One of the UK’s most promising young actors reveals how contemporary politics influenced his role in Munich: The Edge of War.
George MacKay wants to be a small cog in a big wheel. It’s a strange confession to hear from an early-career actor in an industry that awards showy look-at-me performances, but it also makes perfect sense when you cast an eye over the 29-year-old’s filmography. Quietly banking impressive, and often understated, performances (mostly recently, as a young, traumatised soldier sprinting across 1917’s wartime trenches and as Justin Kurzel’s swaggering reimagining of Ned Kelly), MacKay is an actor who wants to serve the story.
“What is the story exploring or offering to people, and can I help that in any way? If the answer is yeah, then I want to be a part of it, I want to try and make that happen,” he says in a plush London hotel room on a busy press day for Munich: The Edge of War, a film that continues MacKay’s run of subtle, yet compellingly pivotal, performances.
Adapted by playwright Ben Power from Robert Harris’ novel, Munich: The Edge of War is set on the eve of World War Two as Britain and Germany’s head of states – Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler – meet to discuss finding a resolution to the proposed German invasion of Czechoslovakia (spoiler: it does not go well). Amid the real historical context, Power places two fictional characters: the nervy, English civil servant Hugh Legat (played by MacKay) and an impassioned German nationalist-turned-radical Paul Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner). Hugh and Paul are old university mates who find their friendship, and youthful optimism, caught in a sea of political espionage as the two become pawns in a plot to stop der Führer.
“I read Ben Power’s script during the summer before last, when there was so much that, globally, socially and politically, we were reevaluating,” remembers Mackay. “There was change that was rightfully being called for and, personally, a sense of figuring out how to participate in it. What is the best way to be a part of this moment that we’re in? Is it activism? Is it personal day-to-day change? Or, is it symbolic change? Or, legislative? And which one informs the other?”
These questions are explored in the film as Hugh and Paul represent two approaches to social change: Hugh, who wants to take a legislative approach versus Paul, who believes in empowered action. “It’s difficult to know what to do with the present, but the thing about history is that, although the interpretation can be shifted somewhat, the events are static,” says MacKay. “Therefore, you can unpick ideas in a way that you can’t with something that is happening right now. Hugh’s in a place of insight, but not necessarily of power. And what you do with that, because I think we’re all in a place of insight, in our day-to-day experiences.