Emory Cohen Reps New York and His Family in a Breakout Performance in ‘Brooklyn’

Emory Cohen and Saoirse Ronan in ‘Brooklyn’ (Fox Searchlight)

Brooklyn costar Emory Cohen spoke on a patchy phone line from halfway around the world, but his thick, clipped New York accent came through loud and clear.

“The old joke in my family is that the last person who isn’t from New York was coming from Russia,” the 25-year-old actor — and fourth generation New Yorker — said, laughing during a recent phone conversation with Yahoo Movies. (Cohen was calling from the United Arab Emirates where he’s shooting a new movie.)

Cohen’s unmistakable inflection lent a sense of authenticity to his breakout role in director John Crowley’s ‘50s-set romantic drama Brooklyn, in which he plays Tony, a sweet, charming Italian-American who falls hard for an Irish immigrant named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). In the critically acclaimed film, Tony meets Eilis at a dance at a local church and immediately takes a shine to the shy girl who just recently landed in Brooklyn. He’s got a big, loud Italian family, but also a quiet and thoughtful side, routinely walking Eilis home from night school, all for a quick peck on the cheek.

The role is a perfect showcase for a young up-and-comer’s charms, allowing Cohen to flash plenty of smiles and play the sort of guy that audiences would love to take home to mom. With Tony’s accent already down cold, Cohen looked to his electrician uncles — who also happen to be part Italian — as he started to build the character of the young blue-collar kid.

“They have big and colorful personalities, always trying to get a laugh, and are always wanting everyone else to be having a good time,” said Cohen, who first earned attention for playing Bradley Cooper’s troubled son in 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines and then for a stint on NBC’s musical drama Smash. “It’s very illuminating to think of a character as a guy from the neighborhood who is carrying an older woman’s groceries home for her if he sees her walking down the street, he’s holding the door open for old Albert who owns the store on the corner.”

As Tony and Eilis’ relationship deepens, Tony, a high school dropout who still lives at home, dreams about a future with her, but remains fearful that she’ll eventually return to Ireland. Eilis stirs in him the deepest of human emotions, which made Cohen’s inspiration all the more unusual and compelling.

“I thought of Tony as a loyal dog and Eilis was his owner, if you will,” he said, laughing. “My dog is this crazy, crazy dog, and she does this weird thing with her feet when she gets excited, she keeps stamping them into the ground but doesn’t actually move. I thought of that as the sensation Tony has in his stomach when he sees Eilis. He’s daydreaming about the nights where he left Eilis and can’t sleep because he’s thinking about her, or the nights where he didn’t get to see her at all and was in agony.”

In preparation for the role, the Manhattan native also dove into books about Brooklyn, including It Happened in Brooklyn, an oral history about the borough from 1940-60. Cohen didn’t need much help playing a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, since he roots for the Mets, the team that replaced the Dodgers after the Bums fled to Los Angeles in 1957. “I love a good loser,” he joked, still heartbroken after Mets’ recent World Series loss to the Kansas City Royals. He does admit some relief that the series didn’t go any further than five games, though, as he followed the action via an endless stream of very late night text updates from his dad back in New York.

For the last few months, Cohen has been traveling across Europe and is now the Middle East for his biggest role yet in Animal Kingdom David Michôd, star Brad Pitt and distributor Netflix’s War Machine, a satire about General Stanley McChrystal, the former top commander in Afghanistan.

“I’m sort of the General’s half-wit assistant,” he said. “My ingredients for that were Forrest Whitaker in Good Morning Vietnam and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Big Lebowski. Sort of interesting but sort of dopey, very happy-go-lucky, always delivering the general’s needs and wants, and enjoying being that kind of guy.”

Playing a working class kid in 1950s New York, Cohen in Brooklyn can’t help but evoke memories of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront — a movie that he says changed his life when he saw it at 15-years-old. Along with spending an hour a day walking around the city in character, Cohen has a tendency to look to other actors in similar roles and try to synthesize their performances to inform his own. And since that high school run-in with the Elia Kazan classic, Brando has been Cohen’s number one influence.

“I know I say Brando and they all say I’m imitating him, but every actor is f—-ing imitating Brando,” he admitted, laughing. “I don’t know what to tell you. My first two or three films, all I was trying to do was look cool. That’s all I knew acting was.”

Watch a featurette on ‘Brooklyn’ below: