Interview: Kate Dickie, actress

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After critically acclaimed performances in film and television, Kate Dickie is returning to the theatre for the first time in three years in a role very different from the intense, troubled woman she often plays, writes Susan Mansfield

• Scottish actress Kate Dickie believes that her latest role as Lucy in What We Know is the one most like herself

WHILE it would be wrong to typecast, it is possible to say something about the kind of women Kate Dickie usually plays. Intense, troubled women, dealt a poor hand by life. Strong but damaged. Lex in Tinsel Town. Electra. Jackie, the CCTV operator protagonist in Andrea Arnold's award-winning movie Red Road.

Dickie herself is anything but troubled, which just might explain her attraction to her current role in Pamela Carter's new play What We Know at the Traverse. "She's, well, she's normal," she says, a grin spreading across her fine-boned, expressive face. "She doesn't have any big secrets, there's not massive darkness in her. Like us all really. She makes mistakes like everyone else, but she tries her best."

In fact, Dickie wonders whether, out of all the women she has given voice to, Lucy might be the most like her. "I don't know what people close to me would say but I felt a good connection to her."

Not that Lucy's life is problem free. What We Know is the story of a crisis, an evening when her realises she knows less than she thought about the man she loves. "It all goes a bit tits-up for Lucy, she's trying to understand what's happening. But it's not a depressing piece, it's quite funny, quite emotional."

What We Know is the latest in the series of Traverse Too commissions – low budget professional productions intended to encourage experimentation – the first of which was the David Greig and Gordon McIntyre collaboration Midsummer. Though it was intended only for a short run, Midsummer was revived as a massive Fringe hit and has toured to London, Canada and Ireland.

Pamela Carter, the writer of last year's An Argument About Sex, who also directs What We Know, wanted to experiment with devices which engage the audience more directly in the journey of the characters. Thus, Lucy and her boyfriend Joe (Paul Thomas Hickey) will cook and eat a meal on stage in the course of the play.

"Luckily for me, Paul's character does more of the cooking," says Dickie, laughing. "I let him worry about that." She describes the play as "a great ensemble piece with a great ensemble cast": Hickey, Anne Lacey, Robin Laing, Pauline Lockhart and newcomer Lorn McDonald.

Dickie, 38, is back on stage for the first time in three years. Self-effacing about her talents and always keen to emphasise how "lucky" she has been, she hasn't been short of film and television work since the success of Red Road, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2006. Her electrifying performance as Jackie won a Scottish BAFTA and beat Helen Mirren to the Best Actress gong in the British Independent Film Awards.

With characteristic down-to-earthness, she graced red carpets at film festivals around the world in a "borrowed" Jonathan Saunders dress and cheerfully reported that she wasn't sure if she met any stars because she never remembers faces. She repeatedly deflects attention from herself by praising the people she works with. While "capitalising" on her "profile" is entirely alien to her, she does venture, tentatively, that she has been "awful busy".

"I'm probably getting seen for things I might not have before. I was so lucky to meet Andrea (Arnold, who is still a friend) and make that film. It could have been anybody. It wasn't that I was better than anyone else. I feel lucky if I'm ever offered anything."

With gentle encouragement, she does admit that Sergio Mimica-Gazzan, the Croatian director of big budget mini-series The Pillars of the Earth, adapted from the Ken Follett novel about cathedral builders and likely to be screened on television later this year, spotted both Dickie and co-star Tony Curran in Red Road and found suitable parts for both in the series.

Dickie spent about a month in Budapest where the series was made, on set with the likes of Ian McShane, Donald Sutherland and Rufus Sewell. "It was great fun, I loved that job. My character was very strong, not coarse but very real, very down to earth. She dies early on, but my death triggers a lot of what happens for the rest of the film. I loved Budapest so much. I felt at home there, they looked after us so well."

Last year she also made Outcast, a supernatural thriller directed by Colm McCarthy (Murphy's Law, Spooks) which will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, in March. It marries old witchcraft with contemporary urban horror – the outdoor sequences were filmed in Edinburgh's Sighthill. She plays the mother of a teenage son, pursued by an unnamed fiend (James Nesbitt).

Dickie admits, laughing, that she tends to leave the room when a horror film comes on TV, and says her character is "very dark". "I realised after I finished doing it that I'd been in a really strange place. Sometimes you forget how involved you are in something. My character's quite violent, she looks like she's doing awful things sometimes but her intention is to protect her son and make everything okay.

"It was a really great time. Colm is a wonderful director, so clear about what he's looking for. We had a lot of laughs. My boyfriend thinks it's hilarious. I just need to hear the opening bars of scary music and I'm like 'Turn it off!' He says 'But you've been in a horror film!' It's pathetic, but it's different when you're in it."

But Dickie has never been one to shirk from a challenge. In Blooded, a theatre show by Boilerhouse, she climbed to the top of a four-metre scaffold having chosen not to mention her fear of heights. In the National Theatre of Scotland's Aalst, she dug deep to tell the "unimaginable" story (based on fact) about a Belgian couple who killed their own children. In Red Road, she shot what has been called the most explicit sex scene in a Scottish film.

"I like being challenged, pushed into things. It's exciting as an actor to get scared and be pushed to places when you maybe don't think you can do it. It's a job to do and you want to do it as best you can, do the character justice and the director justice. You have to embrace it all and hope somehow you find the right voice for the character."

Other recent projects include BBC mini-series Dive, directed by Dominic Savage, and Rounding Up Donkeys, the second film in Lars Von Trier's Advance Party project, of which Red Road was the first. Directed by Morag McKinnon, the film, like Red Road, was filmed in Glasgow in six weeks with a budget of 1million and the same ensemble cast. It is now awaiting release.

"It was really nice to revisit the characters, but our lives are in a different dimension, we're in different jobs, some of our history is different, some is the same. We all have different relationships." She says she is still Jackie, but now works in a supermarket, and that the drama of the film focuses on another character.

She has missed working in theatre, but finds film and TV work – "because it happens in short bursts" – easier to combine with looking after her six-year-old daughter Molly.

"Molly's really my priority now, my life revolves around her. I wouldn't take something on if I felt she wouldn't be able to cope. She's fine, it's me that struggles with it. Sometimes she says: 'Mum, are you going away soon?' because she always gets a new toy when I come back. But I just want to be there to put her to bed at night."

Two years ago, Molly played Dickie's on-screen daughter in Wasted, the film made by Glasgow production company Raindog, in which Dickie plays a young drug addict. "The writers were looking for a girl her age to play my daughter, and said 'How do you feel about Molly?' I wasn't sure about it at all, but I agreed to try doing a rehearsal with her. It was to be her birthday party and she got a cake and presents in it, so she was delighted to do it.

"She was amazing, absolutely amazing, actually," she says, shaking her head and laughing. "A few weeks ago, she said: 'Mummy, when are we making another film? But I don't want to do a birthday party this time, I want to do something different.' And I'm thinking 'Oh god, what can of worms have I opened here?'"

&#149 What We Know is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, today until 27 February.