Interview: Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer


Barry Keoghan’s latest role sees him tackle something a little different: the unhinged teen, Martin, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer. We sat down with Keoghan to talk to him about his new villainous role, his favourite directors and spaghetti.

Richard Hayward: I have been fortunate enough to see a lot of movies during this year’s London Film Festival, but few stood out to me as much as The Killing of a Sacred Deer, particularly your turn as sociopathic youngster Martin. Seeing at at a 9am showing was quite a wakeup.

Barry Keoghan: [Laughs] 9am? Jeez man, that’s like a shot of espresso.

RH: You’ve already worked with a huge wealth of talent, with directors Christopher Nolan and now Yorgos Lanthimos, and with actors such as Michael Fassbender, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. How do you remain humble when working alongside such major stars?

BK: It’s not something you really check yourself on. When you meet these people who have these ‘names’, you realise they’re just normal people with success, and the status is the only thing that divides them. They’re just normal people who are committed to their work and are still wanting to make really good films, so when you see that in the first hour you meet them, all the nervousness goes. Obviously it will take my breath away, like when I met Tom Hardy it was like “Fuck, that’s Bane!”, y’know, I’m big fans of these people and to meet them catches your breath, but then you get over that, and it’s like they’re just normal people.

RH: What drew you to Yorgos and scriptwriter Efthymis Filippou’s script for The Killing of a Sacred Deer?

BK: Yorgos did! I watched his previous films, The Lobster and Dogtooth, and I was like “They’re weird, really weird, but unique”, and I just wanted to do something like that. I’m always up for a challenge, I’m always up for working with people who want to try something different and with Yorgos I felt like I was going into an experiment. I was down for it .

RH: Were you mostly drawn to the abstractness and weirdness of it then?

BK: It was mostly his language and his world. Yorgos’ world and how he creates them stands out. I wanted to be a part of that, and will hopefully be a part of another of his worlds. I would love to do something with him that flips it altogether: something that challenges the both of us. Whatever he’s up for, I’m up for.

RH: How did you get into the mindset to go from a kindly, sympathetic hero in Dunkirk, to an insidious menace in Sacred Deer?

BK: I’d put it down to dialogue. I didn’t go in with any feelings or emotions, I didn’t attach any of that because that’s Yorgos’ way. There’s no creating a backstory, I left that down to him. As for Dunkirk, I just really wanted to show the naivety of George, and his innocence; he was a gateway for the audience. Both Yorgos and Chris [Nolan] are masters of their universe: they both create these worlds with a vision and are very precise in what they say, with little words they know how to get a good performance out of you.

RH: With Yorgos’ films, his characters are mostly always emotionally inaccessible or robotic. Did you emulate any of his past creations to into your own?

BK: I did: I read The Killing of a Sacred Deer in The Lobster tone. I think if you’re going into a Yorgos film you have to take on that language. He won’t ever pull you on it, but you have to have that going into it. The Killing of a Sacred Deer was a bit more real than The Lobster, which was nice, because The Lobster was a bit more science-fiction and this felt more contemporary.

RH: What did you do to avoid imitation from his past films?

BK: Always be original with your characters: if you’re playing a baddie don’t try “Oh, I’ll look at these bad guys for inspiration on that characteristic”, I just wanted to throw my own twist in, which is to play it as present as possible. I wanted Martin to be really present. I think I’ve done that, I think I made him so present that when Martin wasn’t even there you felt like he was lurking in the background. He’s a creep.

RH: It’s known that your audition for Dunkirk involved utilising a remote as a makeshift weapon, with batteries for bullets. What did you do for the audition here? Did Yorgos give you any inclination of how he wanted you to be?

BK: I framed that audition [for Dunkirk] very purposefully so that I could get the batteries in and out easily without the camera seeing them. But for Sacred Deer, the weird thing is I was in Greece when I filmed the audition, and then he flew me back to London.

RH: The themes of Sacred Deer are pretty dark, did Yorgos give you any inclination of how it would be on set?

BK: On set it was enjoyable and easy going. As dark and as intense as the movie is, it wasn’t like that on set at all. Colin and I like to mess around, it’s a very family environment, with all the crew. Everyone had a laugh. Yorgos didn’t realise that I struggle with the number ‘three’, because I say ‘tree’. He saw that I struggled with it, during the listing of the three rules. I was like “I can’t, Yorgos”, and he just told me to keep going. We filmed that a few times and it was really challenging.

RH: That’s a fantastic scene. Afterwards, a few other journalists and I had quite a laugh at how Martin eats spaghetti. It’s all in the audio and the sinister smirk you give to Nicole at the end.

BK: [Laughs] This was basically the American way. We had done that scene so many times, and there’s only so many spaghetti carbs you can eat, so I got to the point where I just put it in my mouth, and pulled it back out. He kept that take. As an actor you don’t get many scenes like that, where you think, “I can fuck around with this. I’ve got a bowl of spaghetti, I’m in my boxers, Nicole Kidman is here, let’s make history”, so you have to capitalise on it. That scene is going to stick around I think. I love the laugh at the end that comes after I say “I’ve gotta go to class”, it’s freaky man.

RH: Would you like to play another villain?

BK: I’m going to stay away from that for a while. I’ve turned down offers that would do well for my bank balance but I’ve turned them down because some of them have been the baddie and I don’t wanna fall into that. The next one coming up for me is American Animals, where I play a normal teenager from a good family, so this is another chance for people to see me in a different role. I’m all about that for now, the range. It’s gonna be a good one.

RH: You have so many odd scenes like the aformentioned spaghetti scene, or the moment you compare armpit hairs with Farrell, but another stood out to me: what was it like to have Nicole Kidman kiss your feet?

BK: That was weird, I tell ya. I was “Alright, it’s happening. Are we rolling?” I never thought I’d be able to say “Nicole Kidman kissed my feet.” It’s madness.

RH: You’ve already mentioned you’d like to work with Yorgos again, but there anyone else you’d want to work with?

BK: Lenny Abrahamson, Barry Jenkins, y’know, Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese, I’ve a list of them. I’d be blessed if I got to work with one of them. Yorgos is actually lining one up for myself and Leonardo DiCaprio…

RH: That sounds like an ideal pairing! Would you take any role they gave you, even if this role was a villain?

BK: Hmm, see, I’d have to talk that one out with the team. Maybe I could make him a likeable villain, one you could be rooting for!

RH: There were some points in Sacred Deer where you were able to understand Martin’s warped justifications., even if they were skewed.

BK: Yeah, at the start you could wonder “What’s happening with this sweet boy”, and there was this sexual tension so it was weird. Yorgos does that on purpose though, he gets us really close, face-to-face. And like in The Lobster, with the maid, that’s so fucking weird. He’s a weird man. I think he wants to be an actor. [Laughs]

RH: Do you think he’s got it in him to direct himself in one of his own films?

BK: I’d love to see that. I’d love to see him play even a little part in something he does. Imagine! I’ve a lot of love for that man, he’s a genius, I mean it. He bought me a Nikon FM2 camera. And Colin got me a Nikon as well, a digital. I’m always learning and taking pictures of things I like, learning that there’s no right way to do it. Technically, yes there are rules to follow, but people love blurry images.

RH: What else do you do when you’re not on set, or when you’re back in Summerhill, Dublin?

BK: I just chill, man. It’s all about just taking time. I’ve had seven months to chill now though, so I’m ready to get back to working.

RH: In Sacred Deer, Martin’s favourite film is Groundhog Day. Was that your choice? If not, what would you have chosen.

BK: That was Yorgos. I don’t know why. There’s something… about that choice. I would have put in, hmm, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. That would’ve been weird. [Laughs]

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is released in UK cinemas from this Friday.

Richard Hayward