Up and coming actor George MacKay played a U.K. queer activist in Pride, a bohemian son in Captain Fantastic, and Lance Corporal Schofield in last award season’s darling 1917 but plays his most daring role yet and Australian bushranger Ned Kelly in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang. “True History” is a bit of a misnomer. When the film opens a placard announces what we are about to see is not the truth about Ned Kelly. Instead, it’s what Justin Kurzel, based on Peter Carey’s novel about the Kelly Gang, imagines is closer to the emotional truth of Kelly and his crimes.
True History of the Kelly Gang is a gender-bending, sometimes queer, but always punk depiction of Ned Kelly’s escapades in the 1870s. For the simple reason that MacKay couldn’t grow a proper beard, his Ned Kelly is the first of its kind in movie history. Depicted with a baby face, Joe Exotic mullet, and wearing a dress to terrorize masculine expectations in Australia, his Ned Kelly, in MacKay’s estimation, is a truer Kelly than seen in previous films. Truer in substance (if not in presentation).
MacKay phoned us from quarantine with his family in the U.K. where he talks about getting into character by creating a punk band called Fleshlight, how playing Ned Kelly was more physically taxing than his work on 1917, and determining if Kelly is a freedom fighter or terrorist.
Your interpretation of Ned Kelly in True Story of the Kelly Gang is one of a kind. He has a mullets, chaotically pursues freedom, and has homoerotic relationships.
It stems from Justin. Especially because of who Ned Kelly is in Australia and Justin being Australian, having a real understanding of how it may be received and what the Ned Kelly to the Australians is different in the UK and the US and the rest of the world. Understanding the provocation that comes with a reworking of this story. Because there’s been films about him made before, Justin always said I want to let go of the history that has bound the films that have come before because of the sensitivity of doing wrongs to the material. He said, I just want to focus on the spirit of this film rather than the history. He said, I see these men as punk. I think they’re these young, angry, confused young men who were trying to find themselves. They’re reaching for what they want to be and reaching to where they’re from, and running away from certain things that they’re from, and just that kind of perfect storm of identity is, I think, always relevant and that we’re always doing. It’s just the context that informs it. Justin had very modern references for a period piece. A lot of them were very Australian and all kind of played into it but the music was a big thing. There’s a lot of great punk music in Australia for bands like The Drones, The Birthday Party, which was Nick Cave’s first band, The Saints. Even football players. Conor McGregor as well for the kind of physicality of the role; the kind of hyper-masculine bravado. All of our touchstones were very modern so I think that’s why it has a more contemporary feeling.
Speaking of those punk touchstones, I just listened to Fleshlight. Will you talk about creating the band, making the songs and performing?
How did you listen to that actually?
Your song “Everywhere” is on YouTube.
Justin basically said I see these guys as punk and I think I want you guys to start a band. That was our rehearsal process. It’s a way to get us listening to each other. He saw the Kelly Gang as a pack, the people you’re thrilled to be around. They’re a lot of fun but you’re also quite intimidated by them. He said playing music is a way to listen to each other, and also the making of the music you open yourself up. Day two of being there as a gang of four, we’re like going, well I’ve written this poem like maybe we could try this? You open your heart up. And coupled with the making of the music, when it is that kind of more punk sound, when we played this gig, you start to feel a bit lost because you’ve done this thing that you’re scared of and taken ownership over it and made it and we did this gig in a bar in our own right, we did it in dresses playing our songs. It gives you that swagger of that kind of anarchic attitude of, excuse my French but, fuck you! I can do anything. That feeling came from the making of those songs. Two of those songs were in the film and oftentimes would even play music before we got to a scene to give us that energy, to give us that vibe, to get lost in it.
I was surprised to learn you said playing Ned Kelly is your most physical role to date considering the physicality of your performance in 1917.
I feel like I couldn’t have done 1917 without the experience of playing Ned. There are people doing incredible work in the hospitals right now, we’re not going down a mine when we do these films. But in terms of the acting stuff it was the most extreme experience I’ve ever had. And the furthest I’ve ever gone emotionally and physically with a role. It pushed me to my absolute limit at the time and the feeling of kind of being pushed to and beyond your limits is kind of a profound feeling. Knowing those limits and knowing how much further they were than I thought they were put me in good step to play in 1917, because stamina required for that different type of process. With 1917 we had to rehearse the scenes with the intensity and energy and speed that will come to film them because you are setting the pace that you know that everything hangs upon. Literally the length of the trench was built to the pacing of the scene so even when we rehearsed we had to attack it at the same pace. But then when we came to filming, we perhaps rehearsed twenty times at that pace. When you come to filming the very first take, if it’s good enough it will be in the film and it will be five minutes of the final film without an edit. You have to come in with 100% energy, and sometimes we did fifty takes of a five minute scene. So you enter in at 100% energy, not knowing when you’re ever going to finish. Therefore, it was really helpful with Ned to understand when you’re at your limit and how to pace yourself.
With Kelly Gang it was everyone’s commitment to that project, physically and emotionally, was like was like nothing else. I remember there was one time the shootout sequence at the end we’d been filming for two weeks. And everyone was pretty strung out at that point, and Justin said, come over and give me nine hours, and we never, ever do this again so I want everything from you. I want all four of you to go home tonight knowing that you couldn’t have given anything else. When someone puts it like that you realize, I don’t need to eat or drink, I don’t need to do anything other than this for nine hours. Given the extremity of that situation and being in that place for nine hours off the back of two weeks I we were all committed to properly going in as much as we could.
Ned Kelly is a freedom fighter but then he’s also a terrorist, depending on your viewpoint. What do you think of the motives for Ned’s motives crimes and do you think they were legitimate, to some degree?
In a sense it’s both. There is one bit where he makes that speech in a voiceover and the essence of the speech is one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Peter Carey’s book poses the question as to what is true? There are some truths that are unequivocally true, but when the law is unlawful, what is your sense of right and wrong? ls right by the law or who’s moral compass do you go by? Society or your own? I don’t have a straight answer for that, because I don’t know if there is a straight answer. Certain things we can all agree on and then other things… I can empathize with and find the logic in Ned Kelly’s actions, but then by the same token, if my father was one of the people that he killed I couldn’t approve that. On top of that, without just giving you a politician’s answer, even the history books, are they true? Did he do it, did he not, why did he do it? We can all make our assumptions in the same way that our movie’s interpretation begins with saying “nothing you’re about to see is the truth.”
IFC Films will release the True History of the Kelly Gang On Digital and On Demand April 24th.
Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.