George MacKay and Nicholas Hoult talk dresses, punk, and True History of the Kelly Gang
"I won't soon forget being naked apart from socks and garters with a Shetland pony smoking a pipe in a room. That's not your everyday occurrence."
Contrary to its name, True History of the Kelly Gang plays fast and loose with the facts of legendary 19th-century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly's short life.
For many Australians, Kelly is a polarizing figure. Some see him as a sort of folk hero in the vein of Robin Hood, while others see him as a vicious cop killer undeserving of the fame afforded to him in the nearly 140 years since his death. But no one sees him quite like director Justin Kurzel. His new Western thriller, based on Peter Carey's novel of the same name, applies a decidedly punk aesthetic to the exploits of Kelly and his anarchic crew.
And according to the film's star, George MacKay, Kurzel had an unorthodox way of achieving this unconventionally musical mentality on set.
"Justin said we're going to let go of the history, and we're going to make it in the spirit of these names," MacKay tells EW. "And he said, 'They were angry, ambitious, confused, young men trying to define themselves. So I see them as a punk band. Therefore, I booked you a gig in Melbourne in three weeks.'"
Just like that, this Kelly gang formed their own band, quite literally. MacKay's fellow actors Sean Keenen, Earl Cave, and Louis Hewison wrote a handful of songs and performed them in front of a crowd, which had no idea they were actually watching the cast of an upcoming movie instead of a real band. Two of the songs even made it into the film.
Working off Kurzel's idea, MacKay says the move helped the group develop "this punk attitude, this swagger, this aggression, this kind of unbeatable feeling." And it also informed the performance of another of the film's key characters: Kelly's police nemesis Constable Fitzpatrick, played by Nicholas Hoult.
Hoult says he was understandably left out of the musical proceedings. "I remember my first day doing a scene and they did all play a song, and they had all these kind of different songs about coppers or whatever," he says. "And it was honestly, for me as an actor and as the character, it was quite an intimidating thing to go in opposing to, which is exactly I think the environment that Justin was trying to create."
Costuming was another key creative element, and one where True History of the Kelly Gang again deviated from the historical record. In a gender-bending twist, Kelly and his gang wear dresses on their violent escapades. "I think a lot of people in Australia are very pissed off that we're in dresses, to be honest," MacKay says with a laugh. "We lean pretty heavy on the dresses."
Indeed, the dresses serve as a constant motif in the film, starting with a young, traumatized Ned finding the dress his father kept hidden and ending with the gang's final showdown. "Ned's story in this film is his struggle for identity and that question of can you ever outrun your past," MacKay explains. "And the dresses for me, and for Ned I think, first represent him running away from the truth of who his father was, and then once he realizes he can't outrun that, committing to that idea, and going down and committing to the point of, 'All right, I'm gonna f—ing become this and go down in flames with this.'"
The outlaws weren't the only ones who got to play around in women's wear, though. One of the film's more, ahem, memorable moments involves Hoult's character in a brothel. It was memorable for Hoult, too. "I won't soon forget being naked apart from socks and garters with a Shetland pony smoking a pipe in a room," he says. "That's not your everyday occurrence."
In fact, much of what Hoult had to play was not exactly morally upright, and he admits it's difficult for him to watch himself in the film. "To be honest, by the end of the shoot I'd kind of had enough of playing that character, because he does do so many nasty things," he says. "It kind of got a little bit overwhelming for me, by the end. Luckily, it was with lovely people, so I still have fond memories of it."
Despite the many liberties the story takes with Kelly's wild tale — which has been brought to the big screen before in four other adaptations — one thing Kurzel did want to recreate, at least initially, was Kelly's famous bearded look. Unfortunately, that wasn't meant to be, because as MacKay puts it, he can't grow a beard, just "an eyebrow on my chin." MacKay was given a mullet instead.
"That's what I love, that as much as there is a darkness and a kind of brutality to the film, there's a real humor to it," the actor says. "I think it's so brilliantly gallows that you think, 'Okay, well let's make him look really bloody Australian. Let's just give him a mullet.' Genuinely I loved my mullet. For what I lack in facial hair, I can grow in mullet."
For all the craziness around Ned Kelly in this particular take, MacKay ultimately relished the opportunity to play such a complex protagonist. "I think humans are a lot of things all at once," he says. "And that's what the film is about, first and foremost. We are this maelstrom of everything that makes us: our context, our nature, our surroundings, our blood. We are all of these things, and we are none of these things."
True History of the Kelly Gang, which also stars Russell Crowe, Essie Davis, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie and more, is now available on digital and on demand, and will also screen at select drive-in theaters starting Friday.