In a vital scene near the end of Sam Mendes’ remarkable, immersive cinematic masterwork, ‘1917,’ Lance Corporal Schofield, fully embodied by George MacKay, has gone through his own version of the heart of darkness and must decide whether or not to make a bold, selfless move. Without giving too much away, in a few brief seconds, MacKay shows us the entire journey that he’s taken flashing before his eyes and, frightened but resolved, he makes his decision. What follows is a sequence for the film history books.
Born in London, MacKay was discovered in 2002 at the age of ten and cast as a Lost Boy in the P.J. Hogan film Peter Pan. He has worked fairly consistently in film, British television and on stage since.
Notable films include Ed Zwick’s Defiance with Daniel Craig (2008), Scott Hicks’ The Boys Are Back with Clive Owen (2009), Kevin MacDonald’s How Do I Live Now opposite Saoirse Ronan (2013) and Dexter Fletcher’s pre-Rocket Man musical, Sunshine on Leith (2013), which featured songs by The Proclaimers.
In 2014 he starred in Matthew Warchus’ LGBTQ-empowering film Pride and received a BAFTA Rising Star nomination. Two years later, he more than held his own opposite Viggo Mortensen in Matt Ross’ celebrated Captain Fantastic, earning raves and sharing a SAG ensemble nomination.
But even that didn’t prepare us for his astonishing work in 1917, opening Christmas Day. Director and co-writer, Mendes, along with co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, have fashioned a wildly ambitious and absolutely hypnotic war film like no other, based on stories he was told by his grandfather.
In one seemingly endless shot Mendes takes us on a journey where, on April 6, 1917, two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Game of Thrones) are given the lunatic errand of crossing into German territory and delivering orders that could save the lives of some 1600 soldiers. Blake is game, since his brother is among those in peril. Schofield is initially apprehensive and therein lies so much of the nuance in MacKay’s startling and emotionally riveting performance.
The cast spent six months rehearsing and sixteen weeks shooting the film with many lengthy takes taking their toll – the longest is said to have been close to nine minutes. Much like Birdman, there are, of course, cuts but with two notable exceptions it’s pretty seamless.
MacKay has been nominated for a London Critic’s Circle Award for British/Irish Actor of the Year and his revelatory performance is justly a part of this year’s ridiculously overcrowded Best Actor conversation.
Awards Daily sat down with MacKay in NYC while he was promoting 1917, which opens Christmas Day.
Awards Daily: Did you have any idea that you were working on something extraordinary while you were making the film?
George MacKay: I felt like there had not been any film made this same way. I knew it was the most beautiful script I ever read…so eloquent, so poetic and yet so economical. I remember one of the biggest things was the scale of it. The work I’ve done, predominately, has been in very small indie films. So just going on the locations, it was never about pomp and ceremony. They just had the means to build the world in the landscape. What’s beautiful about this film is that the doing of it, in so many ways, is so akin to the final piece and so it was very much the present tense. Every day was just every day, building as we went.
Awards Daily: I’m curious about the rehearsal process and if during that process you were able to build on the internal life of your character.
GMK: Yeah, definitely because I felt that was essential for me–as I say the story is so present tense therefore it’s all the more important that who Schofield is is his experience up to that point, kind of like all of us. You might have had something happen this morning that will change your way of being forever. What he’s seen and been through in battle is a huge part of who he is and how he operates. So I just had to know that for myself.
Awards Daily: Did you have your backstory mapped out and was it something you spoke with Sam about?
GMK: Yeah. I spoke with Sam, now and again he would offer up questions to motivate that way of thinking. He’d ask a question that would make me check my building [of the character]. There was never a backstory meeting. The process was so gradual and so often we’d sit round the table reading the script and refining little tiny bits and reading it aloud so Sam and (co-writer) Krysty (Wilson-Cairns) could hear it so within those readings we’d talk about what might have happened.
Awards Daily: And research?
GMK: The war experience I built up just through research. There’s an amazing amount of first-person accounts that could be read. There were two books that Sam said to read particularly. One is called, “With A Machine Gun To Cambrai” (by George Coppard). The other is “All Quiet on the Western Front” (by Erich Maria Remarqu), a beautiful novel. One gives a very real first-person account of a young boy from signing up to his experience throughout all of the war. “All Quiet on the Western Front” is a more… dehumanizing experience. I went to the Imperial War Museum. The production took us to France to the sites of the Somme–the battlegrounds and museums there. And Dean and I went to Ypres as well.
Then we had military training every day, weapons work, so we could just soak it up. It was a massive soaking in process, and then we were doing it gradually and you would distill the bits that felt relevant. And I would do my own character work, be it writing letters to home and diary entries of the war experience. Just stuff for myself so I could know exactly what happened when in Scofield’s experience.
Awards Daily: Besides the “uninterrupted take” aspect, what was the biggest challenge for you?
GMK: The biggest challenge was the first week of filming. Despite knowing the steps, knowing the lines, knowing the world, knowing our journey, suddenly being met with the physicality and emotional stamina as well to just do rehearsal after rehearsal and take after take. And, the first shot, if everything works, that will be in the film. So you’ve got to come at it 100 percent, but it might be 20 maybe 30 takes before you start getting a flow. So you have to come 100 percent every single time because you don’t want to be the one time where everything else is working, but it’s the one where you decided not to turn up. We were blessed with the means and a budget where if it wasn’t good enough, we’d come back the next day. It was an inspiring attitude but it was also quite intimidating. That kind of physicality and emotional stamina was the biggest challenge, I would say.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the project, audition-wise?
GMK: The audition was like a normal audition. Nina Gold cast it, so the tape came through and all I knew was that Sam Mendes was making a first world war film. So the opportunity of doing something with Sam—you want it! I remember [after reading] the first two scenes feeling I really knew Schofield. I had just done a job before which was absolutely by no means going to war, but it was emotionally and physically the most full-on experience I ever had. There was this sequence that we were filming near the end—it was a week that was really physically and emotionally relentless. And I remember thinking, I can’t talk to anyone. If I talk to anyone about this I’m going to cry. And if I cry I’m not going to be able to go back and do it so I’m just going to stay really calm. I’ve got enough energy to do it but I can’t do anything else. And that feeling was fresh when I came home just before I auditioned. And I think that’s what Schofield’s like in that way: I’m absolutely here, and I can do it but don’t ask me to talk about it. He’s very capable but his way of doing it is to hold onto himself. And that way of working, at the time, was present in my mind so I kind of felt, I know him!
Awards Daily: What was the film?
GMK: The True History of the Kelly Gang. (Coming in 2020 from IFC).
Awards Daily: When did you find out about the “one-shot” concept?
GMK: The second audition. I read for Sam and that’s when he explained the whole one-shot nature of it and what that would mean for rehearsals. I just thought it was so inspiring. I’m learning more and more that, in work, I like to be there from the beginning basically. And know as much as possible and be as involved as possible. And the fact that that was a given, that it had to be that way, was really exciting.
Awards Daily: Can you speak a bit about working with Sam?
GMK: It was an amazing experience to gain a much more three-dimensional understanding of filmmaking. Sam’s a master and led us through this with his theatrical eye on things. I think often times there’s a fabled idea that as an actor it’s better if you are completely the character and you just exist and they capture that character existing and that’s the most truthful way of being. But, with this, you had to have an inside/outside perspective on everything. You had to be completely truthful and present in the scene, but by the same token you had to have an awareness of how you were on camera. And what the camera was doing. And how you were being perceived. And what you could do to understand what the camera was doing so you could meter what you were doing to be received differently by the camera. Very simply, if the camera is spinning around dramatically, it’s better if I stand still. My character might be going all over the place in the moment so I might want to be going all over the place but you realized, no, the camera is doing that work for me so my job is to be still here.
Sam allowing us to be a part of that taught me loads. He talked about rhythm a lot. The rhythm of the story because we didn’t have an edit, the pacing of it. So I’ve learned an accuracy with Sam. Also, a bravery to just let things be—a few times I set myself a goal, an idea of what I wanted the scene to be and just made it all about me reaching whatever I preplanned. But it’s braver to just see how you feel and trust that it’s truthful. That can only work if you’re present in the scene. Just be present and let that speak for itself.
Awards Daily: This film and your performance are part of the awards conversation this year. How does that feel?
GMK: This job is really special to me. And everyone involved is. It was the biggest team effort I’ve ever been a part of. The whole making of this film was a complete collaboration to this higher thing, which was the story. It doesn’t always happen that a process that means so much to you, then means a lot to people who receive it. And that’s a lovely thing. I don’t want to take that for granted. But when we finish filming, it’s out of my hands what people think of it. The best thing that can come from an awards buzz or the awards conversation is that this is a film that is being made to be seen in the cinema and on the cinema (screens) and if it can get people to come and see it in the cinema because they can trust that it’s worth the ticket then that’s great.
Awards Daily: Are you enjoying the promotional blitz?
GMK: It’s two things at once. It’s a genuine pleasure to talk about this film, to go on the road with it and have it received well. I’m just keeping an eye on when it feels too good. (Laughs) And it makes you hungry to work work again. Sam put it lovely this morning, he said, ‘You make these things to give to audiences.’ This is the first time I’ve been involved in the handover point to this extent. It’s sometimes strange. I can only speak to this job and it’s a privilege to be involved and that it’s being received well.
Awards Daily: I need to ask about that climactic shot where you’re running, bombs going off. For me that was such catharsis. What was it like to film that sequence and then watch it later?
GMK: It’s lovely that you use the word “catharsis” because Sam, when we rehearsed it months before we got there–when it was like twenty of us and the location scout in a golf buggy with a camera in back–he said this beautiful note which always stuck in my head, ‘It’s almost slightly euphoric that run,’ and that just made so much sense that despite everything pointing in on him there’s no other option. And that streamlines it. There’s a beautiful purity and clarity in that.
The doing it was adrenalizing. It was exciting. When I get knocked over, that just happened. That wasn’t planned. It was alive. It was huge day on set. And a huge collaboration from everyone. So it was joyous at the end of it. And I must admit, without sounding pretentious, because I know it’s me watching something I’m involved in, but I get really emotional every time I see that run. It’s just the purity of it–of just someone running, someone giving it their all–I find really moving. And the music that Tom’s put on it (composer Thomas Newman). And also my memory of it and what that day means to me. I find it very moving.
1917 opens in limited release on Christmas Day. It opens nationwide on Friday, January 10, 2020.