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Interview: Barry Keoghan and Director Nick Rowland Talk ‘The Shadow of Violence’

August 3, 2020Ben MK

Best known for his roles in such films as Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Barry Keoghan is perhaps most widely recognized for playing awkward teenage characters. But in The Shadow of Violence (formerly titled Calm with Horses), the Irish actor gets to show an entirely different side of himself, playing a violent criminal named Dympna whose loyalties towards his partner, Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), are tested when the crime syndicate they work for task them with a new job that Arm is not prepared for.

I sat down with Barry Keoghan and director Nick Rowland before the film's premiere at TIFF last year, to chat about The Shadow of Violence and to find out what makes this crime thriller special.

This role stands out compared to your recent roles, in that you're playing such a shady character. Is that what drew you to this film?

Keoghan: Yeah, man. It was the fact that it was different. Shady, definitely. And I get to show a different range for myself, because people just see me as this [The Killing of a] Sacred Deer character. That's what audiences do — they zone you into one corner. So it's always nice to show your range and show what you can do when you get the chance.

Rowland: The first time I met Barry, he was in a short film that my housemate was doing, and he was staying at our flat. And he turned up with a rucksack, and all it had in it was a Playstation. [laughs]

What made you want to make this film?

Rowland: I found the short story that it's based on when I was still at film school. I was just reading as many short stories as I could at that time, because I was making my own short films and what have you. And what really struck me was the world and the characters were so rich and so interesting, and I just enjoyed spending time with them. The dialogue was excellent, and Colin [Barrett, the author of the novel on which the film is based] is such an amazing writer. But the thing that I was most fascinated with is the thing that's the hardest thing about the film — which is that there's this duality between the guy who's so vicious and violent and cold when he's working for these criminals, but then he's so tender with his son.

And I remember reading the story and getting to the first scene with him and his boy and going, "I was not expecting that." I just found that very moving. And that's what we then focused on — was just to bring that to the fore. In the original short story, there are these little vignettes with him and his son, but there's no active story going on there. It's more just little moments in time.

With your film being set in Ireland, how important is it to the both of you to be able to showcase that country on the global stage?

Rowland: Colin Barrett's originally from Mayo [, Ireland], and the west of Ireland is such a strong character. All of short stories are set in this fictional town in the west. And it felt very, very specific, but at the same time it felt very universal. I didn't grow up in Ireland — I grew up partly in a small fishing town in Scotland. And so I was reading these stories and I was like, "I know this guy" and "I've met that guy" and "I know the mentality of these young kids in this town."

Also, in his stories you get this sense of isolation. And then when we came to Ireland it didn't feel exactly as I expected because there were lots of hedge rows and trees and cottages. It feels so lovely and friendly — it didn't feel like a dangerous place. So we spent a lot of time trying to find landscapes [where there's] a barrenness. And to try and actually create emptiness and stillness — to try and communicate that was almost like [communicating] a frontier town in a Western.

Even just finding the town was amazing, because there were hardly any cars parked on the street. Which is so rare these days, to have streets that don't have any cars on them. And then finding places like the derelict trains and the marshlands spoke to us about this idea of these kids that are sort of stuck, in a way.

Can you tell me a bit more about your process of getting into character?

Keoghan: It's like every other process, any time I get into character. And with this one, being home did help. But, yeah, I got into accent and tried to put on a little bit of weight — a bit of muscle — because it's all a front with [Dympna]. I feel like he put on muscle just as a guard, basically. My main point for Dympna was just an animated and very showman type — and don't show any fear, but deep down he's scared.

Rowland: We had this idea with Dympna that he's just a scared boy that's creating all these distractions so people don't realize that he's just a scared boy. Sometimes when we were doing a scene, it'd be as simple as to say, "In this scene, be the scared boy." How much does Dympna reveal or hide — the truth of that — sometimes was all a scene needed.

This is your debut feature. What is your filmmaking vision?

Rowland: I'm quite an emotional person, so everything for me is about [that] I want to experience someone else's life and I want to feel for them. That's really all I care about and that dictates pretty much everything. This is my first film — I've done some short films as well — and they've all been different genres and different styles, in a way. But I feel like there's a consistency to the emotion and telling the story from a subjective point of view where you're with someone rather than observing them. I like to feel their heartbeat, as it were.

Last but not least, what's next for each of you?

Keoghan: [Marvel's] The Eternals is next for me. I'm excited about that one. And then after that I want to work with some good filmmakers on my list — Paul Thomas Anderson and those type of filmmakers. Tell good stories and challenge myself, elevate to another level. Stretch my acting muscle and see what I can do.

Rowland: I'm working on another crime film that's set within the backdrop of rally driving, cuz I used to be a rally driver before I was a filmmaker. So I want to combine those two worlds. And I also really want to do a romance. I'd love to do a story about love.

The Shadow of Violence is out now in select U.S theatres and on demand.

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