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George Mackay on the Bloody Punk Rock Ethos of True History of the Kelly Gang

The 1917 star gives another grueling, dynamic performance.

George Mackay is having a moment. After breaking onto the scene with 2016’s excellent Captain Fantastic, the British actor starred in last year’s grueling Oscar-winning film 1917. Mackay’s performance in that film was something of an endurance challenge, as he was running, climbing, and fighting his way via long epic tracking shots.

But that experience proved to be great training for his latest film, True History of the Kelly Gang, a visceral punk rock interpretation of the life of Australian legend Ned Kelly. Based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Peter Carey, True History follows Kelly’s life from his impoverished, isolated childhood to his rise as a violent folk hero.

Director Justin Kurzel (Macbeth, The Snowtown Murders) delivers a film that captures the inescapable brutality and violence of Ned’s upbringing. Essie Davis stars as Kelly’s force-of-nature mother in a raw departure from her best-known role as Mrs. Fisher in Mrs. Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (she is also married to Kurzel).

They are joined by strong supporting performances from Russell Crowe, Nicholas Hoult, and Charlie Hunnam. But its Mackay’s performance as Ned Kelly that brings the film to life. In a bruising performance, Mackay brawls, screams, and leads a makeshift army. He dominates the film with his physicality, while allowing Kelly’s vulnerability to show through in a riveting performance.

We got the chance to talk to Mackay about preparing for the intense role, the challenges of embodying Ned Kelly, and whether or not he’ll be content to just sit and make a sandwich in his next films.

The Mary Sue: What kind of preparation did you do to get into the mindset of Ned Kelly?

George Mackay: This film is the most research and prep I’ve ever done for a project. When I got the role, Justin [Kurzel] sent this email that just said in capital letter “TO DO”, … and it was first thing, pages of Australian films to watch, Australian cinema to help me understand the culture, the attitude, the humor, and there was another page of music to listen to and artists, a lot of punk music, all Australian, some indigenous music, some more folky … and just to absorb the attitude and the culture.

Then there was a reading list of history books, of colonial history, of historical texts about Ned Kelly the man himself, and images of [Irish MMA fighter] Connor McGregor, and an image of a rock climber, where you could see every muscle in his back. That was the kind of physical transformation he wanted me to do.

Then there was another page of basically things he wanted me to do: Justin writes these manifestos for all of his cast, like work on a cattle station, horse ride, write every day as Ned, as myself, this man is a wordsmith, he’s trying to articulate himself, so just write, write, write. Poems, short stories, read lots of poetry … and I lived with Justin and Essie for a wee while, I worked at a farm in Australia, it was just this amazing diving-in process … the biggest bit of research was, he said, “I see the Kelly gang as a punk band,” so he booked us a gig in Melbourne and we had to write and perform songs in dresses in a bar in Melbourne! All of these things at once and the commitment it takes to do all these things kind of informed so many things about Ned, so much of the texture of it and the energy of it is entwined in little moments.

TMS: What was it like working with a husband and wife team to make this film?

GM: It was great … I actually lived with Justin and Essie for a little while in Tazmania, and they were very sweet to let me into their family home. It didn’t really feel like a husband and wife duo, they respect each other so much, obviously they love each other as husband and wife, but they also, Essie said, they just really dig each other’s work. They just really admire the other as a maker, as a creator, as a professional. So it was just like watching two people at the top of their game working together. Essie is such a magnificent actress, and such an amazing human and such an amazing woman, it was really genuinely inspiring watching her on set.

TMS: It seems like such an intense shoot, and an intense film to watch. Did you have trouble going back to normal life once the film was finished?

GM: Yeah, to be honest. It’s the most immersive experience I ever had on a project, and it’s a really profound feeling when you sort of feel yourself becoming a role, and you start thinking as that person. The physical attachment too, when you’re the one doing it, when your skin becomes the costume you never leave it, and the feeling it takes to get that skin is yours and yours only. And there’s good and bad to it as well … it’s tricky to come back from it, but it’s a genuine joy to have the opportunity, and be asked and inspired to go that far into it, it is an amazing film too.

TMS: So after this grueling and intense shoot, as well as the demanding 1917, are you now looking for a film where you can make a sandwich or sit in a bar, or something less physical?

GM: Not so much! I was about to start filming a film [before the COVID-19 outbreak] a film called Wolf directed by Nathalie Biancheri, about a young man who believes he is a wolf. Working out the animal physicality is wonderful .. so no sandwiches yet!

True History of the Kelly Gang is available on Digital and On Demand on April 24th. The film will also be playing at a handful of drive-in theaters across the country, and exclusively in the LA area at the Mission Tiki 4 Drive-In in Montclair.

(image: IFC Films)

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Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.