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Part 2: James Mackay – don't forget your tripod

The star of Netflix’s Dynasty James Mackay on juggling work in the US and Australia, advice for auditions, and why being Aussie gives you an edge.

Credits: Hacksaw Ridge, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Dynasty, Battle of the Sexes, The Dressmaker, The Straits

The 33-year-old Sydney native graduated from Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in 2008 and won the Australians in Film Heath Ledger Scholarship award in 2015

James MackayJames Mackay in Dynasty

When James Mackay graduated from WAAPA, he set himself a time frame of five years to get US representation.

“But then I got quite lucky,” Mackay recalls, “because I got a deal right out of drama school, after a local casting search in Sydney for the big budget American film, John Carter. I had to sign a three-film deal and ended up getting down to the last handful of actors.”

Mackay didn’t get the role, but he did get a US agent. “Because it was such a high-profile job, everyone heard about the unknown actor in the mix and that was enough to get me a bunch of meetings in LA,” he says. But even that didn’t guarantee smooth sailing for the 33-year-old actor, who then spent the past decade going back and forth between the US and Australia trying to work at home but come to LA often enough “to prove to my agents that I was serious about pursuing a career in the States.”

Last year, he finally landed his first regular role in a TV series, playing Steven Carrington in the Netflix series reboot of Dynasty, now going into its second season filming in Atlanta. “During pilot season, if you get down to the last few actors, you sign a test deal upfront and that’s enough to increase your quote,” Mackay explains. “I did seven test deals and Dynasty was the first one that led to me actually getting the job, but every single time, something else came out of it that was beneficial and you have to remember that when you start to question yourself.”

"Everyone heard about the unknown actor in the mix."

Mackay credits his WAAPA education with helping him compete for roles. “I think the training culture in Australia is a huge part of the ongoing success of Aussie actors in the US,” he says. “To have three years of really working hard on voice and movement and all the technical aspects of the work, it set me up really well because I have an incredible arsenal of tools to audition for American, British and Australian roles anywhere in the world.”

Describing Australian actors as having “a gutsiness not just in their work but in the way they approach the industry”, Mackay says it’s that reputation that also gives Aussies an edge in the casting room. “I hear the US reps talk about Aussie actors and their professionalism, training and preparation. It’s a very valuable identity because a casting director knows the actor will be prepared and ready and put their best foot forward in the audition room if they are Australian because we work so hard to get in there.”

Other tips that James shares:

Don’t leave home without a tripod

“It was beginning to happen when I graduated but now it happens all the time, that casting directors want you to put yourself on tape and send it to them in the US,” he explains. “This puts more of an onus on actors to be able to do that well; to frame a shot and light it well and make it sound good so there is an IT component to the job now too. I always travel with a camera and tripod because you never know where you are going to be when someone asks you to self-tape.”

Apply for the Heath Ledger Scholarship

Mackay submitted a showreel five years ago for the Australians in Film Heath Ledger Scholarship. “Once they got it down to a shortlist, the final phase was doing a self-tape which was assessed by the judges and I won,” he says. “That was a huge shift for me because up to that point I’d been coming out to LA for about four years on and off for work and the scholarship gave me financial credit at an immigration firm to get the visa and the money and resources to be able to stick around a little longer, and I booked a job on a series called The Tomorrow People for two episodes. So that provided an injection of funds and a credit when I really needed it.”

(Actors already based in LA can visit www.australiansinfilm.org – a year-round resource for workshops, labs and screenings)

Never turn down an audition

The actor says be prepared to audition up to three times a day in the US instead of a possible three auditions in a month in Australia. “Look at auditioning as a key part of the job itself and it will keep you well-drilled and well-prepared,” he advises. “The intensity of the hours on Dynasty and the full-time nature of the job helps you get camera-fit in a way that is much harder to do in Australia, unless you are on one of those long-running series.”

Managers vs. Agents

“It’s much easier to get a manager in the US than an agent,” Mackay explains. “I got lucky getting an agent in the US quickly from the fluke circumstance around my test deal so for a long time I had an agent in both places. A few years ago, I hired a manager as well and if you’re interested in working in the US at all, the best equation is to have an Australian agent, an American agent and an American manager because it’s just more eyes looking out for opportunities for you.”

Don’t wait for lightning to strike

“I could write a book on the ways in which a relationship that seems to have gone nowhere may pay off years later,” he says. “I found out that the showrunner of Dynasty had asked for a self-tape from me because she’d seen a self-tape I did four years ago for another show she was working on that she liked, so when this show came up, she thought of me.”

Best Advice

“If there was one piece of advice I’d give to any actor it’s to always be on time and always be prepared, whether it’s a job or audition,” he says. “You have to bring that attitude to bear on all your work because you never know when something is going to pay off in a bigger way later.”