Shetland actor Shauna Macdonald - from horror to history to helping the next generation

From horror to history to helping the next generation find their voice, the Edinburgh actor gives it her all

Shauna Macdonald plays Rachel Cairns in BBC's crime drama Shetland. Pic: Michael Gillen
Shauna Macdonald plays Rachel Cairns in BBC's crime drama Shetland. Pic: Michael Gillen

Shetland actor Shauna Macdonald arrives in a flash of colour, glamorous in a bright jacket and snakeskin print flares, quite a contrast to the wardrobe she dons in the BBC crime series, as Rachel Cairns, searching the beaches and bogs for her missing son Douglas Henshall’s final fling as Jimmy Perez.

“It’s Vonny’s,” she says, referencing her sartorially magnificent character in the BBC comedy The Scotts, of which she has just finished filming season two.

It’s been a busy couple of years for Macdonald, working on Outlander as well as The Scotts and Shetland, plus a short film called Broono and the animated feature film Wojtek the Bear.

Known for The Descent, Nails, White Chamber, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Dangermouse, Filth, Spooks, The Cry, and more recently Outlander, the BAFTA winning actor is also co-director of Edinburgh Youth Theatre based in Portobello, where we meet to talk about her role in the long-running BBC crime series.

Finally getting the Shetland call was exciting for Macdonald who has auditioned in the past.

“I was thrilled. I was like ‘eventually!’ because I’ve gone for various parts - love interest, nuns, you name it. Shetland is one of those productions that’s of such a high standard so I was happy.”

On top of fulfilling an ambition Macdonald was pleased about her role.

Shauna Macdonald plays a mother searching for her son in the latest series of Shetland.

“Rachel is layered and interesting and for her the stakes are extremely high. She is desperate to find her son and begins to take matters into her own hands. It’s nice to get a character that’s strong and not just the archetypal worried mother; you’ve got stuff to play.

“The instinct is just to go out, scream the child’s name and search. You don’t care what people think. But you may sabotage good work the police are doing quietly in the background.”

As a mother to three children aged 15, 12 and nine - being Squawkencluck chicken scientist imparted playground kudos - Macdonald is speaking from experience.

“My child got into bother during a swimming lesson when they were five so I dived in fully clothed and got them. You know your child, you know if they’re in trouble. I would rather do something then look very foolish than not do anything.”

Billy Connolly, Shauna Macdonald, Francesca Annis in The Debt Collector, 1999. Pic: Photo by Joss Barratt/Film Four/Kobal/Shutterstock

“Just being a mum made it quite easy to go into being Rachel. She’s got something to actively do, find her son. She doesn’t sit and wait for information. She’ll go and ask. Also, as much as audiences love Perez, he keeps telling her to leave it with him. No way! You know your kids the best, so why would you let someone in authority tell you to sit and wait?”

With Henshall leaving at the end of the season, how he goes is the big question. On this, Macdonald’s is tight lipped.

“Nobody really wants to know the end yet so we’ll keep it a deep, dark secret.”

Does she find playing an emotionally draining role lingers after the cameras have stopped rolling?

Shauna Macdonald winning best actor for the film White Chamber at the British Academy Scotland Awards, Ceremony in Glasgow, 2018. Pic: Scott Garfitt/BAFTA/Shutterstock

“Well, Rachel’s kind of the emotional core of this series, and they’ve got to shoot that from several angles, so you do it again and again, and it can. I’m getting a bit older and you shake it off but sometimes if you’ve had all day crying your brain doesn’t know it’s pretend and you need to get some endorphins back.

“I did a horror film, Nails, where I was in a hospital bed the whole time because my character had a tracheotomy and couldn’t speak and was paralysed, and when they’d say ‘OK, lunch’ I’d tentatively get out of bed and people would come towards me to help because I’m staggering, then I’d think ‘what am I doing? I’m totally fine!’ She laughs.

Speaking of horror, why does Macdonald think she’s often cast in this genre?

“I think it’s because everybody loved The Descent. I tried to play Sarah realistically in that unrealistic setting. I’ve always tried to find the truth of the scene and react truthfully, not doing the archetypal screaming and running with the hands. I think some film-makers want their female leads, or scream queens - I don’t really like that term - to have substance. Luckily The Descent, which I shot when I was 23, which is crazy because I’m 41 now, has done me a massive favour by giving me such a platform and a bit of cool status.

While The Descent is a perennially popular horror film, it was the sci-fi horror White Chamber that won Macdonald a best actor BAFTA in 2018.

“Leading up to the BAFTA we were just scraping a living, very unglamorous. And shooting White Chamber was unglamorous too - shot in two weeks, staying in a Travelodge with the director taking me to the set in his car. But I really wanted to do it - well I had to do it financially - but I wanted to prove to myself I could be a lead again. Your career goes up and down and you have kids and take time out and forget who you are and I definitely lost a bit of oomph. I did it to have the process of making a film and being a lead in feature film again, and then it started to do well.

Shauna Macdonald in horror film, The Descent, 2005. Pic: Celador/Pathe/Kobal/Shutterstock

“Getting the BAFTA was great. It meant I’m not invisible as an older actor. I don’t need to retrain. I’m not mad in wanting to be a successful actor, do interesting roles. For a while it all dried up and I thought ‘oh god, am I just going to be this girl from The Descent?’ And the BAFTAS are voted by your peers, so that meant a great deal.”

“I’m just trying to work as hard as I can and do as good a job as I can for every single part and that’s all I can do.”

Since 2018 the parts have kept coming, not least Outlander, a positive experience for Macdonald, partly because of the character she played, Flora MacDonald.

“It’s quite hard to find information about her and I’m ashamed I didn’t realise she didn’t agree with the politics of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s cause, so she made a human rather than a political decision in helping this person fleeing for his life. She put herself physically at risk and could have been shunned, so she was incredibly brave. Because she’s been so romanticised and is on the shortbread tins, I thought she was a soft, almost meek person, but definitely not,” says the actor who does in fact own a shortbread tin depicting Flora MacDonald, “a really old one my granny had.”

Also, being part of the Outlander machine was an experience she enjoyed.

“Outlander’s massive with huge sets, cranes and green screens and it’s a different world. I got some incredible costumes, different wigs for different occasions, jewellery and dialogue to play, so yeah, that was a really fun ride. I’ve worked in lots of different genres, settings, with different budgets, and I love that I get to jump in between.”

It also brought the chance to reunite with old friends, particularly Sam Heughan, who she knows from her own youth theatre days.

“We’ve known each other since we were 17 and went to the Lyceum Youth Theatre, then RSAMD, so that helped me be grounded. But they’re all brilliant. Caitriona Balfe was just a goddess and the funniest, most lovely person, as was Maria Kennedy Doyle. And I was extremely lucky that my character didn’t have any night shoots in the forest.”

But she’s been in horror films…

“Exactly. I know what’s involved.”

This autumn Macdonald will be back on our screens flexing her comedy muscles with season two of The Scotts, by Robert Florence and Iain Connell, creators of another hit BBC Scotland comedy, Burnistoun.

“Yeah, Vonny is back. I love playing her. She is brutally honest, doesn’t really have a filter, but this series, without making her soft, she’s actively trying to cure her unhappiness, whereas the first one, happiness was at the bottom of the bottle. She’s trying to claw, with her red talons, out of this hole she’s got herself into.”

“Vonny’s trying to turn a troupe of really average dancers into a sensation so it’s about her journey from ‘I should be the star’ to facilitating someone else’s journey. I say to Iain and Robert, how much of Vonny is Shauna because what she does is put all her energy into her dance school, but they’re not letting on. So I’m maybe a hairline away from Vonny in a good way,” she laughs.

“She is great. She’s that outrageous pal who can be brutal but is so faithful to your friendship you could phone them at three in the morning and they’d be at your door. That’s the essence of Vonny.”

That and the fabulous wardrobe.

“Yeah, I’ve bought lots of it,” she says. “Four gowns, three suits and three jackets I think, so I’ve got an array of colourful, beautiful clothes. After I did Vonny I said I’m going to wear beautiful, colourful clothes and I do.

“My mum died in January and it’s been pretty awful, so I kind of wanted to wear clothes that looked joyous and happy even if I wasn’t feeling it. Honestly Vonny has been amazing for me. I was slightly dreading going back to work but Vonny has resurrected me, because she just attacks life. And looks fabulous when she does it.”

Macdonald joined the Edinburgh Youth Theatre group in her native Portobello in 2014 and now runs it with co-artistic director Jo Jeffries, reaching 230 kids a week at classes and more through free school drama projects. As well as teaching, she’s been able to enlist help from the acting world - from her own youth theatre days, her Filth co-star James McAvoy and Sam Heughan, and colleagues like Moyo Akandé, Jack Lowden and Kate Dickie.

“When I started doing EYT I was shy about asking industry pals to do something but you find everybody says yes because they were once that young person who had a teacher or went to a youth theatre and were supported and have gone on to grand things and they actually do really want to give up their time and pass it forward.”

Working with the youth theatre also feeds into her work as an actor.

“Young people often don’t know they’re doing something extraordinary and what you’re asking of them is quite difficult. They connect, they absorb and question in a really healthy way and it reminds you of the joyousness of creating something. That’s what youth theatre is all about, discovering things about the work or themselves or peers, creating something exciting and fun. And it’s just playing, because acting is playing, so I’m reminded whenever I set foot in here why I decided to be an actor.”

“For me telling stories really matters and giving young people skills and the opportunity to tell stories HUGELY matters.

“Edinburgh Youth Theatre is all about creating confidence, getting through the obstacles of why someone might not participate in the performing arts and making sure young people know they have a voice that should be listened to but also giving them skills to do that whilst having loads of fun, making pals, all that amazing stuff. When I’m not doing my showbizzy stuff, I’m doing this, and often both at the same time. I’m really proud of it.”

Next up Macdonald is linked to Pandemonium, a feature film adapted from Christopher Brookmyre’s gory thriller.

“It’s directed by Gabriel Robertson who I think is going to be the next big horror film director. Filmed and shot in Scotland with a Scottish cast, I’m very excited to be part of it.”

But Macdonald isn’t content to sit and wait for jobs to arrive and is active in creating them for herself.

“When I came out of drama college it was kind of an open secret that if you hadn’t made it by 26 as an actress, forget about it. As I’ve got older there are more parts for female presenting older actors, but it’s still not the same as for male actors, so I’ve started to write a film which very much can only be played by me. Also I’ve got all the five other female actors of The Descent saying that they would be in a horror film if I wrote it.

However The Descent gang reunion film was put aside when her mother died earlier this year.

“I felt I didn’t want to write anything about blood and guts so I’m in the midst of another film about an ageing horror queen who gets herself in a bit of bother. It’s very much a nod and a wink to me but it’s essentially a mother and daughter relationship where the mother decides to train her daughter to be the next Iron Man star. I want it to be funny and tragic, in the same way as Little Miss Sunshine, where they’re throwing everything into something and have this crazy family dynamic. Then I’ll write the horror film and get the six of us back together again.”

As well as Wojtek the Bear, Macdonald has also just completed Broono, a short film with Gerald Rapowlski, set in 1970s Glasgow about an off-beat friendship between a bereaved 11-year-old and the local bully, also starring Adam Kerr, Marcquis Foster and Elaine C Smith.

“It’s a coming of age story of this boy whose father has died and I play his mother, very much in the midst of her grief. I wasn’t sure because when my mum died I went off acting completely and didn’t want to show my truth because I wasn’t sure I could close it all up again. But I’m really glad I did it because - I should have known - it was all about the young people which was fantastic. It was this mad four days filming, in a flat in a high rise in the Gorbals that’s about to be torn down, converted with amazing Seventies wallpaper and props, and it was superb. It slowly edged me out of grief and then Vonny came in and just tore it all apart!” she laughs.

As a teacher as well as performer gives it her all and is in a position to both give and take advice.

“My agent tells me to have a sense of humour about things! I know what she means and it helps.

“For the young people I think I’ve become a parody of myself, or the drama teacher character in Summer Heights High, Mr G, and tell them: ‘Leave everything on the stage! Don’t come off regretting that you’ve held yourself back’.

"Sometimes you’ve got to just throw yourself out there. Then you come off knowing I did everything I wanted, tried everything. I felt really scared and threw myself off anyway. It’s corny, but, ‘Leave everything on the stage!’

Shauna Macdonald plays Rachel Cairns in Shetland, Wednesdays, 9pm, BBC One and iPlayer.

Edinburgh Youth Theatre https://eytheatre.com/

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Shauna Macdonald with Elliot Cowan, Holly Weston, Amit Shah and Sam Gittins in Howl, 2015. Pic: Starchild/Kobal/Shutterstock