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Barry Keoghan, left, and Evan Peters in a scene from American Animals.The Orchard

When playing a psychopath, there are as many benefits as there are downsides.

There is the instant recognition factor, sure – the villain is often a film’s most exciting element, and audiences tend to latch onto whoever might be playing such narrative devices. But there is the risk of playing the part too well, leading to a career plagued by typecasting. That doesn’t appear to be the plan for Barry Keoghan.

The 25-year-old delivered one of the creepiest, most sinister turns in recent cinematic memory last year with The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In the latest exercise from Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos – who seems to prize audience punishment as his most enduring trait – Keoghan played Martin, a disturbed teenager who becomes obsessed with befriending and then destroying the family of a heart surgeon (Colin Farrell). With a visage that feels both baby-faced and hardened by chaos, and a sly physicality that suggests he could beat the living tar out of you if provoked, Keoghan provided Lanthimos’s film with an unpredictable and alluringly compelling sense of pure menace (as well as the most indelible scene involving spaghetti since Harmony Korine’s nightmarish 1997 film Gummo).

The young Irishman could’ve easily parlayed that breakout role into any number of juicy and easy villainous turns. Instead, he’s been intent on flipping the script, first as the sweet and naive war recruit George Mills in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and now as the foolish, but far from villainous, ne’er-do-well robber Spencer Reinhard at the heart of American Animals.

The new crime drama arrives from director Bart Layton, a filmmaker whose background in documentaries might seem like an odd fit – until you take one look at American Animals and realize it’s more of a cinematic experiment than a straight heist film. About three-quarters of the movie is dedicated to Keoghan and Evan Peters playing their bumbling college-kid crooks, while the remaining portion focuses on interviews with the actors’ real-life counterparts who (spoiler alert) got caught.

Keoghan isn’t quite the villain here, nor is he quite the hero – which is exactly why the actor signed on.

“Every actor wants to show a good and deep range, so you look at all the elements here and you make a conscious choice of where you want to go as a performer,” says Keoghan in an interview. “Compared with Martin, Spencer isn’t dark at all – he just wants an experience, something to get out of life.”

Not that Keoghan would call The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s Martin a villain, either. Not really. “I don’t see him as that, but that’s probably because as an actor you have to justify every decision your character makes, and convince yourself it’s the right decision,” he says. “For Martin, he needed that one thing: revenge. I don’t see him as a dark person, necessarily.”

That might strike some fans (or victims, depending on your tolerance for Lanthimos’s cinematic methods) of Sacred Deer as a strange thing to say, but Keoghan knows of dark places.

The actor grew up in Summerhill, Dublin’s north inner city, surrounded by trauma. His mother died from a heroin overdose when he was young, while he and his younger brother spent time in foster care before his maternal grandmother (“You think of an Irish woman, she is that”) raised him from age 12 on. A good chunk of his youth, he once said, was spent as “a messer.” The only reason Keoghan isn’t still rolling around on the streets of Summerhill is the fact that he came across an ad for open casting on Mark O’Connor’s 2011 gangster film, Between the Canals.

“I reckon that’d be the case,” Keoghan says when asked whether that ad saved him from a life of trouble, though he quickly adds, “I think I would’ve found myself in the arts somewhere along the lines. If you’re creative, you find something, eventually.”

Potentially, though there is little denying Keoghan’s remarkably fast upward trajectory. Since breaking into the business, he’s kept a note on his iPhone updated with his wish-list of directors. Originally, it included filmmakers Nolan, Lanthimos, and Layton (acclaimed for his 2012 doc The Imposter) – all collaborations that he’s since made a reality. Now, the list features Paul Thomas Anderson and fellow Dubliner Lenny Abrahamson (Room). No calls from them, yet.

“The next move for me is just to get to L.A., that’s where I want to go,” says Keoghan, who’s made Dublin his “big green” home base up until this point. “But I better get walking, though. Do you know of any jobs coming up?”

I’m sure there are a few good psychopath roles up for grabs, I reply. But those don’t seem to be quite Keoghan’s thing right now.

“Well,” he says with a laugh, “keep an eye out for me, will you?”

American Animals opens June 22 in Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary