing murder by the Devers and is drugged by Dympna as a form of Dutch courage; when Arm is face to face with his intended victim, he lets the screaming man run off, and pretends to Dympna that he disposed of a dead body.
“I wanted to play Arm, originally,” Keoghan says. “I’ve been a boxer since I was 14. But it didn’t fit. Then Nick Rowland told me Dympna was written for me.” As Dympna, Keoghan sports a punk-ish, dyed haircut, a leather jacket, and a metrosexual fashion sense. “Dympna thinks he’s stylish. He thinks he’s cool as.” Does Dympna secretly want to be an actor? “He’s definitely a showman. It’s all a front, because he’s a scared little boy.”
Arm and Dympna, really, are both scared little boys, although neither will admit it. Instead, they obey the societal pressures of masculinity, grit their teeth, and man up, so to speak. “Dympna is a girl’s name,” Keoghan notes. “His father gave him a girl’s name so that he would have to fight for himself, growing up. It’s the same concept as the Johnny Cash song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.” He adds, “Dympna’s a perfect example of not being yourself, and not knowing yourself. I put on a little weight. I beefed out a little, because I felt Dympna would do that. He thinks by being bigger, you’re tougher.”
“These characters have a lot of shade to them. I’m hiding behind these characters, and figuring it out myself. It’s why I do acting” – Barry Keoghan
That said, Arm is twice the size of Dympna. To resemble a former boxer like Arm, Jarvis trained, and untrained, in the months leading up to the shoot – a combination of milkshakes and gym sessions. Still, Dympna, with his bravado, happily bosses around the enforcer. “Dympna thinks he’s on the same level as Arm in terms of strength – but he’s not. All Dympna has to go on is that he lives in the shadow of his father. That’s the intimidating thing, that he’s a Dever.”
As Arm is introverted and secretive, Calm with Horses requires other methods of articulating the character’s conflicted emotions. The immersive, electronic score by Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin John Power of Fuck Buttons) heightens the tension where appropriate, and Dympna is always ready to provoke Arm into action. So Dympna is, effectively, the film’s equivalent of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas: he’s a livewire who, at any moment, could do a “funny how?” rant and beat up a stranger in a pub. But around older relatives, Dympna cowers and nervously stares at the ground. “These characters have a lot of shade to them. I’m hiding behind these characters, and figuring it out myself. It’s why I do acting.”
Keoghan’s onscreen career started when he was 18 years old and auditioning for projects in Dublin. His big break arrived two years later, in 2011, when he earned love and hate as “Wayne the cat killer” on the Irish TV series Love/Hate. (The feline, before its fictional death, was popular enough to appear on chat shows.) Other roles followed in critically acclaimed dramas like ’71, Mammal, and Trespass Against Us. But it was as Martin, a blackmailing teen, in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer that introduced him to the nightmares of a worldwide audience. Martin’s spaghetti-eating habits alone could unsettle the most hardened cinemagoers.
It’s been theorised by many journalists – OK, literally just me – that The Killing of a Sacred Deer was inspired by Lanthimos despising the press tour for The Lobster. Steven, the bearded, well-dressed surgeon played by Colin Farrell, is the filmmaker who plays God with his patients. Martin, the weird, casually dressed kid in a hoodie, is the journalist. The pair meet in cafes in order for Martin to ask mind-numbing questions that Steven reluctantly answers or deflects. If Steven misspeaks, then Martin wields the power and holds the surgeon’s words against him.
“I think you could be onto something,” Keoghan says enthusiastically, either genuinely or out of politeness. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Yorgos tried to do something on a subtextual level, way beyond what we can think Sacred Deer meant. I’m still trying to figure that film out, actually – whether I had a power, or just poisoned the kids. But I think you could be right.”
A few days earlier, Keoghan met a fan of his performance as Martin, and that fan happened to be the star of Phantom Thread. “Daniel Day-Lewis is someone I look up to, and want to follow in the footsteps of,” he says with a hushed appreciation. “He’s a fellow Irish-slash-Englishman. He’s a huge fan (of Sacred Deer) and addressed me: ‘Hey, Barry, it’s good to finally meet you.’ I couldn’t hold myself together. I was like, ‘Danny, I can’t look at you right now. This is not real.’” He grins at the memory. “He gave me a hug!”
“I want to go into the side of playing characters where my physicality says it all – like animals do” – Barry Keoghan
Keoghan’s star power is set to soar even further when he appears later this year as a telepathic superhero called Druig in The Eternals. As he’s probably taking meetings with the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and the Safdie brothers now, is it important for him to still do films in Ireland like Calm with Horses? He picks up my Dictaphone and speaks into it: “PTA, read this. Meet me!” He adds Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold to the list of the directors he wants to read the article. “I will still come back to Ireland, because we have brilliant filmmakers here like Cathy Brady and Lee Cronin telling great stories and taking it to the next level. It’s always important to come home.”
He then decides to break some news. “I want to tell you about Billy the Kid first, because this is Dazed, and Dazed should know this: Billy the Kid just got greenlit. I’ve been working on it for three years, trying to get it going.” The film will be written by Hunter Andrews, directed by Bart Layton (The Imposter, American Animals), and produced by Ed Guiney (The Favourite, Room). Keoghan will, of course, play the lead. “It’s a version of Billy the Kid we haven’t seen. We humanise him. It’s telling the story of what he was like behind closed doors. As soon as he stepped out, he had to become this legend. There was all this pressure. He was constantly on the run, and constantly seeking a father. And it’s not going to be this cliched western. You’re going to be with Billy.”
If all goes to plan, May will see the release of David Lowery’s The Green Knight (its world premiere was supposed to be at the now-cancelled SXSW), in which Keoghan plays someone – or something – called Scavenger. “David shot all of that in Ireland, by the way,” Keoghan says. “That movie, I made a short movie for it, because I wanted to go for the lead role. I thought I had a shot at it, because David didn’t want to follow your typical knight in shining armour.”
Wait, a short film?” Yeah, a three-minute short, in Ireland. My girlfriend made the costume and shot it. David had Dev (Patel) in mind, and Dev’s brilliant in it. But he liked the short so much, he wrote a part for me in it.” Is that a common self-taping method? “If I really want the part, I’ll make my audition tape a short movie.” Keoghan, it turns out, wants to move into directing features, and is developing a “circus movie” at the moment. “I’ve worked with Yorgos, and it’s the style I want to do: Kubrick-ish, horror-y, and letting scenes play out.”
So however Keoghan’s career pans out – whether it’s closer to Tilda Swinton or Daniel Day-Lewis – it’ll be varied. He speaks of the stress of auditions (“you come up against the same actors all the time!”) and thus the satisfaction of projects like Calm with Horses where the role was written specifically for him. “The acting game is a constant battle,” he sighs. “I’m very picky. I want to pick the right filmmakers and characters. You can see by the line of work I have that I’m following a certain type of filmmaker.”
Keoghan praises Tom Hardy’s eye-acting in Dunkirk, and adds, “I want to go into the side of playing characters where my physicality says it all – like animals do. Like your dog, for instance. You can tell what your dog is thinking or saying. He can’t speak. I want to go into that animalistic way of letting my eyes and physicality speak.” He leans into my dictaphone again, because this is important. “If anyone is writing roles for me, there you go.”
Calm with Horses opens in UK cinemas on March 13