Tuesday 16 July 2019

Sam Keeley: "I was told I wasn't cut out to be an actor. Those words help motivate you - believe me"

From his film debut as the victim in What Richard Did, Offaly's Sam Keeley has gone on to star alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Here our reporter meets a young actor with big ambitions and high standards.

Tullamore native, actor Sam Keely. Photo: Fran Veale
Tullamore native, actor Sam Keely. Photo: Fran Veale
Sam Keeley believes you are defined as an actor by what you say no to. Photo: Fran Veale
Sam Keeley as Bill (Sniper) Ready in The Siege of Jadotville, picture Netflix
Sam Keeley (centre) with fellow Burnt cast members, from left: Daniel Bruhl, Sienna Miller, Uma Thurman and Bradley Cooper
John Meagher

John Meagher

For a young man who made his acting debut just six years ago, Sam Keeley sometimes finds himself in the position where he gets offered a lot of money for a new project - yet feels compelled to turn it down.

It's not that the 25-year-old from Tullamore, Co Offaly, is rolling in cash, but more that he can't bring himself to say yes to a project that he has no regard for.

"I got one recently for a kind of period, warrior film thing," he says. "It was quite a bit of money for a very short amount of work. But the script was awful - so bad I was cringing turning the pages."

The tall, rangy figure sitting in a bland room in the Gresham Hotel is too polite to say who was responsible for the script, but he says rejecting such an offer is much more difficult at his stage of his career than it might be for an established star with a beach-front mansion in Malibu.

Sam Keeley believes you are defined as an actor by what you say no to. Photo: Fran Veale
Sam Keeley believes you are defined as an actor by what you say no to. Photo: Fran Veale

"It's hard as an actor [to turn that sort of opportunity down] because everyone, no matter how successful they are, is thinking, 'I'm never going to get work again!' I keep thinking someone is going to tap me on the shoulder and say, 'OK, we've figured you out. The game is up.'"

Surely there's part of him going, 'Just take the money - it'll allow me to do the poorly paid independent projects that all actors love'? "A huge part of me is thinking that," he says. "The person inside you that wants to be safe and secure wants me to do those jobs, but I am stubborn and I have very good representation. They'd go, 'Did you read that?' and I can be honest with them."

Keeley believes it's a policy that's paid off to date. "I've done a lot of work, and it's been stuff I've wanted to do," he says. "I think as an actor, you're more defined by the stuff you say no to. And I've said no to a lot of stuff. I want to be very careful. I want to put my footing in the right place. I've a clear vision for my career. I know what I want to do. I want to play roles that mean something to me. I want to feel it in order to be able to portray the role properly."

Keeley is an actor going places fast. He can currently be seen playing a sniper in The Siege of Jadotville, which tells the little remembered story of 150 Irish peacekeeping soldiers in the Congo in 1961, who found themselves under sustained attack by thousands of local militants.

"I'm ashamed to say I hadn't known about the story," he says, "but I was very struck by the script. It really came alive to me when I met two veterans of the conflict from my home county and I could appreciate what they went through, and how outnumbered they were. Very often we associate these kind of stories with American war heroes - it's very Black Hawk Down-esque - but this happened to men from just up the road."

The film, made for Netflix, and starring Jamie Dornan, was filmed outside Johannesburg. "They put us through bootcamp for two weeks to get us to bond, to know our roles, to get us to march to learn how to fire a gun," he says. "At the end of the day, you're sending 12 lads down to the desert, so you're going to have fun. They built a full-scale village of Jadotville, too, and then just blew it up week by week."

Sam Keeley as Bill (Sniper) Ready in The Siege of Jadotville, picture Netflix
Sam Keeley as Bill (Sniper) Ready in The Siege of Jadotville, picture Netflix

It's not the first time he has acted alongside Dornan. Both appear - along with Cillian Murphy - in Anthropoid, a recently released thriller based on another true life story, the attempt by Czech assassins to kill top Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. "It was a small roll for me, but I sensed as soon as I heard about it that it was going to be a special film. And it meant working with Jamie right after Jadotville."

Keeley and Dornan - and Murphy, too - really hit it off thanks to a shared love of music. All three entertained rock star dreams when in their teen years and, in Keeley's case, a music career really did look more likely while still a teen. "My dad is a musician and I grew up with that life," he says. "I sang in pubs and played guitar and wanted to be a rock star."

Today, he looks every inch the frontman of a white-hot band thanks to a battered leather jacket, ripped, skinny jeans and unlaced boots. The long fringe keeps falling over his eyes and there's a dusting of whiskers on his jaws.

He was so serious that he threatened to drop out of Leaving Cert year in order to make an album. "My guidance councillor teacher [at Coláiste Choilm, Tullamore] was an amazing woman called Theresa Burke and I sat in her office for a week and talked about what careers I could do and eventually she said to me, 'What about a drama degree?' And I thought, 'Why not?' even though I hadn't thought about it before. But then I started thinking, 'Well, I love film - I'd a mountain of DVDs at home. I was binging on movies all the time, so she managed to really hit on something."

His teacher helped set up an audition at drama school. "I learnt off a two-minute monologue from Philadelphia, Here I Come! because it was the play we'd been studying that year - I'd never read a play before in my life. And once I got in, I was bitten by the bug, and I became obsessed, and I realised I had been studying all my life."

He was in acting school just six months when he got offered his first job. "I had been trying to negotiate time to go and shoot the film while staying on at college, but they gave me an ultimatum - either stay on the course or take the job. I'm instinctual, and I knew what was right for me - I took the job and I learnt more about acting on that week of shoot than I had in the previous six months."

Sam Keeley (centre) with fellow Burnt cast members, from left: Daniel Bruhl, Sienna Miller, Uma Thurman and Bradley Cooper
Sam Keeley (centre) with fellow Burnt cast members, from left: Daniel Bruhl, Sienna Miller, Uma Thurman and Bradley Cooper

There's an underlying edge when he says those words, especially as he recalls that one particular drama teacher didn't seem to believe in him. "I was told I wasn't cut out to be an actor," he says, simply. "Those sort of words help motivate you, believe me."

Soon, Keeley seemed to be everywhere. First he popped up in RTÉ's restaurant-set drama series, Raw, then he played the part of the victim in Lenny Abrahamson's acclaimed What Richard Did. The latter was an adaptation of a book that was loosely based on the notorious case of a private school student who was killed at Anabel's nightclub, southside Dublin.

At the time, Abrahamson spoke glowingly of both Keeley and Jack Reynor (who played the perpetrator of the attack) and of how the two young men looked destined for great careers.

Keeley is quick to return the compliment. "Lenny's an amazing filmmaker, and I wasn't one bit surprised that he went on to win an Oscar [actress Brie Larsson bagged an Academy Award for her performance in Abrahamson's Room]."

He has fond memories of the Richard shoot. "I was only acting for less than two years when I shot that film and I learned so much," he says. "I met Jack through the auditioning process and we really hit it off. I had a sense when we were making it that there was a really big weight of responsibility on our shoulders. I was inadvertently representing the person who had been killed [at Anabel's]. I had an agency here at the time and they kept getting phone calls from random journalists. Lenny made all of that go away."

The Internet Movie Database lists 23 film and TV projects that Keeley has either made or is currently in the process of filming. Many of them are independent productions like The Siege of Jadotville, but there are some big Hollywood pictures there too. Burnt - starring a galaxy of big-name talent - gave him an insight into what it's like to work on a massive, no-holds-barred project.

"Burnt was a bit surreal," he says with a laugh. "You're on a set and Bradley Cooper is there and Uma Thurman is there, Sienna Miller is there. Omar Sy, too. Jamie was on it as well. It's funny because at no point does it not feel like a big film. I look up to Bradley, big time. He's an amazing guy and an incredible actor and to have him come up to you at the end of a scene to compliment you is a great feeling.

"I think there'd be something wrong if you are on a Hollywood film and you're working with those kind of people and you're not pinching yourself every now and again. Yes, it's amazing I'm here, and yes these people are great, but I'm here for a reason too. I'm good enough to be here and I'm going to do my damnedest while I'm here."

He insists that he has remained grounded and he certainly appears to be. There's little of the thesp about him, but when he talks about his work there's no doubting his passion.

He's not afraid to talk about his limitations, either. "I really admire theatre actors," he says, "but I personally don't think I have it [what they have]. It doesn't interest me - maybe I'm afraid of it, I don't know."

He says film is the medium that works best for him and it's hard not to agree, especially when he's just come off the back of 18 months' non-stop movie work. "People are going to be sick of me in the next 12 months," he chuckles, mentioning that of the upcoming releases it's A Measure of A Man that he is most proud of.

"It was made by Jim Loach, Ken's son. He's going to be an incredible filmmaker. It's based on a book called One Fat Summer and it's about a kid who's trying to lose weight over the course of a summer in 1960s upstate New York, although we shot it in Providence, Rhodes Island.

"I worked with Donald Sutherland and Luke Wilson and another young actor called Beau Knapp. He and I played the bullies. It's very much in the vein of Stand By Me. I think it's going to be a beautiful little film." Keeley devotees will have to wait for spring 2017 before they can see the fruits of that particular labour.

Right now, some down-time beckons, and for Keeley that means a return to Iceland, a country that has become something of a home-from-home over the past year. "When I haven't been working, I've been there," he says. "I spent time there from Christmas to February/March and whenever I've had time off I go back.

"I've been wanting to go to Iceland for a very long time. My mum's maiden name is from the Old Norse, Grimes, and that set me on a journey. First time I had time off I thought, 'Let's do it.' I got rid of the flat I was renting in Dublin - I was never there anyway - and got an Airbnb in Reykjavík and just fell in love with the place."

He's learning the language. "I've actually taken to it easier than I thought I would," he says. "It's not too different to Irish. The ultimate artsy dream would be to become fluent in the language and shoot a film there."

Such aspirations are for the future. For now, Keeley is keen to ensure that he makes the right choices - and continues to turn down the dross. "Very often, I think the actors who've had longevity are the ones that have really had to work for it. Sometimes, those for whom success comes too easily can turn out to be flashes in the pan."

'The Siege of Jadotville' is on Netflix now

Portraits by Fran Veale

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