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