George MacKay is virtually unrecognizable in the erotic revenge thriller “Femme,” directed by Sam H. Freeman and Ng Choon Ping. With slicked-back hair and a heavy-handed neck tattoo, the dashing, soft-spoken British actor, well known for his period roles, is transformed into the kind of East London gangster you’d go out of your way to avoid.
Part of what makes MacKay’s character, Preston, so menacing is the fact that he’s deeply closeted. When one night he’s teased in front of his friends by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s drag artist Jules — dressed up as Aphrodite Banks — he responds with violence so severe that it shatters Jules’ confidence to ever perform in drag again. The attack emboldens Jules to ensnare an unwitting Preston in an intense sexual relationship with the intention of outing him on the Internet.
It’s not only Jules’ character who trades in drag, explains MacKay. “You’ve got Jules’ drag, but you’ve also got Preston’s drag,” he says. “That’s why I love acting — it’s this whole question of nature versus nurture, and what you have inside and the clothes you put on top of it.”
MacKay delivered a memorable performance in the Viggo Mortensen-led “Captain Fantastic” in 2016, but his break-out role came three years later in Sam Mendes’ wartime epic “1917.” The London-born actor won plaudits for his performance in the Oscar-winning film as a young soldier tasked with delivering a critical message across a battlefield in broad daylight in order to save 1,600 of his fellow soldiers.
Since then, the 30-year-old has quietly amassed an impressive array of credits. He recently played a graffiti artist held captive by a crooked judge in Netflix thriller “I Came By,” opposite Hugh Bonneville, and also had a starring role as a British diplomat enrolled as a spy in the streamer’s wartime drama “Munich: The Edge of War.” But it’s likely going to be “Femme” that prompts audiences to see MacKay in a new light.
“Femme” is unrelenting in the often-rough physicality between Jules and Preston, though their intimacy is always in service of driving the narrative forward — a narrative that is rarely seen on screen. “The thriller genre is almost exclusively heteronormative,” observe Freeman and Ping in their directors’ notes. “The genre is a space where we have not really seen much evidence of queer agency. We suppose this is our way of counter-colonizing the mainstream.”
For the actors navigating the physical demands of their roles, “the key to it was finding a bit of a safe space, where we knew when we were entering into the scene, and when we were leaving the scene, and discussing everything beforehand, in a purely sort of personal way, as to what Nathan and I felt comfortable with,” says MacKay.
MacKay and Stewart-Jarrett worked closely with coordinator Robbie Taylor Hunt “to find a way into our intimacy, because there’s so much of it,” he adds. “The [characters are] often working at cross purposes, even when they were doing this very physically intimate stuff. They have no idea what the other one’s trying to get out of it. There’s a lot going on in the sex.”
MacKay chooses his roles carefully, opting to pursue stories that inspire him or interrogate something he wants to explore personally. “We’re asking different questions today than we [did] in the past, and that we will do in the future,” he says, rather sagely. “So it’s kind of being malleable to the moment. And then following your gut.”
Next up for him is, unsurprisingly, something completely different: “The End,” a new musical directed by celebrated documentary director Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing”).
MacKay will star alongside Tilda Swinton in the Neon-distributed pic, which centers on the last human family alive. The film begins production in the coming weeks.
“It’s a very beautifully strange, complex, nuanced musical,” explains MacKay. “Josh’s previous films challenge and explore the themes of denial and responsibility in a way that I think is profound. But also, there’s so much as a craft that I wanted to learn and an opportunity to dance and to sing — an approach to acting in a way that I haven’t for a while.”