LONDON (Reuters) - At 22, George MacKay may not turn heads when he walks into a coffee shop in his native London, but give him a few more years — and the release of a movie in which he co-stars with Viggo Mortensen — and that is bound to change.
MacKay, whose first film role came at age 10 as one of the Lost Boys in a 2003 version of “Peter Pan”, is building a reputation as a versatile, up-and-coming character actor who can play just about anything — as long as the part suits someone whose entire demeanor, from his large eyes to the elongated oval shape of his face, says “soulful”.
“I want as much as I can to try and explore different roles and different characters, that’s important to me to get involved in as many different parts as I can,” MacKay said over coffee in a hotel where, at least for now, no one approached him for an autograph.
Next year, he will appear in the Mortensen vehicle “Captain Fantastic” about an idealistic father, played by the former Aragorn of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, who brings his children back to society after a decade of living “off the grid” in the Pacific Northwest.
Working with the polyglot Danish-American was “amazing”, MacKay said, not least for the experience of filming in New Mexico. Unlike Britain, the distances between cities are so vast, and it is so dark at night, that MacKay said at times he felt like he was in “a sea of blackness”.
In the meantime, MacKay couldn’t ask for a better demonstration of his versatility than his two current films in Britain - “Pride”, on general release, and “Bypass”, showing this month at the London Film Festival.
In the first he plays the young, middle-class Joe who is from the London borough of Bromley, and is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Joe, a fictional character, joins a group of gays and lesbians who, in events based on real life, supported the bitter and hard-fought 1984-85 miners’ strike in the much-less-gay-friendly Britain of Margaret Thatcher.
In the second he is Tim, who must work as a fence, speeding stolen goods to clients on his bicycle, to support himself and his teenage sister who are under threat of being evicted from their house for non-payment of rent. Tim’s life is a hell of skirting the law and flirting with death from an unnamed disease that is mostly affecting his skin.
MacKay said he enjoys it when he can portray characters like Joe and Tim. “Surface level-wise they’re completely different, their localities, the world they’re in and what their troubles are,” MacKay said.
But “one parallel you could draw is they’re both not suited to their environments. Joe is in a place and environment and a time and a culture and a class where he doesn’t feel that he can come out, whereas Tim is probably too sensitive, really.
“He’s trying to do everything right and the thing is everything he’s asked to do, to try and get through his day, basically questions his moral compass.”
Whatever the movie, and no matter what kind of reviews it receives, MacKay almost always garners praise.
“MacKay’s stock-in-trade is soulful and sensitive, complex and sincere,” the Guardian newspaper wrote in a 2013 profile.
He’s also a stickler for detail. Although his middle-class upbringing in southwest London was worlds removed from the hardscrabble lifestyle of Tim, MacKay says “Bypass” director Duane Hopkins urged him to spend time riding the bike and packing the carry bag, the main tools Tim uses when he fences stolen goods, so that his actions appeared natural.
“I also had to get used to handling money, little things like that, because that is his day-to-day life, because he deals with money, he deals with 20s and 10s and 5s (pound notes), with packing his bag and riding his bike and he does it so many times every day,” MacKay said.
It’s the thrill of the craft, which is something that MacKay said he learned from his role model, the British actor Eddie Marsan, seen recently in the movie version of “War Horse”, that convinced him to become an actor full-time when he left school.
Up until then, and ever since his debut in “Peter Pan”, there had been steady work but he hadn’t made the full commitment until he got one of the lead roles in the 2012 film version of the World War One family drama “Private Peaceful”.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do and just after I left school ‘Private Peaceful’ was my first kind of lead role and I just loved being on the set,” MacKay said.
“It’s that feeling of ownership of something — and it doesn’t have to be in a film, acting, but I think that’s why work’s important — it kind of defines people which I think in some ways is bad but it’s good to have an occupation.
“I had such a wonderful time, I loved being involved and feeling that I was hopefully contributing.”
Editing by Janet Lawrence