George MacKay is the sort of person who looks as though he was genetically engineered to be a great actor. His brows seem to furrow deeply with every slight change in emotion. His lanky stature isn’t imposing, yet gives the impression that he’s able to hold his own in a fight. And then there are the eyes; emotive and telling a story beyond what’s being said.
It’s no wonder then that he fell into acting on at the age of 10. “I absolutely loved drama as a kid and I was very passionate about it. I was just very lucky that I managed to fall into my first job (2003’s Peter Pan where he played one of the Lost Boys), which in itself was the most incredible experience, and because of that, I then was sort of able to have experiences through school,” MacKay tells us. And because there was no pressure of that first role being nothing more than him exploring his passion, MacKay revelled in it.
More than 15 years later, that exploration has turned into a proper acting career. In 2017, MacKay was honoured with the Trophée Chopard during the 70th Cannes Film Festival. The annual award recognises promising young talents in cinema and is deliberated by a jury of professionals.
With two huge starring-role projects slated for release in 2020, MacKay is poised to be a Hollywood great.
A one-shot wonder
In the Sam Mendes-directed 1917, MacKay plays Private Schofield, one half of a duo of young British soldiers tasked with delivering an important message to a British battalion during the height of the First World War. The film is based on an account told to Mendes by his grandfather, novelist Alfred Mendes. And at the heart of it, as with great period war films, is a very human story.
“I think as humans, we are all so adaptable and different people have different ways of dealing with things. Schofield is someone who kind of holds on to his feelings I think. Because if he feels if he lets them go, if he acknowledges them, he won’t get them back,” explains MacKay. “He is very measured in how he breaks and he keeps a level of calm in himself.”
Adding to the realism of the film is the sequential one-shot editing. Reminiscent of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award- winning film Birdman, the entirety of 1917 looks like it was filmed in one shot. This meant that longer takes were needed and rehearsals were key and intensive. But unlike the former where a majority of the scenes were indoors, 1917 was filmed in the open spaces of England and Scotland. This created a lot of moments on set where even the wrong type of clouds could cause unfavourable continuity errors.
“It’s a bit like a play because you can’t edit the same way when doing these long takes; you can’t edit and then decide the rhythm. You can’t cut between shots, shorten or lengthen pauses, or make silences where they weren’t in place. So you have to decide all of that before you get started and that process takes time to work it out,” MacKay explains.
Yet it was a technical process that he very much enjoyed. “There is an amazing sort of double level to it. When you are filming these long takes, you can get lost in the scene and it becomes real because you have enough time to disappear into the action as an actor.”
A legendary figure
“Ned Kelly, as a character, I felt there were a lot of things in my own life which connected me to him,” expresses MacKay about playing the Australian icon in True History of the Kelly Gang. It’s part of the reason why he took on the titular role; mostly, it was because of director Justin Kurzel as MacKay tells us: “I have been a huge fan of Justin’s work for a long time and Snowtown was one of the most effective experiences I’ve had in the cinema.”
Ned Kelly is a polarising figure—you either champion his pursuit for justice or feel disdain for his outlaw behaviour. There have been a number of film adaptations based around the icon, one of which stars the late Heath Ledger. True History of the Kelly Gang is based on the book of the same name by Peter Carey and depicts a narrative that’s told from Kelly’s point of view.
MacKay expresses that the film explores the notion of what is true. “If I say it’s true, does that make it true if you say it’s false? Or if you tell me I’m one thing and I think I’m another, which one is truer? Is it because I’m me and I should know better than you or is it because you are the voice of authority? And in that wild west setting where the law is unlawful, does it make me a bad man if I break the law because the law is not right anyhow? That sort of murky questions are things that I’m finding relevant as a young man and someone who is growing up and wanting to have a standpoint on all of this to move forward in my adult life,” he explains.
Taking on that approach meant that there were creative licences that the film took to Ned Kelly’s story. For one, audiences won’t be seeing MacKay sporting Kelly’s beard (“I can’t grow a beard like that,” jokes MacKay). He tells us that taking on the persona without being confined to looking a certain way helped to tell a more honest story, with a nuanced freedom to making the character his own.
But where does he personally stand on the nature of Ned Kelly? “I don’t know because I don’t know the real man. From stories I hear about him, I celebrate his tenacity. But then, on the same token, if my dad was one of the cops that he killed, I probably couldn’t applaud it in the same way,” MacKay reasons. Fair enough.
It’s safe to say that there’ll be more to come from George MacKay. If not in film, it’ll be in television or theatre—all of which he has had opportunities in. When asked if he has a favourite, MacKay could only say that he loves them all for how different they are to each other.
“I was thinking this morning about a play. It’s been a while since I’ve done it but I remember I used to get so nervous before the performance. But actually, onstage you kind of feel fine. That’s quite a healthy life lesson: the idea of it beforehand, that can stump you, where actually the doing of it is a lovely thing,” he opines. Which is also why, he says, that making 1917 was “such a wonderful experience” due to the filming being somewhat of a hybrid of traditional theatre and film.
But don’t count on his inevitable mainstream success clouding his judgement and good nature though. He’s got some stellar advice from seasoned actor, fellow Brit, Eddie Marsan.
“He said: at some point, everybody on set is the most important person. In the morning, it’s the transport driver who’s come to pick you up. When you get to set, it’s the make-up artist and the costume department. When you do your rehearsals and you’re acting in your scenes, it’s you. So if you can give everyone else that respect, properly, then it’s okay to claim your moment for when it comes,” MacKay recalls.
Whatever those moments may be in the future, MacKay is keeping himself grounded and taking things as they come. He says that the projects that hold special meaning to him were those that he could never have dreamt about. So what’s next after playing two real-life characters? “I’m just reading a few things in the minute and trying to make a good decision next,” MacKay teases.