William McKenna comes from a long lineage of performers, four generations in fact. His parents are both in the arts – his mother is a performer and his dad runs his own production company – and his grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather also lit up stages with their musical and acting prowess. It’s no shock then that McKenna followed in their footsteps, as he says ‘there’s something in the gene pool.’
But McKenna's parents never pressured him to pursue a career in the arts. ‘If anything, my parents said you should be an accountant, because we want to know how to do that, and it would be great to have a son who is an accountant.’ Luckily for theatre lovers everywhere, McKenna isn’t known for doing your taxes. He found a passion and love for performing and the arts on his own accord, and has already marvelled audiences on stage and screen.
Learning on the job
When McKenna was just 18, and still in his final year of high school, he was cast as Scorpius Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. As well as playing the role for a year and a half from February 2018, he was there at the very beginning of the play’s production the year before. ‘The work we did for that show was quintessentially like a masterclass every single day,’ McKenna says. It involved a three-month rehearsal period, including a rigorous two-hour physical training session every morning, and a five-week tech period. Quite an introduction to the world of professional theatre. ‘There were Tony Award-winning directors and movement directors, and the best vocal coaches. It was insane. I feel incredibly lucky.’
McKenna attributes most of his training to learning on the stage and set of that ‘wonderful play’, as he modestly describes it. But he’s also quick to add, ‘it was so much more than that.’ He attended Eltham College where Nicholas Waxman and Amanda Skyes were his drama teachers. He lights up when he speaks about them. ‘They are incredible. I owe it all to them. They revolutionised my high school and we would do a play and a musical every year, which wasn’t normal when I first started.’ He was also filming the ABC teen drama Nowhere Boys during his final year of school. But even with that busy schedule and a full study load, he excelled academically and got a perfect score in theatre and drama.
A curious mind
To be such an accomplished actor at just 21, McKenna has had to be ambitious, determined and incredibly hard-working. Qualities he shares with Charlie Luther Mason, his character in Admissions. ‘In all aspects, Charlie is a high overachiever. He gets results and he’s aware of that.’ McKenna admits he relates to Charlie on the overachieving part. ‘That’s not to say that I get the results he does, but there’s definitely a determination and ambition there that I could see immediately when reading the script.’ By nature, Charlie is also very curious and wants to get down to the nitty gritty of most things. For McKenna, this aspect is even more relatable. ‘I’ve annoyed a lot of my friends because I like to ask questions.’ It’s not uncommon for him to initiate an hour long in-depth conversation until he ‘burns their brains off with questioning.’
Audiences might experience something similar when they are first introduced to Charlie on stage. His entrance includes an explosive monologue where he grapples with the politics of positive discrimination in a fiery, linguistic workout. ‘He comes in with a fury and rage. It’s a state where a character usually develops to 90 minutes in to a play. But Charlie’s there from the minute he enters. You only get to see him outside of his frustration and anger later on, when he’s calmed down.’
The intensity of Charlie and the change in his character throughout the play works because of Joshua Harmon’s writing. ‘Harmon writes so cleverly. It’s so detailed and knowing. He’s lived all of these characters and you can feel that because they come from a place of truth,’ McKenna says. ‘It’s exciting because an audience will fall for one character, and then the next minute be very confused about their position and fall for a different character, and then be very confused again.’ To McKenna, this is precisely what the play is about. ‘It’s about the icky middle line, where people don’t realise their own hypocrisy.’
A considerable weight
McKenna has been finding the experience of working on such a provocative play as a ‘weird dichotomy.’ ‘It is both incredibly exciting and on the other hand, incredibly challenging because of the issues we are dealing with and speaking about, and layering on top of that, a satirical and comedic tone.’ He feels incredibly lucky that this is the first play he is involved in at MTC, but also understands the weight it carries.
In light of this, he made sure he did all he could to prepare; his studious qualities paying off again. ‘I really wanted to educate myself on more of the issues I felt I was lacking knowledge of, both racial and historical, both in Australia and in America.’ This is the only way it would have felt right to him to be able to speak Joshua Harmon’s words.
There’s also the weight of being in a play heralded as a conversation starter. ‘All plays are conversation starters, but this one goes the extra mile.’ He explains that he expects audiences won’t just be commenting on whether they enjoyed the show or the set or the costumes. ‘I think the conversations will stop being about the play and start being about privilege, and that we all need to check in with ourselves on our potential unconscious bias towards race.’ But McKenna is most excited for audiences to be taken on the ride, which if it’s anything like Charlie’s character arc, will include some tight turns and possibly a few loop-the-loops.
Admissions is on stage at Southbank Theatre until 9 April.
Published on 21 March 2022