Fresh from his Oscar nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin, Irish actor Barry Keoghan is turning his attention back towards a dream assignment: a new feature retelling of the story of Billy the Kid. Keoghan’s American Animals director Bart Layton is aboard to direct the feature, produced by Element Pictures and RAW with Film4.
“We’ve seen many versions of Billy the Kid on screen before,” Keoghan tells Deadline. “My interest was in trying to tell a version that breaks from the facade of that cool, calm, and collected gunslinger Billy the Kid that we’re all used to seeing. I wanted to humanize him in a way.”
“This isn’t just a passion project for Barry,” notes Fremantle-backed Element Pictures producer Ed Guiney, who came aboard having worked with Keoghan on The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Calm with Horses. “This approach is something new, and it’s a version of the tale we hope the world will want to see.”
The project will lean into the Kid’s Irish ancestry and complicated childhood. Born in New York as Henry McCarty, he was orphaned at the age of 15 when his mother died and his stepfather abandoned him. His first arrest for robbery came a year later, and by the time he was 18, he was wanted for murder after an altercation in Arizona. His notoriety escalated from there, and he was 21 when Sheriff Pat Garrett shot him to death.
Keoghan, who lost his own mother when he was just 12 years old and grew up in the foster system, says he understood the pressures McCarty faced that edged him toward a life of crime and the desperate choices he made that resulted.
“I remember reading about him as a kid, but as we were digging into the project, there were so many things we discovered about his life,” Keoghan says. “There are so many eyewitness accounts, and lots of different versions of his story that didn’t add up but that contributed to the legend.”
What he found in the margins was what intrigued him. “I wanted to step outside of the legend that was built up by the papers and tackle the pressure he must have felt from those early days. He was running his whole life. I felt related to Billy in the sense of him being a mummy’s boy, but obviously, I took a different path, turning my circumstances into something positive rather than rebelling against them. Nevertheless, there’s a soul and a vulnerability to Billy that I think it’s important to bring, to understand him as a real person rather than the myth that he has become.”
Keoghan introduced the project to Layton during the shoot for American Animals. “The more we looked at the story and the truth of it, the more interesting the prospect became,” Layton says now. “Our understanding of Billy the Kid is really the comic book version. But the more we researched and the more we discussed, the more it felt like something Barry was born to do. There’s a cornered child aspect to Billy that I think Barry really understands, and of the violence he has been immortalized for, not all of it was intended or premeditated. A lot of it was circumstance edging him forward.”
Producer Ed Guiney, of Element Pictures, who worked with Keoghan on The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Calm With Horses, says Keoghan’s pitch for the project was undeniable. “For an actor, it’s always interesting to do something that punctures the myth, and humanizes it,” he notes. “Barry has the ability to capture a duality in the way he acts; there’s great sweetness and gentleness, but also there can be darkness and violence. He can really embody both things at once, and that’s the essence of Billy the Kid.”
Keoghan had first attempted to set the project up in early 2020, but the pandemic shutdown backburnered it. Now, with a new script from writer Hunter Andrews, Keoghan and co. are eager to get going. Layton hopes to schedule production for the early half of 2024. “I don’t think it’s mine, or Barry’s, or Ed’s next film, but we’re building towards next year,” he says.
Keoghan says he intends the role to be the one that he’s remembered for. “Bart’s like a brother, and Ed has always been there for me. To have the two of them stand by me on this, knowing it won’t be a small film, knowing we’re going to have to work hard to get it set up, that means a great deal. This is a project I brought from the ground up, so to have a director like Bart and a producer like Ed bring their styles to bear on it is really exciting.”
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