Warning: Mild spoilers for Good Luck to You, Leo Grande below.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande opens with the soothing sound of a hum. It’s coming from its titular character, sex worker Leo Grande, who is sitting in a café, waiting to head over to an escort appointment he’s been booked for by 50-something retired schoolteacher Nancy Stokes. When it’s time to depart, he thanks the establishment’s employees for their service and then suavely sets out on his journey. Sporting an ear-to-ear grin on his impossibly smooth visage, Leo is somehow both enviably attractive and soothingly warm. He’s the type of person who knows he’s desirable, but hasn’t let that get the best of him. Just like a hum: beautiful yet inviting.
Daryl McCormack plays all these levels of Leo with ease. At 29 years old, the Irish actor has been steadily building an impressive resume, netting credits on shows like Peaky Blinders and The Wheel of Time. But as he’s quick to tell you, Leo Grande marks the first time he’s been cast as a lead — a fact that feels criminal after seeing what he’s capable of. A brilliantly-crafted two-hander that “uses sex as a conduit to reflect on broader realities about modern society” (as I wrote after the film’s Sundance premiere), this Sophie Hyde-directed drama is the perfect showcase for McCormack’s undeniable talents. It can’t possibly be easy to stand out when acting opposite a two-time Oscar-winning powerhouse like Emma Thompson (who plays Nancy), but somehow, McCormack does more than hold his own. Whether he’s reassuring the much older Nancy of her innate sex appeal or losing his composure after feeling like his boundaries have been crossed, McCormack, as Leo, always proves an engaging screen presence.
Days before the Searchlight Pictures release hit Hulu, NYLON hopped on a Zoom call with Daryl McCormack to talk about the text Emma Thomspon sent him to let him know he’d been cast in Leo Grande, the importance of sharing this particular sex worker story with others, why working with Cillian Murphy on Peaky Blinders was so special, how living next to Sharon Horgan did not play a role in him getting the part in her new show Bad Sisters, and why it’s been such a “journey” for him to find confidence in the belief that he’s attractive and desirable to others.
The reviews are starting to roll in for your film. Are you someone who reads them?
For this one, I really cared about how people responded to it, so I was excited to read the reviews because it's one of my first projects where I'm a leading actor in it. So, yeah, I read a handful, and once I started to see they were positive, I was relieved and grateful.
How did you end up in the titular role of Leo Grande?
Well, funny enough, I was prepping for a very different role [when I got this one]. I was prepping for the final season of Peaky Blinders, where I play a young gang member in the 1930s — so, very different to a sex worker. But the script got sent through to me early last year, and when I saw that Emma [Thompson] was attached, I began to read it and I just responded quite a lot to who Leo was. So I put myself on tape, met the director the following day, and ended up meeting Emma the following day [after that]. And then, [Emma] texts me the next morning saying that she wants to see me on set and that she'd like to have me play Leo. So, within the space of five days, my world just kind of did a somersault — and that was the beginning of it.
Emma Thompson is an industry legend, at least to me. How did it feel to get a personal text from her basically saying, “I specifically want you to act opposite me in this film?”
It was great. I mean, she's a bit of an icon in her own way and she’s just an incredible artist. So I was super excited to work with someone like her. But particularly, in this capacity, it just felt like an absolute dream because it was so intimate and so intense. I really felt like I had just won the lottery in a way.
What did you gravitate towards most when you first read the script?
I loved seeing a young man who was really in touch with his sensitivity and with his sexuality, and embodied it in a really healthy way, who just seemed really generous and kind. I haven't seen many men portrayed in that way, especially with regards to sexuality, and I just felt like that was compelling, to be honest. I recognized elements of myself in Leo. That was the biggest thing, was his emotional expansiveness. And his intellect as well — it felt like he was very emotionally intelligent, like he had given himself the opportunity to explore life to such a degree that he could now offer this service [to others]. Those were my biggest draws.
On screen, sex workers have very often occupied a very specific space: they’re usually painted as someone who needs to be saved, or at the very least, someone who’s doing it out of necessity for survival. We very rarely see the other side of sex work, particular for those in the line of escorting, who are doing it solely by choice or active desire. I love that Leo Grande is so passionate about his work. Was showing that other side of sex work something that felt important for you to do through this character?
Yeah, it felt super important for me. I think just seeing sex workers empowered by what they do, seeing the purpose that they have, and seeing the value that they're offering, it didn't feel false. It felt very true. And the people that I spoke to had that experience. That was their testimony. So it did feel amazing to see a film tackling that quite clichéd narrative — that sex workers are victims — and showing [another] truth that exists. I met people who were extremely empowered by what they did, who loved what they did and had a real sense of self in who they were. I'm excited for people to be exposed to that because I think it's important to shine a light on that.
You mentioned meeting and speaking with “people.” Was that for research purposes?
Yes. Sophie Hyde, our director, and myself, we had Zoom sessions with multiple sex workers. A lot of it was just getting to know them, asking how they made their way into their work, why, and what it was about their work that was their passion. [These conversations] enlightened me in terms of the scope of what sex work is, as well as the amount of skill that it actually involves. I thought that was very vital for my portrayal of Leo. They very much inspired the essence of who he was, of who he is.
Earlier, you mentioned that this is your first leading role. But I think that’s almost an understatement because it doesn’t account for the fact that Leo Grande is basically a two-hander. You are a lead, yes. But you’re also more than that — for the entirety of the film, it’s pretty much just you and Emma on screen. Was that intimidating at all?
I definitely was nervous. For a while, I struggled with people telling me, "Oh, this is so well-deserved. Well done." It just felt like a seismic jump from the work that I've done previously. But I guess that just shows that when a character comes and finds you, it really doesn't matter what scale you [have to] jump in terms of your previous work. If there's a lot of you that's really useful in terms of playing a character, you can just go forward, I guess.
But the fear was always there. I always said that, if I was rubbish, people would go, "I enjoyed half of the film!" So there was pressure. But Emma is incredible to work with, just really inviting and so supportive. So was Sophie. So I quite quickly understood that the only person that wasn't really believing in the fact that I could do it was myself. I just had to get over that and trust myself.
You bring so much depth to this character, especially since, unlike Emma’s Nancy Stokes, Leo is quite secretive about elements of his past. Though he is nice, caring, and kind, we also see that he’s been harboring a lot of trauma and clearly doesn’t respond well when he sees someone poking around. How were you able to play all these levels?
Well, for me, it was about our ability as human beings to be wounded when we go explore something, particularly if it's something we really identify with ourselves. I just saw Leo as a young man who explored his sexuality, and as a result, became wounded by the shame he received from his parent — and I don't think that's an uncommon story. I think there's plenty of people that have had that experience. But what I think is amazing about him is that he was able to take that wounding and turn it into something that he was proud of, into something that he understood even more — even to a place where he can offer that understanding and intimacy to someone else so that they, too, can unburden and liberate themselves. That was my main thing.
What made it interesting was Katy [Brand’s] script, where there were moments in which that wounding raised its head and came to the surface, and then, the professional environment that he's set for Nancy, which was a constant thing, so he had to keep a certain level of mask up so that he could do his job properly. As an actor, that was all super fun and invigorating to play.
The wounding you’re referring to between Leo and his mother occurred when Leo was just a teenager. But now, he’s obviously an adult. Did you develop a backstory for Leo that would explain how he went from being “wounded” by his mom for “exploring his sexuality” to the confident, openly sex-positive sex worker he is in the film’s present?
That's such a good question. I don't think I've been asked that before. The backstory I filled in for him was that journey from being kind of abandoned or rejected, in a sense, to becoming the Leo that knocks on the door [in the film’s opening scene]. That's a complete journey in itself, and it must be quite a seismic journey. To be wounded like that — to find something that you truly identify with, that feels true to you, and then to be rejected by someone who's so pivotal in your life, like a parent — that's going to leave a certain amount of trauma. But in my generation, there's a lot of people my age speaking about trauma, about healing. So I just saw him as a young man who was involved in those conversations and is doing that work for himself — through meeting people who've had the same experience, through self-acceptance, through allowing himself to continue that exploration, regardless of how it began — and then getting to a place where he's truly standing in his own identity and kind of thriving in his identity as well.
A lot of this movie revolves around the simple idea that you are extremely attractive. We, as the audience, have to believe that you’d be super desirable by a sizable client base — and I think you do a great job. Did you already know how desirable you were before this film? Did you already have some sense of confidence about your attractiveness?
No. I've had my own journey with that as well. I think there's something interesting about being deemed desirable — actually, there's a lot more attention going towards you and that can be not an always easy place to navigate. I don't think confidence stems from physical appearance. I think it's an internal thing. So that was something I had to work on in terms of Leo. It was like, How does he stand in that room? Like, How does he operate in that space? As an actor, this was an overwhelming experience. Doing this film with Emma and trying to trust my confidence in myself was its own journey, and I think Sophie really helped me with that. But yeah, we all have our own journeys with regards to confidence and where that comes from, and I think that’s a pretty universal thing, how we go about finding that [confidence] for ourselves.
Earlier, you said you had been prepping for the final season of Peaky Blinders when you first got the script for Leo Grande. That final season just came out on Netflix. How do you feel having been a part of such a popular show, especially now that it’s ending?
I'm glad I got in there before it finished because it does feel like an iconic show. It's one of those ones that you feel is a statement piece, in a sense. I'm grateful to have been part of it, and to have been involved in the last two seasons was something that was unexpected as well because that role was previously played by another actor [Jordan Bolger]. But to get involved and to bring my take on Isaiah was fun because I had been a big fan of that show for a long time. So to go from being a fan to being inside the show, again, was a little bit of a head-melter. And to work with people like Cillian [Murphy, the lead] was a dream as well. Ireland is a small country and he's widely loved by a lot of young actors, so I am really grateful. .
Up next, you have the Apple TV+ dark comedy Bad Sisters. I know you probably can’t say much about it, but can you talk about working alongside the legendary Sharon Horgan?
It was a fun shoot! It comes out the 19th of August. It's a dark comedy about a group of sisters who are trying to uncover something. I don't know if I can say much more than that, but working with Sharon was great. She was a neighbor of mine for like three years in London, you know?
Oh my god. Really?
Yeah! She actually lived like a two-minute walk from me in London, and because I live in a small area in East London, all the neighbors were like, "I know you're an actor. Have you met Sharon? She lives around the corner." And I was always like, "No, I've not met Sharon yet." But the day I officially signed onto that project, I bumped into her at the fish-and-chip shop in the village. It was so weird that that was the day I happened to bump into her! But she's great. She's so amazing, and she's amazing in this show as well. I'm excited for people to see it.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande is available to stream on Hulu now.