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Daryl McCormack: "There was literally nowhere to hide"

Daryl McCormack starred in Peaky Blinders but has landed the role of his career opposite Emma Thompson in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande. Max Williams finds out why it was the role the actor was born to play

A woman is pacing around a hotel room. Middle aged and middle class, she bears a striking resemblance to legendary British actor Emma Thompson. She relinquishes her overnight suitcase to a corner and hurriedly removes her coat. 

In a cafe outside, a strikingly handsome young man is finishing his coffee and contemplating the street beyond the window. His expression is inscrutable. Some might call it bored. Others, serene. 

In the hotel room, the woman is growing increasingly agitated, like someone approaching a moment of reckoning for which they are not prepared. She takes a miniature vodka bottle from the mini-bar then inspects herself in the mirror. She doesn’t seem very happy with what it shows her. 

Leaving the cafe, the handsome young man swings a blue raincoat over his white buttoned shirt. Combined with his rucksack, the attire is a curious mix of corporate and bohemian: an artist on the way to a job interview. He tosses a chewing gum in the air and catches it in his mouth. 

The woman is still inspecting the mirror when she hears the knock. It’s an assured knock, the knock of the expected. The woman takes a deep breath and another sip of vodka. She approaches the door, uncertainly, almost reluctantly, and puts her eye to the spy hole. You can probably guess who she sees there. 

Thus the opening few minutes of Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, the recently released film starring Emma Thompson and 29-year-old Daryl McCormack. You’ll have probably heard of Leo Grande by now – its promotion and coverage have been extensive – but for the uninitiated: the film depicts a series of encounters between a sexually repressed widow and the sex worker she hires to combat that repression. It’s essentially a two-hander between Thompson and McCormack, one that explores intimacy, sex, the human need to be wanted and how it can bleed into the human need to be loved. 

McCormack, as you’ve likely guessed, plays the sex worker Leo Grande. Leo isn’t the character’s real name, any more than Thompson’s widow is called Nancy, the moniker under which she books her appointments with Leo. My younger sister, however, is called Nancy. McCormack grins when I tell him. “I’m guessing she’s a bit younger than the film Nancy?” 

Only by 35 years. I don’t think the sister’s ever hired a sex worker, either – although that’s between her and her boyfriend. 

Daryl McCormack

McCormack and I meet at The Soho Hotel, the day after the film's premiere. "It was nice to have it in the cinema, really," says McCormack. "We felt a lot of love in the room." 

He has a gorgeous voice – soft, soothing, Irish – and a habit of going “mmm” in response to a point, rolling the hum around his mouth like a Werther's Original. (Calm Sleep Stories need to sign him up, stat.) He was conceived in California, born and raised in Ireland, and now resides in Hackney – as suggested by his hoop earring and patterned yellow cardigan.   

Leo Grande is being billed as a breakout role but McCormack was already a name to watch: he was preparing to shoot Peaky Blinders when he received the script. "My mindset was in a very different place,” he notes. “Getting ready to play a gangster in the 1930s is very different to playing a sex worker." 

Thompson was already attached, which naturally caught his attention. So did a script that pitted McCormack opposite one of the most revered thespians working today, a woman who lags only behind David Attenborough and buttered crumpets on the National Treasure scale. 

"I was kind of blown away that I was even being considered to hold a film with someone like Emma," says McCormack. "I'm very new in my career, relatively. So that was very flattering." 

Most enticing was the role itself. Leo would surely speak to any young actor but he seduced McCormack immediately and absolutely. "There was something in Leo that I recognised. A sensitivity in him, a generosity in him in terms of laying down a space where intimacy can flourish. I thought that was really exciting because I haven't seen that many men with that intention in regards to intimacy. And I recognised myself in him in ways. That was the main anchor: being rooted in who he was." 

Daryl McCormack

OK, so it’s easy enough to understand what attracted McCormack to Leo – but what attracted Leo to McCormack? I reached out to the film’s director Sophie Hyde to ask what convinced her and the team that McCormack was their man. 

“Daryl just had great qualities and layers that both Emma and I found really appealing for the role,” Hyde tells me. “I like his young, gentle version of being a man – a thoughtful, engaged, warm man. We had watched his material but it was after meeting him that we felt truly confident. He has a calm, a gentleness, a generosity and a playful quality too that I felt really helped us locate Leo. And he’s a wonderful human. And he works hard, which was vital for this.

“I love the way Daryl meets other people. He has an ability and a desire to actually meet the person opposite him, to set aside his expectations and hear and see someone. This was something that I really responded to in him and that I think he shares with the character of Leo.  His curiosity and generosity are the things I really think of when I think of him.”  

McCormack spoke to sex workers over Zoom to prepare for the role. "I met people who were really strong in their sense of self. And were brave in ways. Because they were entering what would sometimes be dangerous spaces and were navigating completely and entirely by themselves." 

For an actor, it must be tricky to play a sex worker – or any role that involves a vocation or industry rarely depicted on screen. Many people will see Leo as a representation of that industry rather than a fictional character – whereas an actor playing, say, a doctor won’t be seen as embodying the entire medical profession. This observation earns one of those mellifluous “mmms”. 

“I had to be aware that it wasn't my job to encapsulate what the male sex worker story is – or what the sex worker story is,” says McCormack. Those Zoom conversations reinforced that person is individual: “there's no template for what a sex worker's life looks like. It's all really individual because they're offering themselves within the service. They draw their own boundaries. They draw what they want to do."   

While speaking to sex workers, was there any particular insight that stuck with him? He speaks of a lack of victimhood: the freedom, authority and power that can be discovered through sex worker, regardless of the circumstances that led you there. The pride these workers had in their vocation. "They cared about what they do. They really cared. And it was important for me that Leo felt the same.”  

Daryl McCormack

In their first meeting, Leo tells Nancy that his oldest client is 82. Watching the scene, I doubted this assertion, reading it as a tactful lie designed to put Nancy at ease. McCormack disagrees with me, believing the 82-year-old client does exist: “Intimacy shouldn't fall into an age bracket. It can't fall into an age bracket. We should be able to experience it up until the moment we die.” (As it’s never resolved on-screen, we can go all Death of the Author and debate whether his opinion as the actor carries more weight than mine as a viewer – but that’s another article.) 

McCormack created a backstory for Leo, one that explored the character's sexual and emotional journey. "When you get a role, you always try to find a nugget or a particular moment that crystallises the journey of the character and where he's coming from." 

To identify that moment for Leo would be entering spoiler territory – but what of McCormack himself? Is there a moment in his life which shaped the person he is today? 

"Oh my goodness," he says. "That's a deep question." For the first and only time in our conversation, McCormack seems hesitant rather than thoughtful. "I don't know. I don't know. We've all had shaping moments in our lives. I don't know if I can share what that is because we might be going down a path that's – I dunno, it mightn't be too tied into the film." 

Completely fair enough. But to add some colour to his biography, which is rather wonderful: his parents met on the West Coast despite neither of them being Californian. His Irish mother was travelling America in her early 20s; his Baltimore father was stationed there in the army. "They met out there, had a beautiful, youthful relationship. But I was born and raised in Ireland. It's gorgeous because I really have two families, two cultures. I'm African-American, I'm Irish. That's something I'm proud of." 

He grew up in the town of Nenagh, Tipperary and spent his summers flying across the Atlantic. I can’t resist reciting the song: “It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go…” McCormack laughs. "You know I didn't even know that was a global song until I left Tipperary?" It took a play, and one of his castmates humming the tune in rehearsals, for the realisation to hit that it wasn’t just a Tip thing. 

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As a kid, he loved impressions, especially comedy: Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, Martin Lawrence. Weekly cinema visits with his mum triggered a love and fascination with cinema that remains to this day.  "The hope was always just to be in film myself. To join that community of filmmaking." 

He went to drama school in Dublin, spent three years after graduation waiting tables, pulling pints, and doing theatre – notably the title roles in Romeo and Juliet and Othello. Five years ago, he moved to London and his career picked up momentum. There was the West End production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, a lead in comedy thriller Pixie, and charismatic gangster Isaiah Jesus in season five and six of Peaky Blinders. And now there’s Leo Grande and universal plaudits and quite possibly awards.  

As an actor, when working on certain projects, do you ever think: this could be a really big deal? A before and after moment? To my slight surprise, he nods. "Actors, we crave for material that can really challenge us. But also when you're starting out, it's not often you get the chance to really sink your teeth into something. And I really felt like this was a part I could really get into. There was so much exposure: there was literally nowhere to hide on that job. And I think that is a gift. Obviously it could go wrong, if you're not ready for it. But I had to trust that I was ready for it.

“When you get to that moment, a lot of imposter syndrome can start to come in. But it did feel significant. Beyond whether success or further stuff is to come from it, it felt significant because it felt like it was the first role that encompassed everything of me. There wasn't an ounce of myself that I wasn't giving.” 

Hyde recalls speaking with McCormack on the first day of shooting. “He just turned and looked at me and said ‘that’s Emma Thompson’  like it had just landed – even though we had rehearsed for a week and by that point the two of them were quite close. It was just that he suddenly remembered it was ‘Emma Thompson’ as opposed to Emma there. But he promptly laughed and got on with it.  

Laughing and getting on with it is a good way for anyone to live. McCormack has much to laugh about: two loving families, the role of a lifetime, a career whose trajectory may soon cause vertigo. He’s currently filming psychological thriller The Tutor opposite Richard E Grant and Julie Deply. One day, he hopes to work behind the camera but acting is plenty enough for the moment.   

“I feel really lucky regardless of what the outcomes will be. I have to think of the little boy who started way back when in Nenagh, who was happy to get on the stage on his bare feet or do rehearsal. That's what I continue to chase: that feeling of creation and that collaborative effort.

Like the song says, he has a long way to go. I expect he’ll enjoy every second of it.

Good Luck To You, Leo Grande is streaming on Hulu

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