How a Surprise Punk Rock Gig Prepared George MacKay for 'True History of the Kelly Gang'

George MacKay attends the Virtuosos Award presentation - Getty-H 2020
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
The '1917' breakout also reflects on the World War I film’s most arresting moment and his brief flirtation with 'Dunkirk.'

With True History of the Kelly Gang, George MacKay joins the company of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger as the latest actor to play Ned Kelly, the infamous Australian outlaw from the 19th century. Along with 1917 and Captain Fantastic, Kelly is yet another physically demanding role for MacKay, who was also tasked with portraying the complex psychology of the volatile bushranger. MacKay credits Kelly for providing him the stamina he’d need to shoot 1917 several months later, and while 1917’s Lance Corporal Schofield was the more physical of the two roles, Kelly’s physical and emotional demands took a greater toll on MacKay.

Since the Kelly Gang reminded director Justin Kurzel of a punk rock band, he requested something rather unusual to prepare MacKay and his castmates for their gang roles.

“When we came to prep as a whole team, we then formed a [punk] band and played a gig in a bar in Melbourne,” MacKay tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It wasn’t billed as anything to do with the film; we just played a gig at a bar. I think they’re actually trying to release the songs — because two of the songs are in the final film — during the boxing match and in the end credits. We recorded them live the day after we finished shooting.”

After his widely praised performance as Lance Corporal Schofield in Sam Mendes’ 1917, MacKay is now opening up about another audition that could have easily upended his eventual turn as Schofield.

“Yes! [I did audition for Dunkirk],” MacKay recalls. “At the point with which I did, there was no role specified. It was just a very brief first-round audition.”

In a recent conversation with THR, MacKay elaborates on the exhaustive preparation he did for Kelly Gang, his first reaction to “The Night Window” sequence in 1917 and auditioning for Dunkirk.

How’s everything with you and yours right now?

Yeah, not too bad. All considering, we’re all well, thank you.

Between True History of the Kelly Gang and 1917’s various commitments — such as six months of rehearsal and awards season — it seems like you’ve been working non-stop since the summer of 2018. Does it feel strange to be stagnant all of a sudden?

It’s funny — if you mean in the context of now with what the world is going through — not so much. Either consciously and unconsciously, we’re so in touch with our environment and what our surroundings are, and the fact that everyone is stopping — other than our health services and essential workers — kind of lessens that feeling, personally. There’s just this thing that’s bigger than all of us. In a sense, as much as the literal work has stopped in a lot of ways, occupation and work is a goal for a greater thing, and we all have this greater thing now, which we’re all participating in. So, it doesn’t feel too strange right now. Outside of the COVID-19 situation, it is funny in a sense because I’m appearing to be busy, but actually, it’s the work that’s suddenly being received by others. The work that I did happened such a long time ago, and that’s always the funny thing when you work on something and it comes out a wee while later. But, I’m looking forward to getting back to work when everything starts moving again.

I thought Schofield would forever be your most physical role, but sure enough, Ned Kelly gave him a run for his money. I know you played Ned first, but which character put you through the wringer the most?

Genuinely, I couldn’t have done 1917 without Ned. They were different, but I think the experience of Ned gave me a stamina which I didn’t have beforehand. And I wouldn’t have been able to do 1917 without that stamina. Also, I think my interpretation of Schofield was so informed by the experience of shooting The Kelly Gang in the way that by the end of shooting Ned Kelly, I was so emotionally and physically tired. In the last few weeks, when I was speaking to my family at home or some of my work colleagues on set, I remember thinking about this feeling of “I want more than anything to talk about this because I really missed my home, but if I do, I’ll unravel. And if I unravel here, I won’t be able to put myself back together, and I won’t get the job done.” Quietly holding yourself — but knowing that if you stepped outside of that for a minute, you might not get back to it — I felt that profoundly. It was only a few weeks after getting home that I auditioned for 1917, and the first scene I auditioned with was that scene where Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is questioning Schofield about his family and going, “Why didn’t you just take it home? What about this? What about that?” And Schofield can’t talk about it for fear of unraveling and not putting himself back together. 1917 was probably the more physical, literally, out of the two, but I think I was more wrung out by the end with Ned. I learned the stamina that was required for 1917, which meant that if we had to, we could keep going. By the end of Ned, I don’t think I could’ve done another week.

What steps did you take to get into the complicated headspace of Ned Kelly?

It was such a wonderful experience. It’s the most research and prep work I’ve done on a job. I felt so hungry at the time to commit myself to a project and commit myself to Justin [Kurzel], who offers you the opportunity to commit. When I got the role, Justin sent this email that was titled “To do,” and there was a page of Aussie cinema to watch in order to understand the culture, humor and style. Then, there was a page of Aussie music — a lot of punk music — to again understand culture and tone. Then, there was a reading list of colonial history and Ned Kelly’s history. … There was also a page of things he wanted me to do, and that was work on a station, chop wood, ride horses, write every day as Ned and change my physicality to look different. I lived with Justin and Essie (Davis) for a wee while, and I went to Ireland twice to meet people and go to places that were relevant to the Kelly history, Then, when we came to prep as a whole team, we then formed a band and played a gig in a bar in Melbourne. It was just the most eclectic, all-consuming process I’ve ever had. You just throw all of those into the melting pot, and then the process of playing the scene distills them to what the performance and the final piece became. It was basically a lot of things that helped inform the performance and the character.

Out of curiosity, did any footage of you and your castmates’ punk rock show make it onto YouTube?

(Laughs.) I don’t think it made it online. No one would’ve known who we were. It wasn’t billed as anything to do with the film; we just played a gig at a bar. I think they’re actually trying to release the songs — because two of the songs are in the final film — during the boxing match and in the end credits. We recorded them live the day after we finished shooting, and I think they liked the recordings. So, they’re going to offer them up to some French label or something like that. It’s completely outside of the film, but they’re going to offer them up and see if we can make a little EP.

An English actor recently admitted to me that she had a difficult time learning an Irish accent, and as an American, I found that quite surprising. I know your father is Australian, but was an Australian accent more challenging than people might think for an Englishman like yourself?

It kind of was to be honest. I do Australian quite a lot — at least with my dad — but it’s always spoof Australian. It’s always a joke and really broad...

Crocodile Dundee?

Yeah, it’s a joke. So, to then take yourself seriously when doing it and getting the intricacies and the naturalism of it — especially when you’re there and you don’t want to get rumbled by everyone that you’re working with — was hard actually. I worked with an amazing dialect coach called Jenny Kent who was so helpful, and just being there was so brilliant. Everyone was very supportive as I’d do it every time I was on set. Speaking with everyone on set was my way of practicing, and everyone was very giving in allowing me to do that.

Have you always been able to contort your back like Ned does before that boxing match?

(Laughs.) I think so. From Captain Fantastic, I started doing a lot of yoga, and I’ve kept the yoga up since. That was a very physical role as well, and we all physically transformed. But, one of the things that didn’t make it into the final version of The Kelly Gang was my adult Ned felling a tree. At one stage of the script, before the boxing match, it was another version of that opening shot of my adult Ned. So, I went to Tasmania and learned how to chop wood with a local axeman. It’s extraordinary when you’re throwing the ax — and I’m doing it while I’m on the phone. It’s a much more balletic, stretching movement than I ever understood it to be. So, we were working out the sort of dances or contortions that Ned could be doing to warm up. Another huge reference for the character was Conor McGregor, and a lot of what they [MMA fighters] do before a fight is actually really bizarre looking. It’s entwined with this idea that nothing scares a man like crazy than if you turn up to a fight in a dress, because no one knows what to do with you. I wanted that in this opening image of Ned that he was this sort of reptilian beast; he was so many things at once — this kind of animal reptile man. There was that one version where it was as if he was chopping wood in this warmup dance, but then, that turned into him just resting and folded over. That opening image is a metaphor for the man. You could say that he’s broken by his experience, and he wears his upbringing. The first time you see him he is both crippled and strangled by his past, and that is encapsulated in that upside-down image. 

You and Thomasin McKenzie are two of the most highly regarded young actors right now. How’d you take to working with her?

Oh, Thomasin’s amazing. She’s such an amazing actor and such a beautiful, peaceful woman as well. I felt very connected, comfortable and inspired working with Thomasin. It was a real privilege.

A major gun fight in the film uses strobe lights for psychological effect. What was that process like?

Yeah, Ari Wegner, our DP, and Justin came up with this idea that it was going to be this fever dream. There’s this psychedelia to the whole thing and this nightmarish disorientation. Not hiding the strobe gives it this contemporary, almost club punk, slightly euphoric, psychedelic, nightmarish feeling to it. I think there’s another film that Nick Cave wrote; it’s a beautiful yet brutal film called The Proposition. It’s not the same, but there’s an amazing scene where one set is lit by the sun coming through bullet holes in a tin shed. I think that informed the strobes. It’s this reworking of the truth of the history where the period costumes that the police were wearing were these black rain macs [ponchos], which were perfect and correct for the period. But, when it got to that part of the shoot and the scene, Alice Babidge, our costumer designer, and Justin changed them all up so they were hi-res silver. So, in the strobes, they popped like strobes in themselves. It was so disorienting, especially to these guys who are high, mad and losing it with this situation. That’s where the lighting and the costuming reflect this idea of reappropriating the history.

One of the most rousing and cinematic sequences of 2019 was 1917’s “The Night Window” set piece. Can you reflect on the first time you watched the locked footage with Thomas Newman’s mesmerizing score over it?

It was very emotional, actually. Often, when you watch something you’re involved in, you watch it from a very objective point of view with different memories and experiences than an audience member who doesn't know what they’re going to look at. I was very, very moved because, in doing that scene, my understanding is that Schofield is in the pits. Physically and emotionally, he’s almost as low as he gets because of what he’s been through; it’s a bit like in The Kelly Gang where he’s passed through into this dreamscape and doesn’t know if he’s dead or not. He has no sense of time or place. In the performing of it, I always thought he’s in this dreamscape because he’s at his absolute emotional and physical low. So, Thomas Newman, the beauty, inspiration and courageousness of that music, I found myself feeling really emotional because you’re just watching a man doing all he can to continue. That very simple fact of just keep on keeping on, coupled with the beauty of that score, I remember saying to Sam [Mendes] that you suddenly in that moment think, “He might make it, he might make it.” When I did that scene, I was thinking, “I can’t make it, I can’t make it,” as the character, and I just thought that was so masterful of Sam to offset those images and emotions. The understanding of the inside of the story with the understanding of the outside of the story was just so beautiful, and it really struck me because I didn’t expect it at all.

Out of curiosity, did you also audition for Dunkirk like every other young actor in the U.K.?

Yes! At the point with which I did, there was no role specified. It was just a very brief first-round audition.

As cool as it would’ve been to see you in Dunkirk, I’m glad it didn’t preclude you from landing 1917.

Yeah, it’s just where you end up. It’s that kind of thing. I loved Dunkirk, as well. I thought it was a stunning piece of cinema.

To conclude on a lighter note, Ned Kelly didn’t have a high opinion of donuts, but what about George MacKay?

(Laughs.) To be honest, I don’t like donuts. I’ve never had a whole donut before. I never had a sweet tooth as a kid. I’m more of a savory man myself.


True History of the Kelly Gang is available Friday on digital HD and VOD.