'If I got that role I don't think I'd be the person I am now' – Daryl McCormack talks Star Wars, Peaky Blinders and The Abbey

Last summer, having just finished his West End debut as Irish terrorist Brendan in Martin McDonagh’s gruesome comedy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Daryl McCormack got a call from his agent. The Tipperary actor had been cast, to his surprise, in the fifth season of Peaky Blinders (to be aired this autumn).

Almost five years out of drama school, Daryl finds these opportunities “weird and surreal”. “I binge-watched the fourth season at home on my laptop. The next time I saw the show, I was in it and I was having a massive imposter syndrome. I kept telling myself, ‘it’s okay Daryl, just keep quiet, no one here has caught on that you’re not meant to be here’.”

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On the third day on set, standing at the hair and make-up trailer he noticed Cillian Murphy. “He turned around, and he just looked up at me with his blue eyes. His eyes are so blue! I thought – my god. I like to think I’m not someone who gets star-struck. But I think sometimes I do,” he grins.

McCormack is sitting on a burgundy leather sofa in the bar of the Abbey Theatre, surrounded by gilt-framed portraits of founding fathers and other bygone theatrical dignitaries, drinking coffee with oat milk (“not that I’m vegan,” he says, going on to describe a vegan burger with radish jam you can get in London). Another debut: this time on the Abbey stage for Dylan Coburn Gray’s verse play, Citysong, a co-production with the Soho Theatre which has won the Verity Bargate award for new writing.

McCormack, who is just 26 and possibly best known as Pierce Devlin in Fair City, is warm and polite, dreamy-eyed, and infectiously upbeat – he says the word “amazing” many, many times. Take his attitude to missing out on a part in Star Wars: Episode VII while still in college. He had got through to the final audition and was rehearsing embargoed script in a London studio before being turned down.

“If I had joined such a big franchise I don’t think I would be the person that I am now. I’m such a believer in things happening when they need to happen and at the right time,” he says.

And McCormack has nothing but hopeful things to say about a theatre that has been dogged by controversy in recent years, describing the Abbey as “an amazing pinnacle of what it means to be in Irish theatre and to tell Irish stories”.

Citysong is a poem, or “dedication to Dublin”, in which we meet three generations of a Dublin family over one day. The show requires McCormack and the five other cast members to work stupendously hard. McCormack plays 20 parts, including a taxi driver, a doctor, a party animal and a concerned parent. “I’ve never done anything which requires so much focus and energy,” he says, and describes a punishing/enlightened morning routine of cold shower followed by Headspace app-led meditation and light stretching.

McCormack appears to be a high achiever with a philosophical edge. When work was slow, he opted for a three-month training in jiu jitsu. In school he was elected student president; he was also something of a hurling champion with Nenagh Éire Óg.

He moved to London two years ago without a job and found it brutal at first. When he graduated from DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama he was kept going by parts in Fair City, Vikings and Wayne Jordan’s Romeo and Juliet in the Gate. He played the love interest in Gerard Stembridge’s film The Randomer. “But I knew I had to jump off to London. I just thought there would be more for me,” he says.

“It was tough being isolated, coming from a city where I have a lot of friends, to where no one knows me. Sometimes you feel, all I’m doing is waiting tables.” He has worked in “a lot of places. That’s my trade,” he says and he lists them off, from Pygmalion and the Marker Hotel in Dublin to J&A Irish café in Clerkenwell.

“When you’re just waiting tables, no one looks at you. Certain business men, they’re so busy, they don’t have the space in their head to go, ‘that person has ambition, or that person doesn’t want to just be in a café for the rest of their life’. You have to hold onto something in you. It’s about trying not to fall into the frustration, to have a sense the future is near, and not dismiss the present.”

Within a few months of lonely auditioning he travelled to Uzbekistan to make How to Sell a War, directed by Rudolph Herzog (son of Werner); he also had a part in crime thriller A Good Woman is Hard to Find – both films due out this year. Lieutenant thrust him into a the pit of fandom in Soho, as Dubliner and Poldark star Aidan Turner had attracted a mob of “mostly middle-aged women” to stage door every night. McCormack enjoyed this.

“It was like being in One Direction, every night. Choc a bloc, and full-on signings, photos.”

As for playing Isaiah in Peaky, the preacher’s son and a precocious gang member, that has been “amazing fun. Stunts, fighting, shooting with guns”. Shooting the bad guys with Aidan Gillen is like “being a boy again”. “It’s just a much more professional version of cops and robbers.” Not to mention Murphy, who is “so down to earth, and such a great leader on that set. It’s an amazing example to follow”.

Opportunities like the open auditions held for this part weren’t the kind that were flowing in Dublin. “They wanted I guess a young mixed-race actor that could do a Birmingham accent. That’s why I moved to London, there’s more roles there. I just thought, it’s going to be a better place for me. The city itself is a bit more diverse and as a result it spreads out into the workforce and there are more opportunities.

“If there’s not many people of colour writing mixed Irish stories, it’s going to naturally be hard to be involved in those stories. Because they’re not there.”

Daryl’s own mother is from Nenagh, his father from Baltimore in the USA. They met when his mother went to California for a summer to work as a nanny. She became pregnant and returned home. “I always say I was raised by two mums, my mam and my nana. My dad lives in Baltimore. I stay in touch with him not so often. I don’t really know him that well.” Later, he adds: “It’s exciting to think, I have a parent there who I can still get to know.”

His paternal grandfather, Percy Thomas, has been a strong presence, visiting him in Nenagh since he was two (“If there’s been any father figure in my life, it’s been him”) and quite possibly sending him on the path to this sofa at the Abbey. Growing up, Daryl remembers watching John Hurt’s 1978 film Midnight Express on DVD “15 or 20 times”, and he had a particular respect for Daniel Day-Lewis. But Percy is also an actor, who had made a film in the 1970s with Al Pacino, and at 76 now runs a theatre company in Baltimore.

“He writes plays, directs and is now trying to write screenplays. He’s been so encouraging with advice. What to do, what not to do,” says McCormack. “One of my biggest dreams is to be able to do something with him. He’d love if I was in a position where I could tell producers and directors, ‘you know the old man in a bar, that scene? I have a guy who can play that part’. That I could just do a scene with him. That’s a massive dream of his and I’d love to do it as well.” How does it feel to be the only person of colour in a room, or on a stage? “It’s good,” he says. “Even if there’s only one or two. It feels cool that you get to be that one or two.

As for growing up one of the very few people of colour in Nenagh, that was, “a whole other ballgame”.

“I felt blessed to have such an amazing family,” he tells me. His mother Theresa, a drug addiction counsellor, was fiercely protective of him. “I never felt like my physical difference was ever that obvious. I always felt I was fully Irish. My mum had created this bubble in which I could just be myself.”

He has talked before about how his mother once marched to the home of a boy who had made a racist remark during a soccer game, and about how children on the street in Nenagh used to stare at him. “When I asked my mam, ‘Mam why are these other kids staring at me?’, she’d always come out with the answer, ‘it’s because you’re so handsome’.”

If he has role models in life, they are his friend, Lynette Linton, the artistic director of the Bush theatre – “an amazing inspiration to me” – and a woman he has never met, Ruth Negga.

“I really would love to meet her. She grew up in Limerick, she’s also mixed and Irish. She’s someone I look up to, who is similar to me, and up there,” McCormack says.

“She really encourages Irish people of colour to go out and make themselves known. We really do need to encourage more artists of colour and Irish artists of colour to really put stories out there to make [those stories] more normal and more visible”.

He would like to write a screenplay based on his own story – “I really want to elaborate more about growing up in Nenagh and being mixed in Ireland”, and to write a screenplay about his mother’s, and his father’s story. You know what, he probably will.

Citysong, Abbey Theatre, May 25 to June 8; Soho Theatre, June 12 to July 6; Black Box Theatre, Galway, July 23-28 (Galway International Arts Festival)

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