Is George MacKay the nicest young man in cinema? Minutes before I’m due to sit down with the 27-year-old Londoner at Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, a handful of colleagues and PR professionals who’ve already met the lad, wonder what it is about the star of Sam Mendes’s sensational, Oscar-winning war epic, 1917, that makes him so darn lovely.
Perhaps, they say, it has something to do with MacKay – a long-time supporting actor-turned-hotly-tipped-leading man – being new to the spotlight. Or, maybe he’s just one of the good guys. It could be both. Whatever the case, MacKay – a lean, smartly-dressed and boyishly handsome Hammersmith kid – is, once again, front and centre of another acclaimed thriller, taking the lead in Justin Kurzel’s punkish retelling of the Ned Kelly legend, True History of the Kelly Gang. Thankfully, even after months on the campaign trail with Mendes and Co, MacKay is still in flying form.
“It’s funny, the last three months has all been 1917, which is just, like, another level of press junkets,” he explains, “so it kind of feels like the perspective has shifted.”
“This film, True History of the Kelly Gang, really means the world to me. I’m so ready and happy to talk about it, because I also know now – which I didn’t really appreciate at first – that press does make a difference. People always say that’s a part of the job, but it really is, especially with a film like this, where, frankly, it’s not got as much money, but it’s a film that I’m really proud to be a part of, so it’s a pleasure to talk about it.”
There’s a lot to discuss. In True History of the Kelly Gang – a raucous, fictionalised western of sorts, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel, by Peter Carey – MacKay portrays the legendary Aussie bushranger as more of a spirited – and vengeful - 19th century bruiser. We’ve already seen some interesting faces tackle the role, from Mick Jagger, all the way through to the late, great Heath Ledger. But MacKay’s muscular portrayal is a different beast entirely.
“I think we just felt that this should be our take on it,” he nods, “I’m sure there will be parallels…but I think it was a kind of mix of so many different references, to create something quite individual. There was a bit of Gareth Liddiard, the singer of [Australian rock band] The Drones. It was a bit Conor McGregor. It was a bit Rowland S Howard…”.
MacKay combined “flavours” from each, to create his own Ned. The job also required a spot of research in Tipperary (Kelly’s ancestral home). It wasn’t the first time MacKay had visited Ireland (his great-grandparents hailed from Cork). It was a happy coincidence that, even before MacKay had signed on to play Ned Kelly, he had started to quiz his old man about his own family’s Irish and Australian heritage. At one stage, the research process verged into 'Who Do You Think You Are?' territory, with MacKay turning to his father, Paul, an Adelaide man of Scots-Irish descent, for guidance.
“Truly,” nods MacKay, “I didn’t know that his dad was from Ireland, and it’s a sort of running joke, but I truly feel a real love and affinity to Celtic people and culture, to Scotland and to Ireland, I love these places, I love coming here. And [I was] sort of suddenly going, ‘Ah!’”
With Kurzel’s film, then, MacKay was awarded the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of an Australian legend, but he also learned more about his own dad. “In a way, I guess you could almost say that Ned Kelly to Australia is like my dad to me,” he says.
It makes sense that the chap would end up where he is. Having kick-stared his career in 2003’s Peter Pan, MacKay has certainly put the work in, notching up a long line of exceptional supporting roles, opposite Daniel Craig in Defiance, and with Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic. He was a hit, too, in Dexter Fletcher’s Sunshine on Leith. And, his parents were always in the background, egging him on. His mother, Kim Baker, is a theatre costume designer; his dad is a stage manager. He recalls dancers and choreographers popping round for tea, when he was a kid. But there was never any grand plan.
“To be honest, when I got my first acting job, I was so young, that I wasn’t thinking about work,” he tells me. “It was just by chance. This amazing casting lady came around to my school and picked up a bunch of boys to go along for an audition as ‘Lost Boys’ [for Peter Pan]. I was never even thinking about work, but the one thing that my mum and dad’s background in the arts gave me, which I’m sort of only appreciating down the way, is I got taken to see a lot of stuff that I would never have seen before, and also, they celebrated a lot of work and attitudes which I think are quite artistic.”
With 1917, MacKay had front row seats to the annual Hollywood circus that is awards season. It’s the craziest show on earth - what was the biggest lesson he learned?
“I think the main thing is - without taking any of that excitement and goodness for granted, because it is a celebration, you know, a celebration of work at the core of it, and I think it’s important not to pick holes in it, because we need that celebration. That said, it’s just made me clear that I love the process of working. It’s a pleasure to talk about it, but it’s a greater pleasure to be discovering all the things that you’re talking about now.”
MacKay isn’t like anyone else in this game. He is impossibly polite. When I tell him my wife and I are planning a trip to Australia, he asks more questions than I have time to answer. Oh, and you won’t find MacKay on social media. I wonder if that’s the way to go, for an actor in his position. “I don’t know,” he answers, “I can only speak for myself, and I’m just a bit of a technophobe, first and foremost, I’ve never been one for technology.”
“There’s part of me that’s a bit wary that I’m completely out of the loop! But I sort of believe that you’ve kind of got to know yourself, and sometimes, that noise can be confusing. If you’re gonna believe the good stuff that might be said, you gotta believe the bad stuff, too, and vice versa, and if either one is untrue, you’re gonna get a warped sense of self. So, I’m just gonna try and trust that work is what gets you work, and that’s it”.