George MacKay on Fighting for Bertrand Bonello’s Film, Learning French, and Modern Incel Culture

There’s little precedent for what George MacKay does in The Beast, a multilingual production that required the English star to learn French for extended sequences. It’s one thing if this were a buttoned-up, altogether bland drama that is never seen on North American screens after its obligatory TIFF premiere; it’s quite another to be the new film by Bertrand Bonello which also requires he play, in the film’s central section, a take on the murderous progenitor of modern incel culture. One imagines many offers since ten-time Oscar nominee 1917 were more commercial.

Thus I wanted to get insight into MacKay’s process. As my interviews with Bertrand Bonello and Léa Seydoux cover, respectively, the film’s creation and its star’s personal philosophy, MacKay and I discussed certain of the practical decision-making that went into his appearing here, some newfound possibilities of French-language productions, and The Beast‘s dark paths.

The Film Stage: I assume you got to know the city well while shooting The Beast. By the beach, driving around late at night…

George MacKay: Just lurking around in that big Jeep. It’s funny: less than what you may think was filmed in L.A. A lot of it was cheated in the south of France.

No kidding!

Yeah. We were in Nice more than we were in L.A. Movie magic.

Foolishly, I thought they captured it so well.

It’s funny. We got our money’s worth in the few days that we were here: filming downtown, even some of the iPhone stuff. It was like, “Right! Let’s get to some L.A. sights.” Let’s make this undeniable. But the house was all in the south of France and all the surrounding areas.

Part of why I wanted to talk to you is: not only do I think your performance is so outstanding, but it feels like one of the more amazing gestures a young, English-speaking actor has made lately: you get involved with this French arthouse director’s new, very ambitious feature that was originally going to star Gaspard Ulliel, who tragically passed away, while the film requires you to learn French and, of course, speak it. So I’m curious about some of the practical, ground-level conversations you may have had with agents, managers, etc. about doing this film that’s not exactly a major commercial entity from the outset––especially after 1917, when one might presume there’s swirling interest in bigger, more mainstream projects in the offing. I also understand if you can’t quite answer this on-the-record.

No, no. To be honest: it’s my honor to be part of it. I think you’ve got one of France’s best directors; you’ve got one of the best actresses in the world; you’ve got a script like I’ve never read before, that talks in terms that, as a Brit––and I’m lucky enough to read many British scripts, and Australian and British projects––I’ve never heard characters talk in those terms, as romantically, as existentially; to have a film that was shot in three different mediums. As a fan of cinema and as wanting to be better as an actor, and to kind of progress my learning, you don’t get a better opportunity than this. And in wanting to continue growing as an actor, a process of work always factors massively into my choices––as to what I’ll be required to learn. In terms of: if it’s a theater piece, how will that affect the voice work that I have to do, having not been to drama school; if it’s 1917, how are we going to tell a story that is essentially non-stop and you have to know the camera in a way that another project which says, “I don’t want you to know.” I wasn’t involved in Zone of Interest––I would’ve loved to been––but there would’ve been a process where, “You’re not going to see the cameras. I don’t want you to try to play so the look of the light hits you. I want you to exist in the house.”

That is part of a process I’ve learned. So therefore the French language was a big part of the process of how to do something that is [Laughs] literally foreign, and trying to have an understanding of how to act in that language. Just simply to learn more. So those are the kinds of things that drove me to it. And the script was so special, and as a person and as an actor, I’m fascinated by this idea of, like… as I get older almost more so. Because, again, this question involves an element of other people’s perception of yourself––like an identity. A person is a makeup of who you are to yourself and how much that is moved and changed or affected by the world that you’re in, and how much who you are to other people is also what they impress upon you. The fact that I got to play the same person, so Bertrand’s challenge was essentially, “Figure out what this one person’s core is and then have a go at why that care would turn into the 1910 Louis––the English bachelor––and why he would turn into an incel serial killer, and why he would turn into a kind of angst-ridden, philosophical young man in Paris.” So all of those questions are too brilliant to turn away from. It’s my privilege to be a part of it than anything that has a sort of larger reach, in terms of commercial reach. But these are the films that I’m inspired by and would love to be a part of. As well as, of course, love any kind of commercial cinema.

But I also feel that there’s a bunch of unoriginality out there in the choices as to what material gets made, what material gets funded, and I think we have a duty to try to agitate culture. And if this becomes a success in people’s minds––either critically or box-office-wise––it does a job in expanding what is therefore commercial or what people… it kind of moves the boundaries, so to speak. And without sounding like too much of a white knight––”That’s what we were doing with this!”––at the end of the day it just spoke to everyone involved. But I do think, in relation to the broader aspects of your original question, that was definitely part of what factored into what I’d like to be in service of as an actor. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what you are: you’re in service of a story or a cinematic vision. Without sounding too pretentious.

No, that’s great. And it seems like it just wasn’t that complicated a negotiation or initiation process.

No, I was hungry for it. I auditioned for it as well. I fought to be in the mix. It was, of course, a consideration that it originated out of a very tragic circumstance and trying to be respectful of that. But when I read the script, it was an English translation and it was one of the best things I’ve ever read; I’d never read anything like it. So to audition for Bertrand was my joy. The next step of that was, “Okay, there will be more French.” [Laughs] So I then came in to read with Léa and basically my audition scene was the first scene where they’re together, at the gallery, but that was an entirely English-language audition for my first, and then the second was essentially to do that audition with Léa in the French, between the French and English.

Have you found this new language aptitude is leading to other opportunities? I don’t know if it’s opened gateways with filmmakers, producers, and the like, or if it’s even something you hope to pursue a bit more.

Not of the minute. There’s not been phone calls yet from French directors, which I’d love to work with. But I’m totally open to it. If I’m really, totally honest: it took me a lot of work to get to the level that I did there, so I’m under no aspersions that “I can totally do French movies now.” Because without Léa’s English, without Bertrand’s English, the process of being directed––of explaining and talking about the scenes––I wouldn’t be able to have in a foreign language, and that is more than the process which ends up onscreen, usually. But there are so many great foreign filmmakers that I would love to work with and just hope that this sort of… that they can trust, if there was something of another language that needed to be spoken, I would be up for learning it as much as I could.

Bonello’s creative enterprise specifically seems like it excited you. Did you know his films much beforehand?

To be honest: I didn’t know Bertrand’s films. I knew, when the email came in of the script, I did some immediate research and therefore was aware of what regard he was held in. I sort of immediately went, “Oh, my word. I’ve not seen these films.” Over the process, I have not seen his entire back catalog, but watched a bunch of his films. And it was interesting, because I think within this––and I’m sure it will continue in the films that he makes beyond this––it does seem either a culmination or a continuation of certain themes that he’s looking at in his work. In terms of images, in terms, thematically, of equivalent questions

And I think that’s actually a really interesting thing: the forms which they take and the context in how they’re expressed when there’s a throughline to those questions and a deepening of those questions. I think there’s something really strong about that––when someone’s still going deeper and deeper on it. This certainly feels to be an extension of the things that he’s exploring as an artist. Do you know the radio show in England, Desert Island Discs?


There’s a great episode with Tom Hanks where, really perceptively, the presenter nails his through line. It’s the first time I’ve considered that people have a through line in all the work they do. She says, “All your characters look at this.” And he breaks down. It’s really amazing.

Bonello’s musical aptitude is extraordinary––the original scores, of course, but also the needledrops.

Yeah. [Laughs]

Obviously you can’t hear something like the Roy Orbison song the same way again.

Oh, no. No.

About ten years ago Bonello and I talked––granted, that’s a while back––but he said he has a history of making actors mix CDs. Did he do that? Or give you any music for a kind of “headspace” thing?

That’s interesting. No, he didn’t. I would’ve loved it. I kind of made my own mixtape of songs in the film. And it’s funny: I had one song that I stumbled across on Spotify. Two songs, actually, that I listened to countless, over and over. They somehow seemed to… there’s one, particularly. I actually don’t know what kind of instrument it’s played on; it’s a strange classical piece that turns into a more sweeping string quartet. It’s got this looping––the “le-le-le-le-le, le-le-le-le-le”––quality to it. That song really struck me over the process of the film, and that was kind of like my song for that process. I remember listening to that and another song, particularly, on the Eurostar back and forth to the auditions and thinking “I really want this role.” Bertrand called me personally to say “I want you to play the role.” I was actually at my agent’s office in London and I walked to where I had to get to next, and I put that song straight on, walking down Tottenham Court Road with that song blasting in my ears. Maybe, almost spiritually, Bertrand put me in that direction.

There’s a question of research and involvement. The script took at-times-verbatim excerpts from Elliot Rodger’s videos and manifestos. Obviously it’s quite disturbing, and the film engenders this uncertain reaction––nervous laughs and still silence in the audience––while your performance is very lived-in, very authentic-seeming. Were you doing any personal research into Rodger’s material? Certainly that’s a dark place to go to.

Yeah, I definitely looked. I wasn’t aware of Elliot Rodger before the, again, connection was made specific, so I looked at his manifesto; I looked at all the videos that were available. I kind of magpied quite a lot of his mannerisms and made, I guess, my own interpretation of why he held himself the way that he did and what he was trying to say, and trying to use the bits that I found relevant to Louis Lewanski, who I was playing––someone who suffers from “the beast,” which is the fear of love. Trying to find out where that bravado is totally fear, and how the thing––at least with Louis, in my portrayal of him––sits thinly. You know, some people can kind of get away with it, where they take a truthful aspect of themselves, but he’s totally put a lot of his status on top of himself and it just doesn’t fit. You know? It’s like, you buy a suit that’s not the right size and it just doesn’t look right.

That said: it wasn’t a massively dark place to get into in terms of… in this case, because I can’t speak of the man, Elliot Rodger, because I don’t know him. But speaking of Louis Lewanski and men of that ilk, potentially, what I found dangerous is the hypothetical nature of their understanding of the world. And therefore the darkness comes from: actually, his experience is so thin that that’s why he’s as extreme as he is. Because most of us, if you actually interact with any situation, immediately––however small or big––it causes a feeling. You either have to overcome that feeling or follow that feeling or turn away from that feeling. He has become so isolated that his entire experience and understanding of the world is hypothetical––until he goes through with it. And that’s what’s dangerous about him. That’s what makes him a sort of hair-trigger type of person to be around.

In a sense, therefore, accessing that hypothetical nature was not as deep and dark, potentially, as it kind of therefore comes across because it is almost entirely intellectual. It’s just someone who thinks a certain way and that’s where that sociopathic element comes in, because it doesn’t relate to his feelings. It is like a head thought, and that is the beast that is within the film. Because without feelings you are entirely just your thoughts, and when you are only your thoughts, that’s when bad things happen––very broadly.

The Beast is now in limited release and will expand.

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