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George MacKay jumps from being a brave soldier in ‘1917’ to playing the notorious robber Ned Kelly

Ed Symkus
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Daily Comet

George MacKay didn’t just pop out of the woodwork last year when he appeared as Lance Corporal Schofield, one of the two leads in the WWI epic “1917.” In fact, the 28-year-old British actor has been at his craft since he was 10, when he was cast as Curly, one of the Lost Boys in the 2003 film “Peter Pan.”

MacKay has enjoyed a career that started slowly, included British TV shows, small parts in big films (“Defiance”), big parts in small films (“Sunshine on Leith”), and some noteworthy ensemble work (“Captain Fantastic”).

Yes, it was his physically demanding performance in “1917” that put MacKay and his now-instantly recognizable face in the spotlight. But he had already completed another film - “True History of the Kelly Gang” - the newest attempt at telling the story of the notorious 19th-century Australian bushranger (Aussie slang for rural outlaw), well before starting “1917.” Initially scheduled for a theatrical this month, but hampered by the closure of cinemas, it premieres on various platforms on April 24.

MacKay spoke about the film by phone from his family home on the Isle of Wight.

Q: How are you doing during the lockdown?

A: My family’s healthy, everyone’s OK. We’re in a beautiful part of the world to be waiting it out together. There’s many people who are far worse off than we are, so we’re grateful.

Q: How did you happen to land that first part in “Peter Pan” when you were 10?

A: It was a wonderful casting lady called Shaheen Baig. She was going all over the UK, and I think Australia and America. They were looking to cast the Darling family and the Lost Boys. She came round my school, and there was a number of kids there who were picked to go to a workshop audition in London. I’d never been to an audition before, and that was the first round of auditions for this film. I got called back a number of times, and eventually got the part of Curly. We wound up being in Australia for eight and a half months. When I came home from it, I thought I would like to do that for the rest of my life.

Q: How long was it before you decided to really go for it?

A: When I was 19, I got a role in the film “Private Peaceful,” which was my first lead role. That experience of being more responsible over your work and having a sense of ownership over your work, made it clear that this is what I wanted to do.

Q: How did “True History of the Kelly Gang” end up on your radar?

A: It came the usual way, an email from my agent. It was an opportunity to do a tape. I had auditioned for (director) Justin Kurzel a number of years ago when he was doing “Macbeth,” and I think Justin had seen “Captain Fantastic” and some other work and thought I might be a possibility for the role.

Q: What did you know about Ned Kelly before you did the film?

A: I didn’t know that much about him. I knew the name and I knew the (iron) helmet, but it wasn’t until I read Peter Carey’s beautiful book, which the film is based on, that I even knew he was Irish. To be honest, I was shocked at my ignorance of the assumption of what Australia is, and the film is kind of about what is history and what is truth. My dad is Australian, but my understanding of Australia was only the great times we had visiting my relatives. The process of learning about Ned sort of put me onto the colonial history of Australia.

Q: There’s a story going around that you and your fellow actors in the Kelly Gang formed a punk band while you were making the film. What was that all about?

A: I played a bit of guitar and harmonica in high school. And I still enjoy playing guitar and singing and mucking around with music. There was a massive prep period for “Kelly Gang” because the film went up and down in finance. It was almost there, then it fell apart before we started. I’d gone out to Australia, and saw a bunch a family that I hadn’t seen for a long time, then we started all this prep work for the film. But after two and a half months, the film folded. And when we came back to it, we had four weeks of rehearsal with the entire team and cast. Within those four weeks, Justin said he wanted us to start a band and that he had booked us a gig in a bar in Melbourne. He said he saw the Kelly gang as a punk band, with that kind of attitude and swagger. Also, he wanted us to have a peripheral awareness of each other. There was so much entwined with that punk attitude, that sort of unconscious bond of playing music with people, as well as opening us up to each other. So, we wrote 10 songs and did a gig in that bar, under our own steam. We did it in dresses, just like the characters in the film, and we walked onto the set the next day with this swagger, thinking we can do anything.

“True History of the Kelly Gang” will be available on most major digital and cable platforms starting April. 24.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.