George MacKay on Life After the Oscars and Going Wild Post-Quarantine (Exclusive)

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George MacKay
Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images

Just over two months ago, George MacKay was outfitted in a designer tuxedo and sitting at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood for the Academy Awards, where his film 1917 was up for 10 Oscars. (It eventually won three.) It was the culmination of the 28-year-old's first awards season gauntlet, a series of ceremonies that proved to be both as monumental as he'd imagined and also...not.

"I remember going and that day I'd had a bit of a dodgy tummy," MacKay remembers, "and thinking, like, there's Tom Hanks, there's Greta Gerwig, there's Quentin Tarantino. And looking at all these people that you've had on your bedroom wall or admired their work for so long and going, 'Well, if I've got a dicky tummy and I'm here, they could have a dicky tummy...' It kind of humanizes everyone. You go, 'Oh, they're just people.' That was quite a lovely thing actually."

Now, like so many others around the world, MacKay is in quarantine, sheltering at his family's home on the Isle of Wight in England and riding out the pandemic with his parents and younger sister. "I really can't complain," he tells ET by phone. "I'm with my family and we've got a garden, so our situation is a good one, all things considered. I'm ticking on grand, so to speak."

He's finding himself with more time to read and catch up on shows -- right now he's halfway through The Wire -- though he is not much for binge-watching. ("I always think I need to work harder at watching more telly.") And he makes lists. "I'm quite anal with the schedule of, like, 'Do this for an hour, do that for an hour, have your lunch,'" he rattles off.

Today, he's doing press for a new movie, which gives him a proper schedule, though even the customary press tour feels a bit different in these times. "It's something like a novelty. Like, 'A person! Conversation!'" MacKay laughs. "So I've been letting everyone in the household know that I've got to be on the phone this afternoon for very serious work. I'm being a work snob."

True History of the Kelly Gang, George MacKay
IFC Films

The film is The True History of the Kelly Gang, which in lieu of a theatrical run is now available on demand and in select drive-in theaters. MacKay stars as Ned Kelly, the legendary outlaw of the outback and Australia's answer to Robin Hood. The role is a departure from any character he'd played before, but more so, couldn't be further from the polite, thoughtful man he is off screen. (His father is an Aussie, though, and was especially proud that his son booked the role.)

To prepare, MacKay first traveled to Ireland, where Kelly's ancestors hail from, to study him in a historical sense. Then, months ahead of filming, he made his way down to Australia to immerse himself in the bush lifestyle. There, director Justin Kurzel tasked his star with an unconventional final bit of homework: Start a punk band.

Kurzel's take on the 19th-century bushranger and would-be folk hero would be a crossdressing, swaggering anarchist, like punk icons of yore, so he booked MacKay and his co-stars, Earl Cave, Sean Keenen and Louis Hewison, a gig in Melbourne. The boys named their band after a certain masturbatory aid. "I can't remember who it was that kind of named it first," MacKay sheepishly laughs.

"We just thought it would be sort of funny and crude," he says. "We stayed in this outhouse on this bloke's farm [during prep] and I think it was a kind of crude camping joke." Two of the songs the band wrote, "Desperation" and "Everywhere," wound up in the film.

True History itself is as absurd as it is nihilistic, as amusingly surreal as it is brutally violent, with an eroticism that runs throughout -- making it feel like any two people could start making out at any moment -- as it tracks Ned's descent into cop-killing infamy. Having descended the rabbit hole of becoming Ned Kelly, MacKay adopted his version of method acting as he set out filming.

"Without sounding too kind of pretentious, that's the sort of exciting point, is when things get a bit blurry," he explains. "Obviously, if someone said, 'George,' I'd turn around. It's not like you stop recognizing yourself. But your channels of expression start to be shorthanded to Ned, you start seeing things in a similar way that he does. And I think once that happens, the point is that you yourself aren't as aware of it."

Mainly, MacKay found, he wasn't spiraling into Ned's brutality or madness. He was just tired. "I remember thinking, I've only got the energy to do this now and I can't be hopping in and out as much as I'd like to. If I hop out of this, I'm going to unravel and I don't want to do that, so I'm just going to stay in it," he says, offering an analogy: "Like, if you're at the office and you've got a deadline, you go, 'Rather than go home and then come back tomorrow, I'll just stay here through the night and do it that way.'"

"You just kind of go, 'I'm not going to speak in Australian anymore...' And then like, 'I'll eat pasta.'"

The film, which also stars Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam and MacKay's acting idol, Russell Crowe (the two unfortunately share no scenes), wrapped in 2018, and he began the process of untangling himself from Ned. "Some things are very immediate," he pauses, then adds, "It's a bit discombobulating how immediately this thing that had been your life for so long goes."

"We were working out so much for that role and were very strict about everything, right down to what we ate and what we listened to and talking in the accent," he recalls, "and within a day, you just kind of go, 'I'm not going to speak in Australian anymore. I'll use my voice now.' And then like, 'I'll eat pasta.'"

Shortly after returning home to England, MacKay auditioned for the lead role in writer-director Sam Mendes' World War I drama and, after landing 1917, set about his preparation to play Lance Corporal William Schofield. "It allowed me to sort of slide out of one skin and into another," he says. Then there was the rave reviews and accolades, the awards shows, the statuettes of little gold men.

Today, he's George MacKay, sans any period trappings or methodology. Which isn't to say that he hasn't already begun mining the depths of his next persona. He was a week into rehearsals on a new project, director Nathalie Biancheri'sWolf, when the lockdown happened. Which has only given him more time to make his lists: research to undertake, books to read and prep work to do.

He plays a young man who believes he is a wolf in the film, a drama about a mental facility for people who self-identify as animals. "It's about nature versus nurture and who you are inside versus the skin you're in," MacKay explains eagerly. Ticking on as he may be right now, he is itching to jump back into work when life returns to normal, to be on set and howl into the great beyond. "I think it will be needed," he chuckles. "Some animal expression after all of this."

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