Exclusive Interview with Saltburn Director Emerald Fennell: Provoking Disturbance and Arousal

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Over the past few years, Barry Keoghan’s become a bit of an institution. He keeps popping up in great movies.

Yeah. He’ll get anywhere. He’ll burrow under your skin and hide under your bed and then he’ll pop out.

He’s gone from being an actor we like, to one people are obsessed with. How did you come to cast him and what was the experience like?

I’d seen “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” and “Calm with Horses” and all those, and like everyone who watched that movie and who’s seen him perform, I just thought, Who is that? What is this performance? I’ve never seen anything so electrifying in my life. Somebody who’s just so patently a, I don’t know, charisma machine. I was so fascinated. And I’ve been thinking about “Saltburn” for a long time. And actually it wasn’t until after I delivered [the script] and we started talking about casting that I thought of Barry, because in many ways, when it comes to this kind of genre, when you’re looking through “Brideshead” and all of those kinds of things, it’s a lot of doppelganger stuff. So you’d be looking to maybe cast people who felt similar. And then I think early on, I started thinking about Barry and thinking, Well actually, it’s more interesting to have somebody who’s actually kind of a stealth missile in a way, somebody who you maybe don’t see coming.

So I sent him a script and I met him and I immediately loved him. The way that I like to work with actors not just actors, though, any head of department is I like to get to know them, which sounds so twee and silly, but I mean, ask questions. If I meet actors, for example, I’m wanting to see if we’re going to have an honest conversation, if we’re going to be able to be honest with each other, if we can get into the place which is exciting. So I’ll ask things like, “Do you really like being famous, for all your protestations?”

It’s interesting, and some people are like, “Yeah.” And then you’re like, “Okay, great, we can have that conversation.” Or you ask, “Do you prefer your mother or your father? Which one would you mind least if they died?” Whatever it is, the kind of things that you want to see if people are going to … there are lots of actors who are amazing, but they’re naturally reserved, and they don’t want to give you that stuff. But Barry, he came in and we were just right into it right away. But I hadn’t seen him do an English accent. So I asked to see an audition. I asked his team if he’d auditioned for anything with an English accent that I could see. And he had a few years ago. And it was so interesting, it was just the same thing. It was just him in a room, not off book or anything, just reading the lines of something, actually quite a surprising thing.

It was just that sensation of, by the end of the audition, my nose was practically touching the screen, because the thing with Barry is the more you show him, the closer you show him, almost the more enigmatic he becomes. He’s sort of a close-up magician. You can just watch him, and something’s happening that’s magic, but it’s impossible to see what it is or how it is. Making the whole film was like that all the time. There were still days when I was like, “F**k, how does he do that?” Especially at the moments when we were most furious with each other and we most wanted to push each other off a cliff, then it’d be like, “Oh wow, yeah.”

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