George MacKay has been bubbling beneath the surface of stardom. He’s starred in a number of both British and American independent features such as “The Boys are Back,” “Pride” and “Captain Fantastic,” but even most cinephiles would have a hard time remembering his credits. He’s familiar most because of the latter release, but he was recognizable on the Hulu mini-series “11.22.63” a few years back as well. Sam Mendes ‘ “1917,” on the other hand, is going to take his career to the next level. And, considering how he captivates the screen in the essentially “one-shot” movie, that’s not a surprise.
It’s April 23, 1917, and a British General (Colin Firth) needs to get a message to the front line about a trap the Germans have laid by seemingly pulling out of No Man’s Land, the area of ground that separates the trenches dug by each side in the War. He taps Lance Corporal Schofield (McKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of “Game of Thrones”) to race against time to potentially save the lives of 1600 men. Mendes collaborated with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to effectively shoot the film in “one-shot” although anyone watching can spot some of the edits that tie the long takes together.
McKay jumped on the phone earlier this month to discuss the film’s long and intense rehearsal process, doing his own stunts and why he’s learned to love going so “deep” into his roles.
The Playlist: What about Lance Corporal Schofield made you want to take this role?
George MacKay: I remember thinking I know this man or at least I know an interpretation that I’d like to give. There wasn’t a script to read at the time. There were just two scenes. It doesn’t always happen with an audition. I think some of the joy of acting or an audition is to try and bring yourself to something that you don’t recognize immediately. But with this, I felt very close to Schofield innately. Then I read again for Sam, met with him and we spoke for quite a long time. He got a sense of me. The first question he asked me [was] what was the most gratifying experience of work I’d ever had, which I thought was a really insightful and lovely question to be asked. Sam had explained on the second audition his concept for the film and that it would be one shot, and what that would mean for a rehearsal process and the making process.
When did you realize how much technical rehearsal it would entail? Was there any nervousness in terms of, “We really can’t screw this up when we shoot it?”
I didn’t really understand the extent of the technicality of rehearsal. What he did say is there will be about four or five months at least for rehearsal and you have to commit to that. I thought, “I don’t know what we’d be doing for four or five months but I am there.” The way I’ve been lucky enough to work over the last few years, just the experiences I’ve had, the one thing that I’m learning is that I love to be involved as early as possible. I’m loving getting a more three dimensional understanding of the process, the way that time helps you immerse yourself in a character and an understanding of the story. I’ve only done a small bit of theater in London but I’ve loved the plays that I’ve done. Knowing Sam’s pedigree in the theater I think we mutually shared that respect and love for theater. The fact that this was going to be a hybrid of the two was really exciting. Then it was not until we’d begun that we understood the reason why that time was needed. Because the edit is not a conventional one you were slotting together finished pieces in order usually. We had to craft the rhythm and the pace beforehand. Because the journey’s on the move and it’s all in one shot. The emotional rhythm of a scene dictates the length of the set [and shot]. I tell you it was genuinely the most beautiful experience, learning this three-dimensional awareness of everyone’s job on set.
It’s one thing to be on a soundstage and mapping out what you’re going to do. It’s another actually be on these gigantic sets where you’re doing these really long extended sequences. Was there any particular sequence you were concerned it was going to be difficult to pull off?
I think all intimidation of the scale of it, we didn’t necessarily feel that because the making was so gradual. I think we were afforded time, which was amazing and ironically what those men in the story don’t have. I think the doing of it was so all-consuming that it stopped you getting nullified by the idea of it if you know what I mean. The one thing that I had to have an eye on is that each set piece that we were making was going to be a moment within a greater moment. Other than literally the first shot, the film begins in the move and ends in the move. So. as an actor there was never the start of a scene or end of a scene. The message of the story is that life keeps moving and this is just two hours out of these men’s lives.
I know that your character is fictional but was there any research you did about the era? And was there any more backstory that you and Sam came up with for him that wasn’t necessarily in the film?
It’s funny because I think Schofield’s backstory is underneath the film and is the film. The First World War is the context. It’s almost like a bigger identity question talking about it now. These men aren’t career soldiers. They are soldiers and they are part of that war but they’re all humans. In a way that’s why the film hopefully has an emotional heart. If there’s any comment on the reality of the war and everything it’s because you understand these men as men rather than a figure in history. I always knew that it’s essential [to know] who Schofield is what he’s left behind. The film is so present that you just have to be that man in that situation. You get chinks of who he is and the reason that he operated the way that he does, the reason he has that reserve and restraint is, I think because his home and what he’s left behind means so much to him. If he opens the door to that he’ll fear he’ll unravel and he won’t be able to come back from it. There wasn’t necessarily a singular First World War account. In building who he was and building an experience for myself of what his time would have been out there I just cherry-picked a bunch of happenings from the research that we did. I used to write letters home some of which I think were the letters that he used to send home. Then letters that perhaps he’s chosen to stop sending because he can’t deal with being close to it. Often the stuff that I would talk about in my imaginary letters home were things that I’d read from other soldier’s accounts.
Have you ever, for the lack of a better term, gone this “deep” into a character before for a film?
Yeah. I’m learning that that’s the way that I like to go. Because of the technical element, it’s taught me that it’s really healthy to have an inside, outside perspective on performing and your role within a piece. Not just your role in the story. That’s essential. But then also your role within a set and a work environment. It’s actually healthy to have a more three-dimensional aspect. Where when you completely immerse yourself that three-dimensional understanding goes with the immersion. The job I had before this was probably the most immersive experience I’ve ever had on a job, which was Justin Kurzel’s “The True History of the Kelly Gang.” The joy of that process was that Justin asked me to become that character. I spent months researching him, trying to create a physical understanding and disappear into that person. I don’t think I could have done “1917” if I hadn’t have had that experience before.
I heard that you insisted on doing your own stunts. Was there anything that was more dangerous than you initially thought or spooked you after you’d agreed to do it?
Not really. I’m learning in every sense be it physically, be it mentally in the inside, outside of whatever it is, [that] I just like being involved. I find it really stimulating and exciting to be involved in a process. The fact that this journey was so physical, I think if I hadn’t been doing the action myself then there would’ve been a big chunk of the film that I wouldn’t be able to.
Also, there wasn’t a huge amount of choice in the matter anyhow because the camera never leaves you. There’s no cutaway where you can replace me with someone else. They were two moments where a stunt man took my place. But otherwise, no, not really. I revel in the opportunity to do what’s required.
Sam talks about these happy accidents that happen while you guys are shooting these long sequences. Maybe it wasn’t planned but it just happens for one reason or another. When you finally saw the finished film was there any of those happy accidents that surprised you?
One that I’ll mention – there’s a big trench run in the film where I’m running along as an attack is beginning. We’d rehearsed that for weeks. The collisions that happen in that section of the film where I get knocked over a number of times in a way weren’t meant to happen and weren’t planned. But that’s just what happened as soon as the bomb started going off and everyone’s blood comes up. I was focusing on my [physical] direction, the background artists were focused on going in their direction. Those collisions just happened but we didn’t stop and we carried on. I think that’s a reality in the film. The idea of making it through without those is in hindsight doesn’t seem as real.
I’m sure at some point the cameraman who no doubt has an earplug or something could say, “Wait. Stop. We’re going to go restart again.” But was the idea just never stop? Just no matter what happens keep going through the entire take?
Yeah, basically. The rule was if Sam says “cut” then cut. Otherwise just keep going because, as you say, you never know when those… The beauty of the unplanned is you can’t plan for it. There might be magic in that moment and you just keep going. I think what was inspiring and intimidating actually in the first few days of shooting was getting up for the speed that we do not stop until we get this take. Because we’d set the pace from day one of rehearsals, although we did it in layers, we were building those layers around a commitment to the action in terms of pacing. We didn’t try and do it 20 times each. But then you also were going in with the attitude of “I don’t really know when we’re going to stop.” We had days where we didn’t get it on one day and we’d come back a whole day later to just to keep going. There was this really inspiring but uncompromising nature that we will not go until we get it.
There is another sequence toward the end of the film where it looks like real bombs are going off behind you. Was that the case? Was that CG?
Yeah, those were real. Everything you see pretty much other than a horizon here and there is real. Those were practical effects and it just added to the adrenaline of it. That was a really big day. By the same token, Schofield’s focus is singular at that stage. As much as I was trying to be aware of everything that’s going on my focus was pretty singular in that moment. Before we did that take my heart was beating really hard with the adrenaline of it. That was the gift of being able to do it and being able to do the film on that scale is they didn’t cut corners on the practical effects. Again, the joy of the process, I was party to the meeting with all departments, as to the special effects of how are we going to do these explosions. Are we going to have CG? Are we going to do them real? How are we going to them if we did them real? At the end of the day they are. What you see is what was there and it just added to the [realism]. We had 500 men that day and we had all those bombs going off. Of course, it was more controlled than the horrid war itself but we were doing it for real as best we could.
“1917” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens nationwide on Jan. 10.