Is Babylon’s James McKay Based on an Actual Gangster?

Image Credit: Scott Garfield/ Paramount Pictures

Damien Chazelle’s ‘Babylon’ tells the story of people who want to become a part of Hollywood. It follows the sudden rise of an actress from an extra in a film to a leading lady. It captures the turn of fate for a young man who enters the industry as a man sent on errands by studio executives until he himself becomes one. The film also gives the audience a look into the life of an established actor whose life is changed forever when sound becomes an important part of movies.

In the same vein, the film presents a very peculiar character who also dreams about making films and gives the audience a brief look into his very depraved world. Played by Tobey Maguire, ‘Babylon’ brings James McKay to the fore as a dangerous mobster who is extremely creepy, to say the least. If you are wondering whether or not he was a real criminal doing the 1920s, then here’s what you should know about him.

James McKay is Not a Real Gangster

No, Tobey Maguire’s James McKay is not based on a real person. Writer-director Damien Chazelle wanted to present both the fun and the dangerous side of Hollywood to the audience. In the first half of the film, he focused on parties, most of which are attended by Margot Robbie’s Nellie LaRoy, all of which present the image of a time when people could indulge in all sorts of things and enjoy their life. However, in the second half of the film, things get very serious and the characters have to face the consequences of their actions. This is where the character of McKay comes into play.

Describing McKay as “sort of like an overgrown Pied Piper”, Chazelle said, “It’s that seedy mirror image — the really depraved, awful, horror-movie mirror image, where everything that you could brush aside as funny or silly early on, now is just really not fun anymore”. To bring such a character alive on the screen would have been a challenge for anyone, and Maguire found it fascinating to take up this role. In fact, he particularly chose it for himself. Chazelle revealed that in the early stages of the film’s making, he and Maguire would meet up to refine the script, which is where the actor played around with a couple of roles and then landed on McKay as it “felt like the right fit”.

In conversation with Entertainment Weekly, Maguire revealed that there wasn’t any specific real-life criminal who inspired him to portray the character in the way that he did in the film. “There were a lot of inspirations from just combing through some of the research that was done for the film that Damien had put together,” he said. At the end of the day, however, the actor felt free to bring his own twist to the role that already had a lot of meat on it.

Calling him “underworldly”, Maguire found the idea of McKay pitching movies rather hilarious, but also something that reflects on the character of Hollywood around that time and the depravity and the luridness that pervaded it at times. “I think for him, he’s like, ‘Look at this world’. He wants to share [the underworld]. I think he genuinely is like, ‘You guys are gonna have a blast at this place, and you’re gonna love these people, and you’re in the movies, so we have a treasure trove of ideas.’ But to him, this is what it is to be human,” he said.

In some ways, McKay wanting to be a part of the filmmaking business and create movies about the world that he comes from isn’t very different from what the other characters want. “I think in his mind, he’s thinking he could end up creating a whole studio and bring this to the world, and he’s going to create blockbuster after blockbuster between his own cinematic ideas and all these “great” people he can bring into the light,” Maguire said. This creates a rather weird connection between him and other filmmakers like Manny Torres, underlining the influence of films. With this in mind, it looks like even for a fictional character like McKay, a lot of thought was put into the ways he could be presented as more accessible to the audience while also keeping up with his alarming appearance.

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