George MacKay pulls up a chair in the Reading Room of the Whitby Hotel in New York and sizes up the walls filled with rows upon rows of books. The British actor says “not enough” when asked if he’s a big reader, but when he has the time, he’s working through the classics. Of course, he’s polished off two World War I classics — With a Machine Gun to Cambrai and All Quiet on the Western Front — in preparation for his starring role in Sam Mendes’ wartime epic, 1917. He spots neither book on the shelves but explains why the latter particularly resonated with him.
“It’s a beautiful novel about a German soldier and the experience of being in the trenches, but it’s much more about the emotion of it all and what that war experience does to a young man,” MacKay says. “I think that’s what this film is about. It doesn’t pick sides.”
Just hours earlier on this cold New York day, the first public screening of 1917 wrapped at the DGA Theater near Carnegie Hall and received a rapturous response. As the film’s star, MacKay remains studiously mum on questions that consumed many stunned audience members: Was that a single, continuous shot, as it appeared? And if not, how many cuts were there?
“I don’t want to get off on a bad foot, but I couldn’t tell you,” he says as he pours himself a cup of tea and offers a cucumber sandwich from a tray of very British nibbles. “I think it’s important to hold that mystery. It was done in sequences, but the sequences were long.”
Indeed. Typically eight-plus minutes long, to be exact, with the camera almost never losing sight of MacKay. It’s an international introduction to the 27-year-old actor, who seemingly came out of nowhere — but who has been working steadily since adolescence. Now, he appears poised to become the next “It” Brit, joining a long line of U.K. phenoms from Eddie Redmayne to Daniel Kaluuya to Taron Egerton who can be entrusted to carry a major studio film.
Playing Lance Cpl. William Schofield in Universal’s $90 million epic, MacKay also happens to showcase perhaps the most physically demanding performance by an actor this awards season. He endured up to 39 takes per sequence that included everything from dodging a plane crash to being swept into a waterfall, all the while saddled by a uniform and rifle that weighed as much as a vacuum and without the benefit of multitudinous cuts. (The typical movie has about 1,000-plus of them, whereas 1917 probably has fewer than 20.)
“He acts with every fiber of his being, and it’s an incredibly accomplished physical performance that he makes look very, very easy,” says Mendes. “There’s not a lot of dialogue in the second half of the film, but to say he’s not acting would be absurd. It’s a very brave performance, unselfish, unself-conscious and unvain, which is exactly what George is as a person.”
Much of MacKay’s humble persona traces to his London roots, where he grew up as the older of two children.
“We were very blessed to have a very loving family,” he says. “I had a lovely childhood. My parents weren’t in the industry, but my mum was a costume designer before she had me and my sister, and my dad was a stage manager [then]. So they both had been in theater.”
Later, MacKay’s father worked for a design company unrelated to the world of theater, and his mother stayed at home before returning to the workforce as a Montessori nursery school teacher — a path his sister followed (she’s a teacher in London).
But MacKay’s theater alum parents exposed him to the arts, particularly ballet and modern dance, “which at the time was a bit boring,” he admits. But that introduction helped inform his later performances, including the one in 1917, which he describes as “like a dance” given the film’s one-shot illusion and because of the fluidity of his interactions with co-star Dean-Charles Chapman as well as Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner.
“I love exploring physicality in parts, and so much of that was being inspired by the stuff I soaked up as a kid,” he says.
At age 10, MacKay landed his first role, playing one of the Lost Boys in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 Universal movie Peter Pan. From there, he nabbed a supporting role alongside Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 2006’s The Thief Lord, based on Cornelia Funke’s best-selling children’s novel, and the lead in the three-part BBC drama Johnny and the Bomb that same year.
Despite the fast start, MacKay faced setbacks, receiving rejection notices from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, where his 1917 co-star Benedict Cumberbatch is now president.
“It was a good lesson,” he says. “Like, of course I wanted to get in, but if anything, it was an inspiration to open my eyes and ears more to any learning experience that came along in work. I’m going to listen to everyone more. I’m going to watch. I’m going to try stuff out. And that helped me loads. It also helped shape the choices in the work. Like, I actively tried to do more theater.”
His notable stage performances in London included starring at The Young Vic in the Eugene O’Neill coming-of-age comedy Ah, Wilderness! in 2015 and as the lead in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker a year later.
With his film choices, MacKay continued to expand his range: In 2014, he played a gay 20-year-old facing homophobia in ’80s Britain in Pride and a Nazi who falls in love with a biracial woman (Amandla Stenberg) in 2018’s Where Hands Touch.
But his breakout role came via director Justin Kurzel’s Australia-set Western True History of the Kelly Gang. The 2019 film — which co-stars Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult and Charlie Hunnam — made its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this year. It was acquired by IFC Films, which will release it in 2020 and mount a best actor campaign for MacKay.
“That film was probably the maddest experience I’ve ever had on a job,” he says — mad meaning rad. “We had four weeks’ rehearsal as a whole team before we began the shoot, and Justin basically booked us a gig in a bar in Melbourne. He said, ‘I see the Kelly Gang as a punk band. So you guys are going to write a punk set, you’re going to have a name. Come up with a band, with songs, and you’re going to play this gig in a bar, and no one’s going to know it’s got anything to do with the film.’ That was our rehearsal process,” he says of production that began in August 2018. “It got us listening to each other in a different way. And then a few days later, we walked on set with this punk attitude that we could do anything.”
Still, Kelly Gang was a year away from screening when MacKay auditioned for Mendes in September 2018, and he needed to channel some of that “do anything” brashness. He first taped an audition for casting director Nina Gold, who had worked with MacKay in 2013 on Dexter Fletcher’s Sunshine on Leith. The script was under lockdown, so MacKay could read only two scenes. He didn’t know if he was auditioning for the part of the protagonist or some random soldier.
“I remember reading these scenes and, even without context, going, ‘I know how I want to play this scene and I feel very close to it,’ which doesn’t always happen,” he explains. “And then I did a reading with Sam, and he explained the idea for the one shot and what that would entail. And then the for third one, Dean and I read together and Sam talked us through both [characters] and the sort of concept of what he was planning.”
But he left that third meeting unsure. He finally learned his fate while attending the Mendes play The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre in London. Coincidentally, his U.K. agent, Donna French, also was in the audience (MacKay is additionally repped by UTA). “I got a text [from her] at the interval saying, ‘Meet me after the show.’ And I thought it was just to say hello. So I saw her, and she went, ‘I’ve just had a call from Nina. You’ve been offered Schofield.’ And I went, ‘Yeah!’ and picked her up. Outside the National!”
If the audition process was nerve-racking, the grueling four months of rehearsals and 65-day shoot were nerve-detonating. Every sequence had to be memorized and paced down to the millisecond — not just the dialogue, but where exactly he and Chapman, who plays Lance Cpl. Tom Blake, were on the elaborately built set. Hit a trench corner too early or dodge a sniper’s bullet too late, and a lengthy take was compromised. At some point, “muscle memory” kicked in, says MacKay, and his theater experience paid off. “It was just like with the run of a play.”
But 1917 producer Pippa Harris says MacKay might be underplaying the insane degree of precision his performance required. She points to a sequence in a German bunker in which Schofield and Blake descend, followed by an explosion within a very confined space.
“The filming of that was extremely complicated because we had to move from an interior set where the actual explosion happened through a tunnel and out into daylight, which is obviously miles away in a different location,” she says. “Marrying that was very tricky, and the level of acting that we needed, much of which had to be live — we couldn’t add it in afterward. There is some CG in this sequence, but there was a lot of live rubble and debris falling onto George, and he made it feel seamless.”
As weeks on set turned into months, MacKay and Chapman struck up a friendship that continues to this day, helped by the fact that both live in London.
“Without George, I could not have done it. I’m being deadly serious,” says Chapman. “He is such an amazing actor. He brings 100 million percent with every single take he did. He’s such a hard worker, and the research that he put into this film, it blew me away. We got each other, we understood what we were doing, and we were in it together. That sort of bond, I think, translates onscreen. I’ll never break that friendship with him because we’ve been through a lot together.”
It’s not surprising that the first word that comes to mind when Chapman is asked to describe MacKay is “polite.” Mendes says he’s something of a throwback. “He’s an old-fashioned boy and in a way an old-fashioned actor,” the director explains. “He reminded me of an experience I had with Tom Hanks. He simply makes everyone feel better by his presence. Every day, he wants to be there, and he’s delighted to be doing what he’s doing.”
But will all those good manners disappear now that MacKay is basking in the 1917 glow? He insists that fans don’t even recognize him on the street.
“It happens rarely, but if someone comes up and says that they like your work, then that’s a wonderful thing,” he says, seemingly perplexed by the idea of looming fame. “It’s not a present reality, so I wouldn’t know how to comment on it.”
And staying (relatively) anonymous is just how MacKay likes it. For now, he’ll stick to his own quiet gym rather than work out at the tabloid-friendly place in Kensington where other young Brits like Egerton, Tom Holland and Kit Harington pump iron. And he won’t comment on his love life. “I’d prefer not,” he says. He barely concedes he has a dog before correcting himself: “My family’s got a dog. I don’t have a pet.” But there’s a reason for his reticence.
“As an actor, anonymity is more helpful for your work. I think the best actors disappear into what they do. And frankly, it’s easier to do that if you know less about what the root of it is,” he says.
As MacKay prepares to head out into the Manhattan cold, he plucks a scone from the tray to take with him for the road. Later this evening, he’ll participate in a 1917 Q&A, one of many lined up in the coming days on both sides of the country (Los Angeles is next) as well as on the other side of the pond. But there’s not a hint of weariness on display. He says he is always eager to discuss the making of the film. Just don’t ask him about the number of cuts. Or if he has a significant other.
“There’s still so much to kind of keep under wraps,” he says with a grin.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.