Barry Keoghan Is Ready to Lighten Up
Barry Keoghan’s sculpted arms tell two wildly opposite stories: One of death, and one of life. A gnarly scar creeps up his right elbow, slightly purple and protruding. He makes no effort to hide it, wearing a tightly-fitted black t-shirt with sleeves that end well above his biceps. The scar is the lingering reminder of a case of necrotizing fasciitis—caused by flesh-eating bacteria—that struck him shortly before shooting his new darkly comedic drama, The Banshees of Inisherin, which opens today. “I was in a lot of pain,” he says over an iced Americano in the swanky lobby restaurant of the Mandarin Oriental, where he is staying for the New York premiere. “It swelled. They have to leave it open to heal. But it’s like ten days in hospital on a drip, and the frightening part was being told, ‘We don’t know where this is going. It’s a life-threatening infection.'” Instead of rehearsing with his co-stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, Keoghan was left to consider whether he would die or his arm would have to be amputated. When he finally got to the island where filming was taking place, he was still in pain and needed help getting dressed. “I may have been in a daze,” he says.
His left arm has a happier saga. Around his wrist there’s a bracelet made of pink stones, which he says represents “positivity.” He got it when he and his girlfriend Alyson Sandro wandered into a tarot shop in London with their newborn baby named Brando. The reader pulled three cards, one for each member of their family. “My one said ‘content and happiness,'” he says. “Alyson’s said she’s tired after giving birth, basically spot on. And then Brando’s was, he’s mysterious. He’s like the shady part of the moon. I was like, ‘God, Alyson, what have we brought into this world? This mysterious man.’ It kind of suits him though.”
This left/right dichotomy feels apt for a film actor who can be used to absolutely chilling effect, like his creepy stalker in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and the new Joker for the Robert Pattison era, or to portray pure innocence, like the eager volunteer entering a war zone in Dunkirk or, most recently, Banshees, in which he plays Dominic Kearney, a boy whose simpleton mannerisms are mostly played for comedy until the tragedy of his existence reveals itself in full. That dichotomy has made the Dublin native one of the most thrilling and genuinely unsettling presences in modern cinema. His small, piercing blue eyes can convey either menace or childlike recklessness depending on the part he’s playing, and his loose, almost jittery, movements can be used to similar variation.
Things have been hectic for Keoghan lately. Eight weeks ago he was in the middle of shooting Emerald Fennell’s Saltburn, her follow-up to Promising Young Woman, when Brando was born, and the actor got just one day off for the occasion. (Fennell’s drama marks his first-ever leading role, and production couldn’t afford to miss him more than that.) After the film wrapped, Keoghan and Sandro, who had been living out of boxes, moved to Scotland to be with her family. Before they could get settled they headed off on the Banshees press tour with a very little Brando in tow.
The Mandarin Oriental’s vast windows overlook Central Park where Brando is, at present, touring the scenery, but Keoghan is eager to show me pictures of the baby on his phone. There’s one from a Screen Actors Guild screening of the baby in front of his namesake “Marlon Brando” theater in the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex. Another shows the tiny boy all dressed up for the premiere in a patterned cardigan and a bowtie.
Keoghan pulls out his blue iPhone a lot over the course of our conversation. In the notes app, he has a list of directors he wants to work with—Andrea Arnold, Barry Jenkins, David Michôd, Sebastián Lelio, Greta Gerwig, and Lynne Ramsay, among others—as well as a document that details his acting method. (Not The Method, to be clear. Keoghan’s own version.)
Keoghan’s phone actually plays a key role in his experience with The Banshees of Inisherin, which takes place in 1923 and follows two former friends in a tiny community who spiral after one (Gleeson) abruptly declares he doesn’t want to hang out with the other (Farrell) anymore. The movie reunites Keoghan with Farrell, who the younger actor says has been like a “big brother” to him ever since they shared the screen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In that film, Keoghan skulks around as a vengeful teen who threatens a surgeon’s whole family with horrific deaths if Farrell won’t pick and murder one of them. On that set, Farrell had mentioned to Keoghan that his In Bruges collaborator McDonagh might have a part for the younger actor. Then Keoghan saw McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and was even more eager to work on one of the writer’s projects. To help manifest the role, the actor installed a picture of McDonagh—gray-haired with always a slight wily look in his eyes—as the background on his phone. “My friend actually thought it was a picture of Sting,” he says. “He was like, ‘He’s like why do you have a picture of Sting on your phone?’ I was like, ‘No, it’s a picture of Martin McDonagh. I want to work with him.'”
Keoghan still had the photo on his device when he went to a midtown-Manhattan diner to meet McDonagh, but quickly took it off before the director arrived. Despite covering his tracks, Keoghan still told McDonagh about the image anyway. The unabashed show of fandom didn’t seem to hurt Keoghan’s chances.
This is also not the first time Keoghan has decided to put a goal out into the world. He famously tweeted “Stan Lee, Please Make me a SuperHero :)” in 2013 and was eventually cast as immortal being Druig in Marvel’s Eternals. He believes, he says, in the “law of attraction,” the idea that you can attract opportunities. This thought process is also tied to his own version of spirituality. He prays often to his mother, who died of a heroin overdose when he was 12. “I’m pretty, pretty sure she’s right by my side all the time,” he says.
Taken in as child by his grandmother, aunt, and cousin, Keoghan gleaned mannerisms from the likes of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. “There’s a composure about him that he won’t break until the end—actually he doesn’t, because he leaves with a smile,” he says, reminiscing about Newman’s defiant prisoner. “It speaks to me in many ways.” He still watches the movie when he feels down. Another one he frequently returns to is The Basketball Diaries. Leonardo DiCaprio’s addiction drama reminds him of his mom.
Keoghan projects a looseness that comes along with his confessional honesty, but he’s also methodical about his career path. He wants to work with Patricia Arquette, Adam Driver, Joaquin Phoenix, Christian Bale, and Tom Hardy. (He and Hardy were both in Dunkirk, but they didn’t share any scenes, and only met once, briefly.) Keoghan’s also hoping to coax Daniel Day-Lewis out of retirement for a Billy the Kid movie he’s developing. It seems like a long shot, but he did once meet Day-Lewis, who apparently said he was a “massive fan.” It would be an understatement to say the feeling is clearly mutual.
Keoghan knows he gets typecast as a sinister presence, but wants more opportunities to show his range, thankful that in Banshees he shows a sweetness. That said, he’d jump at the opportunity to play the Joker again, following up on his brief cameo in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. “I’d love to show a little arc of him,” he says. “If I could bring him to life that would be amazing and give you my version, which you’ve not seen.” His latest task for himself is to gain muscle—not to win superhero roles or adhere to some ab-tastic body standard. Instead, he wants to change his physique to see what kind of roles that gets him: He’s already no longer the wiry kid from Killing of a Sacred Deer. “Tom Hardy in Warrior and Brando does it well,” he says. “I want to get there and kind of then show vulnerability, because that’s what’s real.”
He’s speaking, of course, of Marlon Brando, not Brando the baby, though the latter is his next priority. In a couple of months, when the Banshees promotional gauntlet calms down, he’ll head back to Scotland to focus on that part of his life. He feels he might get restless, but then corrects himself. “I guess looking after a little boy I’m not going to be rested,” he says. “I’m excited for that.”