Daryl McCormack on How Brian Cox Prepared Him For His Latest Role

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Brian Cox, Daryl McCormack, Laurie Kynaston - cred
Brian Cox, Daryl McCormack and Laurie KynastonPhotography by Johan Persson

The Irish actor talks about returning to the stage with an emotionally demanding role in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which he stars opposite Brian Cox and Patricia Clarkson

Daryl McCormack knows he’s throwing himself in at the deep end with Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his first stage project in five years. Eugene O’Neill’s revered autobiographical play, completed in 1941 but not staged until 1956 – three years after the playwright’s death, rather less than the 25 years he wanted – is a slow-burn epic about family, addiction, sickness, selling out and squandered opportunities. Though there are glimmers of levity, mainly provided in the new production at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre by Louisa Harland as sweet-natured maid Cathleen, it’s a harrowing piece that demands plenty of emotional excavation from its four main cast members.

“I would rather step on stage again in something that I really love than try and have some kind of warm-up,” McCormack says when we meet in February during the fourth week of rehearsals. “As long as you love the piece that you’re doing, I don’t think it can ask too much or too little of you.” Playing Jamie, the elder son of successful but penny-pinching actor James Tyrone (Succession’s Brian Cox) and his kind but morphine-addicted wife Mary (Sharp Objects’ Patricia Clarkson), definitely asks a lot of the 31-year-old rising star.

McCormack has previously played an empathetic sex worker (in the enlightening 2022 film Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) and a heartbroken insurance agent (in Sharon Horgan’s audacious black comedy series Bad Sisters), but Jamie Tyrone is different: a dark brooding cloud of failed potential. Jamie has the acting talent to follow in his father’s footsteps but lacks the same discipline, and his natural charm now comes laced with whiskey-soaked cynicism. In one of the play’s most moving scenes, Jamie makes a terrible confession to his beloved younger brother Edmund (Laurie Kynaston), who is battling demons of his own. 

McCormack, who was born and raised in Nenagh, a small market town in central Ireland, fell in love with the play as a student at Dublin’s Gaiety School of Acting. “I got so into it that I actually ended up writing my thesis on Eugene O’Neill,” he recalls, settling into a chair in a meeting room above the production’s central London rehearsal space. He and his cast mates are breaking for lunch, which means McCormack is fielding my questions in between quick bites of a sandwich. “At drama school I did a monologue that Edmund delivers, so in a sense I’ve been wanting to do this play for over ten years,” he continues. “But obviously I’m older now, so it made sense to audition for Jamie, who is also a really fascinating character.”

Early in rehearsals, he received some sage advice from Cox, who has previously made his feelings on method acting abundantly clear. “I’m very much not like Jamie – I’m not an alcoholic,” McCormack says. “But at the same time, there are areas of me that I feel have yet to be healed. I fall prey to the same stuff that we can all fall prey to, which is a feeling that we’re not good enough. So I said to Brian: ‘I have to go there; I have to find those parts.’ And he said: ‘Yeah, but you only have to do it once a night. And then you have to let it go and put it off. Because you have to do it all again the next night.’” At the play’s press performance earlier this week, McCormack captured Jamie’s bruised charisma beautifully, shining in combative scenes with Cox’s fiery patriarch and tender ones with Kynaston’s sensitive Edmund, a character O’Neill based on himself.

McCormack hasn’t trodden the boards in five years because in that time, his screen career has really skyrocketed. Last year he earned two BAFTA nominations – for Best Actor and Rising Star – for his breakout performance opposite Emma Thompson in the astonishingly intimate Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. He plays the enigmatic title character, an outwardly confident sex worker hired by Thompson’s unfulfilled older woman. “That was a real baptism of fire because it was my first ever film lead and it was essentially a two-hander,” he says. “There was nowhere to hide: it was just two people in a room talking with no real set-pieces.” McCormack’s gorgeously layered performance even caught the attention of a Hollywood A-lister. “At the Baftas, Ryan Gosling came up to me and said: ‘I love the film you did with Emma; I love the work you’re doing,‘” McCormack recalls, still sounding a bit incredulous.

Before Leo Grande and Bad Sisters, McCormack attracted attention with supporting roles in the cult TV series Peaky Blinders and the underrated 2020 crime film Pixie. He also appeared in 2018’s acclaimed West End revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black comedy about the Northern Ireland peace process. Still, he points out that when he moved to London seven years ago, he “went straight into waiting tables – not working on plays or anything”. Next up is his first Hollywood blockbuster, this summer’s Twisters with Daisy Edgar-Jones, a sequel to the cult 1996 disaster movie Twister. “I never want to feel like I’m just comfortable,” he says. “If a role scares but excites me at the same time, I’m like, ‘That’s good.’ Whether it’s the size or the emotional integrity or just the technical difficulty, I always like feeling that the role is just a little bit out of my reach.”

Long Day’s Journey into Night plays at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre until 8 June 2024.