Interview: George MacKay

From Lost Boy to Ned Kelly, George MacKay talks to Janet Christie about his journey to leading man and his latest, supernatural drama, The Secret of Marrowbone

From Lost Boy to Ned Kelly, George MacKay talks to Janet Christie about his journey to leading man and his latest, supernatural drama, The Secret of Marrowbone

George MacKay is back in Edinburgh for the launch of his film The Secret of Marrowbone, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he’s been walking around the centre of Edinburgh, up the Royal Mile and back down along Princes Street, through the gardens to the hotel at the end.

Did he dance at all at the site of the mass dancing scene next to the National Gallery, reprising his role as Davy the singing squaddie in Dexter Fletcher’s Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith?

“No, I didn’t dance today,” he laughs.”It’s smaller than I remember. When we filmed it was filled with so many people it felt like a football pitch; we had tons of people in the shot, then a crew, then all the people watching. Aye.” The city is full of memories for the 26-year-old.

It’s where the schoolboy MacKay performed in Romeo and Juliet, “set in a mental hospital for people affected by love who had to re-enact the play every day”, and Macbeth, “based in a hotel, a bit Coen Brothers. We had an amazing time at the Fringe,” he says.

London-born and raised with striking blue eyes and wavy blond hair that he often pushes back off his forehead, his accent is peppered with ‘ayes’ and ‘wee bits’ that have stuck from filming north of the Border. As well as the 2013 hit musical Sunshine on Leith, the same year he made Mark Wright’s For Those in Peril. Filmed in Aberdeenshire, it saw MacKay win a Best Actor Bafta.

“And from being around Kev,” he says, referring to Scots actor Kevin Guthrie, who played his army buddy in Sunshine on Leith. “I was with Kev last night. He’s one of my best mates. And I’m a MacKay, though my dad is from Adelaide and my gran from Cork, but there must be some Scottish in there somewhere.”

MacKay is here to talk about The Secret of Marrowbone, the Gothic horror drama from director Sergio Sánchez, so layered with secrets that it encourages repeat viewings. MacKay plays the oldest of four siblings in 1960s Maine who have lost their mother then have to cope with a malevolent presence in their home.

“It’s a film that’s been made with a huge amount of effort and emotion and I’m so proud to be involved with it,” he says. “It was that level of complexity that made me want to go towards it.”

He was already intrigued by the title, at that point just Marrowbone before there was even a script. “When Sergio explained the concept, that it was a film with narratives within narratives to be explored I thought that was so fascinating I wanted to do it. Also, the pedigree of the people making it – Sergio wrote The Orphanage and The Impossible, and this was his first time directing, and Belén [Atienza] the producer, that team had made such brilliant work. Then when there WAS a script, it was just beautiful. It’s a really poetic film. It’s been billed as horror because there are scary bits in it and there’s an audience for that, but it’s not simply that, it’s more poetic, kind of an emotional drama with an almost fairy tale quality. Storytelling is important in it and how my character Jack cares for his family. It’s about the realities you build for yourself through storytelling.”

MacKay has a wide-eyed look complemented by a natural curiosity and enthusiasm. So does he believe in ghosts and the supernatural or does he think it’s all nonsense?

“No, I don’t think it’s all nonsense. I’m a big believer in energies. I haven’t had any experience of ghosts necessarily, but me and my sister once heard a ghost train when we were walking along a bridleway that was an old railway track. We heard the train running along the tracks, yeah. I think there are patterns that humans have made. There’s no smoke without fire and there’s got to be something there. It’s like magic, science, all different words for the same thing, say in the way you might meet your great grandfather in your child’s children, something like that. It might be something passed down, or maybe not ghostly, but there’s still a magic in it. I’m named after my grandad who I never met, but apparently there are so many things we do the same.”

Marrowbone is set in a pre-internet era, an English family in rural America, who have little contact with the culture around them. Is that something MacKay would enjoy?

“I’m not on Instagram or Twitter and was never much into Facebook. It’s not how I interact so I just kind of missed that boat and quite like it that way. There are other things to do. I can get on my high horse about it, though I do use the internet all of the time for emails and I Google and YouTube stuff. But I think it’s lovely and important to come away from it. I get a bit stressed out if I’m around too much technology so I would be happy to go away from it for a wee while. I think I’d be all right if I was with other people.”

MacKay knows what he’s talking about from experience. His first taste of acting was as a ten year old when a casting director came to his school and picked him to play one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. A seminal experience, it was filmed in Australia and MacKay loved running around with a group of kids in the Queensland forest.

“It was an amazing experience. I got the part by chance and… it’s a very strange thing, but in some ways, if you’re looked after in those environments, you’re best placed to have it as a child. Now I overthink things and I’d be overwhelmed if it had never happened before. If someone moved me for eight months with two weeks’ notice I would freak out. But as a ten-year-old, to go out there for two hours of tutoring a day and when we were working, running around forests and life-sized pirate ships, yeah! You almost take it for granted as a kid that that’s just something that happens.”

“And because my parents said just enjoy it for this moment, there was no pressure about what I was going to do next.”

MacKay’s parents both worked in theatre before he and his sister were born, his dad as a stage/production manager and his mother as a costume designer. However, they weren’t experts in the film industry so enlisted the help of an actor friend whose agent put MacKay on her books.

“Then when she went back to Australia when I was 14 I met the agent I’m still with now and I worked consistently but sparsely in acting through school, but it was only when I left that I consciously applied myself to it. When I got my first lead role at 19 I decided that was what I wanted to do.”

The job was in Private Peaceful, an adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s young adult First World War novel, alongside Maxine Peake and Alexandra Roach.

“It was that experience of having ownership over my work and the satisfaction it gave me that made me think I definitely want to do this and get better so I can do it more often.”

Another book adaptation followed with How I Live Now with Saoirse Ronan, various TV parts in the Second World War themed Defiance, Birdsong and The Best of Men before Those in Peril, the film set in a Scottish fishing town, where tragedy takes on a mythical element for the boy who survives.

“With every job I learned so much but with that one in particular from the way Paul [Wright] worked. He’d tell you what he wanted you to do, but it’s down to you how you do it, so it was incredibly creative and personal – and it was a small crew in Gourdon, Aberdeenshire so we were all there together, in the pub every lunch time.

“Getting the Bafta was a wonderful acknowledgment of a project you’re so proud of taking part in and it helps get it out there.

“With that one I decided to stay with the Scottish accent all the time and everyone was really supportive, especially Kate Dickie, who played my mum – she’s amazing, I’ve never worked with someone who’s been as emotionally engaged with what she’s doing. She said ‘you should, you should’ [he does a great Kate Dickie impression] and on my first day gave me thumbs for my ‘hello’. He smiles. “Then I went straight on to Sunshine on Leith, so I had Scotland in my head all that summer.”

Sunshine on Leith, with its singing squaddies trying to fit back in to civilian life, touched a popular nerve with its uncynical exploration of war and peace, love, loss and change, all set to a Proclaimers score, and took Stephen Greenhorn’s popular musical to a film audience worldwide. Why does MacKay think it was such a hit?

“I think it’s down to Dexter and his energy, plus Charlie and Craig’s music and the great script of course. We were all nervous about the singing but Dexter’s verve and commitment, excitement and optimism, allowed us to take it seriously. He said these are blokes back from a war, they want to have some fun, you need to have fun!

“The most wonderful thing about Sunshine on Leith was that we were doing things we were scared of then found the joy in. Because when you’re singing and giving it your all, when you fall, you fall hard. When you miss that note, you really miss it!” He laughs. “Singing is a very expressive thing and either you have the capacity to sing and are able to control it like a tool and can put the emotion in, or it’s just emotional immediately because it’s vulnerable and costs a lot to put it out there, and people respond to that.”

Sunshine on Leith was followed by 2014’s Pride, the tale of a young gay man coming out against the backdrop of the miners’ strike 
which for MacKay “was an amazing lesson, culturally, socially and in acting”, then he starred in BBC1’s The Outcast, an adaptation of Sadie Jones’ novel. Along the way he trod the boards in Pinter’s Caretaker, Eugene O’Neill’s Our Wilderness and Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and more theatre is something he’s keen to explore.

More recently, MacKay was back living feral in the forest once more with a role in Captain Fantastic, the 2016 comedy drama about a family living in the wilderness in Washington state. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a father who is determined to raise his children without technology to think for themselves and be able to survive in the wild and appreciate nature, it saw MacKay and the other young actors leaving their mobiles at home.

“It was off grid and we were encouraged in that,” he says. There were no phones on set but I leave my phone away whenever I’m filming. It’s nice to be away from it for 12 hours or so.”

Not only were the cast away from technology, but director Matt Ross had the six youngsters involved actually learning the real skills that their fictional counterparts had mastered, including tracking a deer, starting a fire from scratch, martial arts, taxidermy, skinning a sheep, tracking animals, playing instruments, yoga and an appreciation of science and political philosophy and theory. So does MacKay still practice any of these life skills?

“Yeah, yoga,” he says, and laughs.

“No, I can still do yoga, rock-climbing, and still play guitar. I probably know less about Marxism and Maoism, but I still know more than I did when I started. We had a reading list of Trotsky for Dummies, Marxism for Dummies, Political Systems for Dummies. And I started reading Das Kapital but didn’t get very far to be honest. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done in my life was when we got taken off for a two day trip into the woods and I learnt how to build a fire from scratch with a bow drill, make an ember and blow it in your hands, then create a fire. That’s the most amazing thing.”

Not having gone to drama school, MacKay has worked hard learning on every job he’s done and cites Viggo Mortensen as a huge influence. “He’s very sweet and soulful and thoughtful, but in terms of working with him as an actor, I’ve never seen anyone so three-dimensionally aware or involved with a production. He brought a ton of costumes for us to wear, helped build the set, contributed towards the books on the set and made sure every one was cleared in terms of the rights so we could just pick it off a shelf in shot, that level of commitment. Then he could step out of the zone of his character and discuss re-doing a line because it might cut better with a wide shot he’d done earlier. His head had the whole picture all the time and it was fascinating.”

Looking ahead, MacKay is busier than ever, with four films in the can. There is Where Hands Touch, a Second World War romantic drama “about a biracial German girl and an SS guy and their relationship. It’s about identity and whether it’s defined by you inside or by your context. It’s a very timely question. Been So Long is another musical, set in contemporary London, so more dancing…” with Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie and Michaela Coel (whose Chewing Gum won her a Bafta for best female performance in a comedy programme). “And Ophelia, it’s Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view, a comedy with Daisy Ridley.” Then there’s A Guide to Second Date Sex with his Private Peaceful co-star Alexandra Roach, all due out this year or the beginning of next.

In the meantime he’s about to fly out to Australia to star as Ned Kelly in The True History of the Kelly Gang, an adaptation of Peter Carey’s book with Russell Crowe.

“I’m going out to do a lot of homework. Ned Kelly is someone held up in folklore so there’s a huge amount of information and a huge amount of opinion, but I’m not going to make a judgement on who that person is. You’ve just got to be him yourself, and work out what that is in the doing of it.”

Fifteen years after he had his hair permed to play Curly in Peter Pan and run around the forest, he’s going back to Australia to make another film, except this time he’s the star. How does that feel?

MacKay looks wide eyed again, sits back and smiles.

“I don’t know. I’m just lucky. I’m not thinking outside of the now. I’m just going to do my best job at that moment.”

The Secret of Marrowbone is released on Friday