Jacket by Sacai. Sweatshirt and trousers by Off-White. Sneakers, worn throughout, Keoghan’s own.
Barry Keoghan is ready to grow up. The Irish actor is making the usual progress in real life—having celebrated his twenty-fifth birthday last month with box seats at a Lakers game thanks to his girlfriend and cake and Champagne at the Chateau Marmont courtesy of Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed him in the unnerving new film The Killing of a Sacred Deer—but it has been slow going on screen. “I want to transition into a man now,” he laughs. “I’m twenty-five and I played sixteen-year-olds twice this year.”
But Keoghan has those two teenage roles to thank for his breakout year, with a supporting part in Christopher Nolan’s World War II epic Dunkirk and now as the terrifying antagonist in the festival favorite Killing of a Sacred Deer, from one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic directors. “I had a list of directors I wanted to work with when I signed with my agent in Los Angeles and Yorgos and Chris Nolan were on that list,” he recalls. “It was like I attracted them, like the law of attraction.”
Born and raised in Dublin, Keoghan did not have an easy childhood. His mother died of a heroin overdose when he was young, and he was shuffled between foster homes until his grandmother took him and his brother in. When he was seventeen, he saw a notice for an open call for non-actors for a film called Between the Canals and booked it. “Acting wasn’t something I set out to do,” he says. “As I did it, bit by bit I started getting interested in it, and I was getting paid for it as well, so happy days.”
After a few more films, he came to national attention in 2013 in the organized-crime series Love/Hate, playing a cat killer and perhaps first demonstrating his penchant for dark roles. Around that time, as work kept coming, he decided to quit school to focus on acting as a career. “I remember not being able to go back to school,” he says. “I wasn’t good at school, to be honest. It didn’t work for me, and I was like, ‘No, I can do acting, I don’t care.’ I was starting to get interested as well in the craft of developing and playing characters and putting someone else’s shoes on for a little while, so that really got me.”
Over the next few years, he appeared with Jack O’Connell in ’71, about the Northern Ireland conflict, and Michael Fassbender in the crime drama Trespass Against Us, and went to Sundance with Mammal, in which he embodied his homeless teenager Joe with a wild intensity. With no formal training, Keoghan seems to have an intuitive sense for character, as well as an inborn restlessness and inquisitiveness. “I’m always asking the question, ‘What can I do different? What can I bring to it?’” he explains. “I suppose it’s down to what you express, and I like to contain a lot. It keeps people wondering.”
Keoghan shares this dismissal of easy answers with both Nolan and Lanthimos, and he spent several months last year filming Dunkirk and Killing of a Sacred Deer back to back. In the former, he plays George, who helps Mark Rylance pilot a small boat across the English Channel to rescue some British soldiers played by Cillian Murphy, Fionn Whitehead, and Harry Styles. That meant many weeks at sea—actually, a lake—with the celebrated Rylance and Murphy, and Keoghan says that his first experience on such a large studio production was illuminating in many ways. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to working with [actors like that],” he says. “You kind of get all that out of you before you go on set, but you always lose your breath a little bit. Then once you get chatting to them you see that they’re just normal and that breaks.”
But it is Killing of a Sacred Deer that will be seen as Keoghan’s true international breakout, thanks to his mesmerizingly unsettling turn as Martin, a lonely teenager who insinuates himself into the family of Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, and their two children. The film, which won Best Screenplay at Cannes in May, has the same deadpan tone and eerily relatable profundity as Lanthimos’s 2015 cult hit The Lobster, with an added twist of violence and revenge. “I’m a huge fan of his, just the worlds he creates and that he has his own rhythm and language and style of acting,” says Keoghan of Lanthimos. “He’s a genius.”
Somewhat surprisingly, given the cohesiveness of the archly straight-faced performances, Keoghan says Lanthimos is a relatively hands-off director. “He gave very small direction,” he explains. “I think that’s a part of his way. He does everything in the casting room. He figures you out and he says he wants to cast not the acting ability but the person who he’s interested by as a human being.” Instead, the director made the cast perform physical exercises with tennis balls and pens while reciting their lines. “It’s all part of distracting us from attaching emotions and feelings like you do in other movies,” Keoghan says. “He makes you contain a lot, so there’s a storm going on up here, but it’s all minimal.”
One additional benefit of Lanthimos’s style was the ease with which Keoghan was able to shake off his troubled character and the somber themes of the film. “He’s quite dark, but it was very refreshing for me because you don’t attach all these emotions to it,” he laughs. “I was able to go home and dig into a pizza and watch NFL and chill because I didn’t go home drained going, ‘Aw, I had to cry today on set.’”
With the film now in theaters in America and rolling out across Europe, the response has been unsurprisingly disconcerted—which Keoghan says is exactly how they would want it. “It’s a challenging movie,” he admits. “Just like The Lobster, it’s up for grabs. I’ll bet your feeling and my girlfriend’s feeling towards it are completely different. It’s a film that has a ton of layers and everyone walks out with their own interpretation.”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer also served as Keoghan’s initiation at Cannes, where it won the award for Best Screenplay. “Jake Gyllenhaal was sitting in front of me and Charlize Theron was over there,” he recalls. “Watching it with all those people for the first time was an experience. I was super proud of what Yorgos had done with it and what everyone else put into it. It hit me then and there that I’m part of a masterpiece.” Still, Keoghan says that the attention the film garnered proved to be overwhelming at times, although the experience served as invaluable practice for the international press tours for Dunkirk and the theatrical release of Killing. “I had about sixty interviews in a row with Colin and I just wasn’t ready,” he says of press day at Cannes. “I couldn’t get my answers straight.”
Still living in his native Ireland in Killarney, Keoghan says he is ready to continue his international ascent. 2018 will see him in Black 47, about the Great Famine, opposite Hugo Weaving and Jim Broadbent and in the heist drama American Animals. The rare free time that he does have is taken up with boxing, a lifelong hobby, and photography, which Lanthimos encouraged by giving him a Nikon after their film wrapped. But even as he stretches himself in other directions, acting is currently front and center for Keoghan. “It’s a fun job. You’re always learning and you get to do so many things,” he says. “You get a pass to be anything. You can play a rally driver’s life or you can be a pilot. You get to experience all these things and that interested me.”
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is out now.
Styling by Britt Berger. Grooming by Eloise Cheung at Kate Ryan Inc. using Kiehl’s. Photographer’s assistant: Rich Wade. Special thanks to Gabriel Jackson and Jess Ouwerkerk.