George MacKay reaches into his backpack and pulls out a squeezy bottle of honey, squirting it into his americano. “It’s a bit eccentric,” he says sheepishly. He picked up the behavior years in the past on a shoot in Australia; recognising that requesting a pot of honey is perhaps perceived as “a barely wanky ask”, he carries his personal provide as a substitute. That is typical MacKay – charming, discreet, and greater than somewhat involved about giving others the fallacious thought.

On display, MacKay continuously performs characters who’re suffocated by the codes of conventional masculinity, and turned merciless by them, too. The actor’s breakout position was in Sam Mendes’s Oscar-winning struggle blockbuster 1917, which performs out as one dizzying, unbroken shot. MacKay’s face – weak, decided, devastated – carried the movie’s dwelling stretch. Since then, he has veered in the direction of grittier tasks, portraying an offended, closeted thug (the subversive Femme, for which he gained a British impartial movie award), a person who believes he’s a wild animal (Wolf) and a macho outlaw wearing drag (True Historical past of the Kelly Gang). Right this moment, upstairs on the BFI Southbank and overlooking the Thames, we’re discussing MacKay’s new movie, The Beast. A superb, demented techno-thriller co-starring Léa Seydoux, it’s directed by French provocateur Bertrand Bonello, and loosely primarily based on the Henry James novella The Beast within the Jungle.

The movie follows a doomed romance between Gabrielle (Seydoux) and Louis (MacKay) throughout three totally different timelines: Paris, in 1910, simply previous to the Nice Flood; in Los Angeles, circa 2014; and in 2044, when nearly all of Paris’s workforce has been changed by synthetic intelligence. On this future dystopia, people should endure a medical process (it entails a bath full of black goo) that wipes them of the flexibility to really feel feelings, so as to higher compete with the machines.

Time after time … Léa Seydoux and George MacKay in The Beast. {Photograph}: Carole Bethuel

Bonello had written the a part of Louis for the French actor Gaspard Ulliel, with whom he labored on 2014’s Saint Laurent. However after Ulliel died in a snowboarding accident in 2022, Bonello started trying exterior France for a alternative. MacKay says he “scraped previous GCSE French” however hadn’t touched it since. He learn the script in translation, auditioned in English, after which set about studying French for the position.

The prospect of enjoying reverse one in all France’s finest working actors was “nerve-racking at first, as a result of clearly she’s Léa Seydoux”. MacKay wished to grasp the language, not simply the traces. “I didn’t need my providing to her to be the identical each time,” he says. He got here to set ready; Seydoux was impressed. “The very first day of filming, Léa smiled at me, and mentioned: ‘It’s enjoyable to play in French, non?’” he says, grinning.

Throughout time and area, Seydoux’s character navigates abandoned discotheques, freaky plastic dolls and an “incel” who’s silently stalking her. In all three dimensions, Gabrielle finds herself haunted by an ineffable sense of dread – a “beast” that retains her remoted, and halts her from falling in love. Based on MacKay, the couple are drawn to at least one one other due to their shared “worry of affection”.

Within the movie’s 1910 part – a beautiful, widescreen interval drama shot in 35mm movie – Louis’s romantic reticence is an asset, given the foundations and repression of the time. “He was nonetheless erotic and flirtatious, as a result of touching somebody’s hand illicitly is as charged as going dwelling with them,” says MacKay. Within the 2014 part, Bonello bombards the display with web pop-ups. Unable to dwell as much as the expectations created by social media, Louis’s shyness curdles into incel self-loathing and spite. After which there’s future Louis, who contemplates having these anxieties erased.

Within the movie’s 2014 part, MacKay’s dialogue is lifted verbatim from the video diaries of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year outdated “incel” who shot six college students after which himself the identical yr. MacKay performs Louis Lewanski, coldly inhabiting the misogyny of a self-hating grownup virgin. Earlier than making the movie, he didn’t know what an incel was (“I assumed that was a tech time period as a result of they gamed or one thing, I didn’t realise it meant involuntary celibate”), and had by no means heard of Rodger. He primarily based his character on Rodger’s YouTube vlogs, and regarded up his 137-page manifesto. “The fears he had: being an adolescent and being like, ‘What if I kiss somebody and it’s unhealthy? What if I’m not good at intercourse?’ I recognized with these worries,” he says.

Thug life … George MacKay in Femme. {Photograph}: Rory Murphy/Signature Leisure

Though he’s clear that he doesn’t condone Rodger’s behaviour, he understood the seed of it, which he says grew into one thing darkish and harsh. An identical rage grips MacKay’s character in Femme, who can be pushed to violence by his personal sexual disgrace. “Femme is definitely about interior subversion,” he says, of his macho character Preston, whose gruff, tattooed exterior belies an attraction to Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s drag queen, Jules.

“I believe I had fairly a standard sense of masculinity when it comes to the boys that I admired rising up,” says MacKay. His father was the household breadwinner, working backstage within the theatre, whereas his mum, a dressing up designer, ran their dwelling. “Him being away so much was a bodily illustration of how arduous he labored. I’ve at all times thought that’s what a person does,” he says.

As a child, he says, he by no means noticed his dad cry. However in 2002, MacKay bought his first large job as one of many Misplaced Boys in Peter Pan. The shoot was in Australia. “I used to be 10, and when he took us to the airport, he wept. I keep in mind being rocked by seeing my dad cry,” he says. “My mum says: ‘One of the best factor about your dad is how in contact together with his female facet he’s,’” he provides, describing that sensitivity as a high quality he reveres.

MacKay, who’s 32, has been exploring what it means to be a person in his work, he says, “as a result of my position as a person is altering massively”. He has lately change into a mother or father, and has been noticing “a whole recalibration of what’s constructive about masculinity within the final decade”. Energy, management, endurance – these are now not considered a person’s area, he says. He cites his spouse, mom, sister and agent as examples, after which cringes, nervous he’s coming off as patronising. He’s been asking himself why he feels the should be a sure means as a father. “Now I’ve skilled how generally work might be simpler than your private life, I can see my mum was a frontrunner, too,” he says.

The Beast is a slinky and anxious movie, borrowing tropes from slasher horror, catastrophe motion pictures and science fiction to create one thing completely new. MacKay says he finds the movie’s imagined future its most annoying setting. With its empty streets and beige garments, Bonello’s 2044 is devoid of friction. AI has cleansed people of their skill to really feel.

When the movie premiered on the Venice movie competition final yr, it was in the midst of the Sag-Aftra labour strike that noticed display actors and writers combating for, amongst different issues, higher protections in opposition to AI. Each MacKay and Seydoux refused to cross the picket line. “If, facially, you might be repeated, and also you don’t must get actors on set, it takes away the crew that comes with bodily filming,” he says animatedly. It takes away individuals’s jobs, too. “Which is why economically it is smart to the studios,” he says, “nevertheless it’s a detriment to the employees.”

MacKay’s ideas are clear; he’s bought the floppy hair and sharp cheekbones of somebody destined for Hollywood, however retains getting drawn to spikier and harder roles. For him, the entire level of The Beast is “difficult this algorithmic means of writing”. He notes that its construction is uncommon, as is the best way it appears, and its three timelines. And whereas it’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, MacKay says, he hopes it can provoke at the very least yet another author to assume exterior the field. “Possibly they’ll go: ‘After I write my movie, I’ll do it in 5 time zones,’ after which they write a fucking masterpiece.” MacKay could even star in it.

The Beast is out in cinemas 31 Might.

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