She has a reputation for being shy, fragile even, but judging from roles that span from the gallus Diane in Trainspotting to the warrior princess in Brave, Kelly Macdonald is clearly a tougher cookie than many critics give her credit for
THE Brave junket has come to town, an entourage roughly the size of Disneyland that comprises cast and crew, ceilidhs and clan fights. Scotland, for the moment, has been Pixared.
Today the action is centred around the Balmoral hotel, that bastion of Scots baronial elegance at the east end of Edinburgh’s Princes Street, where five years ago another maker of Scottish myth finished the Harry Potter series. Now comes its brave, or perhaps brave-hearted, American successor; a sumptuous fairy tale set in a magical, medieval Highlands, brought to life by the most successful animation studio in the world.
Downstairs, international journalists are munching on smoked salmon sandwiches, plucking rounds of shortbread from artfully arranged trays and daring each other to try haggis. Upstairs, another of Scotland’s best exports is trying to get her head around the hype. “It’s huge,” Kelly Macdonald says in her soft, girlish Glaswegian accent.
This is the first voice you hear in Brave and it’s instantly recognisable, which is funny considering Macdonald is known for being an actor of many accents. “And so Scottish,” she goes on with a grin. “Last night there were pipe bands and everything.”
She giggles politely, as if to say it’s all very well but, really, she’d rather be at home in Glasgow watching re-runs of Seinfeld with her husband Dougie Payne, the bassist in Travis (“a very happy, smiley man”, as she describes him) and their four-year-old son Freddie. This is her ideal evening, by the way, and note that there isn’t a red carpet or pipe band in sight.
“I didn’t go into this thinking about how much of a big deal it all is,” she continues, waving a small hand at the vast suite. “I would have been happy playing a bush in a field. I can’t quite believe it. I don’t know how it happened.” Though, of course, Macdonald knows exactly how it happened. As is happening more and more these days, they came to her.
Six years in the making, Brave is as much a dream come true for Visit Scotland and the First Minister as it is for the hordes of children brandishing bows and arrows who will be lining up to see it this summer. There are a lot of firsts. It’s the first time Pixar, taken over by Disney in 2006, has tackled a fairy tale. It’s the first time it has set a film in Scotland and the first time it has been located in the past. Most unbelievably, though, it’s the first time the studio has drawn a female protagonist. A male car, a male fish and a male rat all made it before a princess.
It’s also Macdonald’s first lead in a major film, which comes as something of a surprise. After all, we’re talking about a highly respected, well-established 36-year-old actor who, especially since her role as Irish grande dame Margaret Schroeder in the award-winning HBO series Boardwalk Empire, has become the most famous Scottish, and probably British, actress in America. She actually gets recognised on the street now, which you might say is about time. But as recently as 2009, interviews with Macdonald were still introduced with headlines like “cinema’s best-kept secret”.
There is something rather fitting about her first lead role being off screen. “Merida does everything better than me,” she says of the princess with appropriately wild red hair and modern kickass attitude who would rather be firing a bow and arrow, riding her Clydesdale horse or climbing a Munro than kissing a prince. Macdonald was the last of the almost all-Scottish cast (Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson) to come on board, and they all ended up adding to the script. Macdonald’s own personal contribution was “manky”. “The script was written in San Francisco by Americans doing their best to find a Scottish voice,” she admits. “So there were certain things. We would always stop and have a wee ten-minute session of brainstorming.
“I mean, who knows, maybe I would be a natural at archery but this is the best of both worlds really,” she goes on. “I get to act in something and not have to look at myself.” She laughs nervously. “Maybe I should get a Merida mask.”
This is typical Macdonald: self-deprecating, evasive, a bit shy. Not that she would thank me for saying so. She is often described as a shrinking violet, a fragile bird or some other variation on timid, delicate creatures. And she hates it. “It’s so boring,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “I don’t know how else to behave. I don’t think I’ve been shy in the past. Young and uncomfortable, maybe. But shy? It has become this annoying term that I’ve been lumbered with.” And the fragile bird? She laughs. “People don’t know me. I’m just a person trying to answer questions, and f*** off about the rest of it.” She looks around nervously. “I’m really sorry,” she says quietly. “I shouldn’t swear at a Disney junket.”
Actually, Macdonald is more wary than shy. (After all, how much of a shrinking violet can you be when you answer a question by singing Somewhere from West Side Story…– twice?) But she is very protective of her privacy, doesn’t relish interviews and finds anything to do with the trappings of fame “a wee bit silly”. This is why she lives in the West End of Glasgow (or New York when she’s filming Boardwalk Empire) and can often be seen out and about in cafés and restaurants with her family or doing the weekly grocery shopping at Waitrose.
This means that if you run into Macdonald on Byres Road you’ll get great chat, but here, in a huge suite at the Balmoral with publicists running around and water being topped up with every second sip, you’re more likely to get short shrift. She even looks a bit uncomfortable in black high-heel sandals and a demure white dress with a pussy bow that looks more like it’s wearing her. She is beautiful in a young, pale, fresh-faced way, with none of the telltale signs – bronzed skin, suspiciously white teeth – of Stateside success. The overall impression is sweet and innocent, basically the mirror opposite of that iconic Trainspotting poster, where Macdonald, as sassy schoolgirl Diane, snarled out at us in her spangly dress.
Critics tend to fawn over her ability to disappear into a character, sometimes to disappear altogether. She is so good at inhabiting a role, sometimes we forget she is there at all. Clark Gregg, who directed her in an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, has referred to it as her “invisible acting” and “volcanic reserve of silent strength”. Colin Firth has spoken of her ability to “pop up and be dazzling or fade into the wallpaper, as required”. And Danny Boyle, who discovered the 19-year-old Macdonald at an audition for Trainspotting in Glasgow, said, “She has that thing Ewan McGregor has: indefinable star quality, yet they’re ordinary people. Ordinary, but extraordinary.”
Then there’s her CV, which reads like a roll call of great directors of our time: Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Robert Altman, Danny Boyle. In fact, when I ask Macdonald if there are any directors left that she would like to work with she mentions Joe Wright and then muses, “But now I’ve worked with him too.” He recently directed her as Dolly in Anna Karenina, starring Keira Knightley. “And Andrea Arnold,” she says of the director of Red Road and Wuthering Heights. “But she tends to go for unknowns and people who haven’t acted before so I’m unlikely to get to work with her.”
What’s the best advice a director has ever given her? “The first has stayed with me,” she says. “In one of the later auditions for Trainspotting I suddenly thought ‘OK, I’d better start acting now.’ I was really ballsing it up, putting in pregnant pauses and weird gaps everywhere. Danny took me aside and said, ‘Just say the words.’ Simple, but so true.
Yet Macdonald’s characters – the watchful maid in Gosford Park, the Texan wife in No Country for Old Men, the clever reporter in State of Play – do so much more than saying their words. They all exude a quiet and easily underestimated potency, a quality I suspect comes from her. What does she think? “I don’t know,” she says warily. “I think it’s something in me. No. Well, it’s not opposite to me. I’m not sure how to answer,” she tails off, then looks a bit glum. “I’m so sorry,” she says with a nervous giggle.
“I don’t think I want to know because I’m sure if I did then I’d start changing,” she says eventually. “I would try too hard to do that thing. So it works, and that’s that. I’m going to leave it alone.”
Macdonald grew up on the Southside of Glasgow. Her dad, Archie, was a tradesman, and her mother, Patsy, a housewife. All she ever wanted to do was act, but it wasn’t something she spoke about. She didn’t think there was anything special about being able to mimic any accent off the television to perfection. “That was just fun for me,” she says. “It still is one of my interests and something I love. The only accent I could never get was Welsh. But I can do it now.” She smiles crookedly, that peculiar mix of doubt and self-assurance playing out again.
What kind of child was she? “I wasn’t a performer,” she says. “It was all very private for me, a quiet interest. I was fascinated with Hollywood and always imagined I’d get there one day. Somehow.”…She starts to laugh and so begins her first rendition of Somewhere from West Side Story.
But her resolve to get there does seem extraordinary under the very ordinary circumstances. “There was nobody in my family who knew anything about the film industry,” she says. ”I’m from the west of Scotland. It’s not exactly a mecca for filmmaking. I think I saw Rab C Nesbitt in Asda once, but that was about it.” She laughs. “And that was thrilling.” And now she’s the one who gets recognised in the supermarket. “Yes, I’ve basically become Rab C Nesbitt,” she jokes. “But it’s Waitrose, not Asda.”
Her parents divorced and she moved with her mother and younger brother to a council estate in Newton Mearns. She is no longer in contact with her father and doesn’t speak about him in interviews. Beyond this, it’s hard to know much about Macdonald’s private life between then and now. “Good,” she says. “And a lot of what’s out there is misinformation anyway.” I tell her I’d already gathered this. Some interviews, for example, report that Macdonald was nine when her parents divorced, others that she was 14. So which is it? “Neither,” she laughs. “I’m not going to tell you. It doesn’t matter.”
Anyway, she left school at 16. All her report cards said she wasn’t interested in academia. The only subject she ever cared about was drama. And most of her friends were at Glasgow School of Art. She ended up working in bars and restaurants for a few years and wondering what to do with her life. And then, when she was working at the Ubiquitous Chip one summer, a friend gave her a flyer. “It said, ‘Do you want to be the next Sharon Stone?’” she recalls with a laugh. “I’ve still got it somewhere.” It was an open audition call for Trainspotting. Macdonald pitched up in an Oxfam jumper and “ugly shoes”, and out of hundreds of preened and practised girls got the part.
The first time she read with McGregor she was so nervous she hid behind a piece of paper and he never saw her face. (This does, admittedly, sound like the behaviour of a shy person.) It’s hard to square all this with the end result, an incendiary scene in which Diane seduces and straddles Renton to a soundtrack of Blondie’s Atomic. It so impressed Irvine Welsh he wrote her version of the character into another novel, Porno. It shows just how good an actor she is. Even in that raw first screen performance, which she was dreading filming from the moment she won the part, she steals the scene. “It was all so new and thrilling,” she sighs. “I mean, I was someone who got excited seeing Gregor Fisher in the supermarket. And suddenly I was in a room with the guy from Shallow Grave. I thought I would go for the audition and it would be good practice for what to expect from a drama-school audition. Then I kept getting called back. Well,” she says with an embarrassed smile, “drama school was out the window.”
Of course, Macdonald never did go to drama school. She didn’t need to. She just carried on, quietly watching and learning and quietly getting better and better. Just like one of her characters, in fact. But I wonder what might have happened if she hadn’t got the part? Would she have found another way to Hollywood? “I think so,” she says softly. “I hope so.” Then her expression tenses with determination. “Yes… I think it was my destiny, I really do,” she says.
“I can’t imagine not doing this. And it happened. I’m living it. I feel I would have made it happen…somehow.” And then she bursts into laughter and starts singing again. n
Brave is released on 13 August