Interview: George MacKay, star of Sunshine on Leith

George MacKay. Picture: Getty ImagesGeorge MacKay. Picture: Getty Images
George MacKay. Picture: Getty Images
George MacKay stars in two of this year’s most talked-about Scottish movies. Siobhan Synnot meets a Londoner with a bright future, both north and south of the Border

If accents speak louder than words, then you’ll be forgiven for assuming that George MacKay was a rising young Scots talent from the east coast. MacKay has three films coming out this month, and for two of them, he is the beating celtic heart. Yet until 2012, the nearest MacKay had been to Scotland was listening to Proclaimers songs. “My dad’s Australian,” says the 21-year-old Londoner, as he settles into a sparse Edinburgh room and chivalrously picks up the pen I’ve just dropped. “But I do have the MacKay tartan and without sounding like I’m being cheesy, I do feel like a Scot, having spent most of last year and a bit of this year working here.

“I love the way of thinking and the fact it’s a culture. And people in Scotland are definitely much friendlier than in London. Glasgow’s really friendly, with this impressive mix of real solidarity and identity that’s very personal.” His co-star Kevin Guthrie epitomises the attitude that MacKay enjoys. “He’s so proud to be Scottish, but his attitude isn’t, ‘I’m Scottish, so you can’t be here’ – it’s ‘I’m Scottish, come join’. It’s really inclusive, and it’s why I’m so proud to have some Scots in me.”

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MacKay even looks Scottish, with a raw bone structure reminiscent of Kevin McKidd in his Trainspotting days. Crucially, he also mastered two distinct accents for upcoming films; for For Those in Peril, of which more later, and Sunshine on Leith, where he plays the singing squaddie Davy, trying to settle back into Leith life accompanied by a jukebox of Proclaimers songs. “I knew the big hits beforehand,” he admits shyly, in a clear, bright voice that flattens all the vowels and throws the “r” away. “But I wasn’t familiar with the politics behind a lot of the album tracks. Then again, it made it a bit easier for me to appropriate the lyrics and shift them on to what we saying in the film.”

Another Londoner, director Dexter Fletcher, shot Sunshine on Leith in both Edinburgh and Glasgow with a mix of Scots and English, singers and non-singers. MacKay had only done backing vocals in an amateur band before bursting into 500 Miles but he has a pure light vocal (“trained by doing ooohs and ahs behind our singer”) and probably acquits himself a bit better than Peter Mullan.

“Oh no,” he says, feigning shock. “Peter is our Tom Waits!” The dancing was a little more difficult, he confesses, as well as dealing with the bone-chilling cold he encountered while filming a romantic duet on Arthur’s Seat. “That,” he says emphatically, “was my introduction to Bovril. And we went on to have a very serious relationship, me and Bovril.”

Through the first few auditions, MacKay was set to play Davy’s best pal Ally until Dexter Fletcher had a brainwave and asked Mackay and Kevin Guthrie to swap roles. “By then, I had fallen in love with Ally, so I was a bit ‘oh really?’ but it seems to have worked,” he says.

MacKay has been acting for over a decade, but his recent celtic connections have made 2013 a launchpad, a notion he’s still coming to terms with. No-one else in his family has acting experience although he’s from “a creative household”. His mother was a costume designer, while his father worked in lighting and stage management, before changing lanes to work for a design company.

At school in south-west London, a talent scout scooped him up and offered him his first job, as a Lost Boy in PJ Hogan’s 2003 movie version of Peter Pan. Aged ten, he was shipped out to Australia for almost nine months. “We got put in a make-believe forest, had training in sword fighting, worked on a full-sized pirate ship, and had two and a half hours of school a day.” He pauses and laughs. “That’s when I thought, ‘I want to be an actor.’”

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When he returned to full-time education, he carried on picking up jobs in TV dramas, and as Clive Owen’s eldest son in the family drama, The Boys Are Back. After passing his A Levels, he decided to audition for Rada, didn’t get in, but has few regrets. “While I was waiting for them to see me, everyone else was hitting themselves and shouting. I was the only one just sitting there.”

He’s hardly had time to sit still this year. Besides Sunshine on Leith, he can also been seen in How I Live Now, based on Meg Rosoff’s young adult bestseller, which casts MacKay as dreamboat in training – as MacKay’s younger sister pointed out when he told her, in confidence, that he was up for the part. “She was a huge fan and had read it several times, so I was a bit worried that she would think I wasn’t right for Edmond because he’s about seven years younger in the book. But really she was just very excited, and so I thought ‘well, if you are happy, then I’m happy.’”

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How hunky is Edmond? When Saoirse Ronan’s cranky American arrives up at his family home just in time for the start of World War 3, she first glimpses him rising out of the rural wilderness with a tame hawk and a remarkable jumper.

The jumper was MacKay’s idea: “The costume designer encouraged me to think about what he should wear, and what it says about him to the audience. And because Edmond is practical, he wears a jumper that used to be his mum’s, because it feels nice and it fits him. It’s a little eccentric to wear your mum’s pink jumper, but he doesn’t care what other people think and it’s a nice homely jumper. It roots him at home and shows his connection to his family.”

MacKay was filming with How I Live Now’s director, Kevin Macdonald – another Scot, as he quickly points out – when he recorded a video audition for a much smaller-scale project. “I ended up making these three films back-to-back, but it’s weird that they are all being released at the same time as well.”

For Those In Peril shot over six weeks in Gourdon, near Montrose, and showcases a melancholy naturalistic performance by MacKay as Aaron, the only survivor of a local fishing disaster, cast adrift by the village. MacKay is in almost every scene, including a few where he is dipped in the North Sea, and is eager to praise writer-director Paul Wright: “I had a really close relationship with Paul,” he says. “He really wanted to collaborate and encourage as much experimentation as possible. It made me feel involved.” Before filming began, Wright and MacKay spent several days alone together rehearsing the entire story, and the result is an intensely acted meditation on loss and grief.

The film also caused a small sensation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and you wonder how MacKay is coping with this sudden searchlight of press interest. “Well, I try not to read any of it. Reading nice stuff about you is lovely, but I know it’s going to be soul-destroying when you do something that everyone is tearing apart. My dad and I have been talking about this, and he says, ‘just treat it with ambivalence’.”

And does this down-to-earth talk of keeping his head mean he has a Plan B for a fallback career? “Well I found Dexter quite inspiring so maybe I’d like to try some writing and directing when I’m more experienced,” he says, thoughtfully. “But really I’m hoping the acting goes okay, or I’ll be pretty f***ed.”

• Sunshine on Leith and How I Live Now are in cinemas from Friday. For Those in Peril follows in November.