“I’ve said, I made you shed tears for me in Dunkirk, and now I’m going to fuck you up,” says Barry Keoghan. The 25-year-old Dubliner had his breakout role in Christopher Nolan’s summer epic, as a kindhearted lad who joins Mark Rylance’s rescue mission and ends up getting a firsthand look at the horrors of war; he’s currently starring alongside Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, playing a dead-eyed teen menacing Farrell’s family through methods that are never entirely explained. The two characters could not be more different — “I wouldn’t like them to meet, I tell ya,” Keoghan says — and for the young actor, it’s a chance to show off his incredible range. Speaking to Vulture at the Sacred Deer press day, Keoghan talked about nailing the movie’s strange tone, growing up in the inner city, and why he’d love a part in the DC Universe.
I loved this movie. It’s really fucking weird.
It’s so weird.
The whole movie has this sort of blank flatness to it. How did Yorgos get that out of everyone?
He never really does ask for any of that. It’s pretty much, you take that tone coming into it, from watching his previous films. I was acting along Colin, which helps keep that tone, that rhythm. Colin has been in one of his movies before and he kind of mastered it. So when he’s giving these lines, you’re kind of replying in that way too.
Was it hard getting into that mode?
No, no, it was very refreshing. I’m a big fan of interiorizing my feelings and we do that in day-to-day life. This is a movie where it’s totally internal and you don’t see anything on the surface. The dialogue really took care of a lot of things for us as well. We really didn’t have to emphasize feelings going into it. Just know your words and keep everything internalized.
Was it hard to keep that locked in day after day?
The most hardest thing for me, if I’m being honest, was keeping a straight face. Because it was so funny, man, delivering these lines.
Was there a line that broke you?
Yeah, the armpit hair one. [At one point, Keoghan ask Farrell’s character to show him his armpit hair; Farrell obliges.] “Okay, yeah, you do have more armpit hair than I do, but not two times more.”
One of the things I liked about the movie was that it never explains why anything was happening. Did you think about that?
Erm, no. Yorgos never explains why. You stop asking a lot of questions because you won’t get given a lot of answers. He’s not like any other filmmaker. He’s not a big fan of, “So you’ve come from this scene …” He’s not a big fan of this whole backstory thing. He treats his audiences clever.
You have an amazing scene where you eat a big plate of spaghetti in front of Nicole Kidman.
That was the second day. A big bowl of pasta in front of you — you know as an actor you get these opportunities to have props like that in front of you and you can mess around with the stuff.
How many takes did you do?
Quite a few, yeah. So I had to eat a lot of pasta.
Was it painful?
Yeah it was, carbed up. It was horrible.
In the scene you do a monologue about how everybody eats spaghetti the same way. Is that true?
I think in that way, everybody does eat spaghetti the same way. It’s such a cool piece of dialogue to play around with in that scene. He gets so upset about that, not the fact that his father has died but this spaghetti thing.
And you’re wearing this bright white shirt. Did you get any of it on the shirt?
I tried to be as sloppy as I could.
How does Christopher Nolan’s direction compare to Yorgos’s?
They’re very similar: very precise and very small in detail. Geniuses are, you know? They’re very close to you.
Like physically close to you?
Yeah, they’re both with you: They step in, they say a few words to you. They don’t have this whole [waves hands].
You’ve been creepy in Sacred Deer, and very nice in Dunkirk. What would you want to do next?
I’d like to transition now into a man. I turned 25 like two days ago. I’ve been a kid. I look like a kid onscreen in most movies. So I want to do a film where I’m near enough to my age. I want to play someone like Billy the Kid. Nightwing really interests me.
You’ve already worked with Chris and Yorgos. Who are your other dream directors?
I have a list on my phone. I’ll show you now. Watch this. [He pulls up an iPhone Note with a list of names that includes Lenny Abrahamson, Lynne Ramsay, Jeff Nichols, and more.] Anyone that interests me goes straight into that list. There’s 30 or 40 people on that list. And this is a list I had before I signed with my agents. I said to them, I said, “I have this list of directors I want to work with.” They were like, “You’ve got great taste. Where did you get this taste from?”
Where did you get it from?
I don’t know. I’ve been lucky to be educated by watching the old and the great movies, working with good filmmakers, and being educated on sets.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned on set?
Treat everyone the same, basically. It’s a tough, tough thing this filmmaking. Everyone is pulling the same amount of work — the cameraman, the runners. I always try to remember everyone’s name. I know Daniel Radcliffe does that. It’s a hard thing to do, but it makes a ton of difference and all that. It’s nice when someone knows your name.
What’s your favorite movie?
Basketball Diaries and Cool Hand Luke. They’re just movies I adore. I look at them when I’m having a down time. I look at these movies to remind me of stuff.
What do they remind you of?
Cool Hand Luke is basically, we put on this front, don’t we, of nothing’s bothering us and we’re all cool. But stuff is eating us inside. It’s all right to let your guard down once and again. And Basketball Diaries is that heroin affected my family. My mother died of heroin when I was like 12.
And so Basketball Diaries, Jim Carroll’s story definitely touches me a lot. And Leonardo DiCaprio — there’s one reason why I started acting as well, is because of that performance he gives in it.
So was it just you and your dad?
No. My father passed away as well. And my granny took us in when we were 12. We were in foster care before that. Heroin affected Dublin big time. It cut a lot of families. A lot. I mean, it’s nice to come from foster care to being in all this. It’s something I want younger people to look at, coming from a city where there’s not a lot of opportunities, to look at someone like myself who’s making a career out of movies and go, Well, he came from Dublin. It doesn’t matter where you come from. I hope I’m sending that message.
I’ve heard Dublin can be rough.
With every inner city, there’s not as many opportunities as there is in the more privileged part. I grew up in the inner city so that’s why I speak for them. But I mean, Dublin’s a great place. It really is. It’s a great place. And Ireland especially is a great place. I’ve realized that growing up more. I’m loving my country more as I’m getting older.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. It’s just because you get a bit a sense of everything when you’re away, don’t you? You get a bit understanding of your own country when you’re away and the respect people have for Irish people. We’re a very old country in that sense as well — all the wars and the fighting through the years. But yeah, I just love it. That’s why I still reside there. I don’t plan on moving. If I do, it’s to New York.
My dad’s from the North. He never wanted to take us to Dublin because he got his bike stolen there once.
Let me tell you something about Dublin. No other county in Ireland likes us because we’re the best at Gaelic sports. They all say they’re the best. I live in Kerry with my girlfriend. It’s gorgeous up there, but they hate Dubs.
What do you like about Nightwing?
His detective skills. His gymnastics. Everyone’s a fan of Batman, but no one wants to look at Robin. Dick Grayson is my favorite. I’ve got books and books about Robin.
Did you see Batman Forever?
Yeah, I remember Chris O’Donnell played Robin. But I remember Jack Nicholson’s one with Michael Keaton. That was incredible. I love that. You have Jack Nicholson, then you have Heath Ledger. Those two Jokers and then we’re looking at DiCaprio as a Joker.
Is he actually going to do it though?
I’d love that. I could be the Robin to DiCaprio’s Joker.
Who would be the Batman?
Tom Hardy — no, Tom Hardy’s Bane.
It’s a little too close.
This interview has been edited and condensed.