Canadian actor Taylor Kitsch first came to prominence in acclaimed drama Friday Night Lights, where he played troubled high school football star Tim Riggins. He has since gone on to play such roles as Officer Paul Woodrugh in True Detective and David Koresh in Waco, which aired on SBS in recent years.
In Shadowplay, Kitsch takes the lead once again as Brooklyn cop Max McLaughlin. “My character comes to organise, support and help the local precincts in Berlin start up again. His ulterior motive is to get in contact with his brother. There’s a lot of unfinished, unresolved issues between those two guys. And I think that’s the through line with the whole show."
Kitsch spoke with The Guide from the set of Shadowplay, sharing insights about the characters, shooting in Prague and working with two directors.
The story of Shadowplay and Max
Shadowplay is based in Berlin 1946. It’s kind of the repercussions of WWII, and it’s an amalgamation of all these characters who are intertwined through that trauma. My character, Max McLaughlin, comes from New York City to organise, support and help the local precincts in Berlin start up again. His ulterior motive – his real motive – is to get in contact with his brother. There’s a lot of unfinished, unresolved issues between those two guys. And I think that’s the through line with the whole show. It’s these two characters. They represent a certain trauma as well, a tragedy that happened to them when they were young. They’re both carrying that with them.
I know it’s WWII but relationships don’t really change over time, and that’s what’s going to move the needle on this show. As beautiful as these sets are, if you’re not connected to these characters, the show is not going to do anything. So that’s what that relatability and that timelessness is all about. And everyone, unfortunately, is probably going to lose somebody in their lifetime. And that trauma is pretty relatable. Doesn’t matter where you’re from, who you are, the colour of your skin, anything. So I think for me, that’s what you gravitate and ground yourself into – those relationships.
I think Måns [Mårlind, creator and co-director] did a terrific job with the script. I said that in my first meeting with him, of just giving a full body to every one of these main characters. Especially the women. They have a purpose most importantly, and their own stories. They’re not just facilitating Max or Franklin’s. Everyone has their own deal, and I think that’s why you can get the cast you get. That they have something to bite into. And they’ve done a great job.
The multi-layered characters
There is a duplicity with everybody in this. Max is being investigated by his counterpart at the precinct, but then Max is trying to stay a step ahead of the police, whilst also working with them and covering up his brother’s murders. Very well-plotted murders. And knowingly doing that, and leaving these notes and trail for his brother to find. And then obviously you go into Michael C. Hall’s [Tom] Franklin character. Everybody has something they’re carrying in the dark.
Keeping intimate secrets
The relatability is the trauma, and how the characters do and don’t deal with it. And it’s not just WWII. It’s the intimate perspective these characters carry with them, and through each other. Especially Max and Moritz, and how they dealt with what happened to them as kids. They went on different paths. That’s what is fascinating to me. How Max still has to hold onto some hope to keep moving forward, rather than just going into the darkness with his brother.
Max does have a son, and I think that’s a really imperative trait – in [Max] not becoming his [own] father. There’s a perspective there that Max carries, and most importantly, a purpose that he has. Again, everybody has their different motives, but I think they all have to carry that. For the most part. With Elsie especially, Max, and I think Moritz arguably as well, with his brother and their relationship. For Max, it’s his son Jimmy and it’s trying to reach and get through to his brother. And a little bit of that is selfish in its own right, because there are so many unresolved issues.
The sets and locations
I didn’t know Berlin was that levelled, hence why we can’t shoot there. But I went there for four days for research and realised you can’t shoot there – it’s a new city, basically. They rebuilt from the ground up, so it wouldn’t make sense. So I think that’ll be a wake-up call for a lot of people. They’ll learn a lot. It’s fictional characters ground in a very authentic setting. It’s a great help. Every actor will tell you it beats any green scene, or any studio lot. We just finished a huge 3-day scene, which is in episode one, and there’s so many things you can react to that wouldn’t be in a studio. And I love that. It helps put you there, and I think it’s imperative especially with this period. The accuracy is there. And it helps you be in the moment, and you can act off it.
I do love the police precinct – that was great to shoot at. It’s cooling off now, here in summer. We’re at the tail end of it so it’s more enjoyable to be outside. And I do love this set, you can’t have a bad shot.
Shooting all episodes out of order
It’s tough because you’re basically shooting four movies. The relationships are everything in this show, and so you have to be finite about that, and where you are. So it’s really tough to track. I’ve done a couple of mini-series of eight episodes, but we never jumped from one to seven. I think the tough part is that there are moments that aren’t in the script that happen on the day. And that may change or manipulate the relationship, just a bit. Especially with Moritz and I – you never want that to be the same scene twice, as we get further into the series. So that’s something you have to be hyper aware of. And where it’s evolving emotionally, and who’s driving the scene. And how power is changing hands.
Working with two directors, Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein
I tip my hat. It’s a huge undertaking. There’s a symbiotic thing between those two guys, which helps. You have to have that. You don’t want two different visions on the same day. As long as that vision is transparent and as one, it can really facilitate the process. And they both bring different things to set, and I’ve had a blast working with both of them.
Shooting in different languages
I can’t really complain, I just saw [co-star] Nina [Hoss] crush Russian – I’m talking a page and a half of Russian. She killed it. And I have some phrases here and there in German. It’s funny because you’re doing German with Germans in the scene, so there’s a little added pressure in the scene. But it is what it is. I dig it. I think it keeps it true to itself, that it is a global show and everyone knows that WWII happened and I think it leads to a more accurate perception of it.
Shadowplay premiered with a double episode Thursday 4 March on SBS. Episodes will continue weekly at 9:30pm from Thursday 11 March. New episodes will be available at SBS On Demand each week on the same day as broadcast. Shadowplay will also be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic, available to stream for free at SBS On Demand. Each subtitled episode will become available at the same time as broadcast.
Start with episode 1: