George MacKay quickly rose to fame after starring in Sam Mendes’ critically acclaimed war drama 1917. His latest project, Wolf, is incredibly unique and far more taboo for most audiences. Following Jacob, a young man who believes he’s a wolf trapped in a human body, MacKay further showcases how much of an unprecedented acting force he really is by fully committing to the physicality of a wild animal. When Jacob is sent to a clinic and is forced to undergo increasingly extreme forms of therapy, he must face the ultimate decision to obey or become his true self – a theme that writer/director Nathalie Biancheri explores in a surprisingly poignant way.
A role this psychically and psychologically demanding is no easy feat. Luckily, we were able to get a peek into MacKay’s creative process during our exclusive interview! We dive deep into how he got into the animal psyche of his character, what it was like making a film just after the initial pandemic-driven lockdown, and his on-screen relationship with co-star Lily-Rose Depp. As a bonus, he gives us his own reading on the ambiguous ending of Wolf.
Let’s start at the very beginning, how did you first get involved in Wolf?
George MacKay: It was about February last year and Nathalie [Biancheri] sent me the script, and there was a lookbook as well which sort of outlined her vision for the piece. So when I read the script and watched Nathalie’s first film [Nocturnal], I knew that I had to be involved.
We began the film in April and we had one week’s rehearsal, then we were going to take a two-week break before continuing rehearsals and in that time, the pandemic and the lockdown in the UK and Ireland hit. But the one thing that time really gave us is that it allowed us to prep for months, in our own time, which was amazing. In that first week of rehearsals, we planted a bunch of ideas within each other and started working together, but then had the time to really let that settle in.
The film tackles species dysphoria, how much did you know about it before reading the script?
George MacKay: To be honest, I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t heard of it before, so it was amazing to find out about it. But that said, in terms of playing Jacob, I didn’t really do much research at all into species dysphoria because I thought to him, he doesn’t feel he has that, he just identifies as a wolf. So I went very purely down the wolf side of things, explored what it means to be wild, what it is to be an animal and other ways of expressing that. So that was kind of the jump-off point, but I chose to look purely into what it was to be a wolf.
How long was your research to really get into Jacob’s mind and psyche?
George MacKay: As long as we had really. We used every moment, and despite it being for the pandemic, which is obviously a very serious happening, those two and a half months it afforded us was so important. For one, the physical side of things, I wouldn’t have been able to move in the way that I was able to because it would have only been two weeks practice from having found the crawl, and we discovered so much in that first week that we hadn’t even thought of, so then to practice that for two or three months was really useful.
Across that time as well, Nathalie and I would speak and we’d write diary entries of Jacob and send them back and forth. We began to get a sense, because he’s such a silent character, to know what his sort of backstory was. It helped us know what those silences were filled with and we would speak very personally, almost like you can with a family member or a friend, you can say something that would make sense to them but no one else will really get it. And that’s how we spoke about Jacob quite a lot of the time.
The diary entries you mentioned there, were they written in first-person? How did you go about approaching them?
George MacKay: Actually, the scene in the film when he’s having his diary read out loud, that’s a mixture of Nathalie’s original script and then my own diary entry in first-person. It’s all about finding what I found difficult and where I sort of realized my limitations in moving like an animal, and the things I found the hardest and heartbreaking when you feel stunted, where I just can’t get past these parts of me which just don’t work in the way that they should. When I shared that with Nathalie, she really liked it so that ended up being in the film.
In terms of working with director Nathalie Biancheri, how much more collaboration was involved?
George MacKay: Nathalie is so open, really encourages collaboration, and wanted to share the experience. However, she’s also so strong in her own vision and so clear about the way that she wants to find the film and how she wants to put it across. The cinema she reveres and the art that she likes is always very strong. She’s a great lover of books and cinema, she appreciates a very personal vision of things. It was just a joy. She really helped me to find Jacob in a way I couldn’t have on my own because it took her probing and vice versa to open the character up.
Your physicality in the film is incredible, how did you practice the movement of wolves?
George MacKay: It was a mixture. We started out working with this amazing movement coach named Terry Notary, who has done work on the Planet of the Apes films. He is also in a film called The Square and there is a scene in it where a guy is being an ape and he just doesn’t stop and that’s Terry. I remember seeing that scene and thinking, excuse my French, fucking hell because I was so blown away by it.
Working with Terry was amazing, and to be honest, the first bit of work we did before it was the obvious crawling was just figuring out what is it to be more animal than human. We played around with this idea of being very in your body, in terms of feeling things with your gut and not thinking basically, because so often as humans we have an impulse and then we check it, for better or for worse. Part of us goes, okay I should say that or I reckon this will happen if I say that, and that is just so much noise going on all the time in your brain.
We did a lot of meditative work so that I could experience what it was to be without all of that noise and actually how powerful it is to be without thought, which I think is another reason to want to be an animal for Jacob. I’ve always felt that Jacob is a wolf in a man’s body, but you can kind of go, if he was a human who identified as a wolf, then maybe that’s one of the reasons for it, because it’s a very sort of powerful and peaceful place to be, not listening to all the voices in your head telling you how to behave.
As much as this role is physically demanding it must have been quite intense psychologically as well. What did you do to keep yourself grounded while shooting?
George MacKay: Our situation lent itself to the shooting in terms of, we were one of the first productions to come back after that initial Covid lockdown and with it being a lower budget film, we didn’t have the budget for lots and lots of testing. So what we did is we bubbled in a hotel, so anytime we weren’t at work, we were at the hotel. For the nine weeks of the rehearsals and filming, other than to go and film, we didn’t leave that hotel. There was a path outside that we could walk on, but otherwise, we didn’t go to a shop, we didn’t get coffee, we didn’t go to the laundry.
We had this room where we would just go and play board games, have a movie night, or just get takeaways and be with each other. People brought their guitars and things like that. Everyone involved in the film who had to be in that bubble, we sort of just created our own little world in the hotel that kept us sane, or at least sane to us, we were probably insane to everyone else.
Do you think living in that hotel environment with the rest of the cast helped getting into the mindset of being in the institution that Wolf is set in?
George MacKay: I think it lends itself because there were certain times where being fresh off the back of the pandemic, that experience of not being able to go out was still very fresh and feeling like you’re banging against the walls and sometimes you just want to be with people or be out and set free, which on one hand speaks to the animal nature of some of the characters and on the other hand the safety that came with the lockdown as well of not having to go out or I don’t have to speak to people, much like these characters and Jacob as well. I think it’s not purely the primal want to be free, it’s also perhaps something about protecting yourself as well. The bubbling leaned itself to the process, but also the experience that everyone had been through just before.
You worked with a great ensemble including Lily-Rose Depp, what was it like working with her?
George MacKay: It was a real pleasure, Lily is such a wonderful actress and also just a wonderful person. The biggest thing was her enthusiasm, everyone involved was enthusiastic but especially Lily and I with our relationship. What we had to do is kind of strange, you’ve got to put yourself out there by behaving like an animal. They’re emotionally, very intimate scenes, but on the surface very strange scenes as well. At no point was there any judgment, which is really necessary in doing a project like this.
Now this question goes slightly into spoiler territory in terms of how Wolf ends, but I’m intrigued to know what you think happens to Jacob after that final scene?
George MacKay: That is so interesting. One of the diary entries Nathalie had me do was write one where Jacob is like 20 years on and what the reality of that is. What I love about the ending is that it is kind of imperfect. The perfect nature of it is that he has been absolutely true to his integrity. He’s been true to himself, but what’s imperfect about it is that it’s not necessarily going to be an easy life.
That’s what I found really beautiful, sad, and inspiring about the ending in terms of Jacob. So in reality, I don’t actually know. I think it would be a very isolated and hard kind of pure existence. I believe he would, as much as he could, live out in the woods, hunt for his food, and try to survive as a wolf and as an animal. But the reality of doing that in his skin would be very, very difficult. So beyond the film, it’s a beautifully true but difficult life.
We kept working on that scene the day that we were filming it. In the original draft, he actually articulated a lot of what he was feeling and I remember saying to Nathalie that he’s become a wolf at this point and I didn’t think it was right that where he’s the most animal he’s ever been, he’s articulating himself so clearly as a human. In a way that lends itself to that ambiguity of the ending, where that’s what felt right for the character and is ultimately what we ended up doing and it leaves it with the audience to decide what it all means beyond that moment.
To finish off the interview, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?
George MacKay: In the story sense, I hope that people take some form of inspiration about being true to yourself and not letting yourself be beaten down by your fears. Then in an artistic sense, I hope that people appreciate the effort of the film in terms of it being unique and that it is kind of strange and appreciate the celebration of that. It is difficult to be objective about something you’re in, but I’ve not seen films like Wolf, for better or for worse. That doesn’t mean that it’s a great film, obviously, I’m very proud of it but it just is its own thing and I hope that artistically people find something in that too.