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Barry Keoghan on Irish gangster film Calm With Horses: 'We all know characters like them'

The film was shot in the West of Ireland.

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ACTORS BARRY KEOGHAN and Niamh Algar have known each other a long time – but Calm With Horses is their first time making a feature film together.

The film highlights the stratospheric rise of both of their careers: when we meet, Algar has just finished working with Ridley Scott, and Keoghan has wrapped on the set of superhero movie The Eternals. Back when they were shooting Calm With Horses, Keoghan had become a Hollywood new star, but Algar’s star was still rising.

Calm With Horses is based on the novella by Irish author Colin Barrett, from his collection Young Skins. It’s a bruising punch of a film – starring Cosmo Jarvis (with an impressive Irish accent) as Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong, a bulky, brooding former boxer who works for the dodgy drug-dealing Dever family.

Arm is father to a young boy, whose mother Ursula is played by Algar. Keoghan plays Arm’s pal, Dympna, a member of the Devers family. The film explores what happens when Arm is torn between what the Devers want him to do – which is, naturally, dangerous and frightening – and what he needs to do as a dad to a son who has autism.

It’s a classic tale of being torn between right and wrong. Set in the West of Ireland, the film is gritty, dark, and troubling – but there are moments of levity. One of the film’s executive producers is Michael Fassbender, who has a production company called DMC Film.

“When I read Ursula I understood her, she reminded me of someone that I’d grown up with,” says Algar of the young mother. “She is someone who’s got this chequered past and lives in this… I come from a small town where everyone knows everything that their neighbours were doing. When I was reading it I was like: I know this town and these characters. They know everything about each other, and they know they have the dirt on each other as well, which is horrible. And you’re always kind of being judged upon who you are, where you’ve come from.”

She says that Ursula is trying to escape her past. “She’s trying to get away from this town and away from the people she feels are dragging her down. But also she has this deep connection with Arm, who’s the father of her son,” she explains. “And it’s just that internal struggle of trying to do right by her son but also feeling like she still needs to take care of him because she can see that he’s going into a dark place. So for me when I read it I just knew her I understood her and I just loved her. I loved her for all her flaws.”

Dympna has his own struggles, says Keoghan. “We all know [people like] all these characters in this movie. You know, you see them in friends and people like that,” he says. “But Dympna is a classic thing of trying to live up to his family’s name and trying to prove [himself] and I don’t think that he’s half as bad as what people think of him. I think he’s a scared little boy deep down that just has that pressure of his family’s name and has to try to live up to it.”

Fans of contemporary Irish gangster films like Cardboard Gangsters will find much to enjoy in Calm With Horses, but it’s got a different tone to the former’s inner-city grime. The place where the characters live feels half-empty and almost abandoned. It’s an Irish country town that’s in need of more than a lick of paint. The people living there are battered and on edge.

Arm is a troubled soul whose ability to knock a man out in half a punch makes him of use to the Devers family. His hulking appearance masks an inner softness, however. “He’s trying to care the best he can, but it’s almost like Arm has this post-traumatic stress of something that he’s done in the past that he feels completely responsible for and he’s just letting that eat away at him,” says Algar. “So he’s got this physicality and this strength that he just turns to that and he uses it. Whereas Dympna uses him in that sense, Ursula is trying to find the other part of him, which is the caring [side], and trying to strip away all this armour that he’s built around him over the years, and just finding out what it is that he wants.”

There are some seriously grisly scenes in the film, with one coming just a few minutes in. Those of a sensitive disposition might find some moments too hard to stomach.

But though it was grim on screen, it wasn’t grim on set, say the two actors. “With the heavy stuff, when the cameras are on you play to what the script is doing,” says Keoghan. “But during takes and that we have great craic. You know the crew was great, West of Ireland is great, we had great fun.”

Algar agrees, saying that it was an intimate production. “It wasn’t a massive crew so everyone knew each other and everyone was there because they had read the script and they wanted to work on this project, and they wanted to work with Nick [Rowland, the director] so it was definitely like a family environment.”

“It is intense and there is those beautiful moments of light, like not just with Ursula’s scenes but also with Dympna and seeing this lovely brotherhood between Arm and Dympna.”

‘She’s an incredible actress’

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Mullingar native Algar (27) and Dubliner Keoghan (also 27) met while at The Factory acting school in Dublin. Keoghan has gone from Love Hate to big-budget films like Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, while Algar burst onto our screens in Shane Meadows’ TV drama miniseries The Virtues. She recently shot Raised By Wolves, a TV series made by Ridley Scott, in South Africa. They’re glad to finally share the screen together.

“I think about four years ago, I hadn’t seen you in a while,” Algar says to Keoghan during the interview. “And I was like ‘we’re going to work together, we’re going to do a film together one day’ and you were like ‘yeah’, and then this one[happened], it’s just mad.”

Keoghan is delighted to see his friend doing so well. “It’s great to see Niamh get the recognition now,” he enthuses. “She is an incredible actress and it is nice to see [her] get that recognition and stuff like that, and especially following in the footsteps of, you know you’ve got Saoirse Ronan, and you’ve actresses like that who come from Ireland who are very, very strong, and great at what they do. And it’s nice to see [her] follow them.”

Algar says Keoghan is like a sibling to her. “With Barry it’s like I’m looking at my brother… you know you get very proud, especially when you see where each of us started and it was in The Factory. You read an article that’s been written by Variety [about Barry and] you just get very proud and you just want to give him a big hug and say well done.”

“Aw that’s lovely,” Keoghan replies in his most brotherly voice, and the pair go on to tease each other about their platitudes. 

The Eternals is a very big move for Keoghan, placing him in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time. Directed by Chloe Zhao, its ensemble cast includes Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. Keoghan plays the character Druig, who’s described as an ‘aloof loner’. 

Keoghan can say very little about the shoot other than it was “brilliant”.

“It was brilliant. That was an amazing shoot and it’s going to be a special one, I really really do believe that,” he says. 

Algar is similarly enthusiastic about her shoot with Ridley Scott. “It was just unbelievable to be shooting in South Africa for nine months, and with a man who’s been a master of his craft and has been in the industry for the last 60 years. Thelma and Louise is one of my favourite films so that is just unbelievable. But also very, very lucky.”

Sounds like it’s just the start of a long exciting road ahead for both of them.

Calm With Horses is in cinemas now.

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