CS Interview: George MacKay on True History of the Kelly Gang
George MacKay may have guided audiences through the horrors of war in last year’s Oscar-winning war epic 1917, but the 28-year-old actor is ready to blow audiences away with his next performance in True History of the Kelly Gang as the titular Australian outlaw. ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with the star on his latest role, which is set to hit digital platforms on Friday!
Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Peter Carey, the film tells the story of legendary outlaw Ned Kelly (Mackay) as he leads a band of rebel warriors to wreak havoc on their oppressors in this gritty and veracious western thriller.
Mackay, who led the Oscar-nominated war epic 1917, is leading an ensemble cast that includes Oscar winner Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Nicholas Hoult (Dark Phoenix), Essie Davis (The Babadook), Sean Keenan (Puberty Blues), Jacob Collins-Levy (The White Princess), Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit), Charlie Hunnam (The Irishman) and Claudia Karvan (Newton’s Law).
Justin Kurzel (Assassin’s Creed) has been developing the script for four years, starting shortly after completion on the adaptation of the Ubisoft game franchise, and is directing on a script from Berlin Syndrome‘s Shaun Grant.
MacKay describes Kurzel as the foremost reason for his interest in joining True History, having been “a real fan of Justin’s work” going all the way back to the 45-year-old director’s feature debut Snowtown, which MacKay felt was “genuinely the most affected I’ve ever been in a cinema.”
“The audition for Ned was the most wild audition I’ve ever had, and just that kind of — the thrill of being worked in that way, in the way that Justin works was the biggest draw,” MacKay described. “Simultaneously, it was also the character of Ned felt — the sort of things that I wanted to kind of figure out personally as well as creatively felt really right in terms of I was really looking for an opportunity in work to commit to something fully, like really go in on something. That is what Justin asks for when you work with him. In terms of the character, just being in that stage of life in your mid-20’s where you’re looking to find yourself, what you want to do and you’re looking to where you want to go, and having that informed by where you’re from. Two years before the audition came about, I had a conversation with my dad in which he talked about his past in Australia, which I’d never really asked about. There was so much in it that intrigued me. I felt a yearning to go back and explore that side of my dad, me, of that part of the world. To therefore to kind of explore this archetype of Australia and kind of turn the culture and the person upside with Justin, that was simultaneously was the biggest draw.”
After learning about his father’s history in the country, MacKay found getting to shoot in Australia to be “amazing” and “perfect,” giving him a large step up on connecting to his character and the journey and hardships he endures throughout the film.
“A huge part of kind of the understanding of the point of the film and the character was the culture, and I guess that’s what the film is about, is exploring what is true socially and personally and in ourselves and in our nations and kind of looking,” MacKay said. “I question the identity, and to question it, I had to have an understanding of it, and that understanding was informed infinitely by actually being in the place and being in the landscape, and also having — because I think what’s beautiful also was Justin shows in Australia that not many people recognize or would connect to Australia. Just being in a nice environment as we were making the film was amazing and profound.”
The film is based on the 2000 novel of the same name from Carey and though he hadn’t read it prior to getting the script for the film, MacKay found getting to dive into the book to be “a joy” and found a unique environment to flip through its pages.
“I remember I was on the tube, actually, when I first read it, I don’t know if that’s the best place to start, but I think I’d got the part by then,” MacKay recalled. “I opened it up and it was just this stream of consciousness. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there is no punctuation. It has a full stop at the end of each paragraph. It’s written in the voice of obviously these found letters and Peter Carey has imagined this boy who left education at 12, who’s taught himself to write. It’s kind of his vernacular and his slang and his articulacy is developing as the book develops. But there is no punctuation. It’s just this kind of beautiful, poetic stream of consciousness, just written in a way that has not been taught and is self-taught. And that was just like gold dust in terms of finding the voice of the character, to have this imagined autobiography written for you was just brilliant.”
The 28-year-old British star found that one of the biggest creative challenges for him going into the film was being “intimated by our version of a version of the Ned Kelly” and stepping into the bravado persona that comes with portraying the infamous bushranger.
“It is by no means saying this is exactly who this man was, but the one thing that runs through all interpretations — historical, and allegoric is this very commanding man,” Mackay said. “In the brutality of the world that Justin creates, that comes across in a a bit of violence to it. That violence is something that is not present a lot in me as myself, that kind of physical intimidation or that dominance has been really bloody hard. Finding that because that was so integral to him, and owning that, it’s tough when you doubt that in yourself, to be really fucking hard. So that was really rule one of how not to be tough is to doubt that you’re tough. But then you know, interestingly, I think a lot of people who are perceived to be tough, that might be at the core of why they do it, because they feel so vulnerable inside that they’ve got to be. But I think the violence that’s within this version of Ned was the thing that I didn’t necessarily struggle with, but just was probably the furthest stretch from myself, and I focused most on it.”
Though not trying to give “a politician’s answer,” MacKay found he couldn’t pick a favorite person in the star-studded ensemble as a favorite to perform alongside in a scene, as everyone “brought such incredible energy, performance and commitment to every role,” but did find a “profound connection” with his character and mother Ellen, portrayed by Davis.
“I feel like Essie is who comes to mind and to my heart because I feel that profound connection with Essie now,” MacKay warmly described. “Essie was the first of the cast that I met, I lived with her and Justin for a time in Tasmania before we started shooting. You know, Ned’s mom is his greatest love, and there are so many different types of love entwined in their relationship. I think because that is the core in Ned, that was the core in me in terms of an understanding of the ensemble. So I think Essie, because she’s just the most amazing woman and the most amazing actress.”
Prior to True History, MacKay was no stranger to the period genre, having starred in everything from the William Shakespeare-based Ophelia to the psychological horror drama Marrowbone and Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning World War I epic 1917, and he find “the context” of these stories to be one of the most fascinating for returning to the past.
“The idea that I think we sometimes let ourselves off the hook, I think there’s truth to it sometimes go, ‘Oh, it was just a different time,'” MacKay explained. “I think there is some truth to that, but I feel like we, as humans, as society, as cultures are a mixture of both, and that is informed by our context. I think in the same way that you or I would be different people if we grew up in the cities — if we swapped cities, we would be this innately, at our core, same person, but we would probably be different jobs, we would talk differently, we would have different views on the world, given who we went to school with, the lessons that worked because of our favorite teachers, which lessons we liked most. And that, I just find fascinating about how when you step back in time into things, because it’s a different context and situations, just learning how those times affected those people and how that informs the people that came next, and in turn, the people that came before the people that you’re portraying.”
“So in Ned, as a boy, I just thought Australia was this great fun place, where everyone was just really sporty and the sun was out,” MacKay continued. “But you kind of go, ‘Okay, but now having an understanding of the way that that country was built, there is a lot of hardship and there is a lot of sadness that is sort of as the coming to terms with that, has brought about some of what we’ve deemed best about that country, perhaps, in the sense is the humor and the gallows sense of humor is because a lot of the people who went there came there under very dark circumstances.’ That can’t be forgotten, so, I don’t know, I think that’s what I like most about playing people throughout history is kind of seeing how their culture informs what is a human and what is animal about people and seeing how that reflects upon the times with which we live.”
True History of the Kelly Gang is set to hit digital platforms and VOD on Friday!