“I’m trying to be more political in my choices in life and work,” says actor George MacKay. Evidence that he is making good on that intention comes in the shape of BBC’s To Provide All People, a 60-minute special written by Welsh poet Owen Sheers that’s part of a series marking the 70th anniversary of the birth of the NHS.
Much of the script of To Provide All People was taken verbatim from interviews conducted by the filmmakers with nurses, doctors, and patients; these recordings were turned into dialogue and voiceover by Sheers. It gives a picture of a health service that is utterly essential, but also one that could easily need life support itself without the right level of care, attention and investment.
As MacKay read the script, he was struck by how much he had taken the NHS for granted: “It’s been there all my life and you just kind of assume, yeah, we have free healthcare,” he says.
The film deals with birth, life and death, and positions mental health as needing treating as much as cancer or broken bones.
MacKay says of his character: “I didn’t realise until after we put it out there that a lot of my character’s experience is Owen’s experience.”
As has happened so often in the life of the 26-year-old actor, he used reading a screenplay as a de facto history lesson. The script opened his eyes to the conception of the NHS and how Aneurin Bevan pushed the idea of healthcare being a right after the Second World War.
His part in Amma Asante’s upcoming drama Where Hands Touch was also an education: Mackay who plays a member of the Hitler Youth who falls in love with a biracial girl; that taught him about learned about the terms of Treaty of Versailles. Previously he’s starred in Pride, gaining an insight into the work of British gay rights activists in supporting the 1984 miners strike.
He recently went to a Labour Party event where he was on stage with Mike Jackson, co-founder of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners Group, and speaks of his admiration for those who can articulate their political point of view. As someone who feels he’s just starting to engage in politics, he’s conscious of his own self-perceived limitations: “There I realised how politically inarticulate I was and I looked unaware on so many levels.”
He may be new to politics, but he’s an old hand at acting. Pretty much from the time he started working at the age of 10, MacKay has been in gainful employment. His mother is a costume designer and his father an Australian stage lighting manager, so the business was in his bones.
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He grew up in leafy Barnes, west London, and the only employment he’s ever had that didn’t involve getting into character was a summer job in a friend’s café on the Isle of Wight. A career as a barista was always going to be short-lived, given how badly he says he makes cappuccinos.
Luckily, he has no shortage of skills in front of the camera. He won a Scottish Bafta in 2014 for his performance as a survivor of a strange fishing accident in For Those in Peril, and recently gave a turn as Viggo Mortensen’s eldest son, brought up in the wild hunting deer, in the Sundance hit Captain Fantastic.
MacKay seems to attract parts that require him to take on the father role way too soon and look after younger siblings. He starred in Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s young adult novel How I Live Now and he’ll soon be seen on our cinema screens starring in Marrowbone, a horror thriller set in Portland, 1969, in which his character Jack is charged with hiding the death of his mother until he turns 21 so that his siblings are not split up from each other. The thriller, which is the directorial debut of Sergio G Sanchez – who wrote the acclaimed Spanish horror The Orphanage – will keep you guessing to the end.
The actor is an elder child himself, although being just a year-and-a-half older than his younger sister he claims that “she looks after me most of the time”.
MacKay was himself taken by surprise during the shooting of Marrowbone in Spain, with another crucial moment in his personal political journey. “We were at the San Juan bonfire festival and it was a night of sharing: sharing culture, sharing food. It was one of the best nights that I’ve ever had. And then Brexit happened, and I was just so disappointed that a decision had been made that was against the ethos of sharing.”
He was shocked when he looked at the map of the Britain and saw the blue and yellow markings that highlighted the split of the vote. He could see he had been living in a London bubble.
It was a wake-up call about the dangers of apathy, which led to the decision to take a more active role in bringing about change. “I should be doing more work on my part to be politically engaged enough to stop those decisions from happening, because I think you can. Otherwise you can sleepwalk into decisions.“
He sees the forthcoming film Where Hands Touch as being part of the debate on national identity. “My character Lutz understands who he is by his context, having been brought up in the Nazi regime and fully believing in it – until he meets someone who challenges that and makes him question if that’s who he is inside. And so the film is about how your context can influence your identity.”
Next up, he’s about to go to Australia to star in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, and has the plum role of Australian bush ranger Ned Kelly in a film co-starring Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult.
He had to bring his A-game to win the role. “I’d been a huge fan of Justin’s work since I saw Snowtown, which genuinely affected me. I auditioned for Macbeth with Justin and didn’t get that role. So when Ned came around, I just gave it my all.”
He’s been working out a lot for the part, muscles bulging out of his T-shirt, as the result of a strict diet plan and weight training regime. And he doesn’t really seem to have any time off – also on the horizon is Rachel Hirons’ twisted romance, A Guide to Second Date Sex, alongside Alexandra Roach, and then Been So Long, a musical about unrequited love set in Camden.
The world seems to be at his feet. Just don’t ask him to make the coffee.
‘’To Provide for the People’ is on BBC1, 28 June. ‘The Secret of Marrowbone’ is out 13 July
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