This article contains spoilers for “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.”
It’s not every day that a young actor gets the opportunity to lead a film with Emma Thompson — much less a deeply intimate two-hander shot during lockdown that demands an unflinching level of emotional and physical vulnerability. But after just a few minutes of conversation with Daryl McCormack, it’s easy to see why he was cherry-picked to play the sensitive sex worker hired by Thompson’s retired English teacher in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.”
Because McCormack, 29, exudes many of the same qualities his character shares: assured and earnest yet quietly reserved, masculine yet sees the world through a disarmingly feminist lens. These might have also also been traits Thompson, 63, noticed because shortly after going on a walk with the actor following his auditions, she knew that he was the right fit for the titular role.
“Emma messaged me, and was like, ‘Hey, I want you to be Leo,’” McCormack said on a video call from his hotel room in London. “So, within five days, I went from reading a script to being like, ‘Oh, my God. Now I’m going to go ahead and do this.’ My world just flipped upside down.”
That’s an understatement, especially if you’re only familiar with McCormack from his role as gun-wielding gang member Isaiah Jesus on “Peaky Blinders.” Even since helping “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, become the darling of the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the actor has been consistently busy.
He reprised his role on “Peaky Blinders,” is currently shooting a film in Hamburg, had just celebrated the London premiere of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” the night before we spoke and was about to fly out to New York the following week.
In fact, McCormack has barely had a moment to eat, which is why our conversation was momentarily interrupted by a doorbell when his order of soup and sandwiches arrived. “My bad,” he said with a conciliatory laugh as he set the bag down next to him.
Still, he remained present throughout our chat, considering each question as he reflected on his experience shooting the charming “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” in a mere 19 days after only one month to prepare, during which he researched sex work and talked to real-life sex workers.
The insight that both he and Hyde, who joined him in those conversations, gained from that groundwork was incorporated into the character and the film. And in many ways, Leo subverts popular depictions of sex work on-screen — from “Midnight Cowboy” and “Klute” to “Hung” and even this year’s “Pleasure,” to a certain extent.
“We see portrayals of sex work on-screen, but it’s not always empowering,” McCormack said. “It’s often diminishing.”
That’s because there’s often a sense of danger lurking around every turn and/or the character has limited agency. Leo, on the other hand, has full authority over who he is, his job and his sexuality. When McCormack first read the script, he saw “a portrayal of a young man who’s really in touch with his own sense of intimacy and sexuality. I haven’t really seen young men like that portrayed on-screen, and it didn’t feel false to me.”
It was really important to both him and Hyde that Leo instilled those same virtues in his clients. That includes Nancy (Thompson), who admits that even during a decadeslong marriage to her late husband and after two children, she’s never experienced an orgasm of her own.
“I just felt this film was giving an audience a chance to witness that there’s a scope to sex work,” McCormack continued. “And there’s a capacity to be of real value in that work.”
But as the film emphasizes, that purpose is defined by the client herself. Despite Nancy finally giving herself permission to achieve sexual pleasure by going through the motions of hiring a sex worker, when Leo arrives in her hotel room, she is riddled with self-doubt.
Instead of immediately having sex with him, Nancy is self-deprecating and tries to talk herself out of her own plan, even offering to give Leo a refund. She laments she might be “disappointed again” if he isn’t able to get her to come, or that maybe he might be, fears she might be using the young man, and refuses to believe him when he calls her “empirically sexy.”
In other words, Nancy’s instinctual response to the idea of affording herself sexual pleasure is to downplay her appeal or that she’s somehow exploiting Leo for her own gain. To which he responds that she’s not “using” him, but rather “hiring him for her own pleasure.”
The idea of autonomy is mind-altering for her. “Isn’t it interesting that she’s garnering that information from a young man — and that her damaged experience of intimacy has been the result of being with a man who didn’t understand it, couldn’t offer her what she wanted, and didn’t maybe even see it as important?” McCormack pondered.
This is an excellent question that “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” poses as it compels its audience to sit with two people and their thoughts for just over 90 minutes. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot more dialogue in the film than actual sex.
Not that there’s a problem with the latter, but it’s refreshing to see emotional intimacy portrayed at the same prominent level as sexual intimacy, especially amid today’s dating app culture that makes it difficult for anyone to really get to know anyone else.
As any intimacy coordinator would tell you, both forms of intimacy require the same care. McCormack agrees. “I think that was the main draw for me, actually,” he said. “You have a story about a sex worker and a woman who hires him, yet there’s not major amounts of physical intimacy in the film. But we feel like it’s a very intimate film. It all begins with conversation.”
“Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” which McCormack describes as “very exposing and simplistic,” allows the sexual pressure to fall away from the film’s forefront in order for its two protagonists to form a type of intimacy that neither of them, nor the audience, anticipates.
By mutually sharing their experiences, it gives way for sex to naturally happen between them.
For her, those disclosures are personal; including how she finds her adult son “boring” and the way she faked each orgasm with her husband (moaning “Ah!” two or three times before she pretended her body was collapsing from the thrill of it all).
For him, they’re more measured revelations that walk a tightrope between making her more comfortable yet preserving his professional image. Like, that he lied about his job to his mother, a strict Irish Catholic from whom he is estranged, and has a male client that likes him to dress up as a cat for an hour then go home.
Aside from the confidence Nancy gains from these intimate exchanges, to the point where she brings a whole list of sexual positions to try to their second meeting, they also give her and the audience plenty to think about in terms of gender expectations and antiquated views on feminity.
For instance, Leo thinks women and girls should be able to wear whatever they want and that the people who have a problem with that should mind their business.
While his character is the one that utters these words, they’re also aligned with how McCormack views women. Having been raised by his mother and grandmother, or “Nan” as he refers to the latter, the actor, who like his character is Irish and Black, has a natural comfort around women that was certainly vital for this role.
“Because how could you have a sex worker who’s not respecting the people that he’s working with?” he asked. “I’ve always felt safe in the presence of women, and I think that also helped in terms of working in a vulnerable context with Sophie and Emma.”
It also imbues McCormack, and subsequently Leo, with “modern masculinity,” as the actor describes it, that allows the character to be confidently vulnerable and challenge Nancy on her own moral viewpoints. For him, it goes back to Nancy and Leo being two individuals in a room connecting without the constrictions of identity that could keep them listening to one another.
“It’s interesting that when our gender or age doesn’t put us into a square [where] we can get wisdom, or experience, to empower one another,” McCormack said. “It’s just so interesting when we don’t fall into those binary — Well, I’m a man, so I should know this about intimacy.”
He clearly feels passionately about this. “Or, I’m at this age, so I should know this about that,” he continued without even so much as a pregnant pause. “When we limit ourselves like that, it just feels like we can then only engage with people of similar things.”
“What’s so interesting about these two people is that they’re very different, yet they can enlighten one another because they have different walks of life,” McCormack said. “Once they allow those differences to fall away, they realize that they can communicate with one another.”
All of this underscores some of what makes “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” such a thoughtful watch. But it brings to mind a moment between Nancy and Leo, who throughout the film use aliases to protect their private identities, that raises a question of fetishization.
When Nancy discovers Leo’s real name through cyberstalking and goes as far to call him by that name in person, he takes the breach in confidentiality as a direct insult. In a fit of rage, he accuses her of not actually caring about the truth of his life and looking for someone “exotic.”
Though Leo adds, “I guess you found him, a whore,” “exotic” could easily refer to his race, age, the fact that he’s a sex worker or any of things that make the pair different from each other, despite the characters building the empowering connection the actor described.
That’s a point McCormack also considered while developing the character. “We went back and forth about that,” he admitted. “Because I was like, ‘He feels really socially aware. It feels really out of character that he would say that.’ I think we kept that there because, for me, it felt like that showed that his trauma was just taking all sorts of things out.”
As the film stirs toward its pensive ending, Leo’s painful past becomes more crystallized. But just enough to understand him on another level and not much more than that. “That’s the thing,” McCormack said. “We don’t know his past, but I’d imagine, being a person of color, it’s very hard to be exempt from ever experiencing a level of racism.”
That’s fair. For the actor, the moment ultimately humanizes the character. “I think there was pain in there that had nothing to do with Nancy,” he explained. “And it’s just in this flippant, ‘Oh, that’s all you wanted.’ Because it’s his pain that’s speaking. It’s not Leo.”
While watching the film, you might also notice other more subtle scenes that challenge your perception of the character, like the split second when he scans himself topless in the mirror that could be interpreted as a moment of insecurity.
“I think it was important that I felt he was fallible,” McCormack concluded. “As much as he wanted to present the perfect image, and needed to in order to lay down a foundation for Nancy, it was important that we saw him struggle internally.”
That’s true even within the confines of a character that is more mysterious than his counterpart. “I wanted to keep that alive on the surface,” McCormack added. “I thought it was beautiful that there is a contradiction, in the fact that he is super confident and does know who he is, but there’s something niggling at him inside that is contradicting that.”
That is, after all, what makes Leo fully human. And to some extent, it’s what makes the man who plays him that more interesting to watch.
“Good Luck To You, Leo Grande” streams Friday on Hulu.