Barry Keoghan: ‘I’m standing there with Angelina Jolie behind the curtain’

The Irish actor on LA living, the hazards of Dublin and difficult ‘culchie’ accents

The official trailer for Calm With Horses, starring Cosmo Jarvis, Niamh Algar and Barry Keoghan. Video: Altitude Films

 

Barry Keoghan has just been poured off the plane from New York. By his own account, he is struggling to readjust to the old country. Dublin 1’s fastest-rising actor – unless he has already risen – makes apologies as he bustles about the overstuffed room in the Merrion Hotel.

“Yeah, I just came from America. I am bollocksed,” he says.

He doesn’t look particularly bollocksed. His skin is a healthy nut-brown. His slender eyes refuse to droop. I’d say he’s doing well for a man under the jetlag cosh.

“Someone said that. How do I look brown? New York is cold right now,” he says.

Keoghan, close to marking a decade in the industry, and his supportive (I’m betting, patient) girlfriend, Shona Guerin – she is mentioned often, always favourably – have been living together in Los Angeles since 2018. The gamble looks to have paid off. Later in the year we will see him play Druig, a superhuman of imposing aspect, in the upcoming Marvel flick Eternals. Before then he will turn up in David Lowery’s medieval epic The Green Knight. He is currently visiting Dublin International Film Festival to support Nick Rowland’s Irish crime flick Calm with Horses.

Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm with Horses
Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm with Horses

Not a trace of LA has rubbed off on him. The vibrant, cackling Dubliner who played the cat killer in Love/Hate is still with us. Has he eaten the Californian lotuses? Does he miss the old manor in Summerhill?

“LA is where the work is, man,” he says. “I have to do that. I miss home, but when you get home you get itchy again. I want to get back to New York or LA. Being home like this is nice because you are coming home for something. But coming home just for the crack is different. You’re maybe down the pub every night. That’s not bad either. I do miss going in to watch a game on a Sunday and put a bet on with the lads. You do miss that.”

I get the sense he has a bit of a battle going on here. Keoghan is a fiercely loyal Dubliner who needs no encouragement to talk up the Irish film industry, compatriot actors or the nation’s sportsmen. But he seems to be making a conscious effort to make a new life for himself elsewhere. I wonder what he thinks of the changes in the city. He came of age during “the slump”. For many in Dublin, the slump hasn’t gone away.

“I haven’t gone back much,” he says. “I go back to see my nanny. But when you go back you fall into old habits – like going into the pub and shit like that. I don’t want to be doing that. I stay focused on my craft, if you get me. I still like a few drinks. But if you go back to any area that’s comforting, you fall back into that – drinking and so on.”

Glorious mess

He fits in with Los Angeles. We tend to forget the city is a glorious mess of interlocking cultures. Still, there are certain cultural complexities to be dealt with. You need to be in a car at all times, for a start.

“Yeah, you have to drive,” he says. “Well, my lady drives for me. I can’t drive.”

He can’t drive?

“Well, I can drive, but I am not allowed to. I got banned here. I wonder if I am still banned there. I was done for two years. It should be up soon. Did you forget? They put me on the front of the paper.”

Obviously The Irish Times would not bother itself with minor scandals such as his run-in with the cops in Kerry for driving without insurance. We are above these tabloid vulgarities.

“Uber gets you around. But they can rack up the costs.”

I am standing there with Angelina Jolie. You look up to these people and then they end up as these caring women who look after you

Keoghan was born in 1992 and grew up in an area ravaged by heroin addiction. He has told me the story three or four times before and, as he’s probably now realising, he will be telling it to journalists until he retires. He went into foster care – an experience he talks positively about – after his mother died of a heroin overdose, before ending up with a much-adored grandmother. She comes up in an unexpected corner of the conversation. Keoghan is telling me about early promotional activities for Eternals. He has already been shuffled from one event to the next with Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie.

“I am standing there with Angelina Jolie behind the curtain,” he says. “You look up to these people and then they end up as these caring women who look after you. Growing up with women – like with my granny and that – it’s nice to have that on set. That maternal thing is great. Angelina is also a director. So she is looking out for us. That’s an experience. It was lovely. I look forward to getting back to that.”

I assume his grandmother would enjoy that comparison.

“She’d love that. I’ll tell you. They all looked out for me. If I struggled, they all rooted for me … My granny is my centre. She always has been. She is a strong lady, my granny. She toughened me up all right.”

I met Daniel Day-Lewis. What a legend. Yeah, I do get tongue-tied in that situation

Keoghan enjoyed being in a play at school, but he had that “taken away” for misbehaving. He shelved pipe dreams about acting until he encountered an ad in the window of a shop on Sheriff Street. Mark O’Connor, still a stubborn independent film-maker, was casting a rough-hewn film called Between the Canals. Keoghan loved that experience. He later shone opposite John Connors in O’Connor’s mad, experimental Stalker. Keoghan seems to have been a natural.

“Yeah, Between the Canals gave me that shot, and then Stalker gave me another push to show what I could do,” he says. “It does go back to Mark. Me taking down that number in a shop window. He’s a great dude. John Connors was also really good to me. I remember on the prep for Stalker, we’d be in character in town. We’d go around for seven or eight hours in character. That was me learning my craft. It wasn’t stage school. That was how we learned our craft.”

Irish Rada

He goes on to praise Maureen Hughes, legendary Irish casting director, for putting him the way of Love/Hate. That show hosted an extraordinary array of Irish talent, some fresh, some experienced: Ruth Negga, Killian Scott, Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Charlie Murphy. The world’s film and TV industries have been making good use of the alumni ever since. Love/Hate was our Rada.

Eternals shows the power Keoghan is gathering. Calm with Horses confirms his commitment to modestly budgeted Irish cinema with an awkward edge. Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis play two friends knocking about a dangerous, consciously heightened version of gangster Ireland. It could be set in any one of 16 counties, but it’s definitely not Dublin. Keoghan is good at the accents.

“But I find doing an Irish accent tough,” he says. “Doing west of Ireland is hard. I found it tough. You can go too much in one direction. I had my girlfriend beside me and she was saying: ‘Where the fuck are you supposed to be from?’ She’s from Kerry. ‘Culchie boys don’t sound like that,’ she says. Well, they do to us.” (Like I said, a patient woman.)

Barry Keoghan and his girlfriend, Shona Guerin. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty
Barry Keoghan and his girlfriend, Shona Guerin. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty

Keoghan is amusingly vague about his recent invitation to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This is the body that – among other glitzy stuff – gets to vote on the Oscars. Who wouldn’t savour that ballot arriving in the mail?

“You know what? I haven’t signed up to it yet,” he says. “What a thing to be invited into the Academy. To read that I was invited with Lady Gaga. That really is something. I feel that I am part of the community. So I will be able to vote on that. I haven’t signed up yet. But I have that down to do. You get to have a say on what films get to win.”

Billy the Kid

None of which should give the impression that he lacks any enthusiasm for the business. He positively buzzes when he talks about the possibilities of acting. He reveals that he is working on a Billy the Kid project with Bart Leyton, director of American Animals, and Irish producer Ed Guiney. “That is going to be a cracker,” he says.

Barry Keoghan at an Academy screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer in New York, 2017. Photograph: Lars Niki/Getty
Barry Keoghan at an Academy screening of The Killing of a Sacred Deer in New York, 2017. Photograph: Lars Niki/Getty

He laughs at the beautiful absurdity of being introduced to Alfonso Cuarón by his good friend Salma Hayek. He talks about her interest in crystals. I wonder if any of the talent Keoghan now rubs against causes him to shuffle his feet in quiet awe. He has always seemed irrepressible in company, but he has admirable respect for senior figures in the acting game. Colin Farrell is a massive influence. Michael Fassbender is a mentor figure. Then there’s the guvnor.

“I met Daniel Day-Lewis. What a legend,” he says. “The great thing was he knew my name: ‘Barry, good to meet you.’ He is a huge fan, apparently. He is a critic. He is very precise. When I met him I just couldn’t hold my shit. It was like: ‘Daniel, I am sorry … I can’t believe this.’ He said: ‘Relax.’ Yeah, I do get tongue-tied in that situation.”

Did he tell Day-Lewis to ditch this retirement lark and make another film?

“No, I haven’t got there yet. ‘I have this script…’ Ha, ha! He is the master. And he counts himself as Irish.”

The patient Shona has arrived to spirit Keoghan away to red carpets. There is much halloing and shaking of hands (virus be damned). Their adventure continues. What a trip it has been. What would he advise younger travellers?

“Don’t follow the money,” he says. “That has been what I have been doing so far – trying to tell the stories I want you tell. Follow the art.”

Calm with Horses is in cinemas now

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