The Scottish star on why she’s never had a masterplan
I have the advantage over Kelly Macdonald because I’ve just watched some of her new BBC1 drama, The Victim, which airs this week. An exploration of the after-effects of a child murder on a family and the role of the internet in attempting to mete out cyberjustice, it’s a drama with more than one victim and it’s gripping and intense.
“Oh good. I’ve not seen any of it yet,” she says in a soft Glasgow accent, polite and almost hesitant. It’s disarming, and a surprise since she’s been in the business since she was 19 and is a very familiar face on our screens.
Nominated for a BAFTA for her first ever role in 1996’s Trainspotting, her’s is a career studded with nominations and awards in film and TV, from an Emmy for 2005’s The Girl in the Cafe with Bill Nighy, a BAFTA nomination for her role in the 2007 Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, followed by an Emmy and countless Golden Globe nominations for HBO series Boardwalk Empire in which she starred from 2010-14. Her versatility has seen her in family films from Pixar’s Brave, voicing Princess Merida, as the love interest in Nanny McPhee and in the final Harry Potter, Deathly Hallows: Part II. Along the way there was Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, black comedies such as Choke, miniseries State of Play and in 2017, she co-starred opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC film The Child in Time as the mother of a missing child.
Now Macdonald is keen to see her latest work, The Victim, an STV Productions for BBC1 through BBC Scotland production which runs over four nights from Monday.
Filmed in Edinburgh, Macdonald stars alongside James Harkness, Jamie Sives and John Hannah, and plays Anna Dean, the mother of a murdered child, who finds herself back in court 15 years on in a plot twister that keeps the audience guessing to the end.
“Anna is a very troubled woman,” says Macdonald. “She’s gone through something unimaginable years ago, and the death of her child is something she’s just not been able to move on from. She’s a grieving mother basically, an angry, grieving mother.”
While Macdonald is a mother herself to two children aged six and 11, she doesn’t agree that being a mother necessarily informs the role with any extra insight or empathy.
“No, I think just being a human being, you have that understanding. Whether I had kids or not, I don’t think it would make a difference to that.”
With its harrowing themes, you wouldn’t blame someone for being affected off-set and taking the role home with them – think Robert Carlyle playing Begbie, preferring to check into an Edinburgh hotel during the filming of T2 Trainspotting rather than inflict Begbie on his family – but not Macdonald.
“No, it doesn’t work like that for me. I’m sort of quite good at that. I read about other people where it’s not until they finish with a character that they can let it go, but I’m quite lucky.”
Given the nature of some of her roles, from Anna in The Victim to Carla Jean in No Country for Old Men to Julie in The Child in Time, that’s a blessing
“Yeah! What a nightmare,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to take on roles if I was taking it with me,” she says.
Although if she were to take home a little of the Nanny McPhee magic, in which she played the lovely Eveline, that wouldn’t be a problem. The 2008 feelgood family comedy is one of the many films and TV shows that her children have been able to watch.
“Yes, there have been quite a few they’ve seen, Swallows and Amazons, Brave, Nanny McPhee… there’s been more than I think most actors would be able to let their kids watch. I’ve done quite a lot of kids’ stuff.”
So the family’s happy with what she does, taking it in their stride, and talking to Macdonald you can see where they get it from – she has a calmness that comes from taking things as they come, something she says she’s always done.
“Acting is just what I do and I think, yeah, they’re interested in it and my stories and the silly things that happen at work.”
Now 43, she was 19 when she started out in Trainspotting, remarkably her first ever acting job and one she went to an open audition for while working as a barmaid. Talk about starting on a high. Nowadays she has a confidence that comes with nearly 25 years of film and TV.
“Oh yeah, I think I’m a better actress than I was when I was 19/20. I’ve worked a lot and every part I play I sort of learn a bit more, what it takes to do what I do.”
Born and bred in Glasgow, she was always interested in acting, and when she left school had thoughts about studying drama.
“That makes it sound like I was much more organised than I was,” she says and laughs. “I was thinking about what to do, you know. I was friends with people that were on their way to university or art school and were on that path and I was just not sure what I was gonna do. When I was at school there were no drama facilities or anything so it was this unknown thing that I was interested in and I didn’t know quite to do with my em… this little sort of feeling I had that it was something I was interested in. I wasn’t very confident and I was a bit unsure how to proceed. So yeah, when the open casting landed in my lap for Trainspotting I thought that was a good starting point.”
She was right, nailing the role of Diane, the witty, articulate, intelligent and as it turns out underage schoolgirl who puts Renton in his place in the film of Irvine Welsh’s bestseller which instantly became a classic. She reprised the role in T2 Trainspotting in 2017, giving Renton the benefit of her advice again as a now successful lawyer who helps him out of his latest mess.
Returning to the role was an opportunity Macdonald relished, the affection she felt for the original coming through as she talks.
“It was lovely actually, because there was no pressure on me. I think Danny Boyle and the fellas all had more pressure to artistically create something interesting and new and not destroy everyone’s memories of the original. But I just got to kind of hang out with them a bit and do some funny scenes. Diane’s a great character.”
Making a follow-up to a film 20 years on and picking up the characters’ lives doesn’t happen very often and the experience gave Macdonald an opportunity to look back on the past, especially seeing footage from the original at the premiere.
“It was great to do that. When we saw the film at the premiere, we spoke about it afterwards, and the nostalgia was a bit of a surprise to everybody. I didn’t realise they were gonna show footage from the original and to see everybody back then, and think that time has passed, it was all very emotive.”
Diane isn’t the only woman who has had a successful journey in T2 Trainspotting. The mother of Spud’s children, Gail, played by Shirley Henderson and Begbie’s long-suffering wife June, played by Pauline Turner, not to mention new arrival Veronika, have all managed to keep it together despite the challenges. Does Macdonald think there could have been more made of that in the follow-up, or was the strength of the films always that they were concerned with masculinity, along with life, death, addiction and cracking soundtracks?
“I think that was the script that they were going with and these were the stories they wanted to tell. I think that was a shame not to find out a bit more about the women,” she says, and laughs. “But I think the film was really great and I don’t think anybody will be returning to it.”
After Trainspotting Macdonald didn’t go on to drama college and learned on the job, with no regrets as she looks back because life imitated art and like Diane she went on to be a success. Trainspotting kick-started her career.
“I didn’t have a career before, you know, it was my first acting break. I think that I’ve worked enough and consistently enough to learn as I go and yeah… it’s just getting more rewarding every job I do, it’s getting better. I feel that really strongly. It’s a career now, it’s not just ‘oh wonderful, yet another job’, I sort of feel quite ensconced.”
Twenty years on with Macdonald’s credits in film and TV stacked up it looks as if the jobs came thick and fast after Trainspotting.
“Well, they have in the past few years,” she says, “but you know, I worked very on-and-off for a long time actually after Trainspotting, and sometimes would only have one job in 12 months and start getting a bit worried. But yeah, but I’ve been really, really sort of lucky in the past few years and I’ve been … if not back to back, then… I’ve known what job I’m going on to next, which I didn’t have for years and years and years.”
Macdonald has played a variety of roles, some comic, some intense, characters at the margins either emotionally or circumstantially but she insists there’s no rhyme nor reason to it, preferring to go with the flow of what she’s offered or what interests her.
“I don’t have any masterplan, I don’t go for certain things. If I go for something it’s generally to do with the writing or character. I’m not seeking out intense characters or... You know… I think they’ve all been quite varied, to be honest, although I have… you know there have been a few, someone pointed out, that I’ve played quite a few people that worked for other people, like household staff. I do maids and nannies quite well apparently, there must be something in me!” she laughs.
She’s right, from the maid in Nanny McPhee to another in Gosford Park to the hilariously promiscuous and comic housekeeper Mrs Hudson in last year’s Holmes & Watson with Will Ferrell, John C Reilly and Ralph Fiennes, the latter a role she loved.
“It really was fun to play her. It was one of those things where I couldn’t believe I was on set with these people and being so silly.”
Also out last year was Puzzle, a re-make of an Argentine film in which Macdonald starred as a taken-for-granted housewife who manages to make sense of her life through the unlikely medium of competitive jigsaw puzzling. Absorbing and evocative, it saw Macdonald indulge in a bit of puzzle-solving herself.
“Yeah, we did get very into jigsaws on set. I think I’ve always liked a puzzle. When I’ve got a bit of time, it’s quite a meditative thing to do. On the film there was a bunch of us, it was mostly women I have to say, hair and make-up department, costume people, and we’d get a big bit of cardboard and do a puzzle on it, then move it around with us because we were on location.” If you’ve seen Puzzle, you’ll understand this compulsion.
Macdonald took the leap across the pond to live in New York’s East Village with her family when she landed the lead in Boardwalk Empire, which ran from 2010-14. Back in Scotland she is now divorced from Travis bassist Dougie Payne, who she married in 2003, and never one for the limelight, prefers to be private about where she is based. Boardwalk Empire and its success, however, she is happy to talk about.
“I’d say it was down to the writing – when you get good writing people are attracted to that, and it attracts good acting. It was a great ensemble piece and that was something that hadn’t been seen in a while… And I really lucked out getting to work mostly with Steve Buscemi, he’s lovely.
“I never expected to do anything like Boardwalk Empire so when the opportunity came up there was no way I was gonna pass that up, and yeah, it was good, but that was then.”
As for the now, apart from The Victim, there’s Giri/Haji, an eight-part crime series set in London for BBC 1/Netflix, written and directed by Joe Barton, which Macdonald has just finished filming.
“Giri/Haji, it means duty, shame,” she explains. “I play a detective called Sarah who is persona non grata with her colleagues and is having quite a hard time of it. She becomes involved in this Japanese crime trail that has made its way to London and yeah… it’s just great, I just had such a great time on it. It was Julian Farino who directed most of the episodes and I’ve worked with him before, and an amazing Australian director Ben Chessell. Just being so exciting and new, I don’t know when it’ll come out but I can’t wait.”
As for the future, Macdonald views it with an equilibrium wrought from decades of experience.
“I don’t really know to be honest. The past couple of years I’ve always known what’s coming up next and now I actually don’t. I don’t have something to go on to, and… yeah!” She laughs, upbeat at the prospect. “I’m gonna just wait and see.”
Whatever comes up Macdonald has no plans to get behind the camera and swap acting for directing, despite her years on film and television sets.
“Never say never, but not so far. It’s not something that, you know… I’m not the person in charge generally. I don’t really want to be. I find it really interesting doing what I do on set and I haven’t coveted anyone else’s job yet!”
So acting it is, and we’re talking about someone who hasn’t ever contemplated an alternative career.
“I just don’t know,” she laughs. “This has been my life so I can’t imagine doing anything else to be honest.”
Kelly Macdonald stars in The Victim, BBC1, Monday to Thursday, 9pm