Introducing the Dublin Acting School Where Barry Keoghan (and Many Other Irish Stars) Got Their Start
Since he was nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA (which he later won) for his scene-stealing supporting performance in The Banshees of Inisherinthere’s been much talk about Barry Keoghan’s inspiring rise to fame.
As will likely be etched into Irish folklore as his Hollywood trajectory continues its sharp ascent, the Dubliner — born in one of the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods — would spend seven years in foster homes as a child. It was only in 2010, aged 18, when Keoghan’s love of movies was piqued by an ad in a shop window looking for actors for a new crime drama that was being shot locally. Three years later, he landed a role in Irish TV series Love/Hate (which would become a breeding ground for young Irish talent), followed by 2014’s indie hit ’72before breaking out internationally in 2017 with both Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
While Keoghan’s primary on-screen training may have almost entirely been of the on-the-job variety (and with some of the biggest names, both in front of and behind the camera, working today), it’s not strictly true to say he never attended any sort of acting school. In fact, he was one of the very first pupils at what would later become Dublin’s premier college, the National Screen Acting School of Ireland, better known as the Bow Street Academy.
Bow Street — named after its location on the road that was home to the original Jameson whiskey distillery — has helped train some of Ireland’s best-known rising stars, including the likes of Niamh Algar (Censor, Raised by Wolves), Jack Reynor (Transformers, Midsommar), Ann Skelly (The Neversthe recently announced Four Letters of Love) and Brian Gleeson (Bad Sisters, Peaky Blinders).
But while the school now offers a huge range of programs, masterclasses and courses, its humble origins — back when it first began life in an old rehearsal and recording studio known as The Factory by Dublin’s docklands just 13 years ago — were much less formal or structured.
“I saw Bowie rehearse there, and U2 were there,” recalls Shimmy Marcus, a filmmaker best known for 2009’s Soulboy who now serves as Bow Street’s artistic director. “But by around 2010 it was pretty much dead.”
It was then that three directors — John Carney (who had broken out somewhat spectacularly with his debut feature Once just three years earlier), Kirsten Sheridan (daughter of Jim Sheridan, with whom she co-wrote In Americaand director of 2001’s Disco Pigs), and Lance Daly (who had just made a name for himself with 2008’s Irish drama Kisses and would later direct 2018 hit Black ’47) — took over the lease. The original idea was simple: to have a dedicated space for cinematic creativity — a place for filmmakers, created by filmmakers.
“We envied musicians who could just go to a coffee shop with their guitars and hang out, jam together and create. Directors couldn’t do that,” notes Marcus. “So the idea of The Factory was to get together: pitch ideas, bounce ideas off each other, develop them and work with some in-house actors to maybe make some low-budget movies.”
The problem, according to Marcus, was that many of the actors available at the time hadn’t had any specific screen training, and the experience of the ones that had been to drama school was limited to theater. So they started doing the training themselves, setting up a workshop with Screen Ireland aimed at screen acting. Word went out, and it wasn’t long before a number of now well-known names were taking part, including Reynor, Gleeson, and Derry Girls star Louisa Harland. Keoghan was also one of the originals.
“Barry would have been someone who came knocking on our door saying, I heard about this place, I want in,” says Marcus. (In an interview with the Irish IndependentKeoghan recalled struggling to find the bus money to take him to The Factory at the time).
Reynor — who Carney would later cast in Sing Street — soon led the idea to set up the nightly Actors Studio, where Marcus says they could “throw a couple of bucks towards the light and the heating” and practice together, workshopping scenes, improvising ideas, creating characters and being interviewed in character, and all without any structure or formality. “It was like an acting gym, and such a fertile ground to create anything.”
Marcus recalls a moment when they acted out of the scene Magnolia where John C. Reilly says “I lost my gun today,” and Carney — who knew Reilly — actually called the star up to tell him immediately after.
Not long after the establishment of the Actors Studio, co-founder Daly returned to Dublin from LA, where he’d been filming the 2011 drama. The Good Doctor with Orlando Bloom. He brought back with him fellow Dubliner Gerry Grennell, who had been Bloom’s acting coach.
“But what we didn’t know was that he’d also been Heath Ledger’s acting coach for about 10 movies,” says Marcus. As it turned out, Grennell’s list of clients was a who’s who of on-screen greats, including Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Natalie Portman, Tom Cruise and Oscar Isaac. “He’s one of these unknown heroes.”
Grennell was invited to do a workshop with some of the budding actors at The Factory, and wound up staying for six hours.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing,” recalls Marcus. “And at the end of it, I was like, have you got any more of this? And he goes, ‘I’m just really scratching the surface here.’”
From that initial masterclass, Grennell and the team at The Factory designed and developed a one-year screen acting course — Ireland’s only one at the time — which began in 2012 with around 30 students. Keoghan was among the first intake, the skills he had already displayed meaning he was automatically given a place with the need for an audition. But Marcus says that “after about three weeks he was gone,” with work already coming his way thick and fast.
“He couldn’t sit still, so we were like, go on, you’re better off hitting the road.”
The reputation of The Factory quickly grew, with various local production companies setting up shop within its walls. Thanks to the draw of its founders and Grennell, major talents — including Brendan Gleeson, Saoirse Ronan, Cillian Murphy and Danny de Vito — would pass through and give talks for free.
Disaster struck, however, in 2014, after just two years of the acting course (and more than 50 students graduating), when the landlord refused to renew the lease on the building and issued an eviction notice. The Factory, already earmarked as a “cultural asset” of Dublin’s docklands area, was no more.
Sensing they were onto something special with the training and not wanting to give up — Marcus, alongside casting agent Maureen Hughes and general manager Paul O’Grady, found new, more central, premises in the red-bricked 17th century Jameson Building, which was the original home for the famed whiskey-making family.
Renamed Bow Street Academy, this new facility — which Marcus describes as “like Hogwarts” — opened its doors in early 2015 with a much more formalized structure to its curriculum, and a larger range of courses (which has expanded far greater since then). “And now we have hundreds of students,” he says.
But the ethos at Bow Street is still the same as it was at The Factory, which is “understanding what your relationship with your environment is and how you function as a human being within that environment.”
And it still maintains its pure focus on screen acting, which Marcus says differs from the “performative” nature of most drama schools. “Screen acting is oblivious to the audience — it’s a first person experience for yourself that you allow the camera to observe.”
Grennell is still a regular fixture at the school, where he teaches most days he’s not traveling or on set. And many major local filmmakers have also passed through to offer their expertise, including renowned Irish TV director Dearbhla Walsh (who helmed much of Bad Sisters), Damien O’Donnell (East is East) and Juanita Wilson (an Oscar nominee for the short film The Door).
“We get a lot of guest directors to come in and work with the students, and it’s great because they come in thinking they’re not going to be very good and they leave thinking, ‘I need some of those phone numbers’, and end up making films with them,” claims Marcus.
Shortly after helping open the school in February 2015, Jim Sheridan came to do a workshop and ended up staying for a week, eventually casting 20 students in his 2016 film. The Secret Scripture.
More recently, The Factory co-founder Carney visited Bow Street to test screen Flora and Sonhis latest feature and long-awaited follow up to Sing Streetbefore it went onto become one of the hits of Sundance (and a $20 million purchase by Apple TV+). Flora and Sonof course, also stars original alumnus Reynor.
Marcus says that Reynor and the actors who first got together at The Factory over 10 years ago are “very protective” of their time during those chaotic and creative days, and often don’t see themselves as connected to the much more structured Bow Street Academy. .
“Niamh Alger will tell you she didn’t go to drama school,” he notes. “But in a way she’s right, because we weren’t formalized — that one-year course was just this mad experiment.” Alger has since returned to give talks at Bow Street.
Although Keoghan’s time at the school may have been brief and before it could even really call itself a school, Bow Street is still among the first to celebrate his success (and a picture of him from The Factory’s “class of 2011” hangs proudly on one of the walls).
“From the first day when he turned up demanding to see legendary casting director Maureen Hughes, his charm, raw talent and ambition won us all over,” the school’s Instagram account posted shortly after his Oscar nomination. “Nothing was going to hold him back and his rise to the pinnacle of the industry has been a joy to watch.”
For Marcus, who is at pains to take no credit for the achievements of Keoghan or any of those who have come through either The Factory or Bow Street, watching the rise of former students makes all the hard work worthwhile.
“That’s where our reward is, just watching them and seeing not just how successful they are but how good their work is, and how they’ve stayed humble.”
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