Barry Keoghan on Making Choices and What He Does to Stay “Mentally” in a Role

Keoghan says he didn't judge his 'Saltburn' character. "All the choices I made as Oliver, I didn’t seem them as sociopathic or wrong."

One of the most talked-about movies of 2023 is Saltburn, a black comedy about an Oxford University student named Oliver, played by BAFTA-winning actor Barry Keoghan, who endears himself — and helps destroy — a classmate’s aristocratic family. Keoghan spoke with Variety about his role in the film, particularly about how Keoghan portrayed the various facets of Oliver’s personality. 

Despite Oliver’s shocking behavior over the course of the film, Keoghan says he didn’t outright judge the character’s action. He explains, “All the choices I made as Oliver, I didn’t seem them as sociopathic or wrong.”

The interviewer notes that Keoghan has said he played “five versions of Oliver” in the film. Describing that approach, Keoghan reveals, “I looked at good leading performances with a strong arc to prepare because this was my first leading part. […] I created Oliver 1 for the start, then Oliver 2 for the next part, on through Oliver 5 at the end. I wanted to hit each of them with a physicality, a tone of voice, a different motive, a different pace. You see the costume and the hair changes, but you also sense his mental change and track that journey.”

He would keep track of which version of “Oliver” appeared in what scene, adding, “It helped with where I was in the story since it’s not shot chronologically. I was shooting, say, Scene 54; I would go to my book and see that this is Oliver 4. Then I would look up what Oliver 4’s traits are. What is his physicality? What is his demeanor? […] It really helped me. I’ve not done that before. I like to say I’m method, but I think method is your own thing — you do what works for you. You can take from other methods, you can watch others and observe — you do what gets you by. You’re giving a lot. You can lose a little bit of yourself when you show raw emotion. You can take bits away from yourself that you haven’t even discovered yet. I’m not going to say it’s a painful process, but it’s a very exhausting process.”

Keoghan notes that some of the script’s most outrageous moments appealed to him as acting challenges. He says, “I looked at that and went, ‘I’m going to show some maturity here and my commitment to my craft and challenge myself.’ I’ll do anything once that moves the story forward and if there’s a right reason for it creatively.”

He notes that projects like Saltburn allow him to grow creatively as an actor, which is something he attempts to do off-screen as well. He shares, “I also learn from others, both older and younger. I love watching what people bring to the table and why they make their choices and get into character. For me, I’ll play around with plastic spoons in my mouth. I’ll keep an accent. I’ll listen to music. I’ll stay in a dress code. That’s all so I’m mentally in it. I had no formal training and I don’t think there is any right way to do what you do. To go back to the painting metaphor, there is no one correct way to paint — you just have to get it on the canvas.”

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