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George MacKay: “I don’t think I could have played my 1917 character without the experience of playing Ned Kelly”

(Image credit: Picturehouse)

George MacKay went straight from 1870s outback Australia to the First World War and was careful not to drop his rifle in between. The young British actor has been quietly impressing on our screens for over a decade but, thanks to his recent star turn in Sam Mendes’ technical marvel 1917, he’s finally getting recognised as the versatile leading man he is. 

Hot off the heels of an awards sensation, MacKay is already back in cinemas in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. The moody crime drama tells the story of Ned Kelly and his motley crew of outlaws. Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger have both played the role previously, so, naturally, MacKay felt no pressure at all... The actor joined the Inside Total Film podcast to discuss working with Kurzel and preparing for his most demanding role yet. 

Listen to the interview – Mackey starts at the 07.05 mark – or read an editorialised version below.

“The experience of making The True History of the Kelly Gang was so rigorous that the rigour that came with 1917, I felt, sort of matched fit,” Mackay told Total Film’s Matt Maytum. “I was actually talking about it with Justin just before, that emotionally, I don’t think I could have played Schofield without the experience of Ned.”

The experience of playing Ned Kelly was certainly formative for MacKay, as the actor explains how he always wanted to throw himself into a role: “What’s amazing about Justin is he offers the opportunity to really go in on stuff and really commit, and I was really hungry to do that myself, like a Daniel Day Lewis or something.” 

MacKay’s hunger was suitably satisfied in the leadup to shooting, as Kurzel gave him mountains of homework to prepare for the role. “He said ‘I want you to write every day as Ned – he’s a wordsmith, he’s trying to articulate himself – poems, plays, diaries, whatever it is write write write.’” The director also gave his star various punk albums and books on Australian history to help him understand Aussie culture and humour, all whilst having him learn to ride a horse.

The most significant way MacKay went ‘method,’ though, is a distinctly musical one. “When we were out there the biggest thing that he [Kurzel] said was ‘I see the Kelly gang as a punk band… I think they’re angry, ambitious, confused, excitable, youthful young men. So I want you to form a band and I booked you a gig in three weeks from now in a bar in Melbourne.’ So we formed a band!”

(Image credit: Universal)

MacKay lived in Australia for three months with Kurzel and costar Essie Davis, in which time he performed in his own punk rock ensemble. He continued: “Our main rehearsal was to get listening to each other and get sharing with each other; poems, lyrics, you know, put yourself out there, who’s singing, who’s playing guitar, who’s playing keyboard, who’s drums. Then we performed a gig in a bar, as a band. It was the most amazing experience, cause then you walk in the next day with this swagger like ‘we just played a gig!’” 

He even shares that some of the songs they wrote even made it into the film – all the more reason to get your tickets to this bold and compelling western, which is in cinemas now. Next up, MacKay is playing a young boy who believes he’s a wolf alongside Lily Rose-Depp in Nathalie Biancheri’s high-concept drama Wolf. We told you he was versatile.

True History of the Kelly Gang is in cinemas now.