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‘Not getting a place at RADA was a kick up the bum... and spurred me on to actively learn more on set’

From Lost Boy to leading man George MacKay possesses maturity beyond his years and the qualities to be a major star, writes Anne Marie Scanlon.

George MacKay shakes my hand and says “we’ve met before”. I tell him we haven’t and he replies “Really? But you look so familiar to me.” I say that he also looks very familiar and the poor man looks confused for a minute. I can tell he’s thinking that of course I recognise him as I’ve just watched The Secret of Marrowbone in which he stars. But that’s not what I meant.

In the movie, MacKay plays Jack Marrowbone, the eldest of four siblings who have to conceal their mother’s death to avoid being separated.

When MacKay appeared on screen I was struck with a feeling of ‘knowing’ him. It wasn’t spooky or supernatural (like the film itself) it was just there. I suggest to MacKay that we knew each other in a previous life and he laughs.

At 26, MacKay is typical of the new breed of up-and-coming actors — madly talented, good-looking and far too sorted for one so young — the drama is firmly kept on-screen.

He’s good company, laughs easily and gives thoughtful honest answers to my questions. (Of course this might all be down to our past life connection).

I ask the screen star about being ‘talent-spotted’ aged 10. “More like I was looking a bit lost,” he jokes. It was a search for Lost Boys for Peter Pan (2003).

“I’d never auditioned before so I wasn’t really thinking about work or acting or any of that. But I liked doing the school plays, I liked drama. My mum told me ‘You’ve been invited to go along for an audition, don’t get your hopes up at all, because they’re doing this with loads of boys. If you want to, you’ll have a fun day’.”

The fun day turned into eight months on location in Australia.

MacKay worked steadily throughout his teens in film and television, yet despite an already successful career, he was turned down by both RADA and LAMDA (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art).

Again with this odd feeling of familiarity I am outraged on his behalf. MacKay, meanwhile, is far more accepting (and mature) than I am. “Genuinely, I think they’re really hard to get in to,” he explains. “It’s the audition you give on the day and I didn’t give a strong enough audition and that’s that,” he says equably.

Oh come on, honestly?

He admits to disappointment at the time but says “I wasn’t 100% sure that I truly wanted to go. I’m not saying that in hindsight but I thought either way the process would teach me something… and it was a kick up the bum (it) spurred me on to actively learn more on set.”

Whatever our odd connection it’s certainly not enough to get MacKay to spill the beans on his relationship with Saoirse Ronan, which began when they starred opposite each other in How I Live Now in 2013. Various publications have described him as Ronan’s ‘first boyfriend’ but he’s never spoken publicly about their (long over) romance. The star quickly changes the subject to his next project, Ned Kelly (which also stars Russell Crowe) which he’s about to begin filming.

MacKay plays the infamous Aussie outlaw whose own father came from Co Tipperary. Almost familiar ground for the young man whose granny is from Cork and emigrated to Australia where his dad was born. He tells me he’s recently visited Tipperary as part of his research into the part.

Marrowbone is a horror/thriller and has some pretty scary moments. Not only does Jack have to keep his mother’s death a secret but the house where he and his three younger siblings are holed up is all creaks and shadows. If that wasn’t enough their ill mother took her family there, from England, to protect them from their father, whose crimes are eventually revealed.

I wonder what scares George? There’s a long pause before he replies “Genuinely scared? I think I’m not around things that frighten me that much. The seriousness of the emotion of fear… I get nervous about a bunch of stuff, even just talking about the film... I think genuine fear is pretty powerful.”

He goes on to say he tries not to give space to things that scare him.

“I think it’s quite a natural response to avoid what causes genuine fear as much as possible. So what scares me is probably the stuff I can’t control. I’m trying to be as honest as possible,” he continues, “I could sit here and say (he puts on a luvvy voice), ‘Well, certain projects scare me’” and I start roaring laughing.

“But actual genuine fear that the characters go through?” he continues. “I think that’s pretty rare and it takes something bigger, outside of yourself, to actually experience that.”

Marrowbone is set in the US but it was filmed in Spain, and MacKay cannot say enough good things about the location — Asturias which certainly looks stunning on film. “It’s a beautiful part of the world, very untapped, the food is amazing, the Spanish culture was great and I think genuinely the Spanish culture, and that passionate familial vibe, really played into how we made the film.”

I wonder if there are similarities between himself and Jack Marrowbone?

“I’m an elder brother. I want to care and do right. There’s probably a slightly controlling element. I’m quite careful about where I put myself and I think Jack is very conscious about protecting himself and those he loves.”

Despite the duty to family, fighting off the ghosts of the past and living in what may be a haunted house Jack also has a romantic storyline as he falls in love with Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy). Would MacKay embrace being a romantic leading man? “Yeah, why not,” he says “it’s all about the story. You serve the story, Marrowbone is a good story with a strong message and I’m lucky to be a part of it.”

The actor goes on to explain that how the audience sees him is out of his control. “Your job is to be done in the doing but how it’s taken by other people, you can’t really control. You can assume you’re playing this type of role and it will be taken like that and there is some level of accuracy — but it’s not too healthy to have your mind on the end result. It’s got to be about the end result of the story rather than how people receive it. So much of it is out of your hands. I’d be wary of claiming any credit for any reaction that comes afterwards.”

My goodness, so young, so serious, so sensible.

I ask if he had fun making the film. He tells me that the entire cast and crew would wind down on a Friday evening with a massive water fight in the sea. I’m mighty glad to hear it too.

The Secret of Marrowbone is in cinemas now

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