Glass Man talks to actor George MacKay


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier … Outlaw – Glass talks to actor George MacKay about playing a man on a mission to save 1,600 lives and going back to his Aussie roots

“IT MADE me call the people I love and made me quite sure about who I love in my life,” actor George MacKay says with the utmost sincerity, sitting across from me, as he explains how emotionally affected he was by his new film, 1917, when he watched it back for the first time. No stranger to playing parts that pull on the heart strings, the 28-year-old, London-born MacKay has starred in Private Peaceful, Sunshine on Leith, Pride, Where Hands Touch, and most recently, Ophelia, coming a long way since his acting days began as a little boy who loved drama class, and who just so happened to be picked to audition as Curly in PJ Hogan’s Peter Pan.

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

The film 1917 is one in a long line of historical movies in which MacKay has acted, a genre which he values for its ability to “comment from an outsider’s perspective on the now,” digging deeper than the historical context of the story. MacKay was particularly drawn to 1917 because of the “big and small nature to it. It comments on bigger themes, emotional themes and feelings, by focusing, very intimately, on these two characters’ journeys.”

The film follows the journey of soldiers Private Schofield and Private Blake to deliver a message to a British battalion of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother (played by Richard Madden), which will warn of an ambush. Filmed on one reel of film, Sam Mendes’ mentality behind the one-shot approach is to make the audience feel as if they are walking side by side with Schofield and Blake on their quest. This makes for a fully immersive experience for the viewer, as well as the cast and crew. “It was the most communal experience I’ve had on a job because these long shots don’t work unless every element is working in harmony.”

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Everyone had to know their cues faultlessly and the light levels had to be perfect while keeping artificial lighting to a minimum. If an actor was running through the trenches and turning around 360 degrees, there was nowhere to put a light without it being seen on camera, which meant a dull day, or conversely a very sunny one, would put filming on hold. It also made it harder for the actors; MacKay tells me that usually you film first and edit after to “craft a rhythm”, but with a single shot, what you capture on camera will be in the film – no edits, no redoes – nothing.

“There was a kind of inspiring and slightly uncompromising attitude that we don’t go home until we get the shot”. This way of filming was different from anything MacKay had ever done before and, along with the connection he felt to his character, helped fully immerse him into the film.

When MacKay first read for Schofield in the audition, he was handed two scenes with no context (a lot was kept under wraps in the early stages). He explains how he remembers reading them and thinking “I know this man,” adding that “obviously, Schofield and I are different in a lot of surface level ways, but I just felt like maybe I knew him, and what was important to him was important to me.” The separation of time is inconsequential to MacKay, who believes the core values he shares with his character are more important.

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

Not only has MacKay enjoyed delving into his character’s psyche, but also unravelling what it is to tell a story, owing to the influence of director Sam Mendes. Speaking about Mendes, MacKay explained how he has an “extraordinary understanding of the architecture of the story … of the maths of storytelling – how you craft emotions and how and when you give information” for the maximum impact. Coupled with cinematographer Roger Deakins, from whom MacKay learnt how taking an “integral enjoyment” in your work rallied the team, the overall experience was incredibly inspiring. “When you’re surrounded by people who are giving it their all, you want to as well”.

On the subject of giving everything, MacKay and director Justin Kurzel have definitely done so for The True History of the Kelly Gang. Taxing character development strategies and moments fraught with unknowing – after spending two months preparing in Australia, the money for the film fell through – meant that persistence was key to the movie’s development. When they did get funding again, it sparked a new energy of “you’d better not stop until we get this done”, which MacKay found incredibly motivating and exciting.

Most likely, you haven’t heard of Ned Kelly, the lead role played by MacKay, and neither had I until I investigated more. Ned Kelly was an Australian outlaw in the late 1870s, made famous by the  imagined autobiography True History of the Kelly Gang written by Peter Carey which won the 2001 Booker Prize. Now somewhat of a pop icon in Australia, MacKay, whose father is Australian, did know a little about Kelly beforehand.

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

He tells me that images of Kelly can be found “on tins of beer, on pies” in Australia and was even “in the Sydney opening Olympic games ceremony” in 2000. MacKay is interested to see how the movie will be received in Australia, where Kelly is so prominent, especially because one aspect of the outlaw that is most well-known and recognisable is his huge beard – MacKay can’t grow one. Half lamenting and half laughing, he says, “Justin told me, ‘Don’t shave’, but after three months all I had was a tiny patch on my chin.”

This initial setback didn’t bother Kurzel all that much, as he was keen to take a step away from the traditional portrayal of Kelly, to show a “much less black and white version than this pop icon he’s become”.

To get an insight into the mentality of Ned Kelly, Kurzel was very specific on how MacKay should prepare for the role: “He demands you to have an experience, to understand it physically inside and out, so he gave me this incredible to do list … Aussie cinema, Aussie punk music … to understand an attitude.”

This psychological development of the Kelly character was backed up by a physical transformation for George, as Kurzel wanted him to appear strong, tough. His newfound strength gave him an insight into “someone whose physical brutality is a marker of them … it’s about an attitude and an aggression.” Feeling like he was in the body of Ned Kelly better equipped MacKay to explore the mindset of him too.

Unpacking the characters, their mentalities, is something MacKay finds fascinating as he believes the key to acting in a role is about “building and allowing the context around them, their history – the maths of putting someone together backwards. Why does someone think like that? Do they know they think like that?

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

If they do, how do they feel about that?” To help MacKay better understand the way Kelly thinks, Justin Kurzel had a unique approach to developing deeper layers of characterisation. MacKay elaborates, “There’s this scene with his mum the first time Ned comes back, as a man, after being away for years, and he [Kurzel] was like, ‘Keep the lines as they are, but imagine you’re on a first date and everything she’s saying, you’re kind of smiling, and you’re trying to work each other out, you’re trying to make her laugh’.” Admittedly a slightly strange take on a mother-son relationship, but MacKay explains that Kelly’s mother is “very much like his first love” – after his father leaves, he steps up, becoming the man of the house, and is always seeking to impress her.

Kurzel’s “ability to give a different context and put a framework on top of it [a scene]” has helped MacKay to depict a more layered version of Kelly. He is no longer the one-dimensional, bearded, scary bad guy from days gone by, but instead a multi-faceted man with real feelings and complex issues caused by his violent childhood. MacKay describes the battle inside Kelly’s head as a battle between what we think of ourselves and what everyone else thinks of us.

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

“If someone says you’re this, does that make that truer than who you feel you are? Do you go, ‘Right, you say I’m an outlaw, so I will be your worst nightmare – I will be everything that you say I am’ – or do you try to fight against that?” MacKay’s Ned Kelly wrestles with this in the film, trying to decide who he is and who he wants to be while trying to outrun the sins of his father, and “struggling not to use the language of violence … the language his father used.” The Ned Kelly of Kurzel and MacKay’s imagination is of a man trapped in a life he has been forced to lead, becoming almost tragic. With all these intricate underlying messages and emotions, how to sum up the film? MacKay doesn’t hesitate: “Punky, brutal … complicated”.

George MacKay. Photograph: Nick Thompson

From our conversation I’m quickly getting the impression MacKay thrives on probing into the psychology of his roles – the more complicated, the better. MacKay tells me he’d be very open to exploring the 20th and 21st century American psyche, particularly something of Arthur Miller. Miller’s investigation and understanding of “outside elements that mean so much to men … names, work, success”, is something he finds himself questioning. Why American focused? “Lots of us look to America culturally and socially as a recognisable meter … it’s held on a pedestal. I think that’s changing at the minute, so I’d love to do something American which susses out America.”

A soldier, an outlaw … what next, I ask? “I don’t know what’s next, which is exciting. Two years ago, I didn’t know about these two films or how much they would mean to me, so I’m excited by the possibilities – what will happen tomorrow?” I don’t know about tomorrow, but exciting things are certainly going to be happening next year, with MacKay’s films set for release early 2020.

by Alicia Pountney

From Winter 2019 issue of Glass Man magazine. To make sure you never miss out on a copy of Glass and Glass Man, please visit here to subscribe.

Photographer: NICK THOMPSON

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