‘The Eternals’ actor Barry Keoghan on his difficult upbringing: “I use my pain as ammunition”

Ireland's rising star recounts his difficult childhood in Dublin

Barry Keoghan is set for the stratosphere. Having spent the past few years working with prize-winning directors like Christopher Nolan on Dunkirk and Yorgos Lanthimos, who cast him as the chilling, spaghetti-guzzling baddie in The Killing of a Scared Deer, the Dublin-born actor will next star alongside Angelina Jolie and a heavyweight Hollywood cast in Marvel’s The Eternals, which lands in late 2020.

But before then he’s taken a detour back home, more specifically to the stark, scenic west of Ireland for Calm With Horses, a low budget, passionately performed indie film featuring fellow breakout actors Cosmo Jarvis and Niamh Algar. Ahead of the film’s release we chatted with the star-on-the-rise and devout Harry Styles fan about his troubled path into acting, coronavirus, and his newly green-lit biopic about Old West outlaw Billy the Kid.

Calm With Horses
Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan in ‘Calm With Horses’. Credit: Altitude

This was the first small budget film that you’ve worked on in a while. What was production like?

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“We spent a lot of time in this small hotel on location so we got to know each other pretty quickly. The great thing about low budget movies is that they’re less scheduled, so there was more of a chance to figure out our characters and see how our dynamic played out. With Dympna, he’s got this bravado but he’s also insecure. I wanted to show this scared boy in him.”

What made you want to work with the director Nick Rowland?

“Nick had done this short film made on a small budget called Dancing in the Ashes that was incredible. He understands when to let a scene play out; if he sees the rawness in an actor unfolding he’ll let it happen and capitalise on that.”

It’s a weirdly beautiful depiction of Ireland given that it’s occasionally a very violent film

“It’s not your postcard west of Ireland is it? It’s not [1952 Ireland-set comedy] A Quiet Man, but it’s still beautiful.”

You had a difficult time growing up in Dublin, living for seven years in foster care before being raised by your Gran. What motivated you to get into acting?

“Acting has been my tool. All artists have pain that they draw upon, and I use mine as ammunition. It’s the reason why I play these shady characters, or characters with such depth, because I can bring my pain into their stories.”

Barry Koeghan
Barry Keoghan played a minor role in Christopher Nolan’s WWII epic ‘Dunkirk’. Credit: Alamy

What films did you watch growing up?

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The Basketball Diaries [1995] was one of my favourites, then On The Waterfront [1954] and Cool Hand Luke [1967]. These were the movies that spoke to me. I was very good at watching good movies, especially when you don’t know what good movies were when you were young.”

How did you find these films? They’re not necessarily what you’d rent from Blockbuster as a kid

“I got involved in this workshop that collaborated with young actors. It wasn’t a stage school, it was an old factory where we’d go to workshop scenes and play out characters. We’d always watch a film or two every week on the big screen like Cool Hand Luke. That’s how I got introduced to good cinema.”

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
Barry Keoghan in ‘The Killing Of A Sacred Deer’. Credit: Alamy

Does music play any part in your acting?

“Music is a hugely important thing for me when I’m playing a character, especially if I need to go back to a certain place or moment to perform in a scene. For Calm With Horses I listened to a lot of dance and house music, which is my sort of music.”

Who are you listening to at the moment?

“Harry Styles, I love his new album. I find him and Stormzy fascinating. My girlfriend and I went to see Harry play at the Electric Ballroom in Camden and we didn’t know that he was bringing Stormzy out, and you couldn’t ask for better. I love [Irish singer-songwriter] Dermot Kennedy as well.”

The Eternals

How else do you relax when you’re not acting?

“When I’m not working it’s boxing for me; I box a lot. It can get very distracting in this game what with living in LA and everything, and finding the calm between the madness is important.”

Your co-star in Calm With Horses, Niamh Algar, boxes as well – who would win in a fight?

“Niamh, definitely. No question.”

The premiere of your film The Green Knight was supposed to be at SXSW but has been cancelled because of the coronavirus. Are you disappointed?

“Yeah I am, but safety first. It’s a tough, scary time we’re living in at the minute. I’m such a hypochondriac; I was in Milan three weeks ago for fashion week, which is where the coronavirus broke out, and when I called my girlfriend when I got back to New York she said that I should go and get tested. In my mind I played it out way bigger than I should’ve, so I hung up the phone and ran to the nearest Medical Centre and explained where I’d been. They put a mask and overalls on me – everyone in the whole building had to put masks on – and I was brought to the back where I had to get an X-Ray. And I was fine; I’d brought all that upon myself.”

Who else would you like to work with that you haven’t already?

“I want to work with Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, and Celine Sciamma, who did Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Those three ladies are at the top of my list. Their films have such strong stories; Celine’s Girlhood has stuck with me since 2014. The performances are so raw that I thought it was real. It let me in so much, and I always find that fascinating, how a director can get actors and actresses to trust them like that.”

What else have you got in your sights?

“I’ve got this Billy the Kid movie going that’s been three years in the making, and Bart Layton [who Keoghan worked with on American Animals] is going to direct it. We’re going to tell the story from behind his eyes, no clichéd Western, just a human film about Billy the Kid. We’ve just had the green light to write the script, and I’m going to play Billy, so I’m very excited.”

‘Calm With Horses’ is in cinemas now and will be released digitally on April 27

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