You’re Not Imagining It. All the Best Young Actors Are Coming From the Same Place.

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I’m genuinely curious about and a little afraid of what is going to happen to a certain kind of film lover when All of Us Strangers comes out in late December. If the reaction to the press tour so far is any indication, expect mass fainting spells and/or riots. There are a bunch of reasons I have pegged this movie—a gay romance from director Andrew Haigh—to bring the Letterboxd crowd, me included, to our knees, but the chief one is that it stars not one but two certified internet darlings: Andrew Scott, best known as Fleabag’s Hot Priest, and Paul Mescal, who rocketed to fame via Normal People early on in the pandemic and has been an object of ardent fan obsession ever since.

Despite the movie’s English director and setting, the other thing Scott and Mescal have in common is that they’re Irish, which you’d think would make their coming together to maximize their joint slay a shoo-in for Irish movie moment of the year. But it turns out competition for that title is pretty stiff in 2023. In November alone, audiences saw Barry Keoghan make his mark on an English country estate in Saltburn and Michael Fassbender scoot through Paris in The Killer, the latter’s first major acting job in three years. This is after a summer absolutely dominated by Cork’s own Cillian Murphy, who played a Jewish American scientist in Oppenheimer with so much conviction that it matters not a whit that no one in history has ever looked more Irish. All of this came in what is still the same year that The Banshees of Inisherin, starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Keoghan, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and Mescal was up for best actor for Aftersun.

They didn’t actually win any of those Oscars, but that doesn’t change a growing body of evidence proving that these days, some of the buzziest stars hail from the Emerald Isle. Ask any film fan whom they’re excited about, and you’re likely to get an earful of Mescal, Keoghan, Saoirse Ronan, and so on. I’m not the first to point this out—in August, Elle declared that it was “hot Irish guy” summer. But summer has turned into fall, and the hot Irish guys (and gals) remain with us. During awards season, Mashable made a guide to the Irish “it” boys of the Oscars. Several months later, they’re still “it.” So, what’s the craic with this Irish invasion?

“Irish people tend to be very good-looking and charming,” Rachel Connolly, a novelist and critic who has written about Irish culture’s place in the world, told me via email. “That would have to have something to do with it I’d imagine.”

True, but why are they so good-looking and charming, and so many of them at once? When I asked Ruth Barton, a critic and film studies professor at Trinity College Dublin, what unites performers like Mescal, Scott, and Keoghan, she posited that they all embody “a kind of soft masculinity.”

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier eras of Hollywood, Irishmen played priests and cops, not romantic leads. “Irish actors and Irish identity, particularly Irish masculinity, got sexier around the turn of the century,” Barton said. “The Troubles ended in 1998. You get this new image of Ireland coming through, with the Celtic Tiger, with the boy bands, with the chick lit, with U2, with Bono and all that kind of thing, which changes the image of the Irish male in particular.”

Barton cited Chris O’Dowd’s performance in Bridesmaids—as a cop, which is a typical Irish role, but a sexy one—as a key turning point that paved the way for the ascendance of the Irishman as soulful and sexy male lead. This also then makes room for weirder actors like Keoghan to become fan favorites. “He’s the underdog,” Barton said of Keoghan in Banshees. “He’s not good-looking. He’s not tall. He’s none of those things. But he’s really heartfelt. That’s what he brings to these roles.” (And some people would beg to differ about the good-looking part, I imagine.)

It helps that Ireland is also in the midst of a “huge literary moment,” Barton said. “Sally Rooney is only one of the generation of incredible young women writers coming through.” Rooney, the 32-year-old author of Normal People, is known for portraying “[her] generation’s anomie and discontent” in a way that can also be “viscerally sexy,” Barton said.

And again, this is still kind of a new thing! “Ireland used to be this repressed Roman Catholic country,” Barton said. “We abandoned Catholicism, and then we really let rip.”

Saoirse Ronan notwithstanding, it’s true that the viral “internet boyfriend” phenomenon that so benefits people like Mescal and Scott doesn’t quite have a female equivalent. Still, Irish actresses have been able to take advantage of the spotlight too: Kerry Condon received praise and award nominations for Banshees, Sharon Horgan’s Bad Sisters featured five plum roles for Irish actresses in 2022, with a second season on the way, and we’re still not that far out from the end of Derry Girls, the Netflix show set in Northern Ireland in the ’90s. Irish actress Nicola Coughlan parlayed her role in that show into work on Bridgerton—she will be the lead of an upcoming season—as well as a spot in one of 2023’s most enviable ensembles, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. (She fittingly played Diplomat Barbie.) Otherwise, Barton cited Jessie Buckley in particular, of last year’s Women Talking, as an Irish actress on the rise.

In a larger sense, for millennials and Gen Z audiences who care about such things, Ireland’s politics seem refreshingly unproblematic: “Ireland stands for nothing on the world stage,” Barton said. “We’re not an aggressor. We’re not a colonizer. The Troubles are over. We actually live in one of a few countries with a fairly stable democracy. We don’t have crazy leaders. It’s a benign kind of identity, Irishness.” In other words, the Irish have all the charm Americans find in a British accent, maybe more—Barton cited a certain richness to “Hiberno-English”—with none of the baggage of the Brits.

Ireland’s history, of course, has trickle-down effects on the national character. According to Michael Patrick Gillespie, a professor at Florida International University who has studied Irish film, Ireland’s past is infused into the whole country’s sense of humor. “They have a great sense of irony,” he said. “I mean, they were an English colony for 750 years. I think that would certainly give anyone a bit of cynicism. There’s a great deal of value placed on wit and on repartee and being able to think on your feet, to think quickly and to deal with ambiguity.”

That may account partly for why such a small country—it has a population of 5 million—continues to leave such an outsize cultural impression. “There’s a tremendous creative vitality in Ireland, and that fosters a wide range of artistic projects,” Gillespie said. “It also builds up a callus and a stamina because there’s just not a lot of money. There’s never money in the film industry. There’s not a lot to support Irish films. And so to make it, to be successful, you really have to endure.”

Things may be improving on the money front: In February, the Hollywood Reporter published a piece on why the Irish film industry lately seems to be punching above its weight. Some Irish filmmakers pointed to specific funds that have been set up to encourage homegrown talent, leading to projects like Normal People and The Quiet Girl, which was a Best International Feature Film nominee at this year’s Oscars. Barton, meanwhile, pointed out that Ireland also offers quite a bit of state-subsidized theater, so much so that there’s now a fairly well-established trajectory for young actors to follow: After making a name for themselves in theater, they usually move into Irish TV, then parlay that into work elsewhere. When Hollywood productions cast Irish actors, “they’re getting pretty accomplished actors coming in who know what to do, who speak English, and who don’t have to deal with the kind of cultural adjustment either because, you know, we can see American TV here,” Barton said.

And it’s also easier now than ever before to work in Hollywood but stay Irish. “Before, you had to really move to America to work, whereas now people go backwards and forwards very, very easily,” Barton said. “Somebody like Cillian Murphy is very, very insistent that this is where he lives, this is where his children are being brought up, they are being brought up with Irish values, not with American values, etc.” For some American fans, this only makes this class of actors more swoon-worthy for how “not Hollywood” they are.

Still, Gillespie worries that American audiences are at risk of over-romanticizing the simple, quaint Irish life. “I think that Americans have a very naïve sense of Ireland,” he said, a sense that is sometimes amplified by movies like Banshees, in Gillespie’s view. “There’s almost a patronizing view of the Irish that that I think causes many Americans to underestimate their complexity.” In other words, Ireland and Irish actors are more than a vision of a sensitive man who reads poetry in bars or, say, really loves his donkey. “I think American audiences are more than capable of seeing the complexity that is there in Irish films and appreciating the complexities that Irish actors can convey,” Gillespie added. Something to
keep in mind while you’re watching Mescal and Scott smooch next month at a theater near you.