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By Anna Ceravolo

Interview initially published in Crash #80 (Summer 2017)

London-based actor George Mackay has received top billing in several productions in 2017. His passion for acting first came to light at the tender age of ten years old, when he got his first role in Peter Pan. Next, he continued to develop his unique talent by acting in a series of indie films. But it was in 2016 that he earned his breakout roles alongside Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic and James Franco in the series 22.11.63.

Tell us about yourself, your journey, and where you come from.

My name is George MacKay, and I come from London. I have always grown up here, and am enjoying finding out more about my home city everyday I live in it.

How did you start acting? Tell us about your debut and your drive to become an actor?

I always loved drama, stories, and make believe, be it watching, listening, or taking part in playing them. I did drama at school and played with friends in my own time. I got my first acting job when I was 10 years old. I was at school when a casting lady named Shaheen Baig came to look for boys to be Lost Boys in a film they were making of Peter Pan. I went along to the workshop audition and then a number of readings, and then eventually got the part of Curly in Peter Pan. Two other boys from my school were cast as Slightly and Tootles, too. I had such an amazing experience making that film, and having got an agent during that process, my family and I asked if there was any more applicable auditions that came in, would she please put me up for them. I was very lucky to work throughout my time at school and to do so without the pressure of seeing acting as a “job,” or depending upon it in any way other than the joy the experience gave me. I was rather spoilt with the opportunities I had and the sets that I was able to be a part of, whilst still spending most of my time at school and being able to do my education properly, too. It was when I left school that I committed fully to being an actor, after a period out of work. It was a combination of working independently as a young adult on projects and going to work on my own that gave me experiences that cemented my desire to do this always: the social experiences of working on a set, playing my first lead role as Tommo in Private Peaceful, being on set all the time, and the sense of ownership that involvement and responsibility gave me over my work, and working with actors such as Eddie Marsan, who are such expert craftsmen. I was really inspired to actively put myself to learning more as I worked. It was as much about learning how people worked as actors, and that there was room for so much more than I ever thought before in how you approach fulfilling your role, as part of a team, as well as telling the story and creating a character.

What do you get from acting and what can you bring to others?

I think a big part of what I get from acting is simply the doing, without meaning it in a flippant sense. Right now this is what I do, and I have become comfortable in saying that. Right now whilst I am young and looking for what it is that I do or am. It is a way of defining myself. I think that can be unhealthy – to define yourself by what you do – if it is purely your job. But that is just a personal thought. And I think it is something that I am learning about. I’d love to be a dad one day. But right now, what I’m seen to be doing is acting. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning a lot of the time, even if it is to then go to work and learn about a story that champions not missing out on life by working too much. I think acting has given me the impetus to try and work out why people do and say what they do, and that I am truly grateful for. It has made me read more. It has become a framework in understanding the world via stories, and taking part in those stories has taught me so much. For better or for worse it’s made me enjoy analyzing stuff. What I think it can bring to others are stories that you can connect to and find yourself in. Stories that make you question behavior and, consequently, make you look to understand why people and things are how they are.

What makes you decide to be part of a production? What are your motivations? What are you looking or aiming for as a person and human being?

Firstly I am very thankful to have the opportunity to work: any opportunity to work I am grateful for. What draws me to projects are a mixture of a personal draw and broader draw. I want to be part of stories that are part of a present social conversation, and that is more important than my role in them personally. In that case, as in any case actually, but especially with projects that have a social purpose far greater than my own desire to play a certain character in a certain way, my desire is to be a part in serving that project in any way I can. Outside of that, I am drawn to projects for the learning experience I think they will give me, be that exploring something I feel connected to personally in the material, or learning about a subject I had no idea about before. That learning can be the subject matter, but is actually predominantly learning a different way of performing, like doing a stage play or collaborating with a director whose work I really admire. Most important is always the story. You are always in service to the story, and so therefore that takes precedence.

You are a young actor but already have an interesting background… When you start the process of building a character, what are the things you think about? How do you get into your character? For example, Aaron in For Those in Peril (2013), for which you won Best Film Actor at the Scottish BAFTA Awards.

The process of building a character changes with each character and story as there are different things asked of you by each one. The context of that character is always important, and I feel understanding them via that is very helpful. Where they grew up, how they speak, what they do, what’s happened to them before the story begins – all that informs how they move, talk, and express themselves, and I enjoy trying to suss that out. I don’t know if I will be able to understand or get across how they think without doing it myself. And so understanding how their context shapes them adds levels to them, which hopefully hides me trying to convincingly get across what they are thinking. With Aaron in For Those in Peril, I had the best time with Paul experimenting and playing. Aaron is the lone survivor of a fishing boat accident, and he believes his older brother, who was on the boat with him, is still alive out at sea. He believes finding him and bringing him back will make everything better again. It’s a very clear logic, and everything around that logic is what makes things sad or dangerous. To Aaron it is simple. It’s why he thinks this that is more complex. So Paul and I just worked with varying degrees of how to show Aaron’s logic, and that came down to Paul’s writing and how we filmed the scenes. For scenes in which Aaron was on his own, and we knew the action would only be a few seconds in the final film, we would do a few very long takes to explore varying levels of that repeated action. The safety of knowing only a few seconds would be used, made us both comfortable to try things we would have shied away from otherwise. Paul would give really clear direction, too, that you could also interpret any way you want. Like during one scene with his older brother’s ex-girlfriend Jane, Paul said, “Scare her.” That is so clear, yet you can take it in so many different directions. And that was such a joy to shoot. Paul made me feel like such a central part of the project and really fearless, because his logic was so strong – like Aaron’s. Working with Kate Dickie was such an amazing part of that process, too, and getting to play scenes with her was really fantastic. She was so completely in the world of the scene always, and her giving nature as a human, and as an actress, meant the whole set was comfortable being open with each other in trying to get across the story as best we could. It was a really collaborative production.

I guess sometimes you can have a hard time getting into a character’s mind… What is your process for finding what’s inside that mind? For example, the character development for Tim in Bypass (2014) is very interesting and radical, or Tommo in Private Peaceful (2013) who struggles between his love for his family and his homeland…

What is inside the mind, and what and how it comes out, I think comes back to something that fascinates me – Nature vs Nurture. Duane, who directed Bypass, taught me a lot about that. With the nature of his work, he wanted everything to be as natural as possible. In his previous work he had worked mainly with people who had not acted before. And on Bypass he wanted to experiment with different processes of acting to have more control over creating something that was consciously created, but still felt very real. He encouraged me to spend time doing the things Tim would do often: handling money, riding his bike (even getting off and on it quickly), unzipping the bag he worked from. All of this was in an effort to make certain physical reactions second nature, and that helped me to understand that people can work like that emotionally, too. I think Duane cast me because he thought I had a personal affinity to Tim and how he thought. And the nature of shooting – doing scenes numerous takes and being in Tim’s head a lot – meant that the two worlds blurred into one somewhat. It was Duane who helped me to understand muscle memory in a psychological sense. With Tommo, again I felt very close to the part, and I could find strong parallels in my own life between him and myself. Therefore having a sense of things in nature, again it was about understanding the context he lived in and had grown up in, and how that nurtured what was already within him: that part of the world, that time, and how that informed the way in which the feelings both him and I share come out purely as him. All of this is easier to look back on though. At the time of doing this, I think the process was a little less articulated. It was Pat and Duane who steered me in each film to get across what we ended up with.

What has been the most challenging aspect of acting in movies throughout your career?

I think the most challenging aspect is to balance yourself and life when you are working away and intensely with new people. They become your family, that world becomes your world. That is not a bad thing, and I feel it is important to throw yourself into that whilst there. But it can be a little discombobulating when you come back home. It’s just an ongoing process of working out where your roots are, and if they need to be put down, or if you just take them with you. Like lots of things in life, when we are blessed with anything nonessential, it’s worth becomes relative to how much meaning you put into it. And I’m just trying to keep tabs on what is most important and what to pour myself into the most.

Lately you have been part of two great productions: Captain Fantastic (2016), written and directed by Matt Ross, and the miniseries 11.22.63 (2016), based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by Kevin Macdonald… Tell us about the inspirations, the breakthroughs, and the challenges of playing in those two productions?

I have been very lucky to be involved in these productions. 11.22.63 was my first experience in a television mini-series. And it should be said also that there were a number of different directors as well as Kevin across the series: some doing single episodes, some doing two or three. It was so exciting reading each episode and having the story unfold in that manner, with a cliffhanger almost every quarter of an episode. Bridget Carpenter, and all the writers involved in creating the series, and of course Stephen King with his book, did an amazing job of taking to conspiracy theories and entwining them with fictional drama. The whole thing is orchestrated to keep you on edge, so it was a thrill and a pleasure to read and be a part of. I played Bill Turcotte in the series, and he was the only character who was created for the series. He has his roots in a character who appears in the original book, but that man is in his forties, and leaves the story much faster than Bill in the series. Bill was a storytelling device created by Bridget to ask the questions that Jake (James’s character) asks himself in the book’s internal monologue, as well as asking questions that the audience would ask in terms of plot holes as the story unfolds. In transferring the narrative from a novel to a TV series, Bridget needed to tell it slightly differently, and that is why Bill was created. I was very lucky that in doing so, Bridget gave Bill a fantastic arc of his own. And it was a real pleasure to get to be a part of Stephen King’s world, as well as to have the freedom to make him my own, informed by but also independent of the source material. I listened to a lot of bluegrass music whilst we were shooting. It was a real honor to be a part of Captain Fantastic. Not only because of the group of people who made it, but because of all that I learned in doing so. Matt is such an eclectic and fair man, and he encouraged us all to experience all that the family did in the film. We went on a two-day survival trip, slept together as a family in a hut we built made of ferns. We learned how to track, how to start a fire with a bow drill. We read a lot and learnt about the world’s political systems… We were healthy. It was through the learning that that story encouraged that I questioned, explored, and altered how I live my life now.

Captain Fantastic gave people the opportunity to have a different perception of our society and way of living… Do you consider fashion, consumer goods, and technologies to be superficial, in that they are unnecessary to our well-being?

Captain Fantastic is a film about balance, and I think Matt presented a very fair argument for both the positive and negative aspects of either extreme. I think fashion and technology and consumerism are an integral part of how all cultures operate. But I think that we have become too extreme. I think that that extremity is in correlation with the demand for it. But the tricky thing with always progressing is that whatever the subject of that progression, that rise becomes more and more extreme as naturally it tries to outdo itself. It’s evolution, just as with clothes, or technology, or noise, or anything. The trouble is – and I feel I am guilty of this, too – is that so much of that progression is inspired by competition. And when you are competing against something else you cannot see outside of that race. And while the focus of that race breeds extraordinary feats of achievement that can be positive, usually that progression is at the detriment of something else, too. I think fashion and technology are certainly worthwhile. I just think that we all must be aware of balance, and to ask ourselves that for one thing to rise, what must be falling simultaneously?

What did you hope your audience would come away with after they watched Captain Fantastic?

It’s hard to answer that without being somewhat aware of what people’s reactions to it have been already, and I don’t want to just cherry pick the good ones. But I hope that if and when people see the film, it will make them realize the beauty and strength of family, and that what happens in the world is an extension of attitudes we hold personally – so to take care and be kind with both. I hope it makes the person watching it think about what they are close to and how that reverberates.

Now tell us about your upcoming projects in 2017: Ophelia, directed by Claire McCarthy, Where Hands Touch, directed by Amma Asante, and Marrowbone, directed by Sergio G. Sanchez.

Marrowbone is a film directed by Sergio G. Sanchez. He is the writer of The Orphanage and The Impossible, and this is the first feature film that he is directing. It is the story of an English family on the run from their past, as they have relocated to rural America. I know that is not much information about it, but it is a film full of mystery and therefore very difficult to describe without spoiling it. We had an amazing time making it, and I think Sergio and all involved have created something truly beautiful. So I hope that people will support it. Where Hands Touch is a film written and directed by Amma Asante. It is the story of a bi-racial German girl, Leyna, living in Germany towards the end of the Second World War. It is a story of identity. It explores whether who you are is defined by what you feel inside, or whether you are defined by your context. It is about the struggle to take ownership of the self. I play Lutz, a Hitler youth boy who has built himself upon an ideal, and he and Leyna fall in love. Ophelia is a film directed by Claire McCarthy, and it is a reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet seen from Ophelia’s point of view. What I feel this story offers is, where the original play focuses predominantly on the psychology of one man, by taking that same story and framework and seeing it through a female character’s eyes, you see the workings of society and a broader picture of all that is going on. I play Hamlet.

What would you like to do next in your professional or personal life?

I would like to continue exploring and learning to strike a balance between life and work, while understanding how they entwine and how to implement that understanding and offer a positive contribution.

Interview by Anna Ceravolo.

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Burberry – Black wool jumper, white long shirt, trousers and shoes

Burberry – Black wool jumper, white long shirt, trousers and shoes

Burberry – Black wool jumper, white long shirt, trousers and shoes



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