George MacKay
Photo by Thomas Laisne

George MacKay: “You can’t dream up something you haven’t felt”

Short Profile

Name: George Andrew J. MacKay
DOB: 13 March 1992
Place of birth: Hammersmith, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

True History of the Kelly Gang is currently available on Digital and On Demand. Visit the film's website and click on Watch at Home for viewing options.

George, at what point in your life do you feel like you figured out who you are as a person?

I remember growing up and thinking, “At 16, you’ll know you are, and then at 18 you’ll be sure. And at 21 you’ll be married, and then at 24 you’ll have kids…” As an eight-year-old boy in school, I used to think those were the steps that I would take. But then as you grow up, and certainly for me now being in my late twenties, I look around at my friends who are older than me or my friends who are younger than me, and I think we’re all figuring out the same thing — what is real and what is true — just in a different context.

You’re questioning the truth?

I guess I have grappled with morality; what is right and what is wrong and why I understand those things to be those things. I mean, I have pretty clear and strong sense of what is right and what is wrong, and what my beliefs are but I think it wasn’t until I became an adult that I really started to go, “Oh, some people don’t believe the same thing.” Even if you don’t necessarily change your viewpoint, the fact that you understand that other people strongly oppose that viewpoint is a revelation in itself.

“I’ve become clearer on the things which mean most to me but I’m learning that it’s a constant moving thing.”

Those are the kind of ubiquitous issues we should all be exploring at some point.

I think they’re universal, but again, we ask them at different times, at different points in life, and for different reasons. For me, I think I’ve become clearer on the things which mean most to me but I also think I’m learning that it’s a constant moving thing. So while there are certain points in my life which are very clear to me as defining moments, I wouldn’t consider them as a full stop. I’d be slightly wary of considering them an absolute full stop. Ever! I think if you just say, “Right, that is it, nothing else,” there’s a beautiful clarity to that, but that’s also maybe a touch limiting.

What about who you are as an actor? Is that a different series of moments for you?

I think it goes hand in hand, so I haven’t figured that out either. I couldn’t point to a defining moment because, for me, it is part of the process. I think once you figure it out; it might mean that the search is gone. For me, it keeps developing with every role. All of those lessons I take and apply to the next film.

What kind of lessons are you talking about?

I remember quite clearly, I had a role when I was 19 in a film called Private Peaceful — it was the first lead role I’d had as a professional job and it was a small film, but being involved and feeling a sense of ownership over the work that I was doing, and a sense of responsibility to myself, to the character; feeling like I’m a member of the crew because I’m there all the time putting in the work… That was a moment where I really enjoyed it. I loved being part of that team. That’s something I’m always going back to: being part of a team that keeps changing with every job. So these days, films like 1917, or even the experience of playing Ned in True History of the Kelly Gang completely expanded my love of, approach to, and knowledge of acting. It is all sort of essential.

Can taking on a certain role also help you explore your own identity?

The thing is, acting is also pretend. I am trying to work out being balanced because you’re discovering things in a context that is an unreality, as much as it may be real to you in that moment. The beauty of acting is that it is done ultimately in a very safe environment, and therefore the consequences are just the consequences of the story. It’s pretend, but at the same time, you can’t dream up something that you haven’t felt beforehand. Those things might not have actually happened to you, but they will be rooted in some kind of experience. With Kelly Gang, I did feel this need to figure out what I want to do and who I’d like to be, and I think that is informed by your parents and your roots. And that was something that I felt quite prevalently when I auditioned for the role.

“Other than a real physical birth and death, the beauty of being human is all the in-between is just ephemeral. And the power of that is extraordinary!”

How come?

Something that I proudly based myself on was my father. My father is Australian, and with the film being based there and having these Celtic traditions… His background is one that I never actually knew because of the distance between our families, so the possibility of exploring myself via this character’s exploration of themselves, that just felt so right. And that’s coupled with the process, definitely. I was completely free and able to do that — and hungry to do that.

Would you say that playing all these different roles, everything from a soldier in WWI to an LGBTQ activist in the 1980s, also changes your view of the world?

I try not to think too much about myself. But of course it does, yeah! I think that 1917 really changed my worldview in terms of the quite simple distillation of the lengths that a human will go for what you root yourself in. It became quite clear to me what I root myself in. But I also think those kind of situations arise for every person differently, and any experience that makes you question everything — losing a job, finding a relationship, or ending a relationship — all of those milestones in your life.

Is it essential for films to have the kind of big messages that we experience with 1917?

No, it’s not essential. I think we need all kinds of films, we need all kinds of cinema and all kinds of stories. I think that also those messages are in all of us, you know? All of those thoughts and feelings, they just manifest themselves in different ways. Other than a real physical birth and death, the beauty of being human is all the in-between is just ephemeral. And the power of that is extraordinary! The power of love, the power of friendship, all of these things which don’t necessarily have that many physical tangible expressions… You know, you can’t touch friendship but you can feel it. You can’t touch love, but you can completely be moved by it. That’s what we’re made of — and that’s what stories are made of. You can’t touch them. There’s no hard or fast rule as to what is essential and what is not, I think we just have to trust that all of them are made up of degrees of whatever it is that we’re exploring.