For such a relatively young actor, Barry Keoghan has a canny knack of turning up in high-quality, interesting films. Last year the 25-year-old Dubliner played a nervous mariner in Christopher Nolan's multi-Oscar nominated war epic Dunkirk, and was unforgettably sinister as a teenager with an agenda in Yorgos Lanthimos' wonderfully weird drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer. In 2018, he's not resting on his laurels: next month he'll appear in Lance Daly's daring Famine-era saga Black 47, and will also star in American Animals, a strange and distinctive indie drama from Bart Layton.
American Animals is based on the bizarre true story of four young men who robbed the library of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in the winter of 2004, making off with some valuable rare books but doing so so clumsily they were soon caught. And while their motivations never become entirely clear during the film, we are given some intriguing hints.
Even more intriguing is writer/director Bart Layton's choice to punctuate his scripted drama with face-to-face interviews with the real felons, who reflect with appropriate shame and wonder on the folly of their distant youths. For Barry and the other actors, this must have been a rather mind-bending scenario.
"He's mixing up two genres," Barry says, "and that's not done very often, but he seems to nail it, doesn't he." When he first saw the screenplay for American Animals, he was understandably puzzled. "It is different, and I mean you have your wits about you, but I'd already seen The Imposter, Bart's previous film, and I loved it. So I thought Jesus, sign me up for whatever he's doing."
Keoghan's character, Spencer Reinhart, was the brains behind the whole operation, though that phrase seems inappropriate given the shambolic nature of the crime. He's a dreamy student and talented painter who feels that his cosy suburban upbringing has ill-prepared him for a life of artistic greatness. And it's he who comes up with the not-so-bright idea of stealing John James Audubon's Birds of America, a rare, beautifully illustrated and exceedingly valuable 19th century natural history book.
"Spencer's problem is that he doesn't have a problem," Barry explains. "He's had it easy and he's looking for that hardening experience that artists have. You know, Van Gogh cutting off his ear and all that, all the greats have this f***d up formative experience, and he doesn't have that, so that's what he thinks he needs."
Bart Layton's decision to intersperse his drama with rather sombre face-to-face interviews with the real characters gives American Animals emotional depth, and turns what might have been a glib farce into something much more serious.
"You see them crack in those interviews," Keoghan says, "you see them get upset and it brings a factor of realism to it. And when the robbery happens it's like being stabbed, you know, all the colour goes out of the story in a way, so it was very cleverly done I think."
It must have been tempting for Barry and the other actors to start drilling the real people they're playing for information. "Bart wouldn't let us talk to them, he kept us away from the characters because he didn't want us imitating them basically, because as an actor you're going to do that, you're gonna pick up these traits. But these lads had had time to reflect on what they'd done, and it's ten or more years later, they're different dudes now, so it might not have been helpful anyway. But if I'd had a choice I think I would have, because you're looking to scrape together every bit of information you can to build your character."
After the shoot, he did get to meet the real Spencer Reinhart properly. "We spent a lot of time hanging out at the premières and what have you, he's a really cool dude. You can see as well that they clearly regret what they did and that they're not happy about it, you know they hurt a lot of people and you can see that in them. I think they were really proud of the movie though."
American Animals is released here on September 7th, and so is Black 47, Lance Daly's swaggering historical epic set during the Great Famine and starring James Frecheville as a returning Irish soldier who hunts down the people who kicked his family off their land and left them to die. In it, Barry plays a fresh-faced Liverpudlian English soldier who cannot remain indifferent to the terrible suffering he sees all around him.
"The Famine story has never really been told in a movie, has it," Barry says, "and I for one didn't really understand it fully. I knew the basis of it, but I think the younger generation don't always know that much about it, and this movie might give an insight into what it was all about. But Black 47 also has the entertainment factor I think, it has a little bit of everything."
It's been an extraordinary couple of years for the young Dubliner, whose performances in films like Mammal, American Animals and Killing of a Sacred Deer led the Hollywood Reporter to describe him as "the next big thing". But in picking roles he's been determined to push himself: "my whole aim," he says "has been to show my range".
When Barry started out in 2011, he was often cast as vicious young criminals in films like Between the Canals, and the acclaimed TV drama Love/Hate. A couple of years back, he started turning down "those kinds of parts, because I wanted to show you that there's more to me than that, that I can play naivety or whatever. You start to realise that it's a craft, and that you want to make a career out of it."
Barry's childhood in Dublin's north inner city has been well documented. His mother died of a heroin overdose when he was small, and after a period in foster care, Keoghan was taken in and raised in Summerhill by his maternal grandmother, and his aunt. Both were present in the audience, and looking suitably chuffed, when Barry gave a memorable interview to Ryan Tubridy on The Late Late Show last year. "She raised me well, and my auntie as well, Lorraine, they've been really good to me. My granny's great, and she's not too fazed by it either - she's very proud."
As a boy, he liked to draw, and watch people. "I'd see people on the street and they'd interest me," he says, "and I'd go home and try to draw that character, and figure out what their story was." His first acting experience was not entirely promising.
"I did Christmas plays at school," he remembers, "but they banned me because I was messing about. And I was like, ah why? Because I was getting attention, everyone was laughing at me and I was loving it, I thought this feels good!"
At 18 he made his professional debut in Fair City, and the same year made a memorably twitchy appearance in Mark O'Connor's inner city crime drama Between the Canals. From the very start there was something arrestingly calm, and natural, about Keoghan's screen acting, and it's a quality he's managed to retain as his fame has grown.
"Sometimes a camera comes out and people freeze up a little," he tells me, "and I'm like that with normal cameras, but with a film camera I feel different. And for sure, it's definitely something you need to protect, because especially when you don't work for a while you get a bit rusty, and you go back and you start 'acting'. I just think the more you're in front of camera, the better: my main aim is just to tell the truth, be natural and believe in what I'm doing, and hopefully that comes across as a rawness."
Though his work frequently takes him to America, Barry is still based in Dublin, "in my nanny's", but things are bound to get busier and busier from now on. And among his future projects is "a Billy the Kid story that I want to get made".
"There's been a lot of versions of the Billy the Kid story, and some of them are very glamorised and portray him as the cheeky charmer, but I want to tell it in a different sort of way, and me and some of the lads are working closely to get it made. I would be involved on the creative side, and it's a director I've worked with before."
Does he ever wake up and pinch himself and wonder is it all real?
"I don't think you ever really get used to it, do you," he says, "there's always another little level of shock in it, and of being starstruck at the people you meet. And that's the beauty of it: you're always fascinated, because it's not a normal thing to do is it, this acting game."