The Secret to George MacKay's Ned Kelly? Wearing a Dress and Performing in a Punk Band Called Fleshlight

George MacKay's latest movie role might come as a shock to fans who last saw him in Sam Mendes' much-lauded World War I epic 1917. MacKay transforms from strait-laced, heroic British soldier to iconoclastic Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, in new drama True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kurzel.

Even those unfamiliar with MacKay but knowledgable of Kelly, a bushranger and convicted cop-killer executed in 1880 at the age of 25, will see little resemblance between the actor's take on Kelly and previous big-screen depictions, which have included Mick Jagger and the late Heath Ledger.

Kurzel's Kelly film sets itself apart from past biopics with its heavily stylized punk rock energy, which calls for leading man MacKay to swagger on screen with the vigor of an Iggy Pop or Alice Cooper.

The director dives headlong into his vision for a more subversive Kelly by putting MacKay's character and his associates in evening dresses as they commit their crimes. Ned Kelly in a dress was first introduced by author Peter Carey in his 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang, on which the book is based. The rationale behind this bold aesthetic choice is that it makes Kelly and his gang look all the more unhinged and dangerous to the authorities and rivals that may attempt to thwart their villainy.

To prepare for this reimagined Kelly, MacKay went to extraordinary lengths, including forming a punk rock band named Fleshlight with his castmates—the blush-inducing name derived from a brand of sex toys.

"The whole process of this film and finding the character of Ned is the most immersive experience I've ever had on a production," MacKay says, speaking over the phone from his native London, where he is isolating with family in line with the U.K.'s coronavirus lockdown.

George MacKay as Ned Kelly
George MacKay as Ned Kelly in 'True History of the Kelly Gang.' IFC Films

"The gang are a brotherhood, they're a band," says MacKay, referring to Kelly and his disciples in the film. "We had four weeks when we came together as a full cast and crew before actually shooting. And in those four weeks, Justin basically said, 'I've booked you a gig in Melbourne in three weeks in a bar, and you boys need to write a set of songs, come up with a name and play it in your own way.'"

This bizarre exercise was intended to instill a ride-or-die familial camaraderie between MacKay and his castmates, says the actor. "He wanted us to listen, to have a peripheral understanding, unconscious connection to each other, always," explains MacKay, 28. "We were sharing poems on day two, trying to figure out lyrics and singing to each other. And the attitude of the film, that all just felt right."

The band's first—and so far only—gig in Melbourne was a success. "We actually did it, we played a punk gig in Melbourne in dresses in a bar. We felt this real sense of ownership, like, 'Yeah, we f***ing did this,'" says MacKay. "Suddenly you have this swagger, like, yeah, we're the band, we're Fleshlight."

Donning Victorian-era gowns required the actors to let go of their inhibitions on set and for MacKay, it even grew his confidence. "Of course it was embarrassing to start off with," he says. "Justin said, 'This is your armor, boys. This is you. I want you to take this dress, know what it means, and feel good in this dress.' And every day we'd come in in our clothes and we'd take off our clothes and put the dresses on. Our commander and leader being Justin, he was never like, 'You guys look funny, don't you?' He was like, 'You guys look f***ing amazing.' His very serious respect for the dresses made us respect them as well."

MacKay adds: "And also, I'd never felt physically stronger. When you feel that strong and tough in this dress, which in a way shows that side of everything off, and everybody's smoking outside in the car park where there might be someone who comes out of another studio... when there's four of you in them and you've just come from playing this punk music, you're filled with this feeling, like, 'Yeah, and what?'"

True History of Ned Kelly is available on video on demand. Visit www.kellygangmovie.com for details.

The Secret to George MacKay's Ned Kelly? Wearing a Dress and Performing in a Punk Band Called Fleshlight | Culture