Early last year, Daryl McCormack’s East London neighbors seemed determined to do some matchmaking: “Oh, you should meet Sharon,” they said. “My friend is writing a show; I’ll make sure to say that I know you.”
“People do that all the time,” the Irish actor explained in a recent video interview from Melbourne, Australia, his arresting green eyes making it hard not to stare. “They’re like, ‘Let me tell my friend,’ and nothing comes of it.”
Sharon — as in the writer and actor Horgan, who has lacerated motherhood and marriage in “Catastrophe” and “Divorce” — had been getting an earful, too.
“He lived above my friend’s jewelry shop just around the corner from where I live, and most of the female-owned stores along the street were pretty excited about him,” she said, laughing. “I told them I was making this Irish thing and I was looking for a youngish leading man. And they were like, ‘Well, what about Daryl?’”
That Irish thing was “Bad Sisters,” a darkly comic thriller debuting Friday on Apple TV+, about the five inseparable Garvey women, one of whom is married to a man so misogynistic and nefarious that the other four would do almost anything to boot him from their lives.
The youngish leading man was needed to play a handsome, heartbroken insurance agent who gets dragged into a convoluted policy investigation when the Garveys’ loathsome brother-in-law turns up dead.
Lo and behold, McCormack’s name was already on the casting director’s list of contenders.
“I went, ‘Oh my God, it’s the guy that all the women in Hackney fancy,’” Horgan said.
McCormack, who eventually got the job, of course, has been the object of a great deal of fancying since the June release of the British dramedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” which stars Emma Thompson as Nancy, a widow in her 60s, and McCormack as Leo, a sex worker she hires to guide her through an erotic awakening.
Critics praised the film for its sexual positivity, authenticity and zing, as well as Thompson’s daring performance. But just as remarkable was the relatively inexperienced McCormack’s ability to match the virtuosic Thompson quip for quip. “McCormack moves between wit, compassion and vulnerability with grace,” The New York Times wrote in its review of the film.
Given the abundant physical and emotional nakedness Thompson’s role required, she held considerable sway in the casting of her co-star. She had seen McCormack’s audition tape, but before making a final decision, she asked him to take a walk with her.
“Knowing where these two characters go and how vulnerable the film can get, I think it was important for her to really feel a sense of safety with me and a sense of trust,” McCormack said.
As they strolled, Thompson found him instantly calming, she wrote in an email — “gentle and curious and apparently unsaddled with too much in the way of personal ambition. Somehow he was going to be able to relax Nancy, who is in a state of tension comparable to a first-time bungee jumper.
“He was the right person to step off the bridge with,” she continued, “and fly down hoping the cord won’t break but knowing if it does, it was all worth the effort.”
When Thompson texted “I’ll see you on set” the next morning, McCormack, stunned to learn he’d been cast, checked to make sure that she hadn’t notified him by mistake.
“It was quite life-changing, that moment,” he said. “My world just did a somersault.”
Calling from Australia, where he and Thompson were promoting the movie, McCormack, 29 and laid back in a gray hoodie, looked more like the ace athlete he was as a schoolboy (in the Irish sport of hurling) than the seductive, silky-voiced fantasy man he conjured in “Leo Grande.” He knows the sex comedy, considered an Oscar contender, has changed his career.
“The film has definitely opened up doors for me in a big way,” he said, “like just even speaking to people that I’ve admired for a long time, work finding me a lot quicker, having a bit more of a selection to do work that I really want to do.”
He was still in the midst of shooting the movie when Horgan reached out about “Bad Sisters.”
McCormack may have been consumed by Leo at the time, but Horgan could see Matthew Claffin, the insurance agent, in his magnetism, his nimble acting chops and, when needed, his goofiness. And in the audition process, his chemistry with Brian Gleeson, who plays his half-brother, as well as Eve Hewson, who plays the youngest Garvey and a potential romantic interest, was undeniable.
In fact, McCormack initially found it nearly impossible to keep it together through scenes with Gleeson because of the desperation Gleeson brought to his version of a bad cop.
“Daryl is a giggler all right, but obviously a consummate professional,” Gleeson said. “I tend to over-worry things, and that has the weird effect of trying to do too much acting, basically. At one point, Daryl just kind of burst out laughing. But it had a great effect of relaxing everybody.
“He’s got a lovely gentle sort of disposition,” he added, “but there’s a lot of steel in him.”
McCormack grew up in Nenagh, in County Tipperary, the son of a white Irish mother and a Black American father he rarely saw. But his paternal grandfather, Percy Thomas, who runs a theater company in Maryland, helped fill that void.
“The second he heard of himself having a grandson, he instantly made his way over to Ireland and connected with my family,” McCormack said. “Our relationship is so special. I think because we both had such an interest and connection to the performing arts, he just loved me because I was someone he could speak to about acting all the time and I’d never get bored, never get sick of it.”
When McCormack was 17, Thomas took him to see “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, England.
“That was actually quite fundamental to me in terms of wanting to pursue acting,” McCormack said. “It just blew my mind, completely moved me. I really saw the power of storytelling in that night.”
Thomas has been a sounding board for McCormack throughout his studies at the Conservatory of Music and Drama at the Dublin Institute of Technology, and later at the Gaiety School of Acting, and his work: a post-drama school soap opera part, two seasons as a gangster in “Peaky Blinders” and his breakout as a leading man in “Leo Grande.”
McCormack said that, throughout his career, he had given up parts that were easy in favor of ones that left him feeling daunted.
“I want to pick roles that scare me a little,” he said. “It’s probably my main antenna in terms of trying to find the next job.”
He was drawn to “Bad Sisters” by Horgan’s sharp-fanged writing and the chance to work with many actors he admires, most of them Irish, including Eva Birthistle and Sarah Greene along with Gleeson, Hewson and Horgan.
Other films and series are on the horizon. He recently wrapped Alice Troughton’s psychological thriller “The Tutor,” alongside Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy, playing an ambitious writer hired to tutor the son of a famous author with whom he is obsessed.
“Daryl is an incredibly gifted young actor,” Grant wrote in an email. “Seemingly without any neurosis and as collaborative as one could wish for.”
And it was announced on Wednesday that McCormack would star opposite Ruth Wilson in “The Woman in the Wall,” a BBC and Showtime thriller inspired by Ireland’s infamously abusive Magdalene Laundries, where “fallen women,” orphans and abandoned children were forced to perform unpaid labor by Roman Catholic nuns.
It will be yet another performance opposite a formidable female lead, a situation McCormack has repeatedly sought out in his still-burgeoning career. For instance, in late 2019, when McCormack learned that Ruth Negga would be doing “Portia Coughlan” at the Young Vic in London, he made it his mission to play the role of her lover.
“She was such an inspiration,” he said. “As a biracial Irish actor, there’s not many people you can look up to that have the same experience as you.”
He hounded his team to get him an audition, and after being told that the production team was looking for someone older, he hounded them some more. Finally, he was asked to read for the part.
“I’m about to go in, and it was around late February, March 2020, and we all know what happened then,” he said, referring to having his dreams dashed by Covid.
Working with Negga remains on his bucket list. He also hopes to one day write a movie or a series inspired by his mother and her efforts to protect him against the struggles that sometimes came with being biracial and, in the eyes of others, different.
“I keep chasing that feeling of not feeling comfortable,” McCormack said before pulling on a baseball cap and heading out into a world that is increasingly aware of him. “If I continue to take roles where I feel like my back is up against the wall, that makes me excited — because I don’t want this ever to become a job. I want this always to be an experience.”