Barry Keoghan Is Ireland’s Most Exciting Young Actor

As his new film, Calm With Horses, a meditation on violence and redemption in the west of Ireland, arrives in cinemas, Finn Blythe gets to know more about the rising star

Seven years have passed since Barry Keoghan last rubbed shoulders with Ireland’s criminal underclass as a cat-killing psychopath named Wayne in the hugely successful Irish drama Love/Hate. He was a teenager then, a little-known actor with an extraordinary look that lent itself to chilling moments of brutality (like mowing down an innocent mog with a submachine gun).

Now 27, he returns to the shady and equally vicious ganglands of his native country as one of its most accomplished young talents, with a string of superb performances in The Killing of a Sacred DeerAmerican Animals and Dunkirk that have brought admiration and respect from all corners of the industry. 

Based on the novella by Colin Barrett, Calm With Horses, directed by Nick Rowland, is a tale of violence and redemption in the ominously picturesque rugged hinterlands of Connemara, western Ireland. Douglas Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis), known simply as Arm in his small town, is hired muscle for the Devers crime family, yet despite his aptitude for beating people senseless, proves a sensitive soul, with a crooked smile that betrays a nervous vulnerability lurking beneath his imposing frame. 

If the Devers are his surrogate family, Dympna Devers, played by Keoghan, is Arm’s manipulative brother, desperately trying to prove himself capable of stepping into the family trade with his violent outbursts, souped-up coupé and dodgy hair. Though Arm is the more obvious victim of his surroundings, caught between his ruthless employers and the love for his ex-girlfriend and autistic son Jack, Dympna is equally adrift, with a bravado that fails to conceal the insecurities that haunt him.

With huge projects coming later this year, including A24’s The Green Knight and an initiation into the Marvel universe with Eternals, Keoghan’s global recognition will only grow. Nothing beats home support though, and having just returned from Dublin for Calm With Horses Irish premiere, the film’s strong reception in his hometown has left him riding high. 

Finn Blythe: Tell me about the Dublin premiere. It must have been that extra bit special.

Barry Keoghan: It was crazy, man. It being an Irish movie about Ireland, there’s a certain nervousness that comes with that because you’re like, ‘fuck, I hope I’ve done the accent well and I just hope I’ve paid my dues right’. I think Ireland and England are going to get this movie more than the States.

FB: Why English audiences?

BK: I just think it has that kind of Shane Meadows [director of This is England] feel; The Selfish Giant was referred to as well [2013 film, directed by Clio Barnard], a kind of gritty edginess. ’71 was an Irish story but an English movie, England loves it, you know? I just think they’ll get it, man. 

FB: I gather Nick Rowland had you in mind for this part and flew over to Ireland especially to speak with you. How did he sell you the film and what do you recall from that initial conversation?

BK: In that initial conversation I wanted to play Arm, because Arm is a boxer and I’ve been boxing since I was 14. Having the background in boxing I thought, ‘shit, here we go, this is a film about a boxer that doesn’t necessarily show anything in the boxing ring – perfect’. But then he told me he wrote Dympna for me and Dympna had a lot of shade which then became a license to have more fun. There’s a lot more to play with.

FB: He’s that much more difficult to like and understand. Arm is obviously the one we’re rooting for.

BK: Yeah and I think because he was more obvious and Dympna was that crazy on page, I wanted to bring a human side to him and show that it’s a front, basically. This image, this everything, I wanted to get that out. 

FB: Were you basing your performance off anyone in particular?

BK: It’s a combination of many people that I’ve seen. But it is a countryside mentality of following the family, stepping into the shoes of your olders so I just based it on that. That was the draw of the role for me – as I say, I knew there was a lot there I could play with.  

FB: I’ve been to Connemara and it’s incredibly beautiful but there’s obviously a lot outsiders don’t see.

BK: It’s painted in that picture: it’s the quiet man and a lovely postcard image. It is that, but there are edgy sides to it as well. I think we captured that a little. But yeah, it’s kind of all over the country, down south, to the west, the east – you find those characters in every town. It’s a character, that’s what Colin Barrett did – he makes the west of Ireland a character in the stories. 

FB: What is that character?

BK: That unpredictable wilderness.  

FB: Michael Fassbender co-produced, did you have any contact with him?

BK: Not in this, man. He’s a legend though, he’s actually from Kerry where I live with my missus. But just knowing that he’s on board is so awesome. Michael has a great taste in movies, from Hunger to Steve McQueen – just great taste. 

FB: You’ve been lucky: Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender, Cillian Murphy, you’ve worked with them all.

BK: All the Irish, man. That’s some crew to follow because what a handsome collection men and then this [points to his face, laughs]. No, but the Irish lads stick together and they’re all so different, Cillian, Colin and Mike are so different, I’m just blessed I got to work with all of them. 

FB: What kind of guidance did they give you?

BK: It’s the Irish kind of advice, and it’s not much said. It’s like, just listen. Colin is great in that sense, and Cillian as well, Mike I’ve yet to hang around with a bit more. The lads have been very observant on what I’m doing and what I’m picking and what I’m doing off the camera, too. They keep checking in; that’s them looking out for me. 

FB: And what are you doing off the camera?

BK: I box, that keeps me from going insane. Boxing and photography I have a love for, and I want to direct. There’s so many things I’m interested in, I don’t just want to act. I definitely want to move into the world of directing. 

FB: Have you got any personal projects going on?

BK: Well I’ve brought together this Billy the Kid project, that Bart Layton [director American Animals] is going to direct, Hunter Andrews is writing it. I’ve been trying to get this made three years now, it’s a Billy the Kid story that’s more humanised, more on the eyes. We just got the green light to go write the script so I’m constantly looking for projects to get and do. 

FB: Tell me about where you live in Kerry, are you in quite a rural setting?

BK: It’s beautiful. It’s like Connemara, it’s wild, the people are great. New York and LA and London even, they run at such a pace that sometimes when you come off a movie you just want things to slow down. It sounds cheesy but you want to be in a place where you don’t know what time it is, you’re just in this different world. In London and New York even on your days off you’re meeting people. That’s all well and good but the work I put into movies, and everyone else, it is quite intense and you need that bit of time to chill. 

FB: You’ve been working on Eternals. It’s very much the opposite end of the spectrum to Calm With Horses and I just wondered what you missed from that?

BK: That’s what Chloé [Zhao, director of Eternals] brought, she’s an amazing director and person as well. She’s got this ability to get this performance out of you, and I can’t wait for people to see the film. Picture what she did on The Rider, picture that translated to the Marvel world, so there’s a lot of intimacy there.