The actor relished playing the role of the Irish-Australian outlaw, writes Esther McCarthy
After fifteen years in acting, you’d forgive George Mackay any bemusement at being called an overnight sensation. But sometimes an actor produces a couple of performances so impressive they generate serious buzz.
Just months after his empathetic role as a young soldier tasked with saving thousands of men in Sam Mendes’ one-shot war epic, 1917, Mackay returns onscreen in another powerful performance.
The 27 year old brings a rock-star energy to True History of the Kelly Gang, Justin Kurzel’s new take on one of the most notorious gangsters in history.
Part of the reason he wanted to make the film was because of his father’s Australian background, which in turn goes all the way back to Cork, via his maternal great grandfather.
“There's a great granddad from Cork - Dennis O'Leary, he went to Australia when he was 14 and he was my grandma's dad,” says Mackay.
O’Leary emigrated to Australia aged 14 before fighting in World War One. After the war, he returned down under to make a new life for himself. “He went across as a 14 year old. He fought in the war, came back again, and set up his life there. And then he got into owning pubs and my granddad, when he married my grandma, bought the pub off her dad which is where my dad grew up.
“I really want to know myself now. A big part of that was my dad, and also that Australian link to the culture.”
A fictional variation on the Ned Kelly story as based on Peter Carey’s novel, the movie is visceral and cinematic and takes a modern, almost punkish approach to the period film. Mackay was already keen to work with Kurzel, whose film Snowtown, about a series of murders carried out by John Bunting, was one of the most intense experiences he says he’d had in a cinema. “The thing that really made me want to do it was the audition. “I came with quite a standard interpretation - broad shouldered, Irish brogue.
“We had this audition together and he just took it to these places and pushed me in these ways that I never thought that it could be. He gave me completely different contexts to play beneath the scenes. And the improvisation went to quite dark places. It was the best experience in an audition I've ever had. And I remember coming out feeling like I'd been more put through my paces as an actor in an hour than I had for years before.”
That intensity continued on set with his blessing, where the Londoner would be told to do press-ups between takes. Before one big scene, a crew member was instructed to wind him up and rile him, making him angry before the cameras rolled.
“A big part of that, which he did with Dan Henshaw when they did Snowtown, is changing your physicality. Your mentality is informed by the body that you have. If you feel heavy when you stand you look heavy. If you feel strong when you stand you look strong,” he adds.
“Also, the commitment that it takes to change how you look quite drastically ties you to the character for the whole time. You've kind of made a bond with it because you're walking in his skin.”
The role as Ned Kelly follows that of Lance Corporal Schofield, the soulful young soldier given a seemingly impossible task in 1917 - to get across enemy lines in time to call off an ambush that will end in carnage for thousands of his compatriots. “It was a beautiful thing, because it's the most collaborative job I've ever been a part of, it's a really unique way of working,” he says. “Because the camera never cut, everyone had to be working together all of the time. And that alignment was an amazing feeling.”
The two men couldn’t be further apart. Is he conscious of mixing up his roles?
“Yeah. First and foremost comes the story. But I’m learning as I grow older, actors that I look up to, usually the one consistency is a quality in their work. But otherwise there is a complete inconsistency in terms of the characters that they play. The way that they disappear into people -because that's the point of being an actor. It seems a shame when actors get known for a thing. I'm just happy for the next job, but I think you can sort of set your stall as being one that does lots of different things.”
Mackay was ten when he was spotted by a talent scout and asked to audition for a supporting character in a new adaptation of Peter Pan. He got the part and played other roles in his teens, before starring in dramas including How I Live Now, Pride and Sunshine on Leith. His family encouraged his emerging talent.
“My parents have always been very supportive, but also very cool about the whole thing. I think more importantly, they just wanted me to have a childhood. It was always very important that I finished school. I'm blessed to be in the midst of a busy moment. But I was at home a lot more than I was at work as a kid.”
He is doubtless in great demand following 1917, so it’s both intriguing and exciting to see that his next project is an Irish one. When we meet, he has just started rehearsals for Wolf, a drama that will shoot in the Dublin seaside town of Howth. He and Lily-Rose Depp will star in writer/director Nathalie Biancheri’s film. He is looking forward to basing himself here for much of the duration of the shoot.
“It's about a young man who believes he is a Wolf and set in a facility filled with young people who identify as animals rather than people. That's sort of as much as I can say. It's a real condition. But what I love about the script is it feels like it can be applied to so many different identity questions and struggles. I guess, in a way, it's a film that explores nature versus nurture. And I think Natalie's work is so brilliant in this.
True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas from Friday, March 6.