Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (About a Boy), Brooklyn centers on a young woman, Eilis Lacey (Atonement Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), who emigrates from Ireland to America in the 1950s. When a family tragedy temporarily brings her back to the Emerald Isle, she is pressed to choose between a life in Brooklyn with her Italian-American love, Tony (Emory Cohen), or staying at home with a local man, Jim (Ex Machina star Domhnall Gleeson).
Directed by John Crowley (Boy A), the romantic drama (due Nov. 4) includes a standout, emotive performance from Cohen as a romantic lead. You might know him best for playing rebellious teenagers such as Leo in Smash and AJ in The Place Beyond the Pines, but here he transforms to become the man Eilis could remain in Brooklyn for — and with his sweet demeanor and total adoration of her, he makes a very convincing case.
Read on for Cohen’s thoughts on the challenges of acting in a love story, why you shouldn’t play the period, and why he wanted to branch out from his previous, darker roles.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you to Brooklyn and to Tony in particular?
EMORY COHEN: I wanted to do a love story. I had never done that before. I’ve played a lot of guys who punch people in the face, so [to play] a sweet Italian boy was what attracted me to it.
Tony is so sweet and it’s clear he really cares about Eilis. How did you bring out the romantic in him?
I thought of him like a dog, an obedient dog who loves his owner. I thought about the great scenes in On the Waterfront between Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint, just sort of the intimacy. I tried to see if I could capture that myself.
By the end of the movie, both Tony and Jim seem like very strong romantic choices for Eilis. How did you make him an equal counterpart to Jim?
The thing that I really like about Tony is that he’s all heart; he’s a fun guy. There’s that underdog thing where this guy is never going to have a lot of money. Jim was born with a lot of money, he’s going to die with a lot of money — that’s the way it’s going to go. Tony is just working to be able to provide, to have a little bit extra so that you could have meat in your pasta sauce one night a week instead of the regular old tomato sauce.
Tony is in complete adoration of Eilis throughout the movie. Was it challenging to play someone in love as compared to the darker roles you’ve done in the past?
It’s more challenging because love is a universal experience and you have to go deeper into yourself. When I’m playing a bad guy, a lot of it is imagined; things I thought I wanted to do but I never would do them. You can go into a bad guy and understand, “I’m not this guy.” I don’t kill people or deal drugs or do whatever some of those bad characters do. When it comes to a love story, you’re like, “I’ve been in love before.” So it’s closer to you than the other stuff, and for me that can be less comfortable.
What was your experience like working with Saoirse?
She’s a really, really brilliant actress. I call it playing tennis, and she’s a great tennis player. You can just have moments and bounce the moments off of each other right there in the scene, and not be exactly sure how the moment is going to come back to you. It just has to be spontaneous every time and that’s fun when you can work with someone who is that talented.
As for the period element of the film, beyond getting into the character of a romantic, how did you get into the character of this Italian man living in the 1950s?
My main thing with the period was to focus on the truth of the moment between me and [Eilis] because there’s nothing worse than an actor playing the period. If you play the period, you’re acting, pretending. You’re doing something that you think is like the ’50s because you’ve seen it in a movie before. If you just take it on like any other part and it’s honest, then all of the sudden you’re inviting the audience to join you in 1951 — as opposed to trying to show them your idea of what you think 1951 was like.
I spoke with Saoirse recently and she said she felt very connected to the material because she was very homesick while filming, and her parents had actually emigrated from Ireland to America years ago. What is your personal connection to the material?
My personal connection is kind of the opposite, which is a lot of what Tony’s connections are too. I’m a fourth generation New Yorker. My family has been in New York for many, many years. I was the only New Yorker on the film. I was the only American on the film, and the film is called Brooklyn, so I felt like I had to represent New York.
You said that you’d been wanting to do a love story. What other sorts of projects would you like to do in the future that you haven’t done yet?
There’s a lot of stuff that I want to do but because of the age range I’m at right now it’s not going to really happen, like the New York cop or gangster. I’ve got about four people who we’ve been talking with about doing different kinds of boxing projects, so I’m sure I’ll do a boxing movie. Then I also really want to play a teacher, like in Lean On Me, Half Nelson, To Sir With Love, the teacher of misplaced youth who you can connect with — that kind of story always really interests me.
For more from Cohen, watch an exclusive clip of a very smitten Tony nervously asking Eilis to come over for dinner to meet his family.