Kin star Sam Keeley: ‘I failed my Leaving. I don’t know if acting was a good idea, but it worked for me’

Already known to audiences for his roles in What Richard Did and RTÉ hit crime drama Kin, the Irish actor Sam Keeley is making waves internationally

You won’t need to be reminded that, in recent years, Ireland has fuelled an unprecedented stream of talent towards Hollywood. A Cillian over here. A Mescal over there. Some Saoirse in the middle. And on and on. The names are known.

And then there is Sam Keeley. Over the last decade, the Offaly man has steadily built up the most solid of CVs. He was in What Richard Did. He was in Anthropoid with Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan. He was with Dornan again in The Siege of Jadotville. In 2015 alone, he played opposite Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Chris Hemsworth (plus Murphy, again) in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea. More recently, he has simmered as Eric “Viking” Kinsella in the crime series Kin.

I don’t imagine he has had much spare time since his breakthrough in 2011. Looking down his filmography, one sees barely a gap to breathe.

“I’ve been fortunate enough,” Keeley says. “Since I started this I’ve never had to do anything else. It’s been a combination of sacrificing everything to do it and of not giving myself another option. And working incredibly hard. I have spent my 20s – and now, obviously, into my 30s – flying all over the place. I haven’t been able to commit to much else except this. And it’s not ‘poor me’ by any stretch.”


He has the looks. He has the voice. A lean, rugged individual with a sandpapery delivery, Keeley could easily slot into a latter-day spaghetti western or – appropriately, given his role in Kin – something involving Nordic hordes. But he has the capacity for nuance too. You get that with his unspeaking performance in Martina McGlynn’s fine new short Wrecker.

Screening at the Dublin International Film Festival, the picture casts Keeley as a “wrecker”, one of those who assisted in the eviction of neighbours during the Great Famine. It is an awful story, economically told.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” Keeley says of the decision to sign on. “So long as there’s substance to a story and there’s a character I can really connect to – and I can believe in – then it is irrelevant to me whether it’s a TV show or a short or a voiceover. If there’s an outlet for me to flex myself creatively then I’ll jump on it.”

I knew nothing about the eponymous “wreckers” – often-desperate collaborators with the landlords.

“I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know being a wrecker was a thing,” Keeley says. “It’s quite shocking to think that that was going on in our communities. It was a story that was interesting to tell, particularly without dialogue.”

We also got news recently that Keeley is set to appear opposite Mark Ruffalo and Cork’s Alison Oliver – star of the unavoidable Saltburn – in a new series for HBO. Written by Brad Ingelsby, the brains behind Mare of Easttown, Task is a crime drama involving conflict between Philadelphia cops and drug barons. It seems shooting begins any minute.

“I get ready to fly out tomorrow,” Keeley says. “I’m running around doing the last bit of packing suitcases. It’s a Brad Ingelsby project. He’s an incredible writer, an incredible showrunner. It’s HBO. Two things you long to see on your resumé. To get to work with actors of that calibre is a dream come true.”

Ruffalo has suggested it is set in the same “universe” as Mare of Eastwood. That is to say Kate Winslet, star of that great show, might stumble into the frame.

“I don’t think it’s up to me to confirm or deny that,” Keeley says with proper caution. “But it is set in Philadelphia. And it is also set in the ‘Delco’ area – the Delaware County area. It is set around that world. Whether they’re connected or not I honestly haven’t a clue.”

Keeley is as delighted as the rest of us by the current surge in domestic acting talent. He has no grand theory as to how that happened, but he celebrates the confidence it has brought to the nation and to young actors in particular.

“I wasn’t a guy who was good at school. I failed my Leaving [Certificate],” he says. “Thankfully, I had an amazing school guidance counsellor, who basically said: ‘Look, I’m not going to let you just drop out and do whatever. I want you to do something.’ I don’t know if acting was a good idea. But it worked for me. At the time, I was the only actor to come from my hometown.”

From Tullamore?

“Yeah, a small town in the midlands, but, since then, there is now a Midland Drama Society. There is this need to tell stories through this medium. I don’t know what is responsible for that.”

I have read that he initially fancied being a musician. Does he ever imagine the road not travelled? Does he have an idea in his head of the rock star he might have become?

“No, thank God,” he laughs. “I was a much better actor than I was a singer. But my dad was a musician. So I grew up with music in the house. That was a world I was in love with for a while.”

At any rate, his teacher’s instincts were correct. Keeley enrolled in drama school and, just six months into the course, landed a decent role in a feature film. This is a common dilemma for rising actors.

More than a few stars have given up prestigious courses when offered significant roles. Sometimes that works out. Sometimes it doesn’t. It hadn’t occurred to me until doing a spot of research that Keeley really arrived with a bang.

It is a treat for any young performer when his film premieres at Cannes film festival. Keeley saw two of his first films land there in the same year. At the 2011 event, Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must be the Place, co-starring Sean Penn and Frances McDormand, and Rebecca Daly’s The Other Side of Sleep, a spooky Irish indie that played in Director’s Fortnight, both arrived to much buzz. I was there. So was he.

“It was mad!” Keeley says, still reeling slightly. “I was only acting for six or seven months at that point. My first job after I left drama school was an independent feature that got into Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. My second job was an episode of Misfits for Channel 4. My third job was with Paolo Sorrentino and Sean Penn. While I had a small role, I had four substantial scenes and all of them were with Sean. That was competing for the Palme d’Or. I flew over for Director’s Fortnight.”

Did he understand the significance of Cannes?

“I was 19 years of age or something like that,” he says, laughing. “I had no clue what was going on. I was just there for the ride and enjoying it. It was quite an achievement for somebody doing it for very little time.”

A year after that, he had that strong role as the victim of a fatal beating in Lenny Abrahamson’s powerful What Richard Did. The work kept coming. But attitudes at home really shifted when he landed the part in Kin. Keeley was already a familiar face but, when you’re in people’s livingroom once a week, audiences start to feel they know you.

“When you go to the cinema, you get dressed up and it’s an event,” Keeley says. “When you’re watching telly you’re in your pyjamas. You’re eating pizza. It’s a very intimate space. And people form a relationship with those characters.”

I use the words “at home” above. That now also means Iceland. A few years back, Keeley took himself to Reykjavík and set up the pad from which he now plans his upcoming descent on the United States.

“I just love the place and then met my partner,” he says. “Most of the time, I’m somewhere else. Obviously, Ireland is my home. But, when I do have time off to chill, I come up here and gather myself.”

The temptation to do a “chill” gag is nearly overwhelming, but I manage to resist. Anyway, he is already halfway to the US.

“Exactly, it takes a few hours off the trip.”

Wrecker screens as part of the Screen Ireland Shorts programme at the Dublin International Film Festival in the Light House Cinema on February 24th.