‘1917’ star George MacKay: “War is one of the few things we all understand”

Fresh from First World War thriller '1917', George MacKay is clutching a rifle once more in new Aussie crime drama 'True History of the Kelly Gang'. We caught up with the rising star to hear about meeting Joaquin Phoenix, clay pigeon shooting with Russell Crowe and what's next for Hollywood's most talked about talent

Reel Talk is NME’s weekly interview feature with the biggest names in film and TV

George MacKay is beaming. He greets NME in London’s Mayfair Hotel with an enormous smile, as if this is the first interview he’s ever done and he couldn’t be happier about it. In actual fact, he’s spent most of the last three months in a tux, swapping war stories (literally) with Hollywood’s biggest names at the grandest awards parties. He met Parasite director Bong Joon-ho (“the nicest man”), Taika Waititi (“amazing energy”) and even had a fleeting encounter with Joaquin Phoenix in a toilet at the BAFTAs. Thanks to WWI thriller 1917, in which he plays the lead, MacKay is the talk of Tinseltown.

“It was exciting just to be at the ceremony,” says the 27-year-old British actor of his trip to the Academy Awards. “As well as seeing all these people in [the same room]. It’s the pinnacle of the celebrations of a year’s work.” He’s being modest here. This was the first time the British actor had been invited to the Oscars, but he’s been working for over 16 years.

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George MacKay
Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment / IFC Films

George MacKay is the kind of adaptable and ready-to-impress talent who can either rise up and convincingly lead an adventure, or shrink to support the stars – the kind of actor you’ve been seeing, without realising, front and centre, or maybe just slightly shuffled to the left, for almost two decades. A young boy in the closet in Pride, the eldest brother of a family living by their own rules in Captain Fantastic, and a soldier across WWI and WWII in, well, about a third of his acting jobs to date – culminating in Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning sensation this year. Now, he’s kicking off the new decade with his most demanding role yet in Justin Kurzel’s Aussie crime drama, True History of the Kelly Gang.

Based on Peter Carey’s 2000 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of notorious bushranger Ned Kelly, and the gang of outlaws he cobbled together in the 1870s. It’s a role previously played by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger (in 1970 western Ned Kelly) and Heath Ledger (in, you guessed it, Ned Kelly – a 2003 action adventure). They’re big shoes to fill – but MacKay doesn’t let any sense of nerves come across. Head down, always.

George MacKay
Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment / IFC Films

“The more I work, the more I realise it’s about the doing, and it doesn’t matter what comes out,” he says. “Of course the other stuff is important – but for me that process comes above everything.” MacKay has endless stories about preparing for Kelly Gang: spontaneous press-ups in the audition room, clay pigeon shooting with co-star Russell Crowe. “It was kind of surreal, but brilliant,” MacKay says of his gun-toting day out with Crowe, but co-star Earl Cave (son of musician Nick Cave) clarifies, “I beat George – [he] was actually really shit”. Then there was three months of chopping wood, riding horses, and working on farms in Australia as prep. Oh, and forming a punk band with his castmates (that’s Earl Cave, Sean Keenan and Jacob Collins-Levy).

“Justin [Kurzel] wanted us to concentrate more on the spirit of these men rather than the exact history,” MacKay explains. “Some of the things we did emotionally broke me open in a way I haven’t been for a long time.”

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Born in London in 1992, MacKay admits his upbringing couldn’t have been further from Ned Kelly’s. His father works in stage management and lighting, his mother in costume design. “From day dot, someone’s been pushing [Ned] over, telling him he’s nothing, he’s worthless, he’s a mutt… that’s not my background at all,” he says. Plucked from West London’s The Harrodian School by a talent scout at age 11, MacKay was cast as Curly, one of the Lost Boys in PJ Hogan’s 2003 live-action adaptation of Peter Pan. That very first shoot was a six-month adventure in Australia – just like Kelly Gang. What’s more, his dad is an Aussie himself and took a young George down under to see family over the years. “I’m very proud that a number of things [about Ned] relate to how my dad grew up,” MacKay says. “But I’ve never really known how that person was built. It made me yearn to go back to Australia and spend time with that side of my family, who I hadn’t really seen much as an adult.”

After Peter Pan, MacKay applied to two acting schools, RADA and LAMDA, and was rejected from both. He auditioned for Game of Thrones, didn’t get in (otherwise his friendship with 1917 co-star Dean-Charles Chapman – who plays tragic boy king Tommen Baratheon in the HBO fantasy epic – could have started much sooner). He auditioned for Justin Kurzel’s previous film, Macbeth, and didn’t get that either.

Russell Crowe
Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment / IFC Films

There wasn’t necessarily one incident that made everything fall into place for MacKay. He auditioned, a lot, and had a childhood that seems happy enough and sufficiently unproblematic – precisely because of how little he talks about it. “My parents have never parented me in the way that Ned’s parents have,” he says, which probably answers most questions about how calm things might have been at home.

When asked for a mentor figure he remembers from the early years, it takes MacKay approximately half a second to offer a sincere answer. “I don’t know if he knows how much of a mentor he was because he was just himself, but Eddie Marsan,” MacKay says, referencing his time with the actor on Best of Men, a true-story drama about the Paralympic Games. “He had such respect for [everyone], which meant he had a lot of respect for himself [and that] allowed him to do things that I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do – I would have been worried of being a wanker.”

1917
Credit: eOne

Other influences include Russell Crowe (“Gladiator was everything to me”), art-house filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (he mimics the gravelly voice of Daniel-Day Lewis’s prospector Daniel Plainview from Darwinian epic There Will Be Blood), and Joaquin Phoenix (“I told him I was a huge fan”). “I remember being told that [acting for] film is small, that you should just think it, and there is some truth to that,” he adds, “But then when you have someone like Gary Oldman or Cate Blanchett…”

Slowly, the small, polite roles grew bigger, and so did the actors he was working with. After Best of Men, MacKay captivated Saoirse Ronan in 2013 teen drama How I Live Now; learned from Sherlock and Fleabag stalwart Andrew Scott as well as national treasure Bill Nighy on Pride; played Viggo Mortensen’s son in heartbreaking indie Captain Fantastic. But what about the role that reunited him with Scott, and introduced him to a much bigger audience. Why does he think 1917 connected with so many people?

George MacKay
Credit: eOne

“War is one of the few massive communal things we all understand or have access to, in which the human experience is stretched,” MacKay explains. “Someone giving birth is a massive personal stretching of the human experience, but not everyone can relate to that all of the time.”

With his first awards season now completed and two star-making roles in the bag, the future is looking awfully bright for MacKay. But it was Kelly Gang – and not 1917 – that gave him an extra shot of confidence to take on future roles: “[As Ned], I felt powerful, hungry, strong, lean, sinewy and all those things. I felt like I knew what it would be like to walk in his skin.”

Rick and Morty
Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment / Adult Swim

Next, MacKay will play the lead in Wolf, a high-concept drama about a boy who believes he is a wolf. That’s opposite Lily Rose-Depp – daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. It’s another art-house project, of course, and MacKay is yet to appear in a proper blockbuster – what would he do if Marvel or Star Wars came calling? “I can only answer that if someone asks and no one has!” he laughs.

Speaking of cult sci-fi properties, Reddit’s keyboard warriors have suggested MacKay might one day play Morty in a potential live-action version of Rick and Morty – Adult Swim’s animation about the exploits of a super scientist and his dim-witted grandson – thanks to their uncanny physical similarities. “I’d love to play the professor,” he says. “Give me a few more years and I’ll play Rick!”

George MacKay
Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment / IFC Films

Beyond that? It’s all up for grabs; every trailblazing man in history, every endlessly determined character that hasn’t been thought up yet. But MacKay won’t line up his entire future immediately, because nothing is out of his reach. He’s nowhere near his peak. And he still hasn’t stopped smiling.

‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ arrives in UK cinemas on February 28

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