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The Strongest Person in the Room: George MacKay on True History of the Kelly Gang

Justin Kurzel’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” initially tackles the myth of Ned Kelly by way of the Aussie gangster’s childhood, introducing an unforgiving world through his eyes. Portrayed by Orlando Schwerdt at this age, Ned sees his beloved mother (Essie Davis) fight against the men who endanger her and his siblings in their home in the middle of nowhere, whether it’s their father Red (Ben Corbett) or later a violent suitor named Harry Power (Russell Crowe). In slice-of-life moments conjured by Kurzel’s cold-blooded and colorful direction (based on the novel by Peter Carey), young Ned then learns about the power of being feared, with scenes of brutish men pointing a gun at someone else nearly serving as motifs with gruesome ends. 

The immense passion behind this unorthodox version of Kelly's story truly arrives when Ned emerges as a grown man, bare knuckle-fighting for an audience of rich people and ready to take on the world. Kurzel’s expansive tone shines with George MacKay’s tense and loving lead performance, which is worthy of comparison to other non-fictional gangster sagas, like Eric Bana in “Chopper,” or Tom Hardy in “Bronson.” As the former star of the Oscar-winning film “1917” states in our interview, his performance in Kurzel’s movie was particularly intimidating because he had to learn how to be tough. 

But first we start with Fleshlight—a punk band that MacKay assembled with his on-screen brothers Sean Keenan, Louis Hewison, and Earl Cave, in order to feel the film’s tone, understand Kurzel’s approach, to truly get it. Their snarling, crashing ode “Everywhere” even plays during the end credits, with MacKay singing lead. As the coda to the movie’s bombastic emotional journey, it further emphasizes MacKay's vision of Kelly as a type of Iggy Pop figure, with his own version of masculinity and an intensity that goes far beyond his captivating physical presence. 

What’s the story behind the cast’s punk rock band, Fleshlight? 

The story is that [director Justin Kurzel] said for the film, “We’re going to let go of the history. We’re going to use what’s needed, but we’re going to make it in the spirit of these men." He said, "I’ve always seen these guys as a punk band, they’re a bunch of angry, ambitious, confused young men." And so he said, I’m going to get you guys to form a band. You’ve got a gig in Melbourne, in three weeks." We were like, "What?" We had this three-week rehearsal period before we started filming, and he’s like, “Yeah, I got you a gig at a bar, and you’ve got to come up with a name and a bunch of songs and play the gig." And we did. And so, pretty much everyday, for a portion of our rehearsals, we would go in, we’d put our dresses on, and we’d jam punk songs. And it was an amazing exercise, actually. 

How did the punk band bolster your chemistry as a cast? 

First and foremost, it opened us up. Day two we’re sharing poems, going like, “This is a poem I wrote abut the character, maybe we could use this.” Or, “Do you want to sing on this one? Maybe I could sing on this.” And then also it got you adjusted to the, “I want you listening to each other” ... the way you have to do with music that is sort of peripheral, unconscious, and understanding. And on top of that there’s the the swagger and the attitude, and the aggression and the feeling. At certain times it was really emotional making those songs. The first time you’re really going at a song, it kind of cracks you ope in a way that attaches you to the music, which has a real sort of angry passionate, raw, driving vibe.

We did this gig and we got to set and had this sort of invincible feeling of, “We made something. We did it.” And it’s that sort of “f**k you” attitude, we feel that now. And two of the songs ended up in the film. It grew beyond the exercise, which is lovely. 

Russell Crowe as Harry Power in "True History of the Kelly Gang"

In what way did that punk energy then help you find your version of Ned Kelly?

It was really insightful, actually. There were two things particularly. One, that a real kind of sensitivity could be channeled though something so aggressive. And just to be sure that there’s a real feeling of it, which I can’t really describe. When you play that driving song and you’ve got that racket going, you feel it. Music makes you feel things in a way that is very emotional; you sort of feel it or you don’t. And so there was the feeling which is the indescribable sensation, and in a way you remember feelings more than you remember sort of theoretical. It’s like learning, it’s hard to remember facts than to remember something that really made you laugh, or a time that, it’s emotional experiences which shape how we react for the rest of our lives. The things that embarrass us when we were kids, are always things that we don’t go toward again, or the things that felt good are the things we keep going towards. 

There was the emotional side of it, and then there was this one day when we met Ben Corbett, who played Red Kelly, Ned’s father. Ben is in an amazing punk band in Australia called Six Ft Hick. And Justin had seen him perform years ago and said, “I want to film that man.” Ben’s on-stage performance is extraordinary, this sort of self-flagellating, sort of sexual, crazy, unplayable, androgynous, super masculine and so many things at once performance. And the day we met Ben, Justin said, “Boys, play your loudest song. And Ben, will you come up and dance with them?" So, Ben stripped to his waist and started doing his dancing, which was just amazing. And then Justin said, “George, you dance with him.” And we danced together, and it turned into this wrestle sort of sexual sort of brutal kind of end. Two bulls going at each other. And after that was happening, Justin was like, “Alright. That’s the tone. That’s the world of it. You know that now.” 

That sounds like a great tactic to get you in the mood, the mindset. You can always refer back to that feeling. 

It was amazing of Ben to do that, because he does that in front of people he’s never met, and he’s never acted before. To come in and throw that down was also someone laying down the gauntlet. Of like, “OK, we’re not just going to play three chord songs and sound like a generic punk band and say, ‘Oh, we did it in three weeks.'” No. What he produced was f**king strange, and f**king beautiful. When you actually give yourself over—he doesn’t care what people think. He’s just doing it, and that is so cool, and that’s like, “Alright I’m going to take my shot. Let’s do this.” 

George MacKay as Ned Kelly in "True History of the Kelly Gang"

Directly within the film’s punk energy is that sense of Ned’s masculinity, which is intricate, and ornate. Was there a lot of conversation about who Ned loves, or the dresses? 

There was never really any kind of conversation about his sexual orientation. I think it was, to me like ... there’s so much love in the film. And despite it being a brutal film mainly, and raw, there is such love between all of the characters, and the way in which it is expressed is sometimes kind of completely outside of what would be the expected way of expressing love, or appropriate between certain characters—namely him and his mom. Justin always said, “These guys have got to be all over each other, all the time. When they touch each other, they really grab each other, and kiss each other.” And that just went with everyone, and it’s quite interesting to see. I always thought that [Ned Kelly] loved Joe, but that it was not him and Joe were boyfriend and boyfriend, or that he loved his mom but him and so his mom were boyfriend and girlfriend. It’s just the love that is kind of undefinable. They just kind of do it, and it’s interesting to see how that’s kind of interpreted. And that might just be by a modern audience. In Australia I think it was profound, because Ned Kelly means a much more typical form of masculinity, and symbolizes that. I think we’ve really shaken that up with this version of him. 

If the movie was not directly inspired by Ned Kelly, but more the spirit of him, were there other historical characters who influenced your performance? Or even other gangsters, from movies or in real life? 

Justin, first and foremost, he wanted to make it his own thing. But to kind of understand the language, and the point of reference, and the texture of it, he sent this massive email of things to do—this picture of how he wanted me to look, this rock climber with his back and you see every muscle of his back. And a page of all this cinema to watch, and a page of all this music to listen to. And there were kind of tiny colors in all of the things that he sent me, in terms of landscape, tone. 

And from literal character points … there’s humor in “Chopper,” how Chopper can be dangerous and humorous at the same time. And to the way that like we were talking about with Joe and Ned, to “Romper Stomper,” the way the skinheads are all over each other, and kind of kissing each other and slapping each other, there’s a slightly brotherly but also homoerotic kind of feel to those guys as well. To then in terms of how intimidating the landscape can be, and the magic of it, with something like “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” or the disorientation. And the kind of fever dream that can come with people in that environment is something like “Wake in Fright,” and the danger of space, and no one can hear you scream, kind of thing. And just, there were so many things. And “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith,” to see how someone can spiral, but also touch on the Indigenous culture. 

And there were a couple in there that weren’t Aussie cinema, like “The Last Waltz.” That was a touchstone. It was like, look at these guys, there’s something so masculine about these men, and yet they’re not masculine at all. The interviews with The Band, there’s something so manly about them, and yet the singer and guitarist there with the scar, and cigarette, narrow frame. But he’s so manly. And it’s this confidence, that comes with this kind of cool. 

Music was the biggest kind of reference, like Gareth Liddiard, an amazing Australian musician who was a reference to the articulacy of a kind of punk rocker, and the poet within something quite raw and hard. And also as a kind of mixture of the sort of Irish and also the bravado—which actually didn’t wind up in the final film—but Conor McGregor was a touchstone too. And in the edit, Justin made him a sort of ... there was so much improvisation with every scene, and I remember him saying, “I’m leaning toward the quieter version of [Ned Kelly], the unreadable.” 

And I forget the name of another brilliant Australian program with David Wenham, [but he] did this amazing performance where his silence is so dangerous. And the control he gets without saying anything. Justin did that for me a few times. He’d say, “You need to practice this for me. Don’t be so nice. Be silent. Just sit there, don’t say anything. See what it makes a person do. When we talk about stuff, if you don’t need to say anything, don’t say anything. And if you do, maybe don’t. Just see what that does to the other person." You just let it hang, and the person comes to you. They come close ... and then you grab them. It’s that kind of power dynamic that’s amazing. He’s a master of creating those in a scene. 

Orlando Schwerdt as Young Ned Kelly and Essie Davis as Ellen Kelly in "True History of the Kelly Gang"

For a movie that’s in large part about the power of fear—facing it, harnessing it—did this role scare you? Especially when you were starting with it? 

Yeah, it did. It intimidated me playing someone who was meant to be intimidating [laughs]. That simple thing of being really tough—I’m not really tough. And convincing people that you’re tough is even harder when you don’t feel tough. It’s one thing to go like, This will be tough but I know I can do it. That thing of going like, I’m not a scary bloke. I don’t do scary. How can I do that and not be self-conscious? That was probably the scariest part of the process, and it just sort of took spending time and trusting the dynamic, and obviously it’s all pretend as well. But sort of taking ownership over, trying to not say anything. Just do that to start with.

And the physicality was a big key into that. There was a certain point where in the bulking up stage especially, before we got really lean and sinewy and wiry, that I’ve never felt stronger. And there’s a very simple, unequivocal feeling where you can look at someone like, I could beat them in a fight. There’s that thing of, I'm the strongest person in the room. I can beat up anyone in this room. And this sort of primal, alpha male feeling, you go, I don’t need to say anything. I don’t need to laugh at that joke, because what are they gonna do? That kind of calm that comes with being sure of who you are physically, is profound. And that came as part of the process of working out that much. 

Ned is clearly a man influenced by the men in his life. When you think of who has influenced you most as a man, who do you think of? 

My dad, hugely. I’m very blessed with my dad, and he’s a touchstone of manliness for me. That kind of keeps developing in the other stages of life that I keep going through, as well. But I feel like I look to a lot of people often. To be honest, I’ve probably been shaped … I don’t think you quantify it, but the women in my life have been more defining. Be that my family, my friends, my relationships. I get some from this sect and from the other sect, and then they’re just one and the same. 

True History of the Kelly Gang premieres on Digital and VOD today, 4/24.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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