Daryl McCormack is grinning his head off. The Irish actor has just been nominated for the Bafta Rising Star award for his performance in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, an intense, subversive two-hander in which he plays a sensitive sex worker opposite Emma Thompson. The nod is for an accolade previously given to Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright and Tom Hardy at the start of their careers, and Bafta have put him up in a very swanky London suite. “I’m in this insane room that’s on the corner, so I can see the South Bank behind me,” he says, lifting his laptop up to flaunt the view of skyscrapers at dusk. “The butler, I was practically shouting at him when he showed me the room, like, ‘This is insane! There’s no need!’ I come from, honestly, humble beginnings, and I love this stuff. I’m sending videos to my mum, like, ‘Wow, look at this!’”
Well, he had better get used to it. A few days later, McCormack has joined the big boys’ table: his performance in Leo Grande has also earned him a Best Actor nomination, alongside hefty names like Bill Nighy and Colin Farrell. Today, he turns 30 – so, all in all, quite a week. McCormack, who has also starred in Peaky Blinders and Bad Sisters, is certainly on the up. His ascent in the industry was given a rocket boost when he was hand-picked by double Oscar winner Thompson to star opposite her in the most vulnerable and exposing role of her career.
In Leo Grande, McCormack plays a charming escort hired by Thompson’s retired and widowed schoolteacher. She’s had one sexual partner her whole life, and has never had an orgasm. In one of their meetings, she lists off the things she wants to achieve in their two-hour slot: “Number one, I perform oral sex on you. Number two, you perform oral sex on me. Number three, we do a 69, if that’s what it’s still called? Four, me on top. Five, doggy style.” “We’ll do as much of this as we can today,” comes his amused reply. “I think we’ll certainly make a significant dent in it.” McCormack has a cat-like gentleness to him, a lightness of touch, and it’s easy to see why Thompson felt she could trust him.
To get to know each other before McCormack was given the role, the pair took a walk together. “I was nervous,” says the actor. “Because it was initially meant to be on a Zoom, and I was out with my friends the night before. At 10pm or so I got a text being like, ‘Emma wants to meet you tomorrow. In person.’ I have never left a party so quickly.” During the walk, says McCormack, he knew that “there needed to be a real, almost spiritual, sense of safety” between himself and Thompson, a home-grown Hollywood heavyweight who has achieved national treasure status and whose downstairs bathroom I imagine is absolutely bursting with trophies and statuettes. “I had so much respect and admiration for her for doing this, and I just wanted her to feel safe with me,” he says. “Even though I was lesser known and just starting out, I wanted her to know that I was going to give everything.”
It was crucial for the actors to feel secure. Almost the entire film takes place on or next to a bed in a hotel room, and the film ends with Thompson confronting her fully, freely naked body in the mirror. But the performers and the director, Sophie Hyde, took the unconventional decision not to hire an intimacy coordinator – a staple on most film and TV sets today. “We all collectively decided that it felt – and this is nothing to say against intimacy coordinators – that there was such a connection between myself, Emma and Sophie,” says McCormack.
The last day of rehearsals was dedicated to the intimate scenes, with the trio starting out by outlining their clothed bodies on big bits of paper, circling the parts they liked. “I circled where I got my first tattoo, and the scar on my elbow,” says McCormack. “The map of the body then led to us telling stories behind each thing. Then from there, the three of us all took a layer of clothing off, one by one, and told stories about our bodies. It was a gentle, beautiful introduction for us to step into a place of vulnerability. It felt like complete freedom. We have Sophie to thank for that, because she beautifully designed that day. Before we knew it, the three of us were naked, and it felt like we never even took our clothes off in the beginning. There was a level of comfort I’ve never experienced before.”
It sounds like the most respectful game of strip poker ever. “Or strip storytelling,” suggests McCormack, with a cackle. There’s a knock at the door, and he goes off to let a hotel employee in to deliver his luggage. I hear him say “Thank you so much” a total of four times, off-camera. “That was Rodrigo,” he explains, chuffed, about the butler he now seems to be on first-name terms with.
McCormack and Thompson watched Leo Grande for the first time together, and went out for cocktails straight after the screening – perhaps to settle the nerves. Making the film had been an “intense shared experience”. McCormack’s family and friends all watched it at a small cinema in his hometown of Nenagh, Tipperary. He wasn’t in the country at the time, and seems a little relieved that he didn’t have to sit through anything too excruciating with his mother and grandmother, who raised him.
McCormack’s mother became pregnant with him after a brief dalliance with his father during a summer trip to the States when she was young. “You know where you stand with the McCormacks,” the actor says, smiling and shaking his head. “They’re refreshingly honest and funny.” As a child, he threw himself into a lot of hobbies – really, a lot: music, dance, singing, acting, hurling, tennis, basketball, football – in an attempt to find what he was good at. “I really took to sports and acting,” he says, “and they’re both about drama and performance.” It was when his paternal grandfather came over from Baltimore and took him to see Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play A Raisin in the Sun that McCormack decided to pursue acting properly. He trained at Ireland’s leading drama school, the Gaiety School of Acting, in Dublin.
There’s a very particular identity in being biracial and Irish
His first screen role was in Ireland’s answer to EastEnders, Fair City, where other fantastic Irish talents like Barry Keoghan and Sinéad Keenan started out. During his six-month stint on the soap, McCormack played a bad boy called Pierce Devlin, and he looks back on that time with a mixture of fondness and amusement. Narrowing his eyes and pouting with mock swagger, McCormack says, “He was rogue. He was dangerous. He drove a motorbike. He was the kind of boyfriend that your dad wouldn’t trust.”
After Fair City, McCormack had small roles in the series A Very English Scandal, Dominic Savage’s I Am Maria, and The Wheel of Time, as well as a leading role in heist comedy Pixie with Olivia Cooke. In 2019, he joined the cast of Peaky Blinders as gangster and Shelby family associate Isaiah Jesus in season five. He was on set the day the cast found out that the show’s magnetic matriarch Helen McCrory had died from breast cancer, an illness she had kept secret. “We happened to be shooting in [the drama’s famous pub] The Garrison, you know, so it was quite a lot, quite surreal,” he says. “We called an end to the day. I just gave a lot of people space, because I was very new to everything and I just respected the journey they’d all had with her.”
In 2020, McCormack just missed out on the chance to work with the Ethiopian-Irish actor Ruth Negga. After hounding his team to get him an audition, he was finally invited to read for a part in the tragedy Portia Coughlan at London’s Young Vic, where Negga was due to play the title role, but the production was cancelled because of the pandemic. She is one of his heroes. “There’s a very particular identity in being biracial and Irish,” McCormack says. “In a primarily white country, I didn’t always see someone who looked like me in my environment. So naturally, as you start thinking about your dreams as you venture out, you look towards people who look like you and who you identify with. Ruth was someone I’d seen blossom in the industry. Loving is one of my favourite films. For me, the opportunity to work with her was way beyond a job. It was allowing the boy in me to achieve something more than just being an actor. [Representation] was something I always looked for growing up, and it wasn’t always easy to see.”
He is very close with his dad’s father, Percy. “Feeling a sense of belonging with my American family has helped me understand the fullness of who I am from both sides,” he says. “It’s a never-ending journey, I think, identity.” Percy is going to be McCormack’s plus one at the Baftas. “He’s 80 and he’s so dapper,” says the actor.
McCormack is now considering a move stateside, to New York, after living in Hackney for four years. The prolific Irish screenwriter and actor Sharon Horgan is practically a neighbour of his, and she cast him in her deliciously dark comedy Bad Sisters after hearing that all the women on his road fancied him (though he did have to audition). In the show, he plays a reluctant insurance agent and the love interest of Eve Hewson, who is the daughter of Bono and activist Ali Hewson. He didn’t meet the U2 star, but one day Eve’s mother popped down to see the cast when they were filming in Dublin’s Sandycove, near the family’s hometown of Dalkey. “She brought a big batch of tea and biscuits and all different snacks,” says McCormack. “It was really just like a regular breakfast tea, but it tasted incredible. Whatever she put in it was magic.”
He’s currently filming another Irish project – a gothic thriller about the decades of abuse at Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, co-starring Ruth Wilson. After this week, he’s heading back up to Belfast to continue the shoot. The drama, called The Woman in the Wall, is written by Bafta nominee Joe Murtagh (who made the dark masterpiece Calm With Horses), and Wilson certainly knows how to spot a cracking script – so I have a feeling McCormack is going to have a lot more to grin about very soon.
Voting for the EE Bafta Rising Star Award is now open here and closes at 12pm on Friday 17 February 2023