The Beast star George MacKay: ‘Léa Seydoux likes a laugh, so there was a lot of joy making this film about existential dread’

Audiences have been watching the actor grow up on screen for two decades. Now he’s appearing with the Bond star in Bertrand Bonello’s multilayered art-house movie

One could listen to the amiable George MacKay talk about his favourite actors all day long.

“For me it’s about the individual performances,” he says. “Stephen Graham blew my mind in Shane Meadows’s This Is England. I was just talking the other day about John Leguizamo in Romeo + Juliet. Daniel Day-Lewis in everything, but especially There Will Be Blood. Gary Oldman in Leon. Michael Fassbender in Hunger. I love those performances that are extra. And then, with Hunger, the director Steve McQueen stays with a scene where people are sweeping pee and you still can’t stop watching them. And that makes the experience even better.”

For two decades audiences have watched MacKay grow up on screen. He was a Lost Boy in the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan, became a politically radicalised teen in the 2013 film Pride, and experienced an off-the-grid, survivalist upbringing in Captain Fantastic, in 2016. “Captain Fantastic was genuinely one of the most exciting, blissful things have ever done,” says the actor. “I learned to make fire from scratch with a bow drill.” He mimes the action. “You cast away; you rub outwards; then it makes a fire. It was a great thing to learn.”

Aged 32, he remains keen to master new skills. He learned French for The Beast, Bertrand Bonello’s multilayered, multilingual art-house film, co-starring Léa Seydoux. It was a formidable education for MacKay, who was cast after the death of the film’s original star, Gaspard Ulliel.


“It’s existential and complex,” MacKay says of the dense script. “A big part of being in a French film is that there are not many British or American or Australian scripts that talk in those terms. People don’t discuss things in the same way. I had to prep so much because of the language. I had to learn it phonetically and then grammatically and then, of course, understand the translation so that it was all embedded in my head. One of the best parts of the job is learning about history, about politics, about cultures, about languages. I love those extra bits. I have a great appreciation and gratitude for learning to speak French well enough to do scenes with Léa.”

He was nervous about playing opposite Seydoux. The James Bond star proved an invaluable ally. “She’s just a wonderful person. She’s really supportive as a friend. She’s playful as an actor. She likes to have a laugh along the way. So there was a lot of joy making this film about existential dread.”

The Beast was inspired by Henry James’s short story The Beast in the Jungle, in which a buttoned-up man retreats from life because he is plagued by irrational premonitions of catastrophe. With echoes of The Fountain and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Bonello’s triptych features Seydoux and MacKay as Gabrielle and Louis, lovers trapped in a star-crossed romance that jumps across time. They live in Paris during the months before the great flood of 1910; in an internet-obsessed Hollywood around 2014; and when humans are offered a medical procedure that smothers all emotions, including love, in 2044.

“It was interesting because of the flip between the characters,” says MacKay. “One minute you are this quite dashing gentleman and the next you are most definitely not that. They are three different people, but they are also the same person. The whole idea of the film is to ask: who are any of us? What does our identity mean? How much of that is context? There is an existential fear that brings both characters together and that keeps them apart.”

Controversially, the contemporary section of the film was inspired by Elliot Rodger, who uploaded his “incel” manifesto to YouTube before embarking on a spree during which he killed six people and injured 14 others in Santa Barbara, in California, in May 2014. MacKay hadn’t encountered the term “incel” until he was cast in The Beast.

“I’m so far away from that culture,” he says. “The only social media I have ever used is Facebook, at school. My character has a lack of responsibility that is a manifestation of his fear. That lack of responsibility suits the playboy in 1910 well. But that same insecurity and fear in America in 2014, with the internet exacerbating a sense of competitiveness with other men, is a different place. If you get someone who’s a bit obsessive, and you direct them to something that they’re good at, they become that. But then, without that direction, that same obsession becomes madness. It turns in on itself or it turns against others.”

MacKay’s willingness to learn French is emblematic of both the actor’s commitment and his range. He bulked up and formed a punk band in preparation for his brilliant titular turn in the 2019 film version of the Peter Carey novel True History of the Kelly Gang. He hung out at the Imperial War Museum and remained constantly on the move as the lead in 1917, Sam Mendes’s supposedly one-shot first World War drama. He has, additionally, been cast alongside Tilda Swinton, Michael Shannon and Bronagh Gallagher in Joshua Oppenheimer’s top-secret, keenly anticipated apocalyptic musical, The End. This isn’t MacKay’s first turn on the mic. He previously starred in the Marc Evans-directed musical film Hunky Dory opposite Minnie Driver. He received considerable acclaim as a singing Scottish soldier in The Proclaimers’s jukebox musical, Sunshine on Leith.

Oppenheimer’s film is different, he says.

“I’m not sure I can even say that much,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s about a family who live in a bunker, and what a pressure-cooker situation it is just trying to survive. It’s a very particular and nuanced way of looking at things. There’s so much s**t going on in the world, and I guess that we are all guilty to an extent of prioritising ourselves over other beings. That is totally human, but that view also has ramifications. And that’s something that Josh understands very well. I just was so very pleased to be a part of it.”

The Beast opens in cinemas on Friday, May 31st