Inside the winter annual

George MacKay in conversation with Femme co-star Nathan Stewart-Jarrett
By Alex James Taylor | Film+TV | 4 December 2023
Photographer Matt Healy

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Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping’s feature debut Femme begins with a violent back alley attack. George MacKay’s character Preston – a menacing, closeted thug – launches at Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s drag artist Jules, dressed as Aphrodite Banks, in a homophobic assault. The film’s smoking gun: this attack sets off a chain of events that throws the two characters together in a pulsing, physical tale of erotic revenge. The intimacy and intensity of the plot saw MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett spar with one another, literally and metaphorically, building levels of passion, severity and malevolence that burn on-screen. MacKay craves roles like this, offering the substance and space to challenge and confront. 

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Nathan Stewart-Jarrett: How’s it going? You look very fresh.
George MacKay: Well, we’ve just had the shoot so that’ll be why. The bags have been covered. [both laugh] 

NSJ: I’m going to jump straight in. You spoke French in La Bête [2023, directed by Bertrand Bonello], how was it acting in French? Did it open up anything unexpected, or was there something unexpected you found when you reverted back to speaking English?
GM: That’s a really interesting question to start with. Firstly, I realised as
I got to spend time in France working with the cast and crew, that what is valued in conversation in France is a genuine want to talk about how you’re feeling and what’s really going on. Their deeper conversations come quicker with less guise, it’s their way. It’s quite an English thing to hold on to stuff, we’re always like, “I’m fine!” It takes a little while to scratch beyond that. There was a reverence for deep feeling, if you aren’t discussing that stuff then you’re not living – what’s wrong? [laughs] I really took heart in that and learned from it, I thought “God, I’m really English,” because I don’t begin with the open book answer immediately. 

NSJ: You’re very warm though.
GM: Yeah, I’m warm. I don’t have a stiff upper lip kind of thing, but they were always like, “Let’s talk about love.” I don’t want to be too stereotypical, but there was a wonderful way of talking about relationships, past relationships and love because it’s not the way I’ve been used to speaking about it on home soil. In terms of the acting, I thought it was very interesting. I did another job a while ago where I had to speak German, the German grammar and the way the sentences were structured had a more forceful, direct way of speaking. I remember for that character, it really informs him. This guy is often beating around the bush not wanting to tread on toes, and he has this reverence for his two German university friends who are these trailblazers and I thought, “Oh this is why he would then enjoy this.” Part of that friendship is the fact he becomes a different person as he speaks that language because you have no choice but to be more direct and forceful. With La Bête, it was very prescribed and thought about when they drop in and out of English, especially for the 1910 version [the film unfolds across three time periods: 1910, 2014 and 2044], because English became their secret language, which was funny to me. When they’re in a room full of people, suddenly they’re almost talking dirty to each other. With acting, English is very stress- based, you hit words and you express yourself by the way you place emphasis on certain words.

So I was still speaking French as an Englishman because I was stressing certain words. I had to work really hard at speaking French as a French person would speak it, not just in terms of accent but in terms of the cadence of the sentencing, which I hope comes across. I remember Léa [Seydoux, MacKay’s co-star in La Bête] telling me that it’s on the breath, you just breathe through the sentences. Once we started rehearsing and I’d cracked it she just went, [French accent] “It’s nice to play in a different language, no?” [both laugh] It’s so thrilling for me to learn the French that was required and then to have a basic handle on French outside of that was such a thrill. It had this spark of a very private thing, it felt so intimate because I was doing something I literally couldn’t do with anyone else because I couldn’t speak French before that, but also because only Léa knew the answers to the lines we were doing. It felt wonderfully private. 

NSJ: You say that French can be a very private language and at the same time open and emotional, which is what the film is about.
GM: Totally. It’s about the question, “If we don’t have feelings, what are we?” Which is so true. It’s a very simple thing, “Why wouldn’t you tell me how your day is? What is going on?” There is a real value in what is actually going on rather than a value in being able to operate on top of that. I think that’s why it was such a joy to be a part of. The other thing about working in France is that cinema started there, so there is a reverence, enthusiasm and respect for the medium, and a love of cinema that is really profound and innate. Making a French film in France was a real privilege. 

NSJ: It’s an absolute dream. I never usually say I’m anxious, but I felt very anxious coming out of that film. I felt the impending doom. Not to give any spoilers, but you have a Titanic moment which is amazing.
GM: I know, I noticed that! I was like, “This is Titanic!” [laughs]

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NSJ: You’re so open throughout the whole movie, and this relates to what we were just talking about – you are very open. When I worked with you, you were very open and I know you said you’re very English, but I’ve worked with you and I think you’re very generous and very vulnerable. You disappear into a character in a way that feels very natural.
GM: That’s very kind of you, thank you.

NSJ: So, my question is, how do you stay so open and not put things on top of what you’re doing?
GM: I think I’ve been lucky to be able to make choices in work. Often you’re still auditioning for things and you’re fighting for roles, but at the end of the day, you always have the power to say no to something. So, everything I’ve been a part of, I’ve really wanted to be part of what it’s exploring, what it’s saying. That’s because in some way, be it literal or equivalent, it relates to something I want to question or explore or shine a light on. That’s the beauty and confusion of acting, I feel a personal connection with every character I’ve played, and I know that I will do for the rest of my life. There is a strand of yourself in there, I totally believe in it because it’s something that is in me somewhere, maybe not in the exact context of the history or the circumstance, but what that person is representing. The truth comes in the initial choice, then it’s just about building the world and that comes with working with someone like you. Not to blow smoke, but I enjoyed working with you so much because you come with the same openness and I felt very safe with you. I felt like we quickly built this world together and you respect how other people build their characters as well. Working opposite you and seeing what you did with Jules, I so respect the truth you’ve brought to that character, how alive and three-dimensional that is.

NSJ: Speaking about exploring and believing, do you feel like you circle the same question throughout your body of work, or are you exploring a similar idea? Much like in La Bête where they explored their love story over and over again.
GM: Yeah, I think so. I can’t remember exactly who it was, but it was a much older actor and someone named their throughline like, “Every character [they play] in some context is dealing with x” – and suddenly you see it. I think some of that will be unconscious. There’s probably a fundamental thing I’m intrigued by, which I almost don’t know if I want to say out loud so that it doesn’t become too clear. But I think I’ve started to recognise that a little bit, which also makes you want to buck against it. Maybe the throughline is such a simple, fundamental question about yourself or about the world that it’s relevant to many different contexts or conundrums, and that expresses itself in a number of different people and characters. I think you’re safe as long as they’re not in the same circumstance, then it can be applicable to the way that life moves and changes, and it’s certainly moved and changed as I’ve got older.

NSJ: I think you’re right, we do change, and you’ve changed since I’ve known you.
GM: Yeah, for sure.

NSJ: Before we talk about Femme, I heard that in French cinema, French actors go for directors more than story or characters. I think I’m probably looking more at character right now to stretch myself, what drives you to jump into a story or a character?
GM: There’s usually a gut instinct and you’re just like, “OK, this one is happening. This is unavoidable.” There is a gut instinct which is clear, then again it moves and changes, it’s always an amalgamation of story, character and director.

NSJ: Maybe not now, but before I always thought about location. [laughs]
GM: It’s becoming director more and more for me because at the minute I have a real fascination with the three-dimensional aspect of storytelling. I worked with an actor, Eddie Marsan, who I’ve revered ever since, and he spoke in passing about how you’re just facilitating the story. As a fan of film, TV and cinema, as much as the story is everything, I’m fascinated with the medium. I want to be part of those visions that recalibrate how we think about things and make work in the future. My dream is to be part of those fundamentally medium-shifting projects.

“I’m inspired by someone who breaks new ground by combining something that hasn’t been done before, when someone makes something new out of a beautiful concoction.”

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NSJ: Had you worked with [co-] directors before working on Femme, was that something that attracted you?
GM: When we did our chemistry test, seeing how they worked as a pair was great. Between the two of them there was always a more structural approach of, “Here’s the scaffolding, this is what it needs to be, this is what it needs to drive.” So you’re doing the maths, you get a metaphorical situation and they’re going, “While you’re thinking about that scaffolding, you’ve got a wedding ring in your pocket and he’s just broken up with you.” Then you’re like, “Oh, I get the stakes now in a way I didn’t understand it before.”

NSJ: I love a metaphor. I didn’t realise until I spoke to them and they were like, “You love a metaphor.” I was like, “Do I?” [both laugh] They’re really obscure as well, I love it.
GM: I love a metaphor. I was watching some press from Oppenheimer and Cillian Murphy spoke about what Christopher Nolan had said when he’d come in for a scene swinging big. Nolan said, “He’s a chess player, not a boxer.” That recalibrates everything without saying anything specific, you just know.

NSJ: Someone said to me, I think it was Dominic Cooke, that I needed to treat each different character like they were a leaky bucket. [both laugh]
GM: That’s great.

NSJ: You have to waddle with them and really take care, but also be annoyed with them at the same time. [laughs] I was like, “That really, really works.”
GM: I worked with a director, Matthew Warchus, we did a play together called The Caretaker and he said, “I like to think of each character as one of the objects or items on stage.” My character was a knife, someone else was an old sock, and someone else was the broken toaster. [laughs] Once you see that, it becomes clear. I love all of that stuff because it’s so open but it’s also so clear when you’ve got three objects and you’re like, “OK, this is used for this, this one could be really bad if it’s used for that, this one has the potential for this, this one doesn’t work because of that.” Therefore, it’s quite clear that certain things fit in certain places, and some of the drama is trying to make that toaster into a knife.

NSJ: I might use that, I’m going to work out what objects my characters are. Do you remember the first time we met?
GM: At our audition, yeah.

NSJ: No.
GM: What?!

NSJ: The first time I met you was at The Old Vic when you were doing The Caretaker.
GM: Oh my god.

NSJ: I don’t know why I ended up in your dressing room, I was with Antonia Thomas and I don’t know what was going on. It was really brief, we literally shook hands and that was it.
GM: Oh my god, I’m so sorry I didn’t remember that. I remember I was really hyped up at the end of each performance of that show.

NSJ: What object would I have been? A very forgettable one. [both laugh]
GM: No!

NSJ: I can’t remember why I came in. It was between shows.
GM: I loved double days.

NSJ: Did you?! I can’t do it.
GM: I loved it, I haven’t done it for a while.

NSJ: I just want to sleep between shows and I get stressed if I don’t stick to a routine. It’s all about your body – sleep, shit and pee at the right times. If you get it wrong! I had a bit of an issue once where my body wanted to do something at the wrong time and it was nightly for two weeks. Ten minutes before my first entrance I needed to go to the loo and I was like, “No!”
GM: The stress.

NSJ: It was stress and nerves. I can’t do two shows, one show in one night is fine.
GM: Last time I saw you on stage was Angels in America, which was an absolute behemoth of a show.

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NSJ: That was crazy and I got into a very good routine with it.
GM: What was your routine?

NSJ: In London, I would go on for my first scene and then I had an hour and a half off. I smoked back then so I would go for a cigarette, then I would run a bath, sit in it and watch Love Island.
GM: Did you have a bath in your dressing room?

NSJ: Someone loved me at the National Theatre because I got a bath. I had an hour and a half off and it was the Love Island summer with Chris and Olivia so I just sat there watching it until half an hour before I had to go on.
GM: I would get too anxious. For The Caretaker, I was on for the very first scene for 30 seconds and then I was off for 45 minutes. I went upstairs to the rehearsal room and I’d just run monologues and walk around like a boxer, doing all these tongue twisters.

NSJ: If it’s for 30 or 45 minutes then you’ve got to keep it taught but I was like, “I can’t stay in this elevated state off stage for an hour and a half.” The second time we met was the chemistry read for Femme, which we do have to talk about. Do you remember that day?
GM: Totally! I got there and you had finished work about thirteen minutes before the audition and you had to leave for work in another country about twelve minutes after the audition. You’d come off a night shoot, I remember you had black coffee in this wee cafetiere and you were delirious. Preston is supposed to be rough and tough and I was not, I was this skinny wee thing and you came in looking so muscular from your current character. We were both concerned with you looking smaller and me looking bigger. We went outside to run the scene, you kneeled on the sofa and then just fell forward in a slightly hysterical way. You were so tired that you were so hyper. I remember stroking your hair and your shoulder being like, “You’ll be fine.” You were like, “We’ll be fine won’t we?” I was like, “I think we’ll be fine.” [both laugh] We had a coffee and then we began. We got chatting and then all of a sudden, Julie [Harkin, casting director] came out and said, “We’re ready for you.” When we ran the restaurant scene we did it twice and the second time there was
a moment of excitement where I was like, “Wow, I think we just clicked.”

NSJ: I felt like we clicked. I saw you go in before me so I waited. [laughs] I was like, “I’m not going on with him, I’m going to have my own entrance.” I just remember you really looking after me, I was so tired and I don’t think I was honest with anyone other than you about how tired I was. I remember doing the scene on the sofa and it felt right, then we did the attack scene and you grew and I shrank.
GM: I remember trying to really go in with it on that one.

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“I want to be part of those visions that recalibrate how we think about things and make work in the future. My dream is to be part of those fundamentally medium-shifting projects.”

NSJ: I really leaned into my tiredness, I just went with it. [laughs] What was your experience of Femme? It was a really special experience for me, I loved it in a way that was kind of unexpected. It felt rare.
GM: Likewise, I think you’re completely right. It felt rare. It’s so dear to my heart because it was a wonderful group of people making it. It was a very young project as well, the crew were so young and everyone had a genuine enthusiasm. There was a real pace to it that I loved. It was a special concoction of script, characters and scenario. The script itself is turned up to eleven, it moves quickly. It’s a really bloody exciting story and the scenes are such high stakes. As an actor, it’s all the type of scenes you want, and to have that experience with you where amidst all the drag, the colour and the violence of it, there are really intimate and complex things being explored. That’s the root of it. The bit in lights is exciting, fun, wild, sexy and violent but it’s really complex and nuanced, getting to explore all of that was a real joy.

NSJ: It’s weird because it was a joy yet it’s a very confronting film and in a strange way somewhat divisive, but I had so much fun. I had to be scared every day more or less, but there was one day when I didn’t have to be and I was like, “Oh I don’t have to be scared today this feels really good.” [both laugh] When we were filming the PlayStation scene I was free of fear.
GM: Suddenly I had to go the other way.

NSJ: You were in the corner like, “What’s going on?” And I was like, “Yes!” [both laugh] It all just felt very light in a really strange way.
GM: It did. It also required you to be so open. The nasty scenes require an openness, the sex scenes require an openness, and it’s a chess game of the two characters the whole time.

NSJ: Who inspires you? Not just in terms of actors but in terms of writers, art, and music. I know you’re definitely into music, what do you draw on?
GM: Before getting into specific examples, I’m inspired by someone who breaks new ground by combining something that hasn’t been done before, when someone makes something new out of a beautiful concoction. Someone who goes, “Fuck it, this makes sense to me and you’ll catch up.”

NSJ: Someone who is a pioneer.
GM: Yeah, people who pioneer. My mum used to do costumes for the ballet and someone like [Rudolf] Nureyev is an absolute powerhouse who understands the industry they’re in, and as a craftsperson takes it to the next level. Someone who has a command over what they do and is interested in other forms of art. Someone like Steve McQueen and his first film Hunger.

NSJ: He’s a visual artist.
GM: That’s the thing, I didn’t know about Steve McQueen before I saw that film but then you realise he’s been taking all those lessons and things he’s crafted and put it into a story to make something new. Someone who crosses a boundary and someone who knows their craft really well, through being great at one thing before then moving into something else and blowing it wide open.

NSJ: You’re talking about artists basically, that’s what they do. They stir it all up and funnel it all into their craft. It’s beautiful.
GM: I also admire experts, I’m blessed to get to work with or meet people who are really good at what they do and you realise the amount they’ve done or the amount of work they’ve put in. I really respect that because it gives me hope I can get better, it’s not just a God-given thing where some people can wake up and do their thing every day, they are people who’ve been quietly practising.

NSJ: Think about The Beatles or ABBA and how much time they put into their craft. I love tennis and I always think about how much they practice that backhand and then it just becomes a beautiful, buttery slice.
GM: Totally. The beauty of it is you’re not meant to see or know any of that when you watch them take that shot.

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NSJ: We’re very lofty together.
GM: We’re getting existential here, you’ve got your glasses on, I’ve got a cup of tea. I’m just going to float around my home for the rest of the day after all this good stuff you’ve said.

NSJ: Give me a huge guilty pleasure of yours. For instance, mine would be Double Impact.
GM: I don’t know Double Impact.

NSJ: Jean-Claude Van Damme plays twins.
GM: Oh my god, really?! Wow. My immediate guilty pleasure is only guilty in the context of us having a lofty, pretentious conversation about art. I love watching UFC.

NSJ: You do!
GM: I am such a sucker for UFC Embedded. All of those training videos where you watch someone in a lobby, two minutes of their training, going on a big run and then talking to the camera for a while – I’m hooked. I go down those YouTube holes quite happily and readily. I think it’s a practice thing, UFC is a go-to when you’ve got ten minutes or when nature calls. In terms of a cinematic one, I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures. Everything I love I’m like, “Well it’s definitely the best film in the world.” Not because I think I have a good opinion, but just because it holds a place in my heart so I wouldn’t value it as a guilty pleasure, it’s purely a pleasure.

NSJ: You’ve done many Hollywood movies, do you think you’ll move towards there? Are you attracted to that? I’m going to make this a bid for you to be Bond.
GM: I think a villain might be good fun.

NSJ: A villain would be great.
GM: In all honesty, it is just about the story, I couldn’t have dreamt up the character of Preston. The same with the projects that have followed, I do think I have a reverence for those big cinema pieces. So many of the films I’m excited to see or have grown up loving are on that larger scale so I would love to be in the mix, but at the end of the day it’s just about what speaks to you and often those more complex, nuanced stories exist more in the indie realm. That’s why I have such hope for something like Femme, it’s rare that a complex nuanced story pops, but they absolutely should more often.

NSJ: I think we’re going back to something.
GM: I think so too. There is an amazing recalibration and I think you just have to keep doing them in the hope people will reciprocate those stories still being in the world.

NSJ: We are definitely in a place where we’re seeking more nuance. I like a spectacle but there’s a certain point where I need balance.
GM: I just feel very lucky to be working, I want to continue working, I want to get better at working and I want to be part of wonderful projects, that’s it. They’ll express themselves in whatever form they take and I’ll be lucky to be involved when they come along if and when they’ll have me. They will be the cycles and throughlines that, when we’re doing this as old men, we’ll be able to spot, but as life moves and changes it moves you towards different stories because of different things you want to express or figure out. They present themselves subconsciously sometimes, so who knows?

Femme is out in UK cinemas now.

Interview originally published in The Hero Winter Annual 2023. 




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