Raised in the London theater scene, George MacKay has been acting since he was a kid. BAFTA finally recognized his on-the-verge status in 2014, nominating him for a Rising Star Award. Four years and more than a dozen projects later, the 25-year-old makes his second appearance at the Sundance Film Festival in every actor’s dream role: Hamlet opposite Daisy Ridley as the titular character in “Ophelia,” a retelling of the Shakespeare play for the #MeToo era. “It was thrilling,” he said of flipping the script on the damsel-in-distress drama.
THEATER KID: “Both my parents used to work in theater, and they have a real appreciation for it, so I had a real education in seeing shows that perhaps you wouldn’t usually take a kid to, [like] dance shows, and I was really taken with the movement,” said MacKay, whose mom designed costumes for ballet, while his father was a stage manager. “I remember seeing a show called “Shockheaded Peter” that was a quite scary show, but it was fantastic. I liked the theatrics of it,” added the Londoner, whose West End credits include 2014’s “The Cement Garden.”
BIG BREAK: At age 13, after getting discovered in a school play, he scored a role as a Lost Boy in the 2003 film adaptation of “Peter Pan.” But it was his experience in the war drama “Private Peaceful” six years later that convinced him to pursue acting as a career. “It was my first lead role and the experience of being on set all of the time, and having a real sense of responsibility with your work made me really sure that this was what I wanted to do and probably changed the way that I worked from then on,” he said.
PLAN B: “I auditioned for two acting schools,” said MacKay, adding that he got rejected from both, including the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Now, with a BAFTA nom under his belt and a slew of prestigious projects, he still insists, “There’s no kind of, ‘Ha-ha!’ So many people want to go, and my audition was simply not good enough on the day.”
PLAYING PRINCE: “Obviously playing Hamlet for a young man is a huge role, but this is a new interpretation and Hamlet serves a different purpose in the story.” He added, “The text would terrify me if it was Shakespeare’s version, but we’re using our own creation for language. What intrigued me is this story is from Ophelia’s point of view. In the play, it’s a lot of his internal thoughts, whereas here you don’t get to see that.”
FEMINIST FEELS: “I think it’s important that the story itself is told by a woman and a female director,” said McKay, adding that director Claire McCarthy brought “a femininity” to the film. But, he continued, “I think the true meaning of equality is that there is no difference, and so I think of Claire as a director rather than a female director,” he said.
WHAT’S NEXT: While his starring role as Aussie outlaw Ned Kelly alongside Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult is on hold until June, he has a full slate of films on deck, including “Where Our Hands Touch,” which he describes as “a biracial German girl at the end of the war, and I play a Hitler youth that she falls in love with”; “Marrowbone,” the directorial feature debut from Spaniard Sergio G. Sánchez, and “Been So Long,” a musical.