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George MacKay talks brotherly love

Private Peaceful
12 October 2012

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s eponymous novel, Pat O’Connor’s Private Peaceful is set to his our screens this coming Friday 12th October – and we caught up with lead star George MacKay ahead of the films release.

Speaking exclusively to The Fan Carpet‘s Stefan Pape, MacKay discusses his working relationship with fellow co-star – and on-screen brother – Jack O’Connell, as well as telling us of his own similarities to his role of Tommo Peaceful, a youngster who boldly decides to go to war in an attempt to prove his worth to his friends and family back home.



And on the subject of war, MacKay discusses shooting the battle scenes and how much research he had to do into the First World War ahead of taking on such a role.

This is arguably your biggest role to date, taking on the lead role in what is to be a big British drama – this must be quite an exciting time for you?

Yeah for sure, this is definitely the biggest role that I have had, at least when I first took it on. It’s really exciting. Reading the script and everything I saw a couple of parallels between myself and it was exciting to give it a go.


Did you do much research into the World War One era?

We kept it quite fresh and we had people who were great help if we needed to check up on anything, but these boys were village boys, going to the army and not really knowing what they were doing, and not getting much training before going away, so we kept it fresh and the main research was really just spending time with each other and getting close to each other so we could have that community feel and close bond. So it was more getting the relationships between everyone solid, rather than the era necessarily.


There is a wonderful chemistry between yourself and Jack O’Connell – did you spend a lot of time together off-set working on that, or did it come naturally?

The way it worked – and I’m not sure if it was intentional or not – but the first two weeks of filming was just me and Jack and because we were filming on the same locations where the younger versions of ourselves had been shooting, that meant we were only doing a scene or two a day, so we’d do the morning and the younger kids would come in and do the afternoon, and vice versa. So it was quite fractured for the first two weeks, meaning it was just me and Jack spending a lot of time together and where we were there wasn’t a whole lot to do, so we just used to chill out and play guitar and spend a lot of time together, off-set as well. That first two weeks of the eight really bonded us and formed that brotherhood.


You talk about working alongside actors playing the same roles as you – but younger – did you work with Samuel Bottomley to help get the nuances of the character accurate?

I’d like to say yes, but to be honest we just did our own versions of the role and the casting directors did such an amazing job because watching it was mad to see the amount of little mannerisms that myself and Sam share, and in look and manner, and what Hero shared with Jack. We didn’t necessarily talk through the character together but we did spend a lot of time together, having dinner at the hotel in the evening, and things like that – so I think it probably worked on more of a sub-conscious level than actively researching.


One of my favourite aspects to the film is how the entire tone changes as soon as the war begins – when you were watching the film for the first time were you quite surprised at how dramatically it all changes?

Yeah, and I think it works completely, the colours and everything. It was quite shocking but perfect I thought, as it’s so at odds with how lush and wonderful everything is back home and it really shows that shift in tone and puts you right there.


How much of yourself did you try to bring to the role of Tommo – and how much did you base around the original Michael Morpurgo creation?

I saw a lot of myself in Tommo when I read the book and could see all of the complexes he’s had – about being a man and being second best to Charlie and wanting to grow up, and misunderstanding love and all of those kind of things which I could completely relate to myself. I was tiny for ages, and I remember being the smallest of my friends and I used to get so hung up about how much younger I looked. It’s always that thing of fighting to be a man and trying to be taken seriously as a man and how that affects relationships with girls and with guys as well, in the physical stuff when you’re messing around at school or with girlfriends and all of that, so that uncertainty I could really relate to and it’s Tommo’s sensitivity too – he is quite a thoughtful person, always spending time alone and I’ve kind of wondered many of the same things, just 100 years later. So I drew a lot from myself with Tommo, but then there is so much brilliant material in the script and in the book to work off as well, it was just a joy to couple that up with the material we had.



Do you think that is the beauty of this story, that it’s set one hundred years ago, but the characters are so relatable and the situations are ones we can still relate to today?

Oh completely, and it makes it all the more poignant and touching because these aren’t different people back then, like you say, they are exactly as we would be, apart from mannerisms and slang or whatever, it’s the same values. Not that they’re simple characters but the simplicity of the way that they lived makes them very moral and it gets to the core of things, although nowadays we’ve got so much on top of everyone on a surface level, but underneath we’re all the same people we were, so yeah, it’s very relevant to now.


Even though there are serious themes portrayed in the film, it must have been good fun doing a period piece and wearing those costumes and doing accents?

The last four weeks were solidly trenches and before then we had to do a sort of day of boot camp of World War One training, and when we first had all of our gear on we were all complaining and by the end we were running around. Jack used to lead us in marches after lunchtime, he’d lead us in a squad and we’d walk down to the set – boys and toys. It was good.


How did you find tackling the West Country accent?

It was fine really, it was different to how I thought it was. Devonshire back in those – at least from some of the recordings we had to listen to – were so not what I thought Devon was. So we tried a gentle amalgamation of what it was really like back in the day and then what we perceive it to be as well. Words like ‘cider” are said “cahder’ and really different sounds. Everyone was doing it together and doing it really well, so it was fine.


There is such an experienced cast, with the likes of Richard Griffiths and Maxine Peake for example – it must have been so helpful to have people like that around on set?

Yeah, they were fantastic. Sometimes you’d just be walking past Richard and you’d hear this wonderful anecdote, listening in to this great story of all of these great people he’s worked with and experiences he’s had. They were so lovely in a sense that they made us feel on a level, you know, acting is collaborating together and working together and they always talked to us as equals and therefore we could learn just because they knew more, rather than them impressing on us, or us going up and asking them for advice – they would just talk to us as people and actors, but it’s just the fact they have so much more experience that you can’t help but learn from them.


And Pat O’Connor is a really experienced director too – it must have been great to work with him?

Pat was great. He lets you do your thing and if he’s happy with what you’re doing then he doesn’t change it, which works subliminally. Once you understand the way he works it gives you the confidence to carry on with what you’re doing, which is invaluable. It’s only afterwards when you realise other directors work differently, and Pat’s way is so subtle and it’s one of those things you only realise afterwards how subtle and brilliant he is. He’s such a nice man too and always there for you if you need to talk and if you ever have a question he’s right there. He really likes the craft of acting so I learnt a lot about taking acting seriously as a craft as well as a job because he finds it so interesting himself so it allows you to be interested as well and not feel stupid for doing so.


So what’s coming up for you next? Anything lined up?

Well I’ve just finished shooting a film called How I Live Now with Kevin McDonald and that was exciting, and I’ve just finished another film – untitled at the moment but with the working title Seaside Stories – and that is with a first-time director and then next week I get started on Dexter Fletcher’s new film Sunshine on Leith, so it’s all good.



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