'True History of the Kelly Gang' star George MacKay: Ned Kelly was a hero and a villain (exclusive)

Stefan Pape

It's been a whirlwind few months for George MacKay, culminating in a trip to Hollywood for the Oscars, representing Sam Mendes's acclaimed 1917 as its star.

No sooner has the dust settled on awards season and MacKay's back on our screens already, this time playing Ned Kelly in Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang. As the legendary outlaw, he's spoilt with a hugely complex and fascinating character, and one that blurs the line good and bad.

“I thought [Ned Kelly] was both [a hero and a villain],” 27-year-old MacKay tells Yahoo.

“An identity, be it your own or be it the character's, first and foremost is who you are inside. I can see the truth and the reason in everything he's doing. But I can also completely see from outside of that some of it was deeply wrong.

Read more: 1917 wins Best Picture BAFTA

“That's the beauty of the character. That's how complex humans are, and society is.”

George McKay as Ned Kelly. (Picturehouse Entertainment)

The tale of Ned Kelly is a famous one in Australia and though the ensemble are mainly Aussies, there could be a risk hiring a Brit in the lead role, similar to the backlash received when Cynthia Erivo was cast to play the inspiring historical figure Harriet Tubman in Harriet.

But Kurzel tells us that in this instance it hasn't been contentious at all, citing MacKay's Australian 'DNA' as an explanation.

(Picturehouse Entertainment)

“There's been more of a backlash because the boys are wearing dresses,” Kurzel begins.

“George's father is Australian and he's spent a lot of time there. His DNA when he came in, there's something that feels very Australian about him. So I never felt it had to be an Australia it just had to be the right actor, and George was that.”

Ned and Dan Kelly led a band of outlaw bushrangers active in Victoria and New South Wales in the late 19th century. Illustration from Illustrated London News, September 11, 1880. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Reflecting on his experience with 1917, MacKay expressed gratitude for being part of its award-winning story.

1917 was wonderful, it's been mad,” he said.

Read more: The ambitious long takes in movie history

“The best thing about it is that there was a beautiful alignment that came with the making of that film, every shot had to work and it's a wonderful thing when you have a special time on a project and it doesn't always happen that the project is received with the same love you felt doing it, and that just is how it is.

“But what's lovely for this one it's been aligned. It's been received really nicely too.”

True History of the Kelly Gang is released in cinemas on 28 February.