Barry Keoghan and Emerald Fennell Are Here to Surprise You

For W’s Directors Issue, Fennell cast Keoghan in “Lucky For You, I’m a Vampire,” a cheeky tribute to one of Saltburn’s shocking moments.

Directed by Emerald Fennell
Written by Alex Needham

Barry Keoghan
Burberry coat, shirt, and pants; Hood London balaclava; vintage gloves and boots from National Theatre Costume Hire, London.

Barry Keoghan and Emerald Fennell are sitting at opposite ends of a bathtub in an attic room of the George Tavern, a 19th-century east London pub, immersed in what looks like blood. Keoghan, who is wearing a pearl necklace and, to preserve his modesty, black shorts, poses as Fennell wields the camera. “It looks like I’m giving birth to Barry,” she observes. “It’s a water birth.”

The photos they’re creating for W are inspired by a disquieting line Keoghan delivers as Oliver Quick, an Oxford student who infiltrates a posh family in Saltburn, which Fennell directed and which is already well on its way to becoming a cult classic. “Oliver says, ‘Lucky for you, I’m a vampire,’ ” Fennell explains. “Because Barry’s so theatrical and such an amazing physical performer, I wanted to make that literal and have him as a vampire living his everyday life in London, which means reading Twilight, watching old Hammer horror films, and going to the supermarket in armor and a balaclava so that he doesn’t get burned to a crisp.”

As everyone surely knows by now, one of Saltburn’s most outrageous scenes shows Quick drinking some of his aristocratic friend Felix Catton’s bathwater, then lasciviously licking the drain. And despite quipping that “there’s nothing worse than wet underwear,” Keoghan was more than happy to get back into the tub at Fennell’s behest. “I did it, without hesitation!” says Keoghan in a thick Dublin accent. “Emerald getting in the bath with me is metaphorical for the way she directs—she gets into it with you. She isn’t in her trailer or having an assistant come over to give you notes; she’s right beside you. That’s where bold choices come from.”

Barry Keoghan wears an Atsuko Kudo apron; vintage shorts from National Theatre Costume Hire, London; Wing + Weft Gloves gloves; Theo Fennell ring; Falke socks. Emerald Fennell plays the role of corpse.

Atsuko Kudo apron; Wing + Weft Gloves gloves; Theo Fennell ring.

Keoghan is still delighted with another of his and Fennell’s bold choices: In Saltburn’s final scene, he triumphantly dances naked to “Murder on the Dancefloor,” the 2001 hit by Sophie Ellis-Bextor, through the stately home that gives the film its name. He says that he’s now looking for roles that could employ his newly discovered hoofing abilities. “I didn’t know I could do something like that, and to see it play back on-screen gave me a massive amount of confidence. So maybe there’s something down that route I can take.”

Saltburn sent “Murder on the Dancefloor” skyrocketing back up the charts. The song’s success is just one indication of the way in which the film caught people’s imaginations: Saltburn-themed parties popped up in New York and L.A. just weeks after the film’s release, and there have been scores of newspaper think pieces, TikTok parodies, and Reddit threads. Many watched it over the holiday season with elderly relatives who thought they were getting a gentle period drama akin to Downton Abbey rather than a satire on class with transgressive scenes precision-tooled to make audiences squeal. “We did say before Saltburn came out on Amazon Prime that everyone should watch it with their families,” says Fennell, adding that some received it “with uproarious laughter all the way through, and some felt it was an erotic thriller. That’s great—neither of them are wrong! What’s so fun and disconcerting about the movie, whether you’re watching in the theater or at home, is that your mum is squirming with embarrassment—or maybe she thinks it’s really hot.”

Burberry coat, shirt, and pants; Hood London balaclava; vintage gloves and boots from National Theatre Costume Hire, London.

At the George Tavern, Keoghan changes into vinyl gloves and a sequined Celine top, then prepares to pretend to eat raw pig hearts, which have been sourced from Borough Market, London’s foodie paradise. Fennell, meanwhile, jokingly informs him that one of his poses “makes your abs look good, mate!” She then exclaims, “Oh my god, 10 out of 10! Magic Mike XXL!”

Fennell says that this humorous encouragement is influenced partly by her own experiences as an actor; among other roles, she played Camilla Parker-Bowles in seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown and was on the British sitcom Call the Midwife for four years. “So much time was wasted because so many sets were run on fear and adrenaline, and nobody could really do their job because it took them so long to unclench,” she says. “The thing for me is, if you want to make stuff that’s close to the bone, that’s outrageous and fun and camp and silly, you need to create a space where people feel like they’re safe, that they’re not being shoved off a cliff and that we’re all doing it together. If Barry had changed his mind and said, ‘I don’t want the dance scene at the end to be in the movie,’ I would have got rid of it, because consent is ongoing and everyone has a say. But that’s why Barry’s remarkable. He wants to be at the sharp end, always. He only finds it interesting there, and that’s how I feel too.”

Celine Homme by Hedi Slimane top.

Vex Latex gloves; Theo Fennell necklace and ring.

Keoghan’s pursuit of the sharp end has also manifested in his fashion choices. He’s worn a succession of dramatic looks on the red carpet—notably a red Louis Vuitton suit with a pearl key chain at the Golden Globes. It’s all good fun, but there’s also strategic intelligence at work. “Certain clothes can change your whole posture,” he says. “What you wear represents what you’re trying to express. The Louis Vuitton suit had this punk rock thing to it, and that opens doors for people to have a vision of you in a movie that they might not have had before. They’re like, ‘Oh! Maybe he could play that part!’ ”

Saltburn was Keoghan’s first film as a leading man, but Fennell had no doubt that he could inhabit the role. “There’s a moment when Barry’s just not there, and it’s so spooky and magical when you see that,” says Fennell. “I used to think this about Carey Mulligan as well.” (Mulligan, who has a small but riveting part in Saltburn, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2021 for her role in Fennell’s previous film, Promising Young Woman, which earned Fennell the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.)

Etro sweater; vintage kimono from Alias Costume Rental, New York City; Falke socks; stylist’s own boa.

Alexander McQueen coat and pants; Atsuko Kudo top; Christian Louboutin boots.

Having been brought up in foster care in Ireland, Keoghan lacked personal familiarity with Oxford University and grand English country houses. “The amazing thing about Barry is that he’s such a profoundly perceptive person,” says Fennell. “When I first met him, he sat down and said, ‘I am Oliver.’ He didn’t mean he was the fake Oliver who makes up this story; he meant that he is very familiar with being flung into a situation that feels completely alien.” She adds that while great actors are mimics, they are also capable of instinctively figuring out what directors want and then giving it to them. “From the get-go, Barry always understood and empathized, as I did, with Oliver’s ability to shape-shift.”

Both the film and this shoot lean on Fennell’s love of gothic horror, which she believes is a distinctly female genre. “I think of the Brontë sisters or Daphne du Maurier or Leonora Carrington,” she says. “A touch point is always Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. Sherman is such an expert at atmosphere, and the way she tweaks her own self is fascinating.” Fennell suggests that the gothic sense of something sinister lurking beneath an alluring exterior is an idea that women in particular understand, “having been repressed and unable to express themselves for such a long time. That roiling sense of shark-infested waters feels quite cinematic.”

On Saltburn, which was produced, like Promising Young Woman, by Margot Robbie, more than 50 percent of the crew was female, and Fennell notes, with justified pride, that it was the first English film of its scale to achieve gender balance. In the credits, she thanks Zelda Perkins, the first person to break her nondisclosure agreement with Harvey Weinstein. “I truly believe that she and all the women alongside her gave all of us the power not to be fucked with in the same way.”

Moschino trenchcoat.

Fennell is one of a growing but still small number of high-profile female filmmakers. Is there a sense of solidarity among them? “Absolutely,” she says immediately. “I really feel the support and the reaching out, and I just think it’s so necessary, especially with the tribulations of being a mother and doing this job.” (Fennell has two young children.) While she says that other female directors understand “the very specific, grueling work,” the culture at large is still “not set up” for women to make films. “There’s still a weird ‘show your workings’ assumption that can be quite draining.”

So, what needs to change? Fennell is reluctant to answer. “Whenever I talk about the craft of the work, I find myself drawn into the politics of it, and I always want to pause and ask myself, Are male filmmakers asked these same questions? I’m not sure they are.” Instead, she turns to her immediate plans: “I need to lie face down with a cold compress like an institutionalized Victorian woman. It’d be a huge relief to have a lobotomy. And then the next thing I’ll do, well, nobody knows. That makes it sound like I’m being tantalizing, but, actually, I’ll just go and write. I don’t tell anyone what I’m doing because I like it to be a fun, corrupting pleasure when I give it to them.”

No matter what she dreams up next, if there’s a part for Keoghan, he’ll be there to strip naked or do whatever else might be required. “Anything that Emerald wants, I’ll sign up for it,” he says. “With her, anything goes.”

Director of photography: Will Grundy. Hair by Matt Mulhall for Oribe at Streeters; makeup by Ana Takahashi for Victoria Beckham Beauty at Art Partner; manicure by Saffron Goddard for Chanel. Set design by Miguel Bento at CLM.

Produced by Farago Projects; executive producer: Sylvia Farago; producer: Brisa Chander; production coordinator: Phoebe Bunje; gaffer: Calvin Bishop; photo assistant: Pedro Faria; digital technician: Andy Douglas; retouching: Lever Post; fashion assistants: Katie Dulieu, Philip Smith, Ryan Wohlgemut; production assistants: Tommy Aucott, Harvey Wells; makeup assistant: Chloé Palmer; set design assistants: Thomas Ellis, Toby Broughton, Rosa Bento; tailor: Alina Gencaite at Galedi.