For MacKay, an actor often touted as a Method performer, it was not an entirely out of character event. In fact, that’s exactly what it was: something done to get in character for one of the most transformative roles of his career, which has already been marked by stellar turns in such diverse fare as “Captain Fantastic” and “1917.” As MacKay and filmmaker Nathalie Biancheri ready to premiere their remarkable “Wolf” at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, the pair sat down (via Zoom) with IndieWire for their first interview about a wild project.
The film, written by Biancheri in her sophomore narrative outing (she’s previously made documentaries, and her drama “Nocturnal” played a number of festivals in 2019), follows MacKay as Jacob, a young man who suffers from “species dysphoria” and believes himself to be a wolf. Sent to a clinic that specializes in the disorder, Jacob is forced to confront his true nature, while also falling under the spell of Wildcat (Lily-Rose Depp), a mysterious fellow patient at what’s blithely termed “the zoo.”
To approach such a complex character, MacKay said he started with one basic concept: that he was playing someone who truly believes he’s a wolf.
“I don’t think even Jacob as a character identifies as someone with species dysphoria, I think he identifies as a wolf,” MacKay told IndieWire. “A big part of it hinges on its commitment to the idea, and that’s integral to what the characters are going through. If suddenly you feel like, Well, actually this guy is a bit impartial about being a wolf, it dilutes the whole thing. You either believe what he feels or are trying to understand what he feels, or you make your own conclusions. For me, it was important that I felt like, without sort of spoiling anything, I rooted myself in the wolf.”
From there, however, only more questions followed. “Once [you answer] that question, it then kind of breaks up into all these really nuanced, complex questions,” he said. “Like, if that’s the case, how does he sound? How does he move? When is he a wolf? When is he a man? If you thought you were a wolf, would you feel like you move like a wolf but you don’t have the body that you need? When did he find out? It just is so rich.”
While not currently recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, species dysphoria is an umbrella name applied to a disorder in which individuals believe they have been born into the body of the wrong species. Biancheri was initially drawn to the strangeness of it, but as she learned more, it ultimately spoke to the issues of identity, self-determination, and societal expectations she’s always been compelled by.
“Initially I’d read an article and then seen some follow-up news pieces about a woman who thought that she was a cat,” Biancheri told IndieWire. “She was going around on all fours and meowing. There was obviously a natural comical side to it, but I started reading up on it and I realized, this is a syndrome and it’s growing. There is a group of people who really feels this and believes that they’re an animal. It opened up a lot of questions for me that I’d already been exploring.”
As with other issues rooted in dysphoria, Biancheri found that most people who suffer from species dysphoria realize it when they’re in their teenage years, high time for attempting to navigate and understand your place in the world. At first, Biancheri thought she might make a documentary about the disorder, before opting to go the narrative route in order to free the story.
“I’m going to take the intellectual, emotional side that I find most interesting, and that is, what does it mean to feel like you belong to different skin?,” she said of her process. “Which is obviously a very topical, and to use the dreaded word, universal feeling to explore. And, I think to a certain extent, each one of us feels it for different reasons.”
She hastens to add that “Wolf” is not meant to be a note-perfect exploration of species dysphoria. Instead, it imagines a world in which the disorder is widespread and analyzed, the kind of issue that’s so well-known that clinics, like the one Jacob is sent to, are not unheard of. “It was a choice that I felt I needed to make to free myself from the obligation to be telling a truth, as opposed to exploring questions that I found interesting,” she said.
Despite its somewhat off-beat plot, “Wolf” will likely feel familiar to many people: specifically, anyone who has never felt quite at home in the world or their own bodies, and perhaps has even been forced to undergo some form of treatment to “cure” them of their identity. Biancheri might balk at the “universal” or “topical” designations, but “Wolf” is that, just in a unique package.
“We were all definitely aware of the kind of equivalent allegories, the equivalent identity journeys that people will connect with, and I think that’s a really positive thing,” MacKay said. “That said, as we were filming it, we were aware of those connections, but chose to be very specific to Jacob’s individual journey and quandary and battle. If that felt legitimate and that felt true, I think the reverberations can feel legitimate and true and people can connect to a genuine feeling.”
“Wolf” and its characters — Jacob, Wildcat (Depp), the boy who identifies as a squirrel, the girl who sees herself as a spider — may be inspired by something still not totally understood, but Biancheri thinks the emotions of the film will make it ring true for a wide audience.
“In my mind, it wasn’t meant to be a direct parallel to anything in particular,” Biancheri said. “What I always focused on was the work with the actors, and the empathy I think came very naturally, because it was really so much about, ‘What does it mean to feel [this way]?’ With Jacob in particular, to feel that you were in the wrong skin. Hopefully, that’s where there’s the honesty.”
MacKay doesn’t shy away from the obvious parallels, but he’s mostly compelled in the individual experience of Jacob, one that he suspects might prove to be more appealing to people who feel similarly out of step with their perceived identities.
“I think if we’re trying to make something consciously for the masses via a very individual experience, it would sort of get diluted or become vague, or even slightly patronizing, because you’re trying to encapsulate many, many individual experiences by making a broad strokes version of that circumstance,” he said. “It feels like such a fundamental question, when I think I’m something or I value something that you don’t or that you’re trying to change. I think that has much bigger reverberations, even though our version of it is such a specific question.”
Even though production wrapped on the film nearly a year ago, MacKay still seems attuned to his character and the experience of playing him, which makes it all the odder that Biancheri first wrote “Wolf” with another star in mind: Barry Keoghan, who was “super passionate” about the project and attached early on. But other commitments got in the way — Keoghan will soon be seen in the big-budget Marvel feature “Eternals” — and Biancheri had to pivot.
Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP
“It was the classic mistake they always tell you never to do as a writer or director, do not write for one specific person, and I did, and I was fucked for ages,” she said. Casting consumed her for months, but finding a new Jacob seemed especially daunting. MacKay came “pretty late in the game,” the suggestion of Biancheri’s trusted casting director Shakyra Dowling.
Biancheri was nervous, though. “I’d seen him in a few things, and I thought he was very good, but I didn’t quite see the wolf side,” she said. “I was like, ‘Is he too nice? Is he too this?’ And then I saw him in ‘1917,’ and then I had a meeting with him, and then I watched everything I could possibly find of his. At this point [in casting], I just have to believe in the actor, and I believed in George. But to be frank, I was quite nervous, because I still thought, ‘Is he right?’ And, my God, was that a good decision.”
While the young star has often been billed as a Method actor, Biancheri doesn’t quite classify him in those terms. “I don’t know if he’s Method,” she said. “He certainly lives the character, but once he’s off set, he’s very polite, very himself. He is the nicest human being. It’s unreal. When he’s in character, he’s so committed. There’s nothing he won’t do. All the stunts he does himself, completely.”
To help MacKay find the wolf inside of him, Biancheri hired Terry Notary, the noted actor and stunt coordinator, to serve as the film’s movement coach (eagle-eyed viewers will also spot the talented multi-hyphenate in a role late in the film). Knowing that Biancheri had already hired Notary, whose work in “The Square” had so impressed MacKay, made the actor feel at ease. “It made me feel like this wolf thing is going to be taken really seriously,” he said.
The “wolf thing” proved to be the easier ask, and the real bear of the process, the true transformation, was somewhere else: finding Jacob.
“We started by workshopping his wolf movements, and he would be like, ‘Oh, what does he think?’ and trying to intellectualize,” Biancheri said. “I was like, ‘Look, I’m also one for intellectualizing, but let’s forget about it for now. Let’s just work on the wolf.’ I think it was so massively helpful, because once he started getting into the wolf side, he could find things, this freeing aspect, the freedom to be, the freedom to not care.”
Originally, MacKay, Biancheri, and Notary had scheduled a full week to rehearse, followed by two weeks off, then three weeks of the entire cast rehearsing, and straight into filming. During that two-week gap, lockdown hit the UK. Suddenly, the shoot was pushed back two months, then three. MacKay, eager to occupy his mind during terrible times, said he spent much of his lockdown “crawling around” as Jacob. (Biancheri added with a chuckle, “He studied wolves until the end of the world.”)
“It was important that it looks like it was legitimately a place where he was comfortable,” he said. “Otherwise, there’d be the question of why he’d commit to this identity if it’s painful on top of that. … It just took work and finding the outside aesthetics of it and then also finding the inside. How it felt, where it felt right, where it felt difficult. It deepened the character and my understanding of Jacob, as a man, to have that time moving, as best I could, like a wolf.”
During lockdown, MacKay chronicled his physical transformation and its emotional implications by writing a diary about the experience. Many of the words that MacKay wrote ended up in the final film, presented as part of Jacob’s own journal, which he shares during a group therapy session. “At some point, even before the shoot, I was like, “‘Yeah, the time has come that he knows the character better than I do,'” Biancheri said.
Courtesy of Focus Features
Asked about particularly challenging scenes, both MacKay and Biancheri pointed to the same one: at the end of the first act, MacKay and Depp’s characters meet while both fully engaged with their animal sides, eventually taking their wildness to the roof of the clinic, where they proceed to sniff and bat at each other, just like a wolf and a wildcat might.
“It was one of the ones I was most worried about, but once I started rehearsing with them, I was like, ‘We’re fine,'” Biancheri said. “Even in some crappy studio with the lights on me, filming them on my phone, they already looked good.”
Commitment is key to the entire film, but there’s something essential about that scene. The audience has to buy it, it must feel real. That was exactly what MacKay loved about it. “The strangeness of that, I’m really into it,” he said. “If you were a bit embarrassed or started to overplay the irony and stuff, it just wouldn’t work. I think it would just fall in between somehow.”
It also helped that MacKay wasn’t alone, and he only had good things to say about the “magic” of working with Depp. “You just want to meet her enthusiasm and meet her commitment, and that made everything blossom,” MacKay said. “What we’re doing is sometimes strange and might look a bit funny. You wouldn’t think that that should be an issue, but fundamentally there’s part of you going, ‘Do I look a bit silly doing this?’ And when you’ve got someone really giving their all to the character and as an animal, her enthusiasm respected the process and made me respect the process even more.”
As they ready to premiere the film at this week’s TIFF before a December release from Focus Features, MacKay and Biancheri are excited to see how audiences react, but they’re not worrying too much about how the film will go over with people. From the start, this project has been about inspiring feelings, and they’re ready for them.
“My main draw to projects is because there’s something in it that personally I feel very connected to or inspired by,” MacKay said. “You have to just give over to whatever people think of it, so that you’re not always kind of going, ‘Oh, I wonder what people will think.’ I hope, like any piece of work, it’s stuff that you enjoy because it makes you question things and it sparks a conversation … about challenging perceptions about people.”
And that means, despite its potentially strange-sounding plot line — many people seem to think it’s a horror film, if only because they don’t know where something like this falls in the hyper-specific world of Hollywood — that “Wolf” might be able to speak to everyone, if only because its tale is, yes, universal.
“To us, it makes so much sense, because we know these characters, we know this world,” MacKay said. “Any time I mention it someone else, they’re like, ‘Whoa, that sounds different.’ It’s like, well, not really.”
“Wolf” will premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on December 3.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.