George MacKay has been a working actor since childhood. He got his start in 2003’s Peter Pan, then went on to memorable supporting roles in Pride, Ophelia, and Captain Fantastic. His career breakthrough came last year as Lance Corporal Schofield in 1917. The riveting World War I epic was a box office hit and awards darling, winning the Golden Globe and BAFTA for Best Film. MacKay carried the film on his shoulders with a quiet, resolute performance.
His first foray as a leading man was shot right before 1917. True History of the Kelly Gang is a post-modern, punk rock retelling of Australia’s most infamous outlaw and folk hero. Ned Kelly waged an insurrection against British Colonial rule in the 1870s. Director Justin Kurzel takes dramatic license and portrays Ned Kelly as a muscled, homoerotic firebrand forced into brutality. True History of the Kelly Gang foregoes a standard narrative with a highly stylized and segmented approach. George MacKay is absolutely magnetic in a daring performance. Showcasing his extraordinary range and versatility between the two disparate roles.
True History of the Kelly Gang premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. It was released theatrically in Australia and Europe earlier this year. It will be available on demand and digital this weekend in the United States from IFC Films. I spoke at length with George MacKay during a phone interview promoting the film. We discussed his life under the Covid-19 lockdown, future projects, and his incredible preparation process. MacKay had to undergo a tremendous physical and mental transformation to play Ned Kelly. This included a punk rock gig with his supporting actors under the name Fleshlight. He was humble and modest about his recent acclaim. George MacKay’s star is rising. His significant talent carving a deserved niche in Hollywood.
How are you passing the time during the pandemic?
George MacKay: I’m with my family. I’m out of the city, so there’s a bit more outdoor space in the yard. We’re all together. I really can’t complain at the moment. Touch wood. Everyone is healthy. We have each other, so we have company. We have the garden. I couldn’t be better off. I am a lucky guy.
George MacKay: As for passing the time, so much of my type of work doesn’t happen on set. It’s all the research time, learning your lines, reading up. There’s always a rabbit hole of research, no matter what the project is. I’m keeping up with that. Reading projects, doing research for a job that I hope to start as soon as everything lifts again. Bits and bobs, all those things that you said you’d never have time for. I now have time for. (laughs)
Your performance in 1917 has really been a career breakthrough. Are you getting a lot of offers during this pause?
George MacKay: Yes, I’m blessed to be able read some new projects at the minute. I’m blessed for having choices and being able to get work. Now, there is the opportunity for a wee bit more choice. I’m trying to make good and strong decisions that ring true to me. It’s about what I want to explore for myself and the world. I’m always holding out for projects that encapsulate that. Or an element of that. I’m basically reading a lot. (laughs)
I watched True History of the Kelly Gang cold and was quite surprised by director Justin Kurzel’s approach. It’s stylistic, punk rock, and homoerotic. Talk about what sold you on the role, and the instructions from Justin Kurzel. You made a punk band called Fleshlight?
George MacKay: The band, we had four weeks rehearsal before we started shooting, while they were doing pre-production. Justin said, “I’ve booked you a gig in a Melbourne bar in three weeks.” You need to come up with a band, get yourself a name, and write some songs. We did, and it was an amazing exercise. It got us to listen to each other. He wanted that punk attitude. He wanted us to be a gang, always. Music does that. It makes you listen and have an awareness of each other.
George MacKay: Day two, I’ve got this poem. Perhaps we could start with that. Then the actual making of the songs, the swagger, and the aggression. Excuse my French, it was the f*ck you attitude. We’ve made songs. We’re saying something. We performed in a bar without anyone knowing it had to do with a film. We just performed like everyone else. It was great. That experience gave us a bond.
The interpretation of Ned Kelly reminded me of Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, and the Sex Pistols. Did you mold the character from any punk personality specifically?
George MacKay: It was a number of different things all at once. It was never rooted in a “let’s be like this person.” It was a more personal process. That said, there were many ingredients. In terms of music, there’s an amazing Australian musician, probably his biggest band was The Drones. He’s a writer and musician called Gareth Liddiard. He’s a working class, poet songwriter. He’s incredibly articulate, but a down and dirty performer. The way he sings, guitar real low, he barks up at the mic. For a long time, he had that same haircut that we went with for Ned…
That was a pretty awesome mullet.
George MacKay: Yes. (laughs) This version of Ned, he’s a symbol of masculinity in Australia; in a very typical way. He’s a physical specimen. We wanted to couple that with a wordsmith basically. Gareth Liddiard, being such an incredible songwriter, we had him, we had other Australian punk music, like The Birthday Party, and The Saints. Connor McGregor was another big reference. For a long time, we were going to play Ned Kelly as Irish. There’s so much performance within Connor McGregor’s persona. There’s an element of that in Ned’s cockiness. Justin really wanted to mime different versions of confidence, as well as someone who’s very damaged. His confidence springs from a need to protect himself and others. There a hardness and brutality to him.
Let’s go deeper on the physical aspects. You shot True History of the Kelly Gang before 1917. Schofield and Ned Kelly are completely different, but both roles are intensely physical. Talk about your body preparation process for the two characters?
George MacKay: Justin, in the beginning of the process for Ned, sent me a massive email that said, “To Do.” It had half a page of books to read on Australian history and Ned Kelly. He had a page of Aussie punk music, and there were two pictures at the bottom. One was Connor McGregor, the other was a rock climber hanging on a rock. You could see almost every muscle in his back. It’s extraordinary. That’s what he wanted. I worked with an amazing trainer called Dave Kingsbury. He basically gave us a workout program and strict diet. We really got into the physical side of it. Justin said a physical transformation roots you in the character. You can never take it off. There’s a commitment required. You can’t fake it. He wanted that feeling of strength for Ned.
George MacKay: There was a time at the beginning of Ned that I felt stronger than I’ve ever felt in my life. There’s an aspect of the film where nothing is true. Then there’s another part that’s exactly true. One thing that kept coming up in the research. Ned was a really powerful physical specimen. He had this aura about him. I wanted to feel that. There’s something unequivocal about sitting across a table from someone and knowing you can beat them in a fight. There’s a confidence where I don’t need to talk too much. I know if we came to blows, I have you. That quiet confidence was essential to Ned. At times, that was all he had, in this version.
George MacKay: Getting match fit was more aesthetic with Ned. His skin and his body were such a big part of the storytelling. The process of getting that body gave me the commitment for Schofield. It’s not like he takes his shirt off, but just doing so much physical work. There’s barely any dialogue in 1917. Knowing my body, what it could and couldn’t do, how to use it; it was essential. For 1917, Sam [Mendes] didn’t want us looking like SAS soldiers. But I remember what we did a week that November, before filming in January. Just walking, back and forth, back and forth. Two hundred meters every take, sometimes it was fifty takes. Then there was the gear. You never stop in between. You literally never stop. That kind of discipline. I knew that from Ned already.
Audiences are impressed by your work, but don’t know your personality. Give our readers some George MacKay color commentary.
George MacKay: I’m an old man. I’m a bit of a technophobe. I like all kinds of music. I just recently got into John Prine. Family and friends are important to me. I don’t really know what to say. I’m probably a bit of an old man. I like the quieter side of things. I guess I’m eighty at heart. (laughs)