Salty Popcorn Interview with James MacKay – 2013 Heath Ledger Scholarship Winner

This one is all from Salty Kernel, Dara Shashoua – a good friend of hers followed his dreams and is now the recipient of this well deserved and fine award. From all at Salty Popcorn huge congratulations to you James – we look forward to watching you tear Hollywood apart – keep in touch then 🙂

In memory of Australians in Film ambassador Heath Ledger, the scholarship fund has been established to capture Heath’s generous spirit and serve our mission to help and celebrate Australian filmmakers.

The Heath Ledger Scholarship will provide talented Australian actors in the early stage of their careers the chance to travel to the US to further their training and international acting opportunities.

“Although reluctant to lend his name to anything commercial, we know Heath would be proud of his attachment to this scholarship,” Kim Ledger said. “This scholarship in part does what Heath has done personally during the last 10 years and supported financially or in kind many friends, Australian actors, singers, directors or writers seeking to ply their talents in the USA.”

“I am honored the Australian in Film Board and management team have invited me to consider the role of Patron for the Heath Ledger Scholarship. I humbly accept this responsibility. Making a start in entertainment can be a tough and unforgiving business in any country. I hope continuing this award with its consequential connections, offers the final recipient a little extra support in their pathway to success.” – Statement released by Heath Ledger’s father, Kim Ledger, Patron of the Heath Ledger Scholarship.

Enjoy Lady D’s review with James.


James Mackay, Heath Ledger, Heath Ledger Scholarship, Dara Shashoua, Singularity Movie, Kim Ledger, Salty Popcorn Interview, Up and Coming Acting Talent
SALTY POPCORN INTERVIEWS JAMES MACKAY. Australians in Film Executivie Director Andrew Warne, award winner James Mackay and Kim Ledger at the Australians In Film and Heath Ledger Scholarship Benefit Dinner in Los Angeles. Picture: Getty Images Source: Getty Images


James MacKay is the winner of the 2013 Heath Ledger scholarship. The scholarship is set up by Australians in Film, which is the industry association for Australian filmmakers and actors in the US.  From its inception in 2008 the winner of the scholarship receives a return flight to Los Angeles on Virgin Australia, a 10-day California trip from Visit California, one year of acting classes at the Stella Adler Academy of Acting & Theatre, a VIP casting package, and $10,000 cash, which affords talented young Aussies the opportunity to establish themselves in the heart of the entertainment industry, and reach an international audience.

James and I worked together for almost 2 years at Palace Cinemas in Leichhardt, apart from eating a lot of popcorn we also used to dream big, James about being a recognised actor and I would dream about designing bathrooms for the stars.  Funnily enough, we have both recently achieved great milestones in our dreams so I thought it fitting to ask James if he would be keen for an interview.  Here ‘tis.


Lets start at June 12 2013 (which was the day the scholarship was announced), how has your life changed since then?


The overall plan hasn’t changed a great deal however the scholarship is a great expression of potential.  I’m hugely excited by the possibility for what could happen in the next 10 months.  After the announcement I stayed in LA for another month to head to some auditions and set myself up for the return trip, which is happening in a few weeks.

I think the wonderful thing about the scholarship is that it is a great prize for anyone at the start of their career or someone like me who is a few years in and a bit more established. With the scholarship you can set yourself up over in LA if you were new to the industry but for me its more of a boost and a huge pat on the back.


Did you have to apply for the scholarship?


They open applications in February, and it’s very similar to a grant application.  You need to supply showreel, budgets, headshots and references.  The applications were then shortlisted to a group of 15 people, we were then required to film mock auditions and then send them in to the judging panel. Then wait to hear anything.

They did a very good job about concealing who had won. I received an email saying that I was one of a select group of finalists and tried to find out who has else was in the running.  I arrived in LA, having not seen anyone else from the finalists.  Later that night I finally had a drink with the President of the Board who let me know that I had won.


And the moment you were told?


It’s a real no words moment, part of it was relief and part adrenaline.  It’s like when you first go for a job, you audition and leave it at that.  There’s no trauma in that. It’s once you get further into the process with call backs and you meet with the director then its hard to not think about it.  It’s hard not to grab at that.

As a creative I guess it’s hard to not fall into the dream sequence of what could happen

Totally. You start to think about it more, you imagine the premiere, spend the paycheck and think about what further work will come from it.  You definitely become more invested and have to believe that you have something to offer. Every time you inch a little closer it gets more exciting.  You know, there’s enough disappointment in this industry without manufacturing it for yourself.  It was a huge relief when I was told that I had won.

It was a release of endorphins and I was quite moved because of course, the links to Heath Ledger.  You have to stop and think; this is a moment I will always remember.  In fact, the moment that the President of Australians in Film told me I was trying to not choke on some artichoke……not particularly elegant but very exciting.


(Giggle) That’s a story you can tell when you are interviewed for In the Actors Studio


Haha, totally.  Trying to keep my cool whilst trying not to asphyxiate on a char grilled vegetable.  I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.


How involved is the Ledger family?


Very much so.  This year was different from the previous years for that exact reason.  Kim has come on board as a formal patron so he was there as well as Heath’s sister and family.  It’s the 5th year of the scholarship and as Kim has come aboard in his new role it was all different.  Normally the scholarship was announced as part of The Australians in Film breakthrough award ceremony but this year it was a dinner solely to announce the scholarship win.  It was surreal. At the dinner I was seated next to a guy who used to live with Heath, and across the table from me was his old agent. Everyone at the dinner was in some way connected to Heath.  On the night they showed a beautiful video that was a mixture of clips from Heath’s films as well as friends talking about what an amazing guy Heath was especially the generosity he had for young actors trying to break into LA. It was very much a memorial to him and the way he lived his life and conducted his career.

It was all hugely affecting.


Let’s talk about your new film Singularity.  It’s been in the pipeline for a while.


Certainly has.  We started filming Singularity in October 2010, shot 6 weeks on the Gold Coast then a long hiatus before we got to India to shot for a month in April 2011.

I was talking to Roland (Joffe, director of The Killing Fields and The Mission) about this recently and he was saying that he’d had tough shoots before but never this much time between shoots.  That film had more than it’s fair share of challenges.

Film is a tough mistress.  My sympathy for a bad movie has increased since I’ve worked in the industry.  Even if I don’t like it, you can step back and say well its an amazing feat that the film was done at all.  When you think about what goes into a film – a screenplay has to be written, get a director, a producer, find the location, do the shoot, edit it, score it, cut it all together and screen it.  It’s kind of a miracle that films get made at all.

Last I heard it is still being completed.  I suspect we’ll see it next year.  Singularity is a huge scale independent film and absolute festival fare.


How was working with Roland? His films are epic.


Epic is the perfect word. I watched The Mission the night before we began shooting and studied The Killing Fields during high school.  I was well aware of who he was and what he was capable of.

I had been on the Gold Coast for a few days and we were doing training for the film such as horse riding, fencing.  If I could tell my childhood self that one day you’ll be riding horses and sword fighting in period costume and calling it work then that would be one of the pinch me moments.  It was here that I tracked down a copy of The Mission to watch.

The Mission is a masterpiece, you’ve seen it, you know how great it is.  Singularity is on a similar scale. Its historical epic territory, a huge cosmic scale love story but its also an interesting look at India in the period immediately preceding the British Raj.  I think Roland always knew that it was a monumental project. It was really brave and ambitious, the script is beautiful and the cinematographer Ben Nott, who worked on Drift, is a genius.  Every single piece of bad luck on the production side, Ben picked up along the way. He told me,  “Every time I needed light to appear, it did”.

Roland’s process with actors, in terms of film, is very freeing as he really loves storytelling, and acting and the imagined reality, and working with him as an actor, that’s a real treat.  You could see that he had the whole film in his head from start to finish.  He directed certain sequences and certain beats for a score that hadn’t even been written yet. He would visually put patterns and rhythms in for the composer to use, thats the work of a real auteur who’s absolutely living the work.


James Mackay, Heath Ledger, Heath Ledger Scholarship, Dara Shashoua, Singularity Movie, Kim Ledger, Salty Popcorn Interview, Up and Coming Acting Talent


Why do you act?  Why did you choose this profession?


That is a fascinating question, I don’t know if I will ever be tired of answering that question quite honestly.  When I started acting, I was 14 and doing plays in high school.  There was a real light bulb moment when I was 14 and we did a production of 12 Angry Men. It was everything about that experience – the story, the social political message, the shared experience of actors and working with a text that resonated with me.  It was a combination of all of these things and about getting into a character that created fireworks in my head, it was such a buzz.  In those early years I just loved it, I never questioned why.  Acting always felt like a slightly odd choice as there were no other actors in the family, however my uncle was a theatre director. I went to Sydney Uni and did an Arts Degree and did student theatre there, even at that stage it was still for the love of it.

I think the big turning point for me in finding out what was behind it was when I was studying at WAAPA (Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts), my dad (writer Hugh McKay) came through Perth on a book tour and I went to listen to him speak.  I had seen him speak many times but there was a point of revelation this time – what he does with social research and explaining why Australians do the things they do and social trends, I suddenly realised that its actually the same job.

Acting to me is all about studying people and looking at what makes humans tick. Why do we do the things we do? As an actor, when you take on a character you need to look at the conscious and subconscious reasons for everything that is going on and it requires a very detailed examination of that person.  Dad does his work with analysis and group discussions and statistics to support what he talks about and then writes about it.  I realised that its essentially the same job.  Acting is an artistic expression rather than an academic one.  That thought has been what I’ve always come back to, in terms of why I choose to act, its a curiosity about people and stories.  I feel very connected to the lineage of acting, it’s the storyteller around the fire.  As long as people have lived together there have always been stories.  You look at history and it’s entirely made up of storytelling.  We all learn through stories, these narratives are how we develop a meaningful relationship to the world. I am very grateful to be able to do the work that I do.


Ok, lets look at 5 years from now, what’s the Grand Master James Mackay dream?


The boss version?  When I was training my ideal goal was to make my living as an actor, and that has now happened.  I’ve been very fortunate with some well paid commercials that have helped me through.  In 5 years I would really like to be in a position to have choice over what work I am doing, to be in position of finishing a job and have 2 or 3 options of what to do next.  I would love to be able to make the decision based purely upon creative criteria.  Realistically that may take more than 5 years but that would be the dream.


And 10 years? And dream big.


I think there is a point in which people start to be able do additional things in their career, and there are many other things I would like to do in this industry.  I would love to write, to direct but I also don’t want to rush either of those things.  I’m trained as an actor and would like to fully explore what that means in this industry.  I would love to do a big Broadway musical or theatre in the West End.

There are things I would like to do outside of the industry as well. Something that when you have a profile you can do, like charity work.  Just look at George Clooney and Matt Damon.  Josh Hartnett, who I worked with on Singularity, told me a lot about the charitable work he gets to do.  I think that as an actor it is the best thing you can do, use your profile to illuminate a cause.

To imagine that at some point I could use my profile in the future to raise awareness about certain issues is something I am looking forward to.  To use these skills for something other than acting would be the dream.

I am also intrigued and excited to see what will happen in the future.  This job awards amazing opportunities such as travel, I was lucky enough to be in film a short film in Kazakhstan earlier this year.  I cannot wait to see what the future has in store.


Top 3 movies of 2013


The Way, Way Back

A Touch of the light – A Korean Film from SFF.

The Conjuring – it is terrifying but it is done really really well.

If I could put that in my calendar every year, is the Sydney Film Festival.  To be able to book tickets online and watch lots of films over 10 days is magical

World War Z – I went in with low expectations but it was the best thriller I have seen in a long time.


If you could have played any role in any film ever?


Whoa!  Great question.  My mind initially goes to some of the big Shakespearean roles such as Hamlet in the eyes of Kenneth Branagh.  Yep. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.  Hamlet is one of my dream roles.

Hang on, what am I saying?  James Bond. Yep, definitely James Bond.


If you could have dinner with any 5 other people in the acting community who would it be?


Marlon Brando

Meryl Streep

George Clooney

Rachel Weiss

Heath Ledger


Favourite Choc top?


I’m a purist, its vanilla all the way. (Ed’s note – you lose points here James – there is only one choc top and it is Boysenberry :)).


Last question, do you like your popcorn Salty or Sweet?


Salty of course. I have some wonderful experiences with caramel popcorn but if I’m sitting through a movie then its salty all the way.  Special mention to Palace Cinemas olive oil popcorn, we did eat a lot when we were working there.


Watch this space Salty Popcorners, this will not be last we hear from the formidable James Mackay.  I expect this is just the beginning.