George MacKay as Schofield in 1917, co-written and directed by Sam Mendes.
George MacKay as Schofield in 1917, co-written and directed by Sam Mendes.

War epic 1917’s secret weapon

GEORGE MacKay was chosen to star in Sam Mendes' war epic 1917 because he was relatively unknown.

That won't last long.

The 27-year-old Brit, whose father is Australian, is glowing in the reflective light of the Oscars buzz around the visceral WWI drama from the director of James Bond hit, Skyfall.

1917, which has been tipped as a potential Best Picture after winning a Golden Globe this week, follows MacKay's Lance Corporal Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Blake.

The soldiers are on a journey across no-man's land to deliver a message to troops about to go over the wall into a German trap in the Great War.

Sitting down in London's Corinthia Hotel in the shadows of the Thames and the London Eye, the tall, striking MacKay cannot hide his enthusiasm for the film and his respect for Mendes, who previously won an Oscar for American Beauty in 2000.

"Any sort of buzz like that around a film is just good for the film," he says.

"It's just pure story, it was never bums on seats in mind, it was just what's best for the story and that kind of vision is rare and it's a privilege to be a part of."

George MacKay in a scene from the harrowing WWI epic 1917, directed by Sam Mendes.
George MacKay in a scene from the harrowing WWI epic 1917, directed by Sam Mendes.

There's almost a hall of fame of British acting in this film.

Benedict Cumberbatch, of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Strange fame, Richard Madden, star of Game Of Thrones and gripping BBC series The Bodyguard, Colin Firth, Best Actor Oscar winner for The King's Speech, Andrew Scott, the sexy priest in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag, and Mark Strong of the Kingsman movies all make appearances.

But this movie is about the soldiers, not the generals - and Mackay is its brightest star.

1917 is meticulous in its details, and drags you into the experience of what it would be like in the trenches in that shocking, horrible, wasteful war that claimed the lives of 20 million soldiers and injured just as many.

The historical epic is shot in what appears to be one take, which has generated much chat among the cinema purists for its technical skill.

"The best thing about it is you don't notice the work that has been done," MacKay says.

"I think you experience the movie rather than watch it. And you don't need to know anything about the First World War, you don't need to be a history buff."

MacKay, who grew up in Hammersmith in London's west, has been building an impressive career.

He first hit screens as a child actor in Peter Pan in 2003 and has been methodically adding to his CV but 1917 is his biggest role to date.

Dean-Charles Chapman, left, director Sam Mendes, centre, and George MacKay on the set of the technically brilliant 1917.
Dean-Charles Chapman, left, director Sam Mendes, centre, and George MacKay on the set of the technically brilliant 1917.

MacKay, whose father Paul is from South Australia, also stars alongside Russell Crowe and Charlie Hunnam as Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly in The True History Of the Kelly Gang.

Justin Kurzel's adaptation of the Peter Carey's revered book is also in cinemas tomorrow and streams on Stan later this month, and required extensive research and travel around Australia.

Another war movie, 2012's Private Peaceful, which he shot when he was 19, also informed his approach to 1917, but in the opposite way to what he expected.

"That experience of being involved more than I ever have on a set (in Private Peaceful) and the sense of ownership and responsibility that gave me over my work was really profound and sort of made it clear why I want to carry on acting and the way in which I wanted to work," he says.

"It's funny that years down the track (in 1917) that this is the most profound experience I've ever had in terms of understanding collaboration … a much more three-dimensional understanding of my role in the workplace and as an actor and that inside, outside perspective that came with the process."

Work started on 1917 almost in reverse.

The editing was done by the actors in rehearsals so that the set could be built around the script.

"Say Schofield and Blake have a back and forth of four lines and something is said that gives an emotional beat where you are thinking about something that's being said," MacKay explains.

"We needed to rehearse it enough times to know what feels correct after getting to know the characters of how long that silence might be, what we're travelling to dictates the pace we're walking to, or jogging, how much distance is created in that silence and that trench needs to be built that exact distance so the corner comes when the corner needs to come."

That took months.

"We were walking through the scene with scripts laying markers down for different coloured flags for when 'that's when the stretcher comes through, that's when the corner happens'," he says.

There have been many war movies before but somehow 1917's story feels different, mainly in the way it's told.

It has great respect for the soldiers who are sacrificing their lives for freedom, without being nationalistic.

Sam Mendes accepts the award for Best Motion Picture – Drama for 1917 at the Golden Globes. Picture: Paul Drinkwater/Getty Images
Sam Mendes accepts the award for Best Motion Picture – Drama for 1917 at the Golden Globes. Picture: Paul Drinkwater/Getty Images

Mendes had the idea for the film because of his grandfather Alfred Mendes' experiences on the front line.

He wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, a 31-year-old writer from Glasgow, who injected humour and a counterpoint to his middle-aged man perspective.

The film deals with the concept of sacrifice in a time when most people are worried more about the number of likes on their selfie outside Buckingham Palace than they are of the person sitting next to them on the Tube.

MacKay says he had always noticed the cenotaphs in rural villages around the UK with the names of those lost in wars, but now they resonate more.

"Sacrifice being something we don't really know or truly understand or practice a huge amount in our lives and lot of times that's a good thing because nowadays, at least in this country, we were born in peacetime," MacKay says.

"But that said, sometimes that amount of choice can be confusing because you go towards all the wants and I think what you root yourself in your life is kind of is an alignment between what you want and what you need and they're are very few.

"For me that's family and loved ones, that's what the film is about rather than just the First World War."

UK actor George MacKay in a scene from The True History of the Kelly Gang.
UK actor George MacKay in a scene from The True History of the Kelly Gang.

MacKay's parents will be visiting relatives in Australia when 1917 comes out.

And don't be surprised if we see more of him at home on our screens and in person.

He travelled all around Australia for the filming of the Ned Kelly film, chopping wood in Tasmania, learning to horse ride, wondering at South Australia's Flinders Ranges and taking a holiday in Kakadu.

Kelly has been played by many actors in the past, from Mick Jagger to Heath Ledger, but MacKay thinks that not having grown up with the divisive figure - regarded by some as a folk hero, and others as a murderous thug - was helpful.

"Ned Kelly has become something to a culture, and has a meaning and an identity that is tied up in the folklore surrounding him," MacKay says.

"At the end of all the historical research, I found that it is mainly made up of people's opinions.

"There are a few hard, fast facts as to what happened, when it happened, but the why is all up to the person who's documented this.

"I think this Ned Kelly is probably just best left as Ned.

"At least for me, it's most helpful

to be Ned and just Ned rather than Ned Kelly. Because I think that name altogether is too

big for people to remove the legend."

However, while his parents are catching up with their family, Mackay might have other obligations in February.

The Oscars invitation is surely in the mail and he should have a seat in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles alongside Mendes.

1917 and The True History Of the Kelly Gang are in cinemas tomorrow.


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