In ‘Wolf,’ George MacKay Found His Animal Instinct by Looking at What It Is to Be Wild

Two years after he garnered worldwide acclaim for his starring role in the Oscar-winning war drama “1917,” British actor George MacKay delivers another impressive performance in Nathalie Biancheri’s “Wolf.” MacKay stars as Jacob, a young man who identifies as a wolf. What Jacob is going through is based on a very real condition, species dysphoria, and his parents have checked him into a treatment center with others like him, including Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), with whom he forms an unusual bond. Both experience abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to “cure” them, including Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine), a fearsome psychologist whose unorthodox methods border on sadistic and put those under his care in danger.

MacKay spoke with Entertainment Voice via Zoom about the creative challenges in playing Jacob, working with Lily-Rose Depp and Paddy Considine, and what he learned when he took a step back from being human. In the end, this is very much a film about identity. 

“Wolf” is a wildly unique film. Tell us what attracted you to the project.

I think what attracted me to the script were all the possibilities contained in the possible circumstance that was Jacob, this man who feels that he is a wolf trapped in a man’s body. Immediately, I’m like, “Do I think that’s true? Do I believe him? If I do, what’s that like? If you are a wolf trapped in a man’s body, what does that do to you?” And, all of the kind of philosophical questions that spin off that. And, in terms of creatively, all of the different ways you can express that conundrum. All the possibilities of the project is what drew me to it. 

When I watched Nathalie’s first film “Nocturnal,” I thought she was such an amazing director. I really wanted to go on that journey with her.

Species dysphoria is a real condition. How did you prepare to play Jacob? And, did you do research on the condition?

I didn’t really go so much down the species dysphoria route. I think the specificity of Jacob’s circumstance is vital. Specificity allows people to connect at a much wider level. In general, it’s about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin, or uncomfortable in a moment or in context, and the struggle to either make the decision to fit that situation or to leave that situation. I think that’s something that’s a lot more universal and something that many people have felt in varying degrees. 

In terms of the dysphoria, it was less about thinking about the condition itself, and more about kind of going, “He doesn’t think he’s got it. He’s just thinking he’s a wolf. So it became about getting closer to the animal, rather than about going towards the condition, because, to him, that’s just what people are telling him he has. He has something completely different. He’s just trapped in the wrong body.

There are these great scenes in which we see Jacob roaming around at night as a wolf. Later, it’s heartbreaking to see him confined to a cage. Take us inside those scenes.

One of my favorite scenes is one of those nighttime scenes up on the roof where myself and Lily are in our animal states getting to know each other. I was just really inspired by Nathalie’s want to make cinema out of that. I’ve never seen that before in a film, people interacting in that way in their human forms and in their animal forms. I thought the beautiful duality of that moment and how Natalie wanted to explore it was really exciting. 

Then the scenes in the cage were exciting creatively as an acting challenge. There’s the emotionality in those scenes, and also the strengths of the circumstance. The visuals are so strong, you just want to play into that as well.

Speaking of Lily-Rose, what was it like working with her? Like you said, you have that great scene together on the roof. With Wildcat, Jacob feels he has finally found someone who understands him. What was it like working with her and creating that bond?

It was amazing working with Lily. What was so special about working with Lily was that she had such enthusiasm and commitment for the project, and it really allowed us to trust each other. Obviously, these scenes are kind of out of the ordinary, and either with the animal side of things or the emotional side of things, you’re kind of opening yourself up, and to be led by her and her wanting to go there in scenes… was really inspiring and a real joy.

That scene of Lily and I interacting as our animals, we rehearsed that for a long, long time to work out the choreography of that scene. In exploring many different versions of those animal interactions, even for the things that didn’t get used, the kind of different colors of those interactions, they taught me a lot about, and I think, taught us both about our characters, respectively. We did a version of that scene where it was much more aggressive, or much more fearful, but always within the animal. To spend time in our animal states was really informative for our characters. I’m really proud of that scene, because I think it’s unique. It’s kind of beautiful and strange. I’ve never seen anything like it in a film, so I’m just always proud that that’s in there.

Then on the flipside, there’s Paddy Considine as Dr. Mann, the abusive therapist who works to break Jacob. You previously worked together on “Pride.” Tell us about working with him for this film.

Paddy’s such an amazing actor, and also an amazing director as well. In “Pride,” we didn’t have that many scenes one on one together. None, in fact. I just respect him as a craftsman and all the work that he’s done. I remember the first time I met Paddy for this project was for an improvisation where it was a one on one for the first therapy session between Dr. Mann and Jacob. Not in a competitive sense, but it was kind of like going toe to toe with someone… It was really fun just playing with someone who’s so good at what they do. He immediately put me on the spot with these kind of impossible questions. It was so enlightening for the character, just that one improv with Paddy. Him actually saying out loud, “But you got hands?” “Yeah.” “They’re not paws?” “No.” “But you are a wolf?”  Someone taking apart your character really makes you know it all the more. Paddy’s a bit of a master.

There’s that scene where Dr. Mann shows Jacob the wolf inside of the cage hoping to arouse some sort of pity and disgust in him, but the opposite happens. What was filming that moment like?

Not to take the drama out of the scene, but that was a bit difficult. You can’t really make a wolf howl on cue. Some of time, you’re acting to an empty cage. I love that scene. As much as Dr. Mann is pointing at this wolf and going, “Is that what you are?” He’s sorta of seeing things in a physical sense. “Are you that creature?” And I love what Jacob says. When Dr. Mann is being more and more controlling, he says, “Is that what you think a man is?” Again, it’s about definitions. What holds the most weight in defining something? Is it something’s physicality? Is it something’s spirit? Is it something’s rule? I don’t have an answer, but is someone’s will more powerful than someone’s physicality? That scene encapsulated so many of the questions and explorations of the film that I love so much.

While some of the other patients at the clinic admit to past trauma, Jacob never mentions anything traumatic in his past. He explains that he felt this kinship with wolves from a young age. What do you make of him? Do you feel that there is more to his story? Or is it just as simple as he explains it?

Lily made a really articulate point. With Jacob particularly, I think when we don’t understand someone’s behavior, we assume that it has to come from somewhere, and sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes people are just the way they are. That is how it is. So often, we want something that is understandable and digestible for ourselves to understand something, and certain things are beyond the realm of our understanding because we just don’t feel them in the same way. I don’t think that gets talked about that much, the way that certain things are an impossibility for some people, and an absolute possibility for some others. It’s quite scary, this idea, because it means that you don’t have control over that other person. 

I think that’s part of Jacob’s backstory, the fact that there was no trauma. There was nothing that triggered this. He just is this. His present struggle is the trauma of not being allowed to be it by society.

Is there anything you learned about yourself playing Jacob?

In finding that kind of animal nature, before we kind of got to the more obvious moments of the crawling and things, we looked at what it is to be wild, and what it is to take a step back from “being human,” and felt that so much of being human is to be kind of dictated by our thoughts. We’re kind of ruled by our heads rather than our instincts. I didn’t realize to the extent of how much I’m ruled by my head. So that was a kind of discovery, as to how to be a bit more in touch with your body and how you feel things.

So, which animal do you personally identify with most?

I like the idea of being a dolphin. They seem to have it pretty cushy.

You were exceptional in “1917,” and that was another role that saw you driving the plot while being given little dialogue. Do you feel like that experience prepared you for “Wolf”?

Maybe just the experience of playing a character who doesn’t speak very much. Both Schofield and Jacob are quite internal. Their way of processing their feelings is to hold on to them internally. Obviously, at the time of “1917,” I didn’t know that “Wolf” was a reality, or that that would be the next project that I did. I think just being comfortable with playing a character who doesn’t say much and doesn’t give much away. 

Also, the one thing about “1917” was the constant nature of the story often meant that when we were filming scenes in a day, there’s a temptation to want to tick a scene off. Come in! Do something big! And go again. Every scene has a rise and fall, but because of the constant nature of “1917,” you couldn’t play scenes like that, because each scene would begin a millisecond after the next one, rather than having an emotional beat… It made me sort of stop reaching for a self-satisfactory arc in scenes all the time, and just being truest to what the character was feeling at the time. That made me a bit more confident when Jacob was silent, just to be okay to be silent.

What do you have coming up next that we can look forward to?

In January, there’s a film, a Netflix production, which I believe is going to a few cinemas and then [streaming] on Netflix, and that’s called “​​Munich – The Edge of War.” It is directed by Christian Schwochow, and it is based on a British novel. It’s about the year before the second world war. It’s a dual story of two young men who used to be best friends in university, but because of political differences, split ways. Then, both are at the bottom rung of inner circles. One within the British Cabinet, and one within the Nazi Party. It’s a race against time to try to get a bit of information, the German side to try and get a bit of information to my character, the British side, to stop the peace treaty the Neville Chamberlain was trying to make happen so it legitimizes that military coup that they have planned.

In the way that “Wolf” is about identity, what I love about “Munich” is it’s about when you know about something on a more political and social level, when you know that you want to make a change, what is the best way to make it? Is it about personal activism? Or is it about legislation? Romantically, you think, “Right, let’s get to the streets and do it with fists and our voices and make change by protest.” I believe in that, but I also believe that that needs to be followed up with the powers that be. 

Next year, there’s another film, by director Babak Anvari, called “I Came By,” which I just finished filming this summer and I’m very excited about.

Wolf” releases Dec. 3 in theaters nationwide.