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‘I have a career plan and if I want to work with someone like Christopher Nolan, I put it in my notebook’… Barry Keoghan on playing the Hollywood game

Barry Keoghan sounds genuinely intrigued. “Oh yeah?” he asks earnestly, “What did Angie say?” I’m surprised and delighted that I’m going to be the one to tell him that Hollywood royalty Angelina Jolie has been singing his praises, declaring him “fun and cool”, “really intelligent”, and “an exciting young talent”. “Hold on! I have it written down!” I say, diving for my notebook before a peal of laughter stops me in my tracks. “Ahhh, I’m messing!” Keoghan cackles over Zoom. “Sure I have it framed.” Of course. As if something like that would pass you by. He’s joking about the frame… I think.

e’s still chuckling away to himself, as tickled by having got one over on me it seems, as he is by the fact that a bona fide A-lister, “Angie” — with whom he co-stars in an upcoming Marvel movie — has been telling the world that he’s a rare talent.

But why wouldn’t he laugh? Life is pretty good for the 28-year-old Dubliner. He’s in two of this year’s most anticipated movies — the aforementioned Marvel superhero epic, The Eternals, and in The Batman alongside Colin Farrell and Robert Pattinson — with a glut of other exciting projects in the mix, some of which, sadly, aren’t up for discussion. “Contracts and shite like that,” he says ruefully, adding tantalisingly: “But the next one… everyone in Ireland will absolutely love it.”

Looking over his CV to date, that seems a safe bet. From blasting (virtual) cats in Love/Hate in his breakout role as the chilling teenage foot-soldier, Wayne, back in 2013, Keoghan has gone on to work with some of the industry’s most celebrated directors and talent. He’s had roles in Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and HBO’s Chernobyl. He recently earned a Best Supporting Actor Bafta nomination for his role in the 2019 crime drama Calm With Horses, has a Billy the Kid biopic in the mix, and a wealth of big-name fashion labels keen to dress him. The list goes on… “It’s brilliant, I’m blessed,” he says. “I never say ‘lucky’ because I don’t believe in good luck, but I am blessed to be working alongside incredible actresses and actors and amazing crew and directors, and everyone else who goes behind these movies that we make. I really am blessed.”

‘Blessed’ certainly isn’t a word
that would have been associated with the earlier part of Keoghan’s life, so there’s something wonderful hearing him describe it that way now. He’s always talked openly, without bitterness, about the challenges of his youth.

Keoghan grew up in Dublin’s inner city, and his mother died from a heroin overdose when he was 12. He and his brother entered foster care and moved between 13 different homes, before being taken in and raised by his grandmother Patricia and aunt Lorraine.

Like many of us, it’s been ‘Nanny’ he has missed most during the mayhem of the past 16 months. Keoghan’s been living between LA, New York and London for several years, but Dublin is home. And, mindful of the risks of travel and potentially exposing older family members to infection, it’s been a while since he’s been able to get home. “Ah jeez, I’d love an aul hug,” he says wistfully. “Let Nanny take me in, let me aunty cook me stew, watch Winning Streak — that’s my Saturday night sorted!” He gives that distinctive, mischievous cackle again and it’s impossible not to laugh with him. There’s something very relatable about Keoghan. Despite the A-list CV, and an ever-growing social media following, he still feels like someone you’d see down in the pub and want to have a pint with. It makes him a perfect fit for the Guinness ‘Every Moment Counts’ campaign he’s now fronting.

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Barry Keoghan for Guinness. Photo by Andres Poveda

Set in warm glow of a bustling (Covid-19 regulation compliant) bar, he’s at the centre of an ad that taps into the yearning so many of us have felt for the return to the snugs, bar stools, real glasses and pints of draught in our locals.

Against the anthemic, uplifting vocals of Dermot Kennedy, Keoghan delivers a monologue in celebration of the pub, urging patrons to abide by the rules, stay sound, and make the good times last. Ever the experts at capturing a cultural mood, this offering, which also sees the brand committing €14m to supporting pubs and communities, joins the pantheon of great Guinness ads. “Guinness make such quality ads, and it’s such an Irish thing to do, it’s important to my culture, it represents us in a whole way,” enthuses Keoghan. “To be in a Guinness ad is…” he trails off searching for the right word. “Iconic?” I suggest. “Yes! Iconic. That’s the word,” he repeats it with relish.

“I’ve had it written in my notebook for ages to work with Guinness,” he reveals. This is where it gets interesting. Because, while ‘good things come to those who wait’ might be the mantra for Guinness, it doesn’t exactly apply to Keoghan, he’s more of a ‘make things happen’ kind of guy, with a strong faith in the power of manifestation, putting his ambitions, and himself, out there in a bid to make them happen.

The notebook has been working its magic so far. Not only can he tick Guinness off the list, but also many of the directors he’d set his sights on working with, including big names like Christopher Nolan, Bart Layton and Yorgos Lanthimos. He has no issue with being a bit ballsy in the hope that it might get him the work he wants: Layton got a tweet, Girlhood director Céline Sciamma has had an Instagram message expressing his desire to work with her. “Please make me a superhero” was the tweet he sent to the late Stan Lee, co-creator of iconic Marvel Comic characters such as Iron Man, the Hulk and X-Men, in 2013. Now Keoghan plays Druig in The Eternals — another one crossed off the list.

Approaching directors, being up front about what you want (but without the crippling fear of ‘what will people think if I don’t achieve this’) well, it’s not very Irish, I contend. “We’re very apologetic in everything we do,” agrees Keoghan. “But I feel — and I don’t mean this in a cocky way, so please put this across in the best way you can — but there’s only one you and people have not seen that. It’s hard because we want to protect ourselves and put on a front, but if you can be yourself, then that’s what unique is — being you.”

He feels able to put himself out there and say what he wants because he doesn’t feel the weight of public expectation. “There are only two people I really listen to having a say on me, and that would have been my mother and my granny,” he reveals. “Everyone else? It really doesn’t bother me, opinion wise. So when I put myself out there, I’m not being apologetic to anyone. I don’t really care what other people think, to be honest.”

What does he think his mam would have made of where he is now?

“Ah, she’d be super proud. I really hope that she is proud. I get these moments when I go into rooms and I’m looking for some sort of support. And I come out of that room going, ‘Where did that energy or that push come from?’ and that’s herself, I really believe that. I know she’s alongside me, enjoying all this.”

And Nanny? Did he do that rite-of-passage thing and get his gran something flashy like a Gucci bag when his first big pay cheque came in? “Nanny in Gucci…imagine!” he chuckles again. “Ah, I always look after the lads at home and when this Covid thing stops, I’ll have her on a cruise somewhere.”

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Barry Keoghan contemplates the pint of plain in the ‘Every Moment Counts’ campaign for Guinness. Photo by Andres Poveda

He loves that rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s elite doesn’t cut it with Nanny. “I could tell her I’m working with Brad Pitt and she’d say, ‘Yeah?’ and then I’d say I’m working with Phil Mitchell in EastEnders and she’d go, ‘Aaaah! No way!’ That’s the attitude there and I love it.” He’s also at peace with the fact that, to a certain demographic, no matter what critically acclaimed performance he delivers, he’ll always be known first as the wee fella who shot the cat in Love/Hate. “I saw a paper with ‘cat killer gets cast with Nicole Kidman’ and I was like, ‘Do I not even have a name?’,” he says. “But it’s brilliant, it represents that Irish humour and if you can’t deal with that, then get the boat.”

It’s a similar story in his local, The Bridge Tavern in Summerhill. It’s there or Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street (“gorgeous Guinness, packet of Tayto, in the snug and a bit of how are you?”) he’s picturing when he imagines that much-anticipated first pint after reopening. “The Bridge Tavern is right where I live and it’s been brilliant to us over the years. My nanny walks in and gets her seat no matter who’s sitting there,” he grins. “I’m dying for the pubs to fully reopen.”

It was in a Co Kerry pub in 2017 that met his partner of three years, Shona Guerin. The couple did an episoode of Living With Lucy together and were a permanent presence in each other’s social media until last year, prompting rumours of a break-up. Since we’re chatting about bars, I ask about the meeting. “Let’s stay away from all that please,” Keoghan asks gently — and we move swiftly on.

“[The pub] is a place where we stand up and share music, sing and tell these incredible stories and it’s the old lads who are the ones who can hold the room,” he continues. Really? Even when there’s an A-lister at the bar in the Bridge Tavern? “Ha, all I get is, ‘Alright Hollywood, get us a drink there, would ye?’ That’s all I’m referred to as, ‘Hollywood’. I’ve no first name. But it’s great to have that sense of humility and being brought back down if you think you’re any way with the stars… You can tend to get a little bit that way when you’re being looked after on movies and you don’t have to lift a finger. It’s kind of dangerous. Gorgeous but dangerous.”

This all sounds like Keoghan has managed to remain very down to earth, but ever since actor Orlando Bloom revealed to the world that he likes to start his day with “green powders that I mix with brain octane oil, a collagen powder for my hair and nails”, we all know the best way to check someone hasn’t lost the run of themselves in LA is to ask what they’ve having for breakfast. “A bowl of Flahavan’s with some milk and some sugar,” Keoghan replies, adding that his rejuvenating ‘go-tos’ are Milk of Magnesia and “some TCP in a bath — that’ll keep me young forever”.

But if people think he’s different to how he was before hitting Hollywood, then he’s not convinced it’s a negative. “It’s not necessarily ‘being LA’. When people say you’ve changed, it’s not change necessarily but culture. Being away, getting more of a taste for new foods, juices, broadening your vocab, being introduced to new stuff that you take a liking to. It’s all part of finding yourself, mixing with different crowd. It’s just part of growing up, I think.”

Colin Farrell, who appeared alongside Keoghan in the 2017 thriller The Killing of a Sacred Deer, once said he’d “miscalculated” his co-star, first registering Keoghan’s youthful exuberance before only later becoming aware of the depths behind that initial impression. It’s an understandable reaction. Yes, there’s the messer in him, the joker. And there’s something a little naïve and charming in his willingness to expose the gaps in his knowledge, the way he laughs freely at being taken in by products promoted on podcasts and talks guilelessly about his ambitions. But there’s also a steely core. Yes, he’s giving of himself in interviews but you always feel he’s in control of just how much he’s choosing to share. He’s sincere but he’s also savvy.

When I ask him about the advice he’s taken from the more seasoned actors he’s worked with, I’m anticipating some insider tip on honing his craft. Instead, his reply is more mature. “The thing I’ve taken from them is engagement. How they talk to people off screen. I’ve always noticed how they talk and how they hold themselves. When you’re talking to Colin, Cillian [Murphy] or Michael [Fassbender], they look at you and they listen, and it’s genuine — no matter who they’re talking to — it’s genuine, and they give them that time. That’s a great quality to have and something I’d like to take a leaf out of… leave the acting part out, but as a young man that’s something I intend to be.”

So far Keoghan’s roles have been varied but always at the darker end of the character spectrum. Now, he’s ready for something different. “At the minute I’m looking at getting a bit bulkier; to get away from the typecasting and stuff and to broaden the roles that I’m being offered. Because I’ve played a lot of parts where I’m the villain or the kid, and now I’m looking to transition into a leading man. It’s part of the plan.”

He wants to be a leading man with a difference. “There’s a stereotype that leading men tend to be more muscly but they can’t show feelings, they have to be a ‘man’s man’. I want to size up to show that no matter what size you are, you can show your feelings and be vulnerable. It’s part of a plan at the minute.”

Ah, ‘the plan’ — no wonder he said he doesn’t believe in luck.
“It’s all a plan, it’s all a game and it’s how you play it. This industry doesn’t only come down to talent and creativity, it’s all tactical and you have to sit back and look at the business side. Talent will get you so far, but you’ve got to look at choices.” He continues: “This is what I’m trying to do. Just broaden those choices. As an actor, I’m very picky in what I do and I follow the film-makers, but I also want to prove to myself and have that career in years to come where people say, ‘He[’s] done that? And
that?’”

Our time is up before I get a chance to tell him something else I found out: That the bookies have cut the odds on him getting an Oscar by 2025 from 12/1 to even money. But I dare say he’s well aware of the fact, and it’s already in that little black notebook.

See guinness.com

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