A hummingbird on the outside and a komodo dragon within.” That’s how Mirren Mack’s sister describes her. “I’ll take that,” she says.
A bird poised in one place beating its wings so fast you don’t see them move, and a giant lizard with the strength to take down a water buffalo. She’s flying, with feet firmly on the ground.
Mack sits upright in a chair, calm and focused, yet as she talks about acting and starring in BBC1’s The Nest, there’s motion: her almond-shaped eyes shine, hands flutter in the air and long brown curls dance.
“I’ve only seen the first episode and I can’t wait to see how it’s turned out. It’s exciting,” she says.
“I was playing it how it was written, but then there’s how it’s edited, the music and sound, different perspectives. All of that can transform what you did. So I’m really looking forward to seeing it.”
The 22-year-old from Stirling stars alongside Martin Compston and Sophie Rundle in the new BBC drama thriller written by BAFTA and RTF award-winning Scot Nicole Taylor (Three Girls, The C Word, Wild Rose).
Mack plays Kaya, a struggling 18-year-old from Possil in Glasgow, whose chance encounter with a wealthy couple changes all of their lives, the consequences played out over five hour-long episodes.
“It’s about money and power and how far you’ll go to give the person you love most in the world what they want.”
With a beautiful house overlooking the sea, successful careers, the couple have the perfect life and everything they want, except a baby. On their last chance at IVF, Kaya appears to be the answer to their dreams when she agrees to carry their child.
“A deal is struck and it’s about how their lives intertwine from then on,” says Mack.
What are the consequences of buying what you want? How much can money buy? And what is the true price, are all questions The Nest explores.
“There’s no goodie or baddie, every character acts out of understandable self-interest,” says Mack. “Everyone has their own motive. Kaya is a clever, driven young woman who will do what she can to have a better life. Reading the script, I was constantly jumping between whose side I was on.”
Directed by Andy de Emmony and Simen Alsvik (Lilyhammer), produced by Clare Kerr (The Replacement, Shetland) and featuring Compston (Line of Duty, Mary Queen of Scots) and Rundle (Peaky Blinders, Gentleman Jack), the cast of The Nest has a roll call of talent that saw Mack enjoy a masterclass of acting: Shirley Henderson (Stan and Ollie, Happy Valley), Katie Leung (Strangers), David Hayman (Hatton Garden) Fiona Bell (Shetland) James Harkness (The Victim, The English Game), Bailey Patrick (Bodyguard), Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones, Our Ladies) and Paul Brannigan (Under The Skin).
“I was totally awestruck by each and every one of them. I’ve learned a lot,” she says and goes on to talk about those with whom she worked most closely.
“Shirley Henderson is like a chameleon, whatever the director asked she did it, just brilliant. So flexible and free. And Martin is very honest as an actor, so you could understand why his character did the things he did – and he’s so kind and a great guy to be around for the cast.
“Sophie was just a breath of fresh air. She had a lot of very emotional scenes and did it so brilliantly and truthfully. I hope people who’ve been in that position recognise themselves. It was a really beautiful portrayal of the pain and joy, how life is a bit of a seesaw and you can’t get one without the other.”
Having played the part, what would Mirren do were she in the same situation, facing the same choices?
“At the end, the very final moment, I think I probably would have done what she did,” she says. “But it’s got such difficult, ethical questions in it,” she says. “Can you buy a person to carry your child? And if this 18-year old wants money and opportunities in exchange for using her womb, is that OK? Are they manipulating each other, and who is in control?”
Acting with a bump, “a chicken fillet thingy” for the first three months didn’t interfere with her life, but the next prosthetic, what Mack calls “The Moon Bump”, did.
“It was a bigger bump, like a suit, with a bra that was filled to make you bigger, and it had a little sticky out belly button on it as well. People were ‘uhhhhh, that’s so weird,’” she laughs.
“As Mirren I was very drawn to touching the bump and thinking about it as my baby. I enjoyed it when other people asked to touch it. But Kaya is a young woman who wants her own life, so it is something she wants to hide, not her closest ally.”
Mack would sometimes keep it on between takes, and even out and about in Glasgow as she got into the role.
“One time I wasn’t on set for a few hours and was resting my eyes in a seat and when I woke up and looked down, thinking, ‘Why have I got a big belly? What’s going on?’ I thought I’d jumped forward in my life. I really panicked,” she laughs.
The Nest is only Mack’s second TV performance and exposure to a film set after playing Florence in the hit comedy Netflix show, Sex Education. She played the Scottish schoolgirl, filmed while she was still studying at Guildhall School School of Music and Drama in London.
“It was my first television role and I was terrified on my first day. All my lines went out of my head and I didn’t know where to look. But everyone else was my age, and it was a really relaxed, loving environment. So it was step into the pool rather than jumping straight into the deep end.”
In a school where everyone is fixated by their sexuality, fuelled by the fact that they have a well informed classmate courtesy of his sex therapist mother, Florence is in the minority.
“Everyone in school is talking about sex but Florence has no attraction to it and finds out she is asexual. That’s something that’s not usually represented on TV so I was happy to be able to do that. It was a real eye-opener to discover how many people could see themselves reflected in Florence. It’s something that’s overlooked compared to other aspects of sexuality.
“It’s great to have it all discussed and explained. When I was growing up I didn’t really know what was going on. It would have been good to have someone like that in my year at school,” she laughs.
After she graduated, The Nest came along and this time Mack was able to really soak up the experience of being on set for a prolonged period, seeing how the crew worked as a unit.
“I hadn’t realised how much of a massive team effort it is to make a world,” she says. “All the art design, the props, the sets, the music, the way it’s shot… for example there’s some beautiful use of colour, pink in certain rooms that made it a safer space. Also I noticed later how the artwork and textiles included cuckoo images, and how themes were reflected in every element of the production. That was really cool.”
Filmed in and around Glasgow, in Cove on Gareloch and at the Devil’s Pulpit near her Stirling home, Mack was delighted to be filming back in Scotland on home turf, speaking in her own accent.
“For my first job after I graduated I can’t imagine anything better: I was filming back where I’m from, love and know the streets, was getting to see my family and also speaking in my own mother tongue. It was such a gift.”
In Glasgow the filming often attracted onlookers, one of whom could easily have been Mack herself, were she not in it.
“It’s very odd being on the other side of it all. If I was walking past and saw lights I would definitely have stood and had a wee nosey. I’d be one of the people wanting to know what’s going on, wanting a wee chat, thinking who’s that down there? Is that Brad Pitt?” She laughs.
Mack is also fascinated by the nuts and bolts of putting together a show, such as filming year round action in a three month time slot.
“There was some hot weather acting in freezing cold weather. Being outside pretending it’s summer when it’s a chilly day. And things like being up on top of a tower block roof looking over the whole of Glasgow, that was totally magic. I didn’t have to imagine, because it was just amazing.”
Splitting her time between London, where she stays with friends when auditioning for the next role, and home in Stirling, Mack thinks she has the best of both worlds.
“My friends in London are really kind. And at home in Stirling, the food’s just really good. The other day my dad did the best spaghetti bolognese I’ve had in ages, and my mum’s fajitas are the tops. I mainly eat, but I cook too, anything with a yellow label in the reduced section I’ll make into a dish and I’m going to see if I can give up meat because of climate change. I think it’s time to do something.”
Mack and her sister Molly grew up with an actor father, Billy Mack, and a drama tutor/actor mother, Callan. “We were bred into it,” she says, and laughs. Her parents met performing in a play.
“She was playing the female lead and he was playing the male and they actually fell in love and it was just… very good… gross, but… no… and they had me and my sister. My mum took up drama teaching and she teaches history through drama all over the place and my dad’s due to tour with The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil, an incredible story with brilliant music and such a cool way to learn about your country’s past.”
As well as the story-telling family occupations, Mack was surrounded by a sense of the past in her hometown, and would love to film there.
“There’s so much history – Stirling Castle, Wallace, Mary, Queen of Scots. My mum’s played her and I’m named after William Wallace’s wife Mirren. I’m grateful for the name. It’s one with a good wee story. I’m not going to do the Braveheart version, ‘cos it’s not entirely accurate although it’s still a good film and makes me tear up. So an English soldier attacked and killed Mirren then William Wallace killed him, the English retaliated and what started as a personal passion spiralled into a battle for the country. In the end William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered.”
And is Molly named after a historical figure too?
“My dad says she’s named after a dinner lady he really loved.”
From a young age Mack was on stage and in 5th year at high school in Stirling auditioned for the Dance School of Scotland’s Musical Theatre course at Knightwood. After two prize-winning years there – including Batboy and Godspell in the Citizens’ Theatre, a Dewar Arts Award in 2017 meant she could take up a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which she left last year. Her The Nest colleague Shirley Henderson also went to Guildhall and Mack remembers her coming to give a talk at the school.
“I was the only Scottish female in the school and I remember looking at her and absolutely wanting to be like her ‘cos I thought she was magic. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. When I’ve seen her in theatre, film, on TV there’s something so magnetic about her.”
Did Mack share this opinion with Henderson on set?
“I was a bit shy to say it to her face,” she says, and laughs. “We shared lots of car journeys and sort of spoke about sandwiches and stuff like that. But I wrote her a wee card to say bye and I might have put something in there.”
Mack loves storytelling, her conversation peppered with expressions and acting out what she’s saying. For example her sweet-toothed dad’s reaction to being given her selection box because she can’t have E numbers. “He was like a four-year-old boy, REALLY excited,” and her face morphs into her dad’s, being a child, delighted at his windfall. “I haven’t seen him like that in ages, me and my mum kept giggling about it.
“Storytelling is a way for people to have an experience, or an outlet for an experience they’ve had and I like being able to be other people. When I was younger I was really annoyed I was only allowed one life, only allowed one thing to do at a time, that my favourite food would always be fajitas, never parma violet sweets, or I’d never get to be a person who grew up with loads of dogs.
“So to be able to live different lives and be a voice for people who have stories to tell but haven’t because they’re living it, or can’t, it feels like a bit of magic. I love speaking someone’s words, telling a really good story, being a really good complex character.”
With The Nest on our screens Mack is back looking for the next job, and it’s time to employ the advice she’s been given along the way.
“I don’t know at the moment what’s ahead. I don’t know where I’m gonna be in six months and sometimes that’s quite scary and unnerving, but I like not knowing what’s coming next. I think it’s a really exciting way to live.
“I remember what Shirely Henderson said about finding joy and love outside your work for times when you don’t have a job and also what my mum said to me. I was worried about going away with the school in case people weren’t kind and she told me to be joyful, to laugh at yourself and protect yourself by taking it lightly. To find pleasure in everything. A puddle could be a swimming pool for a bird. Find some joy in just being on the ground and being able to be alive.”
The Nest is on BBC1 tomorrow at 9pm