“Watch me make him miss,” says Barry Keoghan, showing off a recent video of him sparring in a boxing ring. Lithe and vicious, the 25-year-old actor is working a gambit, drawing his opponent into throwing big, useless punches that he dodges and counterattacks. In the ring, his head never stops bobbing; his footwork is a kinetic maze. Now hunkered over his phone at a restaurant in downtown New York, he says, “It’s all about working the angles.”
Keoghan has just arrived from Toronto, where he presented Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest psychological horror film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, alongside his co-stars Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell. “You would think it would be intimidating,” he says of acting opposite such heavyweights, “but they made it easy. Very easy.” In a riveting and highly complex turn, Keoghan plays Martin, a boy who sets out on a path of vengeance after his father dies under the scalpel of a heart surgeon.
After this stopover in New York, he is headed back to his native Ireland and boxing practice. “Where I’m from, every kid is in the club,” he says. It’s what kept him disciplined and out of trouble growing up in Dublin, where he was raised in foster care and then by his grandmother. (His mother died from heroin-related causes when he was a boy.) “Boxing isn’t a career,” he says. “Acting is it for me. But they’re both very therapeutic. Acting brings up a lot of the past. I use my memories, whether they’re good or bad. I need ammunition.”
At 17, Keoghan noticed a flier in a shop window for an open casting call, landing his first acting gig and subsequent roles, including a part on the popular Irish gangland TV drama Love/Hate. More jobs followed before he secured a major role in Christopher Nolan’s WWII blockbuster Dunkirk. When Keoghan first met his American reps, he brought along a list of directors he wanted to work with; Nolan and Lanthimos were both on that list. “I have confidence,” he says. “I don’t know where I got it from.” Next, he’ll appear in the BAFTA-winning filmmaker Bart Layton’s heist film American Animals.
And although he’s garnering acclaim from audiences and critics alike, there’s one opinion that truly matters to him. “Granny is super proud,” he says, “but she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. Those are the people you want to surround yourself with. This industry can take you in and spit you out. It’s overwhelming. But I keep my feet on the ground, my Air Max on the gravel.”