Daryl McCormack’s star is on the rise. Best known for his turn in Peaky Blinders, the Tipperary actor has landed a lead role opposite Emma Thompson. Filming together as on-screen lovers, the pair forged a strong friendship that bridged the generation gap
Daryl McCormack, 27, calls on Zoom a day earlier than scheduled from his home in Hackney, London, and that is not the only surprise. He’s such a smiling, pleasant young man, it feels churlish to mention the mix-up, and instead we start talking about his experience growing up mixed-race in Nenagh, Co Tipperary; playing henchman Isaiah Jesus on hit BBC show Peaky Blinders and giving sex lessons to two-time Oscar-winner Dame Emma Thompson (62). Yes, you read that last one right.
McCormack — who some will know for his former role as Pierce Devlin on RTÉ soap Fair City — recently finished filming Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, in which he has the title role opposite Thompson, one of Britain’s most acclaimed actresses, and star of Howard’s End and Sense and Sensibility. Directed by Sophie Hyde, McCormack and Thompson are the only two actors in the film and all scenes take place in a hotel room.
“It’s a film about an older woman who is recently widowed. She had one sexual partner her whole life, her husband, and yearns to have more experience of sex and to kind of catch up on a lot of the intimacy and experience that she’s not had. And so she hires a male escort named Leo Grande, who basically spends the course of a month with her and he teaches her about intimacy and she helps him with things. It’s just a beautiful story about intimacy, sex and what I can do to open up a lot of internal doors and transformation.”
McCormack — who grew up the dancer on the local hurling team — has always bucked stereotypes. But if he were a young actress doing sex scenes with a decades-older actor in the aftermath of #MeToo, there would be a hullabaloo. Did he not feel exploited for his youth and beauty?
Though his reply sidesteps the question, the short answer is no. “I think what’s interesting about this film is that in society it feels like older men with younger women is somewhat more accepted and a more normal thing to see, right? It’s not often that we see the reverse where a younger man is sharing intimacy and in a relationship with an older woman. And I think, yeah, we have seen that before in film but what happens is that the woman is hypersexualised or she’s called a cougar.”
McCormack says it is “not real” that young men are only attracted to much older women if they are predatory sexpots. “When it comes to intimacy, I don’t think it’s about age. I think we have the ability to share intimacy across all ages, and I don’t think we have to be super-sexualised in order to attract people of the opposite ages. That’s one thing I’m really excited about with this film; it kind of shines a spotlight on that.”
It will also shine a spotlight on McCormack, a strapping six-footer, with an Irish mother, an African-American father and striking green eyes (unbidden, he pulls a lamp nearer to his face so they can be better inspected).
Unlike the breakthrough stars of last year’s Normal People, he and Thompson did not require an intimacy coordinator to orchestrate their sex scenes. “We just thought if we really focus on getting to know one another and being comfortable with one another, that we’ll be able to do all the work ourselves,” he explains, describing what sounds like an intense, method-acting approach.
“We would walk to set together, we would walk home together. We would eat together, run the lines for the next day together, go to sleep and then repeat. So, for like a good four weeks we were just living in each other’s pockets and we became so close. We are very close now.”
He tells how they needed each other on set, believed in the important message of the film, and how she will always be close to his heart. He is lucky to be close to her ear — FaceTiming Thompson a few evenings prior to our chat because he was feeling “kind of stressed out and I just needed someone to talk to and I’ve just really bonded with her so much”.
The stress was workload-related. Daryl has grafted throughout the pandemic and was on the set of Peaky Blinders in April when the shocking news came through that its star Helen McCrory, who played matriarch Polly Gray, had died. She had kept her cancer diagnosis private. “It was really sad to hear of her passing. Particularly being on set shooting Peaky at the time. It was a bit surreal and a bit close to home.”
McCormack was preparing to shoot a one-on-one scene with Paul Anderson, who plays Arthur Shelby Jr, when he heard the news of McCrory’s passing. “I just remember her being a powerhouse, a very strong woman. There’s no way she would be in the room and you wouldn’t notice her. She just gave off that kind of very powerful, unapologetic presence.”
Peaky Blinders also stars Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, and follows the travails of a criminal family in Birmingham after the Great War. McCormack’s character is “a Peaky that’s not in the family… He’s there to do the work that will keep the Shelby family out of trouble in terms of getting their hands dirty”.
He joined for its fifth and penultimate season, when actor Jordan Bolger, the original Isaiah, signed a contract elsewhere. After our Zoom, McCormack has another call with a dialect coach to practise his Brummie accent.
“We’re in our last season of Peaky now. It’s lovely to finish off the show and everyone is a bit sentimental about it now because it’s not going to be a thing any more after this season. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve got to work with the likes of Stephen Graham who is an incredible actor,” he adds, of the Line of Duty and This is England star, who joined in season six, to much fanfare.
A few days before our chat, McCormack had a scene in which he “shot” Graham’s football to bits in a fit of Peaky peacocking. For the record, the ball was rigged with an explosive device, Isaiah’s real gun fires “blank bullets”, and timing was key.
“There are a lot of action scenes and boisterous intimidation and confidence and all that kind of bravado stuff,” McCormack says, smiling — he makes a convincing on-screen thug for such a polite fellow.
His mother, Theresa McCormack — an addiction counsellor who dreamed of being a backing dancer for Michael Jackson — raised him well. Theresa met Daryl’s father, Alfred Thomas from Baltimore, USA, during a summer spent nannying in California in the 1990s. She became pregnant, returned home and Daryl is the only kid of colour in the family. There was just sporadic contact with his father’s side across the Atlantic.
McCormack spoke on US storytelling podcast The Moth of how, as a child, when he asked his mother why people always stared at him, she would reply: “Because you’re so good-looking!” He painted a mixed picture, from some incidences of shameful racist name-calling to being voted president of his local CBS the year Barack Obama was inaugurated.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m harping on about it because I’ve moved on,” he says, of the difficulties of forging his identity in the midst of subtle and overt racism in a monocultural town. “I’ve learned and grown and come to terms with [the fact that] there were times where it wasn’t easy. But there’s a lot more going on in my life now.”
Not least more contact with his father. McCormack is closer to his grandfather, Percy Thomas, who runs a theatre company in Baltimore and has been to visit him in Tipperary and now in London, where they go to shows and talk shop together.
McCormack flew to the States to spend time with them both last year. “It was the first time I spent Thanksgiving with my dad and my grandad and that was particularly special… It’s not often that I got to see them when I was growing up in Ireland. As an adult, now that I have more work and I can afford to get over there more often, it’s a lovely experience. I love them with every fibre of my heart. Even though they’re miles and miles across the world, they feel close to me and I speak to them on such a regular basis.”
They are going to start seeing him in cinemas too. Last October, McCormack starred in the black comedy Pixie opposite Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, Alec Baldwin and Colm Meaney. “We had a bit of a weird time when it was released, the 23rd of October, just before the second lockdown. I had never been in a cinema and seen myself on screen, so it was a big deal for me. I was like, ‘Do you know what, regardless of whether the cinemas are quiet right now’ — and rightfully so, like, people want to stay safe, stay at home — I was like, ‘I’m going to put my mask on, I’m going to go to the local Odeon and I’m going to sit in and watch Pixie, get myself a popcorn’.”
He returned to Tipperary to bring his mother to see the film in the Odeon in Limerick, their regular haunt in his childhood. “Before I even started really studying acting, I always said to her, ‘Some day we’ll come here and go see a film, but I’ll be in the film’.” So he and Theresa “got our popcorn and our Minstrels, and we went and saw the film”. Daryl told her: “You were the one driving me in and out to Limerick for these dancing lessons, acting lessons and supporting me along the whole way. So it’s just nice to have a milestone together and share it.”
After his Leaving Cert, he applied to to The Lir Academy In TCD and RADA in London, but ended up studying drama at DIT. In between acting jobs in Dublin, he still had to pay the bills. “I’ve worked in the Marker Hotel, I’ve worked in [bar and restaurant] Pygmalion, I’ve worked in New Look, I’ve worked in the Convention Centre, I’ve worked in a cafe in Stoneybatter.”
He had only been in London for a year before landing a role in the 2018 West End production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore opposite Aidan Turner. “And then I went from there on to Peaky. Just prior to that, I was serving coffee in a cafe in Clerkenwell.
“To be on a show like Peaky or to do a show on the West End was definitely something I didn’t anticipate to happen within the first year of being in London.”
At some point an acting career “gains its own momentum” but McCormack doesn’t take anything for granted. He even reckons drama schools should teach students about the kinds of industries that offer low-stress, part-time work suitable for jobbing actors.
He has grappled with imposter syndrome, particularly in that gigolo role; Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is currently in post-production. “That has definitely been by far the most ‘pinch me’ moment. During our week of rehearsal I was joking with the director, ‘That’s Emma Thompson!’ And that was a joke and that’s fine but ultimately I also was really struggling to actually accept that I was doing a two-hander film with her.”
He countered his self-doubt by remembering that enough people on set believed he should be there, not least Thompson herself.
“You believing in yourself is the last person to convince. But it was an amazing experience and something I’m very proud of.”