A men­ac­ing ba­nal­ity

Greek di­rec­tor Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’s tale of vengeance taps into his young star’s gift for an un­emo­tional de­liv­ery

The Australian - - ARTS - PHILIPPA HAWKER

In The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer, Ir­ish ac­tor Barry Keoghan gives one of the most un­set­tling per­for­mances of the year as an Amer­i­can teenager whose men­ace and power emerge di­rectly from po­lite­ness, ba­nal­ity and un­read­able blank­ness.

Keoghan, reared by his grand­mother in Dublin, had an inkling at school that he wanted to act. “I messed around on stage and school do­ing Christ­mas plays and get­ting a few laughs, but be­cause I was mis­be­hav­ing they took all that away from me. And I thought, ‘that’s the end of that’.”

He loved box­ing and soc­cer, he says, but he also loved draw­ing: he wanted to be cre­ative and was lucky enough to find a way. “I think a lot of lads do, but some­times they don’t know where to go with that and what to do. But when the op­por­tu­nity arises, they have the chance to show that they have a lot of imag­i­na­tion.”

He got his chance at 17, when he an­swered an ad­ver­tise­ment for an open au­di­tion. He landed a small part in a film, and the di­rec­tor wanted to work with him again. He got an agent and started to find big­ger roles, first in Ire­land, but soon far­ther afield.

He couldn’t have been hap­pier to be cast in The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer, di­rec­tor Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos’s tale of sub­ur­bia, sac­ri­fice and vengeance. He’d al­ready loved the stylised strange­ness of The Lob­ster, the first English-lan­guage film by the Greek di­rec­tor. He keeps a list of film­mak­ers he ad­mires and he had added Lan­thi­mos im­me­di­ately.

“When I met with my agents I put it out to them, I said, ‘ He’s some­one I want to work with.’ And this movie popped up, I sent in the tape, and lucky days.”

Lan­thi­mos called Keoghan to Lon­don for an au­di­tion that con­sisted of word ex­er­cises and scenes from the script. “He wanted us to put our hand in the air while we talk and leave it there, or bounce a ten­nis ball off the wall. It was all part of fo­cus­ing on the di­a­logue and say­ing it with no emo­tion.” Keoghan was ready for this, he says, well aware of the flat tone and de­liv­ery that the film­maker tends to pre­fer.

Keoghan’s char­ac­ter, Martin, is an enigma from be­gin­ning to end. When we first see him, meet­ing an older man (Colin Far­rell) at a cafe, we won­der what’s go­ing on be­tween the pair, but it’s not what it may seem at first. Far­rell’s char­ac­ter is a sur­geon, and there’s a his­tory to his re­la­tion­ship with Martin that grad­u­ally emerges. Yet we never re­ally know what to make of the boy or his seem­ingly un­canny pow­ers.

It’s cer­tainly not re­solved for Keoghan: he didn’t need to know ev­ery­thing about his char­ac­ter to play him, and he likes it that way.

“Yor­gos didn’t ex­plain any of that and still doesn’t. I think it’s up for grabs. Ev­ery­one comes out with a dif­fer­ent view on what Martin did or what he had.”

We talk about a mem­o­rable con­fronta­tion scene in which Martin, eat­ing a bowl of spaghetti, comes clos­est to ex­plain­ing him­self, in the most off­hand fash­ion. The whole point was not to em­pha­sise any of it, Keoghan says. “Yor­gos loves it, that’s his style, to throw it away.”

He was also fas­ci­nated by Lan­thi­mos’s vis­ual style, and the way he worked with his di­rec­tor of photography, Thimios Bakatakis.

“I was very cu­ri­ous, ask­ing a lot of ques­tions about the cam­era. I loved the track­ing shots and ev­ery­thing. And at the end of the movie Yor­gos gave me a cam­era, a Nikon FM2,” a gift Keoghan has been putting to good use. “On all movies, I love what goes on with that. I’m al­ways cu­ri­ous about the shots. I’m al­ways ask­ing, ‘ Can I look through the lens?’ It’s some­thing I think I want to do.”

Keoghan came to Sa­cred Deer straight from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, in which he played Ge­orge, a sweet-na­tured boy who sets out across the Chan­nel on a res­cue mis­sion with no idea of what he’s let­ting him­self in for. They are vastly dif­fer­ent roles in dif­fer­ent kinds of movies, but Keoghan says the film­mak­ers have things in com­mon. “They’re sim­i­lar di­rec­tors in that they’re very pre­cise, they don’t say a lot, they have the whole vi­sion in their head. You can ar­gue every di­rec­tor does, but these two are ab­so­lute mas­ters of it.”

Keoghan’s big break was as a teenager in a tele­vi­sion show called Love/Hate, in which he played a vi­o­lent young crim­i­nal. He be­came best known for a scene in which he shot a cat. It caused so much out­rage that a TV chat show ar­ranged for an an­i­mal han­dler to bring in the cat and con­firm that it was still alive.

The role, says Keoghan, “was the start of it all. The start of be­ing no­ticed on the street for me, it was re­ally weird, and it still is. I took it well, I think. Peo­ple say, ‘Can we get a pic­ture?’ and I say, ‘Yeah of course.’ I like to know their names when they ask for a pic­ture. I don’t want to give them im­pres­sion ‘I’m bet­ter than you.’ I want to make us both equal, find out their name and where they’re from.”

Af­ter Dunkirk, he says, it started to hap­pen over­seas. “And it’s still very weird, It’s some­thing to get used to, I think.”

His main fo­cus, he says, is that list of di­rec­tors. “Paul Thomas An­der­son, Jeff Ni­chols, Barry Jenk­ins: there are more than 30 names. But I think the Bri­tish and Ir­ish are the ones I want to work with for a while be­cause there’s just some­thing about home.” The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer opens to­mor­row. David Strat­ton as­sesses the film

‘The start of be­ing no­ticed on the street for me, it was re­ally weird, and it still is. I took it well, I think’ BARRY KEOGHAN AC­TOR

Colin Far­rell, left, plays a sur­geon whom Barry Keoghan’s char­ac­ter, Martin, meets in mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances in The Killing of a Sa­cred Deer

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