George wears jumper Beyond Retro

The time-travelling, Hollywood-wowing, leading-man adventures of George MacKay

Volume 4 Issue 003: From Peter Pan to playing Ned Kelly via 1917, The Face speaks to the world’s most exciting young British actor.

Arti­cle tak­en from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 003. Order your copy here.

We catch George MacKay, just, between shoots and fittings, mixers and mingles and brunches, red carpets and gala screenings and onstage Q+As.

He’s in London, he’s not in London. He’s in New York, no, he’s in Los Angeles. He’s coming back, no he’s not, he has to stay out there longer for meetings. He’s back in London, yes he can meet for breakfast and a walk – but, actually, can you walk him straight to his next appointment, another photoshoot?

This is what movie awards season looks like on the inside: an endless parade of commitments and smiles and travels, here, there and everywhere. For an actor on the frontline, as MacKay is with the much-praised, much-­nominated, must-see 1917, the end of one calendar year and the start of the next – between nominations announced and ceremonies held – is an awful lot of showing up and showing off. 

There are more events than you’d think,” the actor begins, sitting down for coffee and toast in a café in Hackney, east London. It’s a bright, spring-like morning in January and, as if to make sure he keeps on top of everything, MacKay has shown up 10 minutes early, all rangy stride and purposeful demeanour. 

I always assumed it was just the Golden Globes, the Baftas, the Oscars,” he admits. We’re talking four days before 1917 is revealed as the big winner at the Baftas, winning seven awards. But there are all the Guilds of America as well: the Directors’ Guild, Producers’ Guild, Writers’ Guild, Screen Actors’ Guild…” They all dole out awards, they all host ceremonies, they all want the talent, suited and booted and gowned. 

Jumper Beyond Retro, jacket and trousers Ben Osborn

Yes, nods this open-faced, young-looking 27-year-old, he’s expected to be there, even though neither he nor his 1917 co-star Dean-Charles Chapman are nominated in the acting categories. But the two leading men made a pact with director Sam Mendes, young screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins that they’d do the awards rounds as a team.

And genuinely,” the charmingly sincere MacKay adds, they’re really exciting ceremonies. It’s a 
celebration of film and all these people you’ve watched for years. It’s a real insight and privilege. There’s a real magic to it.” You sense he means that literally. For George MacKay there is a wonder to this job, to this world, to his career.

Plus, bonus, there’s some nice clobber. When I cravenly objectify him by asking every actress’s red-carpet tripwire, Who are you wearing?”, the Londoner replies equally gamely. I’ve worn a Dunhill suit quite a lot. But I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to that – I’ve kind of got my own style, but it doesn’t involve a commitment to a brand or anything like that.”

Still, yes, he had to visit Savile Row for a proper fitting. No, he’s not been able to keep them, having to return most” outfits. For sure, it’s a great thing and you don’t want to start taking that for granted. But it is a lot of things all at once,” he says with a wince and just a hint of the brain lag he must be feeling after landing back in the UK only the day before from another LA flight.

That, though, is what opportunity knocking feels like, and he has to embrace it. As he says: I just had meetings with producers in America. I was meant to go out for four days and then it turned into two weeks. So I’m getting into rooms I couldn’t before.”

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MacKay has been acting since he was 10, when he was picked from school auditions to appear as one of the Lost Boys in the 2003 film adaptation of Peter Pan. He came home after eight months’ shooting in Australia to no adolescent bullying, despite an unfortunate enforced perm.

The son of parents who both worked in the theatre, he acted on and off through his secondary school years (including 2006’s Terry Pratchett adaptation Johnny and the Bomb for Children’s BBC and 2008’s Second World War drama Defiance with Daniel Craig). 

In his late teens and early 20s he landed some choice film roles: in Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful (2012), a First World War film; How I Live Now (2013), a dystopian teen romance directed by Kevin Macdonald, on which MacKay dated his co-star Saoirse Ronan; Sunshine on Leith (2013), the all-singing, all-dancing Proclaimers jukebox musical that set Dexter Fletcher on the path to making Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman; and Captain Fantastic (2016), the poignant and funny family-living-off-the-grid drama led by Viggo Mortensen.

I needed someone who was full of nature and sensuality, a Celtic fringes kind of boy,” recalls Macdonald, who admits he almost bailed on directing How I Live Now because, for a long time, he couldn’t find a leading boy capable of going up against the already fearsomely talented Ronan. They had to be not necessarily very verbal but with a lot of smouldering looks to do. That’s really tough, but George was great at it.

The film is a love story,” he continues, so the fact that they started having a relationship was certainly useful for that feeling of fire and electricity between them.”

But it’s his role as young soldier Schofield in 1917 that has propelled MacKay onto Hollywood’s first-pick A‑list. Mendes’s First World War epic is about a heroic but clearly impossible mission undertaken by Schofield and fellow lance corporal Blake (Chapman). The seemingly doomed youth must cross no-man’s‑land – dodging retreating Germans, artillery barrages, booby-trapped tunnels, nests of barbed wire, bomb craters filled with rats and body parts – with a message calling off an ill-fated attack by 1,600 British troops. It plays out as if in real time, in what’s meant to feel like one near-­continuous shot.

MacKay tells me he always thought of his character as being 23; Chapman told me that he thought Blake was 18. In age and temperament they are the everymen of the Great War: young, guileless, patriotic, not heroic but nonetheless willing to do what it takes to avoid more senseless slaughter in an endlessly senseless conflict.

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The actor was necessarily in deep during production, but he says he also tried to disengage. He didn’t want to look at the dead body… but instead just be there. That way of seeing got me really into the war artists, painters like Paul Nash. It’s kind of hallucinogenic. You read the war poetry and they read like Hendrix lyrics. There are [images of] iron beams and lightning, and people thinking about the buttercups attached to boots. It’s that slightly trippy thing… because the sky is on fire. And if the world’s on fire then the sky’s upside down, and there is no land and sky any more.” 

For the two young actors in the lead roles, all that required a lot. Chapman, five years younger off-screen too, can’t thank his co-worker highly enough.

I was so pleased to be going through everything I went through with an actor like George,” he says, because it was really just the two of us. And he’s an actor that gives 100 million per cent with everything he does. And that only makes you try to do the same thing.”

If MacKay gave 100 million per cent then, how much has he given to the upcoming True History of the Kelly Gang? And if the searing 1917 has catapulted the nice lad from lovely Barnes in south-west London to Awards Season Mainman, what will a film as full-on, brutal and blistering as this Australian outlaw epic do to his profile?

For one thing, Justin Kurzel’s film about Ned Kelly – a real-life 19th-century Aussie bush ranger and folk hero – has already effected some serious changes on MacKay’s actual physical profile. In this inspired adaptation of Peter Carey’s evocative, provocative Booker Prize-winning imagined ­autobiography of Kelly, MacKay depicts the outback gunslinger as a sinewy, strutting rooster. He’s not built but he’s cut, a tough, working man with a life of hardship behind him.

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Sitting next to me today, the soft, gentle MacKay is almost unrecognisable from the chest-puffing, boggle-eyed, hammer-fisted, blades-for-cheekbones, shovels-for-forearms brawler he depicts in …Kelly Gang.

Justin talked about that,” he starts. One of the main things he said was: I want you to physically transform. When you do that, you’ve locked yourself into the character and you can’t get out, for better or for worse.’” 

The point is, viewers have to believe in the depiction of this man Kelly. He’s been to prison, he’s been abused, he’s been breaking rocks and chopping wood.”

Kurzel sent MacKay pictures: of a rock climber hanging by his fingertips off a cliff face, every muscle in his back popping; of limestone quarry workers with hugely overdeveloped neck muscles from carrying buckets of rocks; of Conor McGregor.

He was a big reference for the character,” MacKay says of the bruising mixed martial artist and boxer. At first we were going to play Ned as Irish because he’s Australian but his family are Irish immigrants. And there’s that swagger, that working man’s [attitude], always the front foot forward because they’re damaged. That damaged person that’s always challenging: Go on then, what?’”

Jacket Coach and shirt Marni

Kurzel also sent his leading man to a dietician and trainer, David Kingsbury, with whom the director and Michael Fassbender had worked on 2016’s misfiring computer-game adaptation Assassin’s Creed. Kingsbury sounds like the Conor McGregor of Weight Watchers.

Yeah, I was measuring every meal,” MacKay recalls, a flicker of pain on his face. A lot of chicken, a lot of sweet potato. You bulk up and you strip everything. It’s all about your macros and micros. Basically, you’re eating quite a lot, but it’s 60 per cent protein, 20 per cent fat, 20 per cent carbs. And to do that properly you have to measure every single ingredient.”

Due to some back and forth with the funding – during which Kurzel, as dedicated as his leading man, had to halve his budget to ensure the film was made – MacKay was on the production for a year. That included four months’ preparation, his director says, riding horses, felling trees and shearing sheep – some pretty extraordinary physical stuff.

I chose George,” Kurzel continues, because I knew he was at a stage in his life and his career where he could absolutely commit and embody the experience of playing the character – he doesn’t have family so he could utterly devote himself to roles. That’s a pretty extraordinary energy to be around. I really needed that. I needed a young actor who was super-hungry. I just knew he would go that extra mile.”

And MacKay kept on going. A keen writer (of songs, verse, stories), …Kelly Gang features his own prose as the scribblings of the warrior-poet that was Ned, while the soundtrack includes two songs he wrote with his school band.

Saint Falcons were kind of like Noah and the Whale meet Kings of Leon but obviously didn’t do as well”, he reveals with just a bit of squirming. But these days he’s more a gym-goer, a runner, not a big drinker, never been a drug-taker, never been into social media. He enjoys walks around his home in Tufnell Park, north London, with the relatively new girlfriend about whom he politely requests that I share no details. He’s outdoorsy, too, but keen to clarify that he’s no bro-hiker.

It’s not like I’m climbing mountains and stuff,” he says with a smile. I just know that I don’t want to be on social media. I don’t know where the time goes but I just spend it doing other things.”

Taking him at his word, before walking him to his photoshoot, I drag MacKay to nearby Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. It’s one of the so-called Magnificent Seven” burial grounds built in Victorian London. A glorious inner-city wilderness teeming with wildlife, flora and, obviously, graves (also, should you be interested, the occasional offer of sex and drugs), this morning it’s bathed in sharp sunshine. I point out the carriageway where Amy Winehouse shot the Back to Black video, and the monument to Stoke Newington’s Second World War dead, bombed in the Blitz.

No, he wasn’t bored by this historical detour. On the contrary, this has been the best morning”, wide-eyed, open-minded MacKay beams as we finally approach the studio in which he has to strike a pose for yet another photoshoot. 

The world’s most exciting young British actor offers a hand, leans towards the door and prepares to step back on the awards season carousel, lost to reality for a few weeks more.

True Kelly History of the Kelly Gang is out on digital on 22nd June and DVD & Blu-Ray on 6th July

Grooming Petra Sellge at The Wall Group, Styling assistance Yujin Lee.


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