If you were to delve into the canon of Irish literature you might well find that it philosophically steers towards an overarching sense of the absurdity of existence. Certainly, if you care to traverse the conceptually tortuous works of venerated Irish scriveners James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, you will discover myriad unsettling portrayals of what it means to be human in a randomly sequential universe, where humor and despair act as duelling catalysts for laughter and existential dread. It’s a comedic sensibility that this writer, at least, would argue is somewhat peculiar to those of Irish Gaelic genealogy, and it’s rather brilliantly mined in The Banshees of Inisherin, which stars veteran Irish acting legends Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as ex-friends ensconced in a downward spiral that portends mutual destruction, alongside sterling support from the Emerald Isle’s fastest rising star, the utterly brilliant Barry Keoghan.
In a film that largely circles around Gleeson’s character’s propensity for chopping off fiddle-playing digits and chucking them at a traumatised farmer, brilliantly played by Farrell, Keoghan supplies something of a moral compass in the form of a kind-hearted lovesick country boy, who, as we discover, has been repeatedly abused by his malicious and perverse copper of a father. With such dark-edged comedy playing against the bleak backdrop of a small fictitious island community lashed by windswept emptiness and parochial gossip, you could be forgiven for thinking that the latest offering from acclaimed playwright and director Martin McDonagh of In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri fame doesn’t sound exactly laugh-a-minute, but when you find yourself convulsing with laughter, just seconds before your heart drops through the floor, you’ll better understand the misery-stroke-hilarity paradox at its beating heart. Not least as the sad fate of the not-so-simple heart-sleeved local lad that Keoghan plays with such deeply understated grace unfolds.
“It is a breakup movie to me. I mean, it’s a really, really sad breakup movie, and there’s so much stuff in there that touches on the Irish culture, and that small town kind of mentality thing, but it could be set anywhere, and that’s the beauty of it–we can all relate to it,” opens the Dublin-born actor in his distinct cadence as we connect over FaceTime very early on a Monday morning, him leaning into a smart-phone camera from a car-seat, me downing my third cup of coffee in my PJs in deepest south London. “I read somewhere the other day that a male relationship breakup is probably harder than any other breakup, and, you know, it’s not something that we look at all the time–especially in Ireland where everything is so internal, and you don’t really see people expressing what they feel. I think we’re just sometimes too egotistical as guys to show any weakness or compassion, or anything along the lines of, look, I may be wrong, so I’ll put my hands up–we’ll often walk away rather than talk it out.”
Indeed. McDonagh’s Oscar-tipped investigation of unspoken and destructive impulses in male friendship is just the latest in a series of interesting character choices for the 30-year-old actor, whose rise has been unstoppable since his major big screen breakthrough as a chillingly cold and psychotic teen in Yorgos Lanthimos’s emotionally excoriating The Killing of A Sacred Deer, and it provides yet more testament to a rare acting ability that has witnessed him being hailed as the great white hope of his generation. But before I can get to any discussion of his clear talent, he breaks off suddenly, and disarmingly. “I’m so sorry I missed you the other day, by the way, man,” he says, referring to the missed chat we had scheduled three days earlier, in a way that is, as it turns out, characteristically down-to-earth. “We’ve literally just moved to Scotland with the wee one this week,” he continues with a broad smile, referring to his recently born son Brando, named after the great man himself. “I’m just in the car outside the house now–we’re pretty much still unloading.” And how is he finding his brand new home so far, I inquire. “It’s nice, man. There are a lot of similarities with Ireland here, actually, and a lot of the people have an Irish background–we were living in London, but it’s really great to be out of London with the kid, not to say London is bad for a kid, but it’s too fast for me at the minute.”
He’s clearly buzzing about his move, and I can’t help but ask him how much fatherhood has already changed his perspective on life. In a heartbeat it’s crystal clear that Keoghan is very much in love with what is arguably his most important new role, and his partner. “It’s breathtaking. It’s completely changed my outlook. I mean that. And you don’t really get that until you have your wee little one. I mean, you literally can’t be selfish, and you kind of forget to do things, like look after yourself …” he pauses, with a sudden laugh, the first of many. “I’m being a cheek, here, because my partner is the one who actually does everything, you know? I’ll be quite honest, she’s absolutely golden–you couldn’t ask for a better mother. If Alyson heard me saying, ‘Oh, yeah, you lose sleep, and you forget to look after yourself,’ she’d go, ‘You have a cheek!’”
And Alyson would be right. Keoghan has such an engaging audacity in his manner that it’s near tangible even via a smartphone, and it’s shot through with a generous dose of conversational enthusiasm. In short, he’s a strikingly positive and affable guy, but I can’t help but wonder if that glint in his eye is a by-product of his untypical, and one can only imagine a challenging upbringing–being raised between the care system and his grandmother following the tragic death of his mother to a heroin overdose when he was just 12 years old. I suspect such verve may be born of survival, which leads me to ask if the passing of his mother is actually what gave him his drive. “That’s something I think of all the time,” he says, thoughtfully. “Whether without the care system, and all of that, I would have had that drive. And you know what? I don’t know if I can answer it. It is definitely responsible for me wanting to make something of myself, now for my own family, and my little baby–that’s a new drive, as well, a new chapter, which is absolutely beautiful. But did all of that give me a drive? Yeah. It gave me ammunition, if you want to put it in that way. It was also a way of dealing with it, you know? Kind of expressing some pain through this form of therapy, as I like to call it–playing with characters and not really kind of confronting what’s there in front you, but doing it in a different sense, by putting on someone else’s shoes and delving into someone else’s life story.”
It’s interesting that Keoghan refers to acting as a form of therapy given the kind of thing he has taken on so far in his career–when looking to the likes of Chernobyl, American Animals, and Calm with Horses, intense is the optimum word one might reach for to describe his performances. So, was the initial draw to acting a cathartic way to leave pain behind for a while? “It kind of took you away and gave you a release, and a distraction, and, yeah, you could learn a bit about yourself, if that makes sense,” he continues. “I don’t know… Maybe even to just kind of express it, you know? That’s where the rawness comes from, because how I approach acting is to try and relate to the character, and bring up a past experience of my own to get there,” he pauses. “And that can be a dent on you, and can really damage you, in a way, but I think it gives you the truest, purest kind of performance.”
It’s a visceral purity that has not only attracted some of the most acclaimed directors working today, but one that also underpins this notion of acting being absolutely essential for Keoghan – driven by a need to explore, and perhaps heal an internal landscape, rather than a desire for fame. “It was never a conscious thing,” he continues. “I wasn’t ever, like, I’m going to use this as therapy. It was more a lane to go down that felt like a release, and a place where I could discover things about myself and, be challenged.”
This notion of being challenged seems core to Keoghan who is also a keen boxer, and it brings me back to where I was going to go initially in terms of exploring his range, and his seeming desire to portray the darker side of the human animal. “Do you know what, it’s more just characters that are complicated,” he says, countering my suggestion that he is drawn to darkness. “I mean, we’re all complicated humans, although sometimes we like to think we’re not. I do like to really get in there with a character and find the humanity, if that makes sense? Find the soul. A lot of the roles I have played have been kind of dark, but I’ve been playing those characters for a while now, and I want to kind of show the broader audience the opposite. I was lucky that the role in Banshees happened to be a pretty kind of pure and innocent one, so I had a chance to show that range, as every actor wants to do.” I suggest that perhaps not all actors are so interested in stretching themselves as much as he so clearly is. “Maybe. I suppose some actors sit in a box, and they’re kind of happy with doing what they know they do best. But I do really want the challenge. I feel it’s kind of my job to step into a part and bring an audience with me on a journey.”
It’s an ultimately heart-breaking journey we go on with wide-eyed local boy Dominic Kearney in Banshees, and it begs the question how he found the character’s humanity, and what he related to in both his circumstances and psyche. “Well, I did live in the countryside Ireland for a bit, and, you know, you kind of have that thing where everyone knows everything, man. I guess that’s a global thing as well, but in Ireland especially–everyone knows every single thing about you. I grew up in the city, and that’s a big bigger place, but even within my circle there, the idea of me wanting to become an actor and stepping out of lane was just not something that you do. And that was very suffocating, in a sense–so, I could relate to the same kind of thing in a smaller community.”
Staying in lane was clearly never on the menu for Keoghan, who had a sense of wanting something far bigger from a very young age. “Even when I was in school, I was always saying I wanted to become an actor. And I remember my teachers going, ‘Well, you got to do this, you go to do that,’ and lining me up for drama at a place that I would’ve never have got the points to go to,” he explains, when I ask him how he overcame the self-defeating mindset of his peers. “But I remember being, like, that’s not gonna work, anyway, man–because I always stood to the idea that you can’t teach somebody how to express. I mean, you can teach the technical side of acting, like how to hit your mark and say a line a certain way. But, I never believed in going to college for drama or acting, or anything like that. I didn’t finish school, you know? I was asked to leave, but it didn’t kind of make me go, ah, that’s my life ruined now, because I always knew what I wanted to do. And, you know, I was blessed, not lucky, but blessed that a television show came along, and the unit base of that TV show happened to be in my old school yard,” he laughs. “I went back in there with my head up!”
His career has snowballed fast since his initial break, and it’s interesting to note his use of the word blessed in this regard. I want to dig deeper and find out if he actually has faith of any kind, or is fatalistic. “It’s kind of just the sense that, you know, I’ll say a prayer to my mother, or believe that she’s by my side, and you know, you do get wee little signs, and that–it’s what gets me by, and keeps me in kind of a content state,” he pauses, for a moment. “Yeah. I’m a big believer in kind of pushing positive thoughts out there, and frequencies that attract good back. I suppose it’s basically the law of attraction. But I don’t believe in the law of attraction in a way that you ask for things, like, you know, money or cars, and that – I’m just asking for the opportunity.
Manifestation is one thing, but I suggest that being able to seize an opportunity in the moment it arises is also a distinct art, mentioning the philosopher Eckhart Tolle’s notion that one must give their fullest attention to whatever the moment presents. “Yeah. I like that,” says Keoghan. “It’s kind of like when we stay in our comfort zone, and that comfort is repetitive. If you do stay inside this little box, you’re not present, but when you step outside that box, which I love doing, you’re in unfamiliar territory and you’re totally present, because you don’t know what’s coming at you. As a person, I love that. I mean, you kind of have to be present in boxing, as well, otherwise, you’re gonna get a punch in the face.” Keoghan laughs again, switching to his other passion, a physical discipline he is definitely religious about. “I love boxing because I’m constantly learning and stepping outside of my comfort zone, and that applies to being an actor, as well. I always want a routine where I am challenged–I was not used to getting stuff handed to me on a plate growing up, so, yeah, I like the challenge and take the opportunities.”
Given his love of being pushed, which roles from his career does he think have stretched him most so far? “Every role challenges you in different ways and different aspects, but I think the most two recent ones, maybe…” he says, referring to both Banshees and the upcoming Saltburn from Promising Young Woman director Emerald Fennell–a film that has a plot still very much under wraps. “I mean, I would be excited to take The Joker on again and bring something new to him.” And for those few out there that have missed it, Keoghan made a shadowy cameo as an ‘unseen Arkham prisoner’ in Matt Reeves’s pitch-black re-boot of Batman, and the actor has since clocked up a staggering five million-plus views on YouTube in a deleted scene shared by the director, in which said prisoner is revealed as The Joker. “It’s always my angle, to bring something fresh with every part, and by that freshness, I just mean entirely being me, because my version of The Joker will be kind of different, you know, and you are delving into a whole backstory there that’s massive. “ It certainly is, and it’s also a gargantuan franchise that is pure Hollywood, so in closing, I suggest we turn our conversation to Tinseltown, and his feelings about that privileged enclave nestled in the hills overlooking the vast city of angels.
“There’s a lot of great energy there, but everything kind of revolves around the industry in Los Angeles. That’s not a bad thing, but, for me, I do need different lanes, if you get me–different focuses. I’ve got family now, and there’s no way I’d have them, in and around all of that. I don’t think it’s fair. It would be kind of a selfish thing if I expected my son and my partner to be out there. I do enjoy it when I’m there, and you meet lots of incredible people, but then I come back to my life here, and get back to doing normal things,” he says emphatically. “You can be looked after so much on film sets, and that, but it’s a danger in a way, man – you can forget how to butter your own slice of bread, if that makes sense,” he laughs. “Or maybe how to change a nappy, in my case! I like the balance of both, because it makes me appreciate both.”
And as we wave goodbye, it strikes me that a genuine appreciation of all life has to offer seems core to Keoghan’s identity, and I can’t see him forgetting what’s truly important in this all-too-short and oftentimes absurd experience we call existence anytime soon.
Written by John-Paul Pryor
Photographer: Jason Hetherington at The Associates Management
Stylist: Jay Hines
Groomer: Leonard Daly using Dior Beauty
1st Assistant: Alfie Bungay
Digital Tech: Andy Mayfield
Location: Night Dawn Studio