Barry Keoghan is distracted and destructive. We're sitting in a conference room at perpetually buzzy film distributor A24's Manhattan office in early September, talking about his incredible life story and star-making year, which includes his heartbreaking portrayal of George Mills in Christopher Nolan's astounding WWII film Dunkirk and his sinister, darkly comic, and thoroughly chilling turn as Martin in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos's twisted and brilliant follow-up to 2015's Oscar-nominated breakout The Lobster.
He's polite and responsive as we converse, but similar to the ominousness that lurks just out of frame in so many pivotal scenes of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, there's something just out of my vision that's capturing the 25-year-old's attention: his luggage. He kicks at it with a certain restlessness that belies his candid and thoughtful answers, and it's at this point I notice the pile of broken coffee stirrers that sits on the table between the two of us. Later, he pulls out his phone to show me a file on his Notes app containing his "dream list" of directors he's told his agents he wants to work with; it's long, exhaustive, and the type of document put together only by someone with a creative restlessness and an urge to keep moving forward, forward, forward.
The art of movement is key to Keoghan's way of being; as well as being an actor, he's also an amateur boxer, a surprising career choice for a curiously handsome young man who also moonlights as a brand ambassador for Dior. We talked about his upbringing and punchy way of living, the darkness of his latest role, and his personal heroes.
VICE: You grew up in the Irish town of Summerhill. What was that like?
Barry Keoghan: You're the first American ever to say "Summerhill" instead of "Ireland."
I did my research.
My mother was from Summerhill—she was on heroin, and she died from it. I grew up in foster care, and my granny raised me from when I was 12 on. Coming from the working class makes it hard enough to get into this game, but coming from foster care with no parents is even harder. I'm wild proud where I come from, because if I can fucking do that, then anyone can. It's nice coming from Summerhill, because you don't come from having everything, and what you do get you appreciate.
How was being raised by your grandmother?
She's a woman—an Irish woman. You think of an Irish woman, she is that. She raised ten children, and worked two jobs, I think. She's a proper woman. My aunt raised me before, and the two of them raised me and raised me good. She's a tough one. She's responsible for everything that I've done.
Did you learn anything from her as far as growing into being a man?
I'm good to women. I treat women with a lot of respect. That's probably from being raised by a woman—I hold her responsible for that. I treat women very good.
Did you know when you were younger that you wanted to be an actor?
I thought I was going to be a footballer or a boxer or something like that—I was into sports. When I'd done acting, I don't know, there was something about it—I can't pinpoint what it was, and I don't do pinpointing well. The perks of it are all great, but there's some other reason why I do it, and I don't know, so. It's therapeutic—expression and stuff—so it's along the lines of that.
I got into acting through a notice in a shop window: I rang the number, and they were looking for non-actors, so I started there. Then I went to this place called the Factory, which was literally a cold, old factory, with Jim Sheridan and the like. We experimented with cameras and old movies—and it was freezing, this place. It wasn't a school, just six hours, but I was educated there. We were watching good films and working with good filmmakers. Then, I got an agent, and from there I went on.
Are you still engaged in sports now?
I box in Ireland now—the Celtic Core. It's something I do on the side. I'm not serious about it, just some bit fond. I'll fight in the end of the month.
Some would say boxing is diametrically opposed to acting.
So different—but, then again, so alike, because it's about being present and taking your mind off everything. Being present is hard. It takes a lot of to forget about everything and take your mind off something, but once you do it—like, sitting here right now, it's totally present because I'm trying to think of what I'm saying to you. That's why I'm involved in acting and boxing. When you've got a lad standing opposite of you, you're definitely present. You can't think about what you're having for dinner. Same with acting. When you get into your scene, you're in a different world—and it's nice for me, you know. It's also art, and it's like art watching boxing—their hands flow, people move. It's nice.
Did you watch the Floyd Mayweather–Conor McGregor fight?
Who were you rooting for?
McGregor, of course—he's our boy. I'm proud of him. He's from ten minutes down the road from where I'm from, and he's a businessman and an inspiration. He's actually inspired a lot of people in his attitude, and the way that you can be and achieve what you want. He's unreal.
What was school like?
I was a mess-up in school, a big mess-up. I was into history and English, because there were always stories, like Dracula and World War II. I've never read a book, though. Never. Comics, I read a lot. I just can't hold concentration. I know that sounds off the wall, but I just can't. I need to learn how to sit and read a book.
You were educated in film under Jim Sheridan. Were you into watching movies before you met him?
Yeah, but I didn't know who Brando or Paul Newman was. When I watched those old movies, it just reminded me that I never got to meet my granddad. He was a doctor, a war vet, and he worked on the docks. Watching those movies reminded me of him, and home, and how people talked to ladies and held their dresses and themselves. It was completely different.
Did you like listening to music when you were younger?
Yeah, a lot of hip-hop—Eminem and 50 Cent. I religiously listened to them, 24/7.
You're coming of age in a time where hip-hop has replaced rock music as the sound that young people gravitate toward in their formative years.
It's poetry, isn't it? You know, Eminem, he talks about stuff that you talk with when you're at your friend's house. He just says stuff that you think about, and he's a working-class hero as well.
Your two big roles this year are very opposed to each other thematically.
Which is really great, man. I respect other actors when they can totally immerse themselves in different worlds and characters. George is naïve and innocent, and Martin is completely tormented, so it was fun playing with that range.
For a lot of Americans, the story of Dunkirk was new to them. As someone who grew up in the United Kingdom, was it a story you were familiar with?
Not really. We didn't get taught about Dunkirk, even though a lot of Irish fought in it. Respect to them, and the English guys as well. I was new to the story—and I wanted to stay new to it, and not do my research on it, because I wanted to stay naïve to it all. Now I know a lot about it, but George was naïve to it so.
What was your first thought when you saw the script for The Killing of a Sacred Deer?
This is weird. This is really really weird.
Had you seen The Lobster ?
Yeah, so when I read it in that tone, I totally got it. I just wanted to do it. I have this list of filmmakers that I want to work with, and Yorgos Lanthimos was on it. I showed my agents the list, and when this came up, I read the script and said, "Let's do it."
Martin is a complex role to portray. How do you wash that off when you go home?
It was refreshing, if that's fair to say. I just said the lines. You approach Yorgos with a back story, and he'll cut you off—he doesn't want any of that. So it was refreshing to just know the lines, say them, and go home. That's all I did. It was such good dialogue to mess around with, so it wasn't that draining, to be honest.
Near the end of the film, Martin's role is fairly physical.
Well, I joined a boxing club while we were filming in Cincinnati, and I was doing that too. I was keeping my fitness levels up, but I let myself go a little as well because I didn't want to be clean-cut—I wanted to look like a kid and be out of shape.
Weren't you worried that, if you were boxing while filming, you'd get hit in the face?
Of course—but I can't get hit. They can't hit me.