Daryl McCormack Is the Summer's Breakout Star

With 'Bad Sisters' and 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,' the young Irish actor's moment has arrived.

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Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist
Design by Mallory Rosten for Thrillist

The first time Daryl McCormack received a text from Emma Thompson, he double-checked that he was the intended recipient. McCormack had met the British acting legend the previous day to discuss Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. Already they were in close contact after going on a walk to “get a sense of each other,” McCormack tells Thrillist, describing their stroll around a park near Thompson’s home. “Then she made me tea and biscuits before I left, and that was it.”

One day later, Thompson messaged to say she “wants to see me on set as Leo.” McCormack wanted to make sure she meant to send it to him, as Thompson was surely meeting with other actors, too. “I couldn't believe it straight away, and I didn't want to believe it straight away because it was so extraordinary,” he says. Even retelling the story, you get the sense this is still a pinch-me moment for the young actor.

Fast-forward a year and a half later: Awards season hasn't begun in earnest, but this movie, which premiered on Hulu in June, is an early contender, proving the Sundance-to-Oscar pipeline still flows. McCormack’s star is firmly on the rise, with significant roles in Sharon Horgan’s deliciously dark Apple TV+ comedy thriller Bad Sisters and the recently announced Showtime/BBC series The Woman in the Wall, in which he will face off against Ruth Wilson.

While the themes vary, the 29-year-old Irish actor is making a name going toe to toe with celebrated and formidable figures. In Bad Sisters, he plays Matt Claffin, a reluctant insurance agent tasked with getting to the bottom of the mysterious death at the series' heart. He juggles responsibility for his half-brother Tom (Brian Gleeson) and a burgeoning romance with one of the titular Garvey sisters. Rom-com flourishes sit alongside layered sibling banter, and the repartee is equally potent with Eve Hewson as it is with Gleeson.

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Eve Hewson and Daryl McCormack in 'Bad Sisters' | Apple TV+

In Leo Grande, McCormack is, well, Leo Grande, a sex worker hired by a retired religion schoolteacher named Nancy (Thompson) whose life between the sheets has been unfilling. In a bid to experience the pleasure she has so far been missing, Nancy recruits Leo to radically overhaul this part of her biography.

It's a competitive industry, and McCormack’s intuition about not being the only candidate for the eponymous role was right. Leo Grande director Sophie Hyde told me he was one of a handful of people who met with Thompson, but that walk had a significant impact. “It’s Daryl!” Hyde recalls the Oscar winner's emphatic response about who should play Leo. Meanwhile, Bad Sisters had some personal connections in both the casting and location: It gave him the chance to return to Ireland and star in a series created by his neighbor—not to mention share scenes together. “I'm from Tipperary, and we were shooting in Belfast and Dublin. It was lovely. Sharon is amazing,” he adds. “I’ve been neighbors with Sharon for years [in East London].”

When we spoke, McCormack was shooting The Tutor alongside Richard E. Grant and Julie Delpy in Hamburg, Germany. While Leo Grande is undoubtedly his breakout role, Peaky Blinders fans might also recognize him as Isaiah Jesus, a younger member of the notorious gang, from the last two seasons of the hit gangster drama. Finding the right person to play opposite Thompson was integral, as this is essentially a two-hander set in a pleasant hotel room that could exist anywhere. Because this particular place happens to be my home city, Norwich, his face lights up when I mention my location and the gelato spot that opens the film (a personal favorite). It turns out that particular street has a historical connection to the film's themes that I was previously unaware of: It's famous for being one of the street in Norwich where sex workers set up shop centuries ago.

From the jump, it is easy to see why McCormack was cast in both Leo Grande and Bad Sisters. Yes, his big, soulful green eyes, soft Irish accent, and chiseled cheekbones are impossible to miss. (“You're clearly aesthetically perfect,” Thompson's Nancy accurately assesses.) Still, each time he leans closer to the camera and gives a thoughtful response, I get a sense of the “present energy” that Hyde noticed on set, a similarity between McCormack and his character she clocked early on.

While he isn’t quite the height of internet thirst machines Lee Pace (6"5) and Alexander Skarsgård (6"4), McCormack’s stature is impossible to miss in both Leo Grande and Bad Sisters. He towers over Thompson, Gleeson, and Hewson. “He's tall, like, very tall, and he could come into a room and be imposing, but he has an energy that doesn't do that,” Hyde says. “He has a generosity when he walks in, and that, I feel, enhanced Leo the character.” His height also feeds into Matt’s awkwardness in Bad Sisters, whether folding himself into his brother’s cramped car or flirting with Hewson.

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Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in 'Good Luck to You, Leo Grande' | Hulu

Going up against one of the finest actors of her generation is no easy feat (with or without clothes on). "He rose up to meet Emma at every occasion,” Hyde says. For his part, McCormack was initially “very surprised that I was even being considered to hold a film like this alongside Emma.” Despite his understandable trepidation, he acknowledges that from the moment he read Katy Brand’s script, “there was something about Leo I could tap into and something I recognized in his sensitivity.” He also understood that talking to sex workers was fundamental.

Hyde was already planning to set up that exact dialogue, and this “collaborative back-and-forth” helped define Leo’s specificity. “The job was just to listen to them and hear their stories,” McCormack recalls of his Zoom conversations with sex workers (both men and women). “What I realized quite quickly was sex work, and sex workers, are all very individual because when you're providing a service, you're also creating your own boundaries within the context,” he says. “It's not a legalized profession, so you have to create your sense of safety for yourself.”

Since the movie first premiered at Sundance in January, it has received plaudits for its frank conversations regarding sexual intimacy, a woman in her 60s seeking pleasure, and the thoughtful depiction of sex work. “It's beautiful to see that can be an actual service for people to transform. It doesn't always have to be transformative; I think it's important that we can see that it can be,” McCormack adds. Of all the glowing responses, he is thrilled by messages he has received on Instagram from “people who used to be sex workers or still are, and they were so happy to see their story represented onscreen.”

One thing Leo Grande doesn’t do is play into a gender-flipped Pretty Women narrative that sees the pair fall madly in love. “One of the main things I loved about Leo is that he's so enamored by this woman because he recognizes that, at 61 or 62, to make this choice in her life—at this point—is monumental,” McCormack says. “To know the end goal wasn't to fall in love and find a partner for either of these two characters is important, I think. They offer something of major value and then they're able to depart, and that's the beautiful thing. They no longer need each other, in a way. They're able to both tip the cowboy hat 'it was a mighty fine pleasure.'” With this, McCormack adorably mimes tipping a cowboy hat. Someone cast him in a Western already.

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Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson at the 2022 Berlin Film Festival | Photo by Gerald Matzka via Getty Images

Before that happens, McCormack has taken on a murder mystery in Bad Sisters, which deftly walks the line between humor and heavy themes covering abuse and mental health. The actor does lean into Matt's romance, but there is a permeating sadness rippling through his story line that asks him to show a crack in his charming armor. Similarly, Leo Grande isn’t only about sexual intimacy. Another cozy moment asked the duo to drop their guard: a dance shared between Leo and Nancy. “You think because it's a dance sequence that it's like, ‘Oh, you just dance,'” he says when I ask which moment was more vulnerable. Leo uses the Alabama Shakes track "Always Alright" to allay Nancy’s fears, but the actor is less at ease than his character. “I can only dance in a particular way. I'm kind of dancing as Daryl when I'm doing that scene,” he says. “And that's a very vulnerable thing, even though I enjoy dancing and I don't mind being seen dancing.” He concludes with a laugh that “dancing was the most vulnerable.”

Rehearsal was fundamental to shedding any pretense—and everything else. During one exercise, Thompson, McCormack, and Hyde discussed various body parts and removed pieces of clothing until they were naked. “There was something so peaceful about it. Sophie had done such a great job somehow of getting us there bit by bit, incremental steps, and we all felt safe within the whole process,” he explains. Reflecting on the day they shot the climactic scenes (pun very much intended), it is clear that Hyde’s earlier participation was fundamental in creating this comfortable atmosphere. “We felt like we were all back in the room. I could feel like her vulnerability was there,” McCormack says about the unique rehearsals. “She's willing to also throw herself into it in the exact same way we have to. I've never met many directors who are willing to go that step, so it was particularly special.”

One connection between the directors McCormack has recently worked with, including Hyde, is their gender. The recently wrapped The Tutor marks Alice Troughton’s feature debut. Meanwhile, three women (Dearbhla Walsh, Rebecca Gatward, Josephine Bornebusch) directed Bad Sisters, and Rachna Suri will helm several The Woman in the Wall episodes. “I feel very blessed to have worked with directors I've worked with, and I think the talent has been amazing. Maybe subconsciously, the work I'm interested in is being helmed by female directors,” he says. “I’m ready to work with more.” After this summer, that seems like a safe bet.

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Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. She has contributed to Elle, Vulture, The Cut, Little White Lies, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.