“The Banshees of Inisherin,” Martin McDonagh’s black comedy about longtime friends, Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who have a contentious falling out, has the shape of a classic two-hander. What’s strange is that its M.V.P. is neither of the leads but rather Barry Keoghan, as the slow-witted neighborhood boy Dominic, who steals every scene he’s in. Sprightly and erratic, with a hint of pathos behind an air of foolishness, he feels fully realized, and despite the limited screen time, Keoghan is vivid and moving.
He has a knack for this kind of thing. The young actor — he turned 30 in October — is frequently singled out as the highlight of stacked ensembles, as in “Dunkirk” (2017) or “The Green Knight” (2021). Like Willem Dafoe or Christopher Walken, Keoghan has an indelible presence that instantly attracts attention, whether vaguely sinister (his breakout turn playing a grudge-holding menace in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) or amiable and sweet (“Banshees”). Next year, he will appear in “Saltburn,” the new film from the “Promising Young Woman” director Emerald Fennell. It will be his first starring role, and Keoghan hopes the move to top-billing sticks.
In the meantime, Keoghan is at home in Scotland, where he was speaking from his car outside his gym. He has been spending a lot of time boxing lately, as well as doing carpentry. His girlfriend’s brothers have their own construction business, and recently they’ve been bringing him along on jobs. “I’m going out and doing that three times a week, early in the morning,” he said. “I’m satisfied by the end of the day. I feel like I’ve really worked, practically and creatively.” At home, he’s been taking care of his newborn with his girlfriend, Alyson Sandro. “I’d be lost without her,” he said.
On a video call, Keoghan spoke about how animals inspire his performances, why he interacts with fans on social media and how he became unlikely friends with the Rock. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
I take it you’ve been boxing?
Yeah, I’m back to boxing now. I’m actually competing soon enough — in December. I used to box for, like, 10 years, but took some time off. Now I’m trying to get back to it again and be fully focused. I’m training under a professional lad called Paul Kean, who is really good. I’m two or three weeks in now and finding my feet.
Would you say you’re a good boxer?
I’m good, man, I’m really good. I’m not one of these actor-boxers who hit the pads and look great. I’m there to compete. The thing with boxing is, it’s the only time I feel really present. You can do meditation — which I don’t — but people go on about feeling in the moment, and for me, that’s when I’m boxing. You’re totally immersed in this state that I can’t describe. I get that with acting as well.
Does the boxing bring something to your acting? A physicality?
It does. You look at boxers, with their physiques — that translates. I look at animals for their physicality. I’ve always studied animals, how they can get things across. A dog can ask for something without saying it. That’s why I think dogs are so clever. As soon as you speak, you lose power. The body, to me, is always where I start. I should be able to get things across with my energy.
In “Banshees,” you have a very physical presence, very strained and warped, as if your lines are being almost wrenched out of you.
Timid, shy, yeah. With that, I was almost foxlike, in and out. I’m there, but I’m not. I leaned into it a lot. To me, Dominic, to call him a village idiot, I don’t agree with that. There’s an intelligence to him, but it’s on a different plane. He says what he thinks and feels — it’s like how children speak to you. A child will always be brutally honest.
Your character in “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which also starred Farrell, has some of that volatile same energy. There it’s used to sinister effect, whereas here it’s comic.
Exactly. Especially doing this with Colin, you have to be careful what line you tread. You don’t want people to say, “Oh, that’s the ‘Sacred Deer’ duo.” But credit to Martin, no one really said that. It’s totally different. Me and Colin didn’t even talk about “Sacred Deer” on set.
Do you and Colin have a strong rapport now as actors?
I feel dead comfortable around him. I can be very vulnerable around Colin. And Colin has a massive impact on my life — just the way that he talks to everybody on set — and is someone I admire onscreen and off the screen. With that, you get more access to yourself — you can trust your co-star to push you and make you feel comfortable. He’s just a joy, man. Above him being a smashing actor, he’s just a smashing lad. I’ve learned a lot from him.
You have a reputation as a scene-stealer. Even if your role is small, you are often the highlight of the film. Why do you think that is?
Well, the aim is to go from being a scene-stealer to being the star of a movie. Am I able to do that? We’re going to see that with “Saltburn.” It’s my first lead role, and the first time I had to really step up in terms of stamina and just being fully committed. I always want to test myself. I don’t ever want to get to a stage where I think I have it figured out. So the scene-stealing thing — it’s nice, but I don’t want to be known as that. I want people to see me and think, “That boy can hold a movie.”
On Twitter, you often interact with fans. You must see some pretty strange stuff, sifting through that.
I do! And I don’t see any wrong in it. Twitter is healthy, to an extent. I wouldn’t look at every single thing. But when I go on at nighttime for an hour, I do look at notifications. We’re all attached to negative comments these days, and the cool thing is to see who can get the worst nasty comment in. I think sometimes it’s nice to put out the positive tweets and positive comments.
Last year you sent a tweet that drove people a little bit crazy, alluding to a role in “Dune.” What happened there?
Ah, yeah, I really enjoyed that process. Look, I’m a big fan of “Dune,” and it would have been nice to be part of it. I’m a big fan of Timothée [Chalamet, the star of the franchise] as well. But it wasn’t for me. You have to accept that sometimes. Sometimes it’s not for you.
With “The Batman,” you became the latest in a long line of actors to play the Joker. How do you know you can bring something new to the role?
It was intimidating. But if you stay true to yourself, that in itself is new. I know that sounds pretty lame, but I’m a big believer that if I’m myself, whatever I do is going to be completely fresh and unique. You build the character up before production, get familiar with their world, build a mood board, listen to the music they do, kind of dress like them, answer all the copybook questions you’ve written down — and then go on set and let the instincts takeover.
Do you feel you have enough there to do an entire film as that role? If they do “The Batman 2” with Joker as the villain?
That would be a dream, I tell you. I already have a back story that I’ve created in case it does happen — a totally fresh way of playing him.
In a recent interview, the Rock praised your acting and said the two of you were friends. How did that come about?
I can’t believe that either. It’s insane. When I met the Rock, he took the time to have a good chat with me. He said if there’s anything he could ever do, to let him know, and he gave me his phone number. I reached out to him — I was stuck and needed advice — and he got back to me and gave me an hour of his time. Since then we’ve been close. He sent me a baby hamper for my newborn. He’s a genuine inspiration. Someone of that stature giving you their time and engaging with you, I know it sounds easy, but not a lot of people do it. Have you ever met someone where they don’t know who you are, but then they get a whiff, and suddenly open up?
All the time.
It’s ridiculous. Just chat to someone! To anyone! You might learn something.