When Kelly Macdonald started out as an actor at the age of 19, there was no great plan. She was, by her own description, “a young idiot” who was living in a rented flat in Glasgow with a group of art students and had a job in a pub. She vaguely hoped to go to drama school, and had got as far as applying for an application form, but it never arrived.
“I knew what I wanted to do, but in my life and the people I hung around with, nobody else did that,” she says. Then she saw an ad for an open audition. It was for the part of Diane in Trainspotting, the 1996 film that would go on to help define the decade. After the first audition, she got a call-back that prompted her to buy the Irvine Welsh novel it was based on – “I borrowed the money off my mum. I was totally skint.”
After more auditions, she got the part and, when the shoot was over, resumed her bar job. “But then it got a bit weird in the pub as people were coming in and saying I looked a bit like that girl in the posters,” she recalls. “And then I got another acting job, and that was sort of that.”
Since then, there have been roles in Gosford Park, Nanny McPhee, the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men and, in TV, State of Play, The Girl in the Café (for which she won an Emmy), Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire and Black Mirror. Now, following in the footsteps of Stephen Graham, Lennie James and Thandie Newton, Macdonald is taking on the coveted “guest lead” in the BBC mega-hit Line of Duty – or rather, the is-this-copper-bent-or-what? role.
But it hasn’t been plain sailing. She was three weeks into the shoot last year when the first lockdown was announced. “Nobody had any idea of the magnitude of what was happening. We thought we were getting sent home for a few weeks, and even that seemed an epic amount of time.”
When they went back on set in September, the schedule had been turned upside down to accommodate new Covid rules, which meant they were no longer filming chronologically but according to location. When the director Daniel Nettheim was unable to travel back from Australia, the series’ writer Jed Mercurio stepped in to take over what was left of his episodes.
Meanwhile, Macdonald was doing daily battle with the script. The dialogue in Line of Duty is famously crammed with numerical codes, acronyms and police jargon. It got to a point, she says, where she couldn’t imagine doing anything other than learning lines. “Now I look back and think” – she does a double air-punch – “‘I did it!’”
Macdonald, 45, is talking from her home in Glasgow, where she lives with her two children (she split from her husband, the Travis bassist Dougie Payne, in 2017). She is warm and full of smiles, despite having endured a packed morning of Zoom-based promotion. Not for her the media-trained politesse of the limelight-loving actor – but then she’s always done a good job of avoiding the public glare. She recalls a few years ago arriving at an awards ceremony several hours early and not one person who was setting up recognised her.
“There’s a photograph of me sitting alone in the auditorium – just me,” she says. “To be a celebrity, you have to think about and [cultivate] being a celebrity, otherwise it doesn’t happen. I’m not that person and I’m not that interesting. I don’t see the need for all that.”
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It’s with a hint of sheepishness that Macdonald tells me she hadn’t watched Line of Duty before getting the call about the part – “although I haven’t seen The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, or Ozark. That thing where people tell you that you should watch something, I get really stubborn about it. I’ll choose when I watch!”
In Line of Duty, she plays DCI Joanne Davidson, a detective whose conduct around the arrest of a murder suspect piques the interest of AC-12, the police anti-corruption unit led by Ted “mother of God” Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) – although discussing the part isn’t easy given the ferocious embargoes surrounding the plot. Such is Line of Duty’s runaway success – the last series finale was the most-watched programme of 2019, with a consolidated viewing figure of 13.7 million – that intense secrecy now accompanies each new series. Commenting on the complexities of the script, at one point McDonald mentions a specific scene and then yelps, “SPOILER!” Sure enough, an email arrives later from the publicist politely asking me not to mention that bit.
All of which underlines what a big deal Line of Duty has become since its launch in 2012. “It’s the dream job,” McDonald says, of her role. “It feels a bit like being the new Bond or something. Or maybe Doctor Who is comparable.” She loves the speculation and intrigue the series provokes off-screen. “That’s the fun of it and it’s so glorious that it comes once a week and people have to wait and so they talk about it. I have close friends who have not been interested in my work before, and now they’re suddenly asking if I’m [the corrupt high-ranking officer] ‘H’.”
One of the sadder consequences of working under Covid rules, she notes, was not being able to socialise. “Say if you’re doing a big interview scene, the guys would say, ‘This is the night that we would all go out and have a curry and have a few drinks and decompress.’ I’ve definitely had a different experience.”
Nonetheless, she found everyone welcoming and observed a closeness on set that she’s rarely seen before. “They all get on like a house on fire and everybody keeps in touch [between series]. I was on Boardwalk Empire for a number of years and we all got on well. But we didn’t hang out a lot in between seasons. We would have occasional dinners but these guys are completely different. I think Vicky [McClure, who plays DI Kate Fleming] has a lot to do with that. She’s like the head girl.”
I note that the film and TV landscape was different for young women when Macdonald started out, and only in recent years have we heard them talking about their experiences of exploitation on and off set. Macdonald says that Trainspotting, in which she had an explicit sex scene with her co-star Ewan McGregor, was a baptism of fire, but that she was fortunate since she was well looked-after. “It was spoken about from the first audition – ‘There’s this [sex] scene and how do you feel about that?’ I just went along with it and almost thought, ‘Well, we’ll never get there anyway.’ I kind of felt that way right up until shooting the scene, but we did rehearse for it and allocated a lot of time to it. And I was okay with it.”
On meeting McGregor for the first time, she hid behind her script “because I couldn’t look at him because he’d done this show on TV called Scarlet and Black”. She lets out a big gurgling laugh. “And he was quite, um, naked in that. Let’s just say there’s a scene of him jumping out of the window that I had watched a lot of times.”
Macdonald feels the lot of women actors has improved nowadays, not least in the number of roles available to them. She noticed an uptick in the jobs she was being offered after working on Boardwalk Empire, for which she moved to New York, though puts this less down to being in America than in people’s living rooms – “TV is on a whole different scale. Before that I was used to doing independent, low-budget films.”
Still, she notes that her career has mostly been marked by low-level hustling and lengthy gaps between jobs. She describes a frequent scenario at the end of a shoot when the actors start talking about their next job. “And I would always go really quiet,” she says. “I never had anything lined up. That’s only started to happen in the past five or six years.”
Right now, she is delighted to be playing TV coppers – Line of Duty is the second police drama she’s done recently, after the cult hit Giri/Haji. “People love detective shows, don’t they? They just do. I grew up watching Taggart – I may well be the only Scottish actor that wasn’t in Taggart. In the case of Line of Duty, I think it does what people want it to do and there’s nothing extra. It’s got the drama and it feels genuine. It really walks the walk. Now I get what all the fuss is about.”
Line of Duty begins on Sunday 21 March at 9pm on BBC One.
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