Kelly Macdonald interview: 'I don't get to play glamorous parts'

The Trainspotting star on playing a housewife in her new film, Puzzle, and why she doesn't intend to get too big for her boots

Geoffrey Macnab
Saturday 01 September 2018 11:16 BST

It’s over 20 years now since Kelly Macdonald appeared in Trainspotting and became a star overnight. The Scottish actor had famously been working in a bar when she heard about the open auditions for a role in Danny Boyle’s film. It changed her life. Now, with a CV that includes roles in Gosford Park, Finding Neverland and No Country for Old Men, as well as classic TV series such as State of Play and Boardwalk Empire, Macdonald has built a fine career.

It didn’t come easy, though. She had never been to drama school, so she had to learn her craft on the job. In the early days, she says, “I would have been fretting for days on end about really emotional scenes and now I don’t feel the need to do that. I know I can do it. I’ve got the confidence to trust in that.”

We’re in the glamorous surroundings of a ballroom in the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh. It’s the day of the premiere for her latest film, Puzzle, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Macdonald is friendly but guarded. She tends to keep herself out of the gossip columns and maintain a low profile, but last year the Scottish press covered her separation from her husband, Douglas Payne (bassist of Travis), with morbid relish.

Yet for all her self-deprecating manner, Macdonald can be outspoken and provocative. She caused a minor media furore recently when she was quoted as saying that fellow actor Tilda Swinton was “too posh to be Scottish”.

We chat about her 2016 return to the scene of her Edinburgh-set debut, in the Trainspotting sequel, T2. Macdonald was intrigued to be reunited with Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle, but startled to see how they had changed in middle age. The reckless hedonists of the mid-1990s were now worried about health and fitness and spent their spare time going for runs up and down Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh.

In Puzzle, Macdonald plays Agnes, a New Jersey housewife whose monotonous existence is transformed when she discovers her own brilliance at assembling puzzles.

The Scottish actor has played her share of near invisible women – self-effacing wives and servants. Agnes in Puzzle follows on from her role as the nanny in Christopher Robin. She was a maid in Gosford Park and in Nanny McPhee, and is shortly to be seen as Mrs Hudson in comedy Holmes And Watson, opposite Will Ferrell’s Sherlock Holmes and John C Reilly’s Dr Watson.

“My gran was a cleaner and so I am following in the family tradition,” Macdonald jokes of her gallery of servants and housewives. She will always bring defiance to such roles. She is not the type to be put down for too long.

“I very rarely get to play glamorous parts,” she laments, tongue in cheek, but adds that she did enjoy herself recently as Princess Margaret, befriending Mick Jagger in Sky Arts comedy Urban Myths. She got to play Margaret right from “her 1960s glam years” to when she was in a wheelchair at the end of her life.

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When it came to her role as Agnes, she points out she did have some childhood memories to draw on. As a kid, she had a Paddington jigsaw puzzle that she used to play with again and again.

Macdonald stars alongside Irrfan Khan in new drama ‘Puzzle’
Macdonald stars alongside Irrfan Khan in new drama ‘Puzzle’ (Sony Pictures Classic)

“It was Paddington on a rowboat and I really remember the reeds coming out of the water,” she remembers. “I’ve always quite liked them (puzzles) and I did them in my twenties a little bit.”

Macdonald is a long way removed from the typical Hollywood diva. She lives in Glasgow and will turn down roles if they get in the way of her family life. (Her two children came out to the US for part of the Puzzle shoot.) On the set of Puzzle, shooting in a house in Yonkers, she didn’t hide away in her trailer but spent her spare time with the crew. “Me and a core little group of the crew got very into puzzles. By the end of filming, we were getting good and fast.

“I love the quiet bravery of this character,” she reflects on what drew her to play Agnes. “She starts off as a character that I am well aware of and have played before, someone who is naive, quiet, and feels very young. In the time frame of the film, her inner life starts to bubble and percolate. She has got a huge inner world that nobody has ever seen.”

Filmmakers queue up to praise the subtlety and depth of her performances. She has the quality of looking mournful and very mysterious in her closeups. You immediately sympathise with her, but you also realise that she is keeping some of her true feelings hidden away.

“I fell in love with her as an actor in Girl in a Cafe and then saw her in No Country for Old Men and then I saw her in Boardwalk Empire and I began to connect the dots,” Marc Turtletaub, the director of Puzzle, who calls Macdonald a “genius” actor, enthuses about her. “There is a nuance in her performances, a vulnerability in who she is and a bit of reserve.”

She was superb opposite Steve Buscemi in Prohibition gangster drama series Boardwalk Empire, a role that won her both Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. (She won an Emmy for TV drama The Girl in a Cafe.) Each season of Boardwalk Empire lasted nine months. Like the other actors, she was given little advance warning of what would happen to her character. “Everybody was waiting to be killed off. It was that world of gangsters, after all. If you got a phone call from (director) Terry Winter, that meant you were…” she makes a throat-cutting gesture. Winter did call her once… but she survived – and lasted long enough in the series to become close to a household name in the US.

The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. “He wants to know what you think,” Macdonald remembers being surprised about being consulted by the great American filmmaker behind Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull et al. To her amazement, he sounded her out and then included her ideas in one pivotal scene. “He’ll go with what you suggested. There was a scene in the pilot where my character is pretty certain her husband is going to attack her. She is making dinner for the kids. He is angry and it is leading up to some sort of spousal abuse situation. We were trying to work out what I would be doing in the scene and so we decided slicing a loaf. I said, ‘what if I got the knife and then I know I am ready – on the verge of being able to defend myself.’”

Scorsese thought the idea was tremendous. He was even more enthused when Macdonald suggested her hand should be trembling and immediately decided to throw in a closeup of precisely that. Later, when she read a review, she noticed a journalist had written about the scene, describing the shaking hand as a quintessential Scorsese touch. She didn’t know whether to be flattered or annoyed.

Macdonald became more known in the US following her role opposite Steve Buscemi in ‘Boardwalk Empire’
Macdonald became more known in the US following her role opposite Steve Buscemi in ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (HBO Enterprises)

Some of the best directors Macdonald has worked with have been the most collaborative. The late Robert Altman, for example, rang her up and said “come play with us” as his way of offering her a role in Gosford Park. Like Scorsese, the famously freewheeling Kansas-born auteur was always open to suggestion. “He wanted to get people he really liked in a room and switch the camera on and catch unusual moments” is how she sums up his approach to directing.

In the US, after Boardwalk Empire, her fame did begin to bite. Truck drivers would recognise her and shout “Margaret!” (the name of her character). “It (Boardwalk Empire) was an ongoing series and you’re in people’s living rooms. That’s a very different thing from people going to see films in cinemas.” Back home in Scotland, though, the impact of the series was much more limited. Many of those she met would tell her they hadn’t watched Boardwalk Empire because “they didn’t have Sky”.

In fact, not all Scots who’ve made big reputations abroad are welcomed when they come back home. Macdonald has very vivid memories of Scottish pop star Sheena Easton being given a very hostile reception and being pelted by the crowd when she returned to Glasgow from the US for a concert in 1990 and greeted the audience in a mid-Atlantic voice. “I thought that was really brutal… it’s that thing when you are brought up and your grandparents are always saying don’t get too big for your boots,” Macdonald remembers. She doesn’t encounter any such problems herself. “People are nice to me,” she says. “I don’t see any difference in the way I am treated in Scotland to down south.”

Macdonald is now in demand both in the UK and in the US. She is working again with Julian Farino on the BBC and Netflix coproduced cop thriller Giri/Haji, in which she plays a London-based police officer working alongside a Japanese detective on a Yakuza-related investigation. (Farino previously directed her in Ian McEwan adaptation The Child in Time). She is also planning to shoot an independent film in Australia.

And no, Macdonald hasn’t been surprised by the rise of the Me Too movement and the exposure of sexual harassment in the film industry. “It’s a conversation that has been had privately in my industry for years and years and years. The thing I love about it is that it (the conversation) needs to be public. It’s nothing but a good thing that women have the confidence now to say that is not acceptable behaviour,” she says. “You just had to put up and shut up before.” That, she makes clear, is not an option she would ever accept.

Puzzle is released on 7 September

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