The Scottish princess keeping it real
Since Danny Boyle plucked her out of a crowd to star in Trainspotting, Kelly Macdonald’s career has taken her around the world via several high-profile film and TV projects. But doing the voice of Merida in Pixar’s Brave has brought her closer to her native Glasgow, where her heart still belongs, she tells TARA BRADY
IT’S A BLUSTERY summer day in the Scottish capital and Kelly Macdonald’s white, pussycat-bow blouse and elaborate pogo-stilt heels seem to brighten the room as she walks into Edinburgh’s stately Balmoral Hotel. She can’t have noticed the weather before she came out.
“I’m only wearing this because I’m talking to the press today,” she says with a roll of the eyes. “I don’t even know where it comes from. I’m rubbish at shopping. I have to get someone to do it for me. I checked the shoes earlier but the labelly bit on the inside had worn off.” She points at the top. “This is Lublu. I think. I don’t know. I haven’t a clue.”
Can it really be true? Kelly Macdonald – the star of Brave and Disney’s newest princess – needs to delegate her wardrobe decisions? Apparently.
“I went to a fancy dress party a few years ago as Calamity Jane,” she mutters apologetically. “And I didn’t have to buy a single thing. It’s really embarrassing. It was all there in my wardrobe.”
You can take the girl out of Scotland. You can easily picture Kelly Macdonald mucking about with her mates in an unfortunate fringed jacket. The Glaswegian actor has worked with Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and the late Robert Altman yet has singularly failed to acquire any Hollywood airs or graces.
“I try to keep my Glasgow friends up to speed with everything,” she tells me. “But it still seems to come as a surprise. ‘What? What are you doing in a Disney film?’” Her wee jingling voice retains the musicality of her native dialect. She speaks cautiously and haltingly with just a glint of Scottish steeliness and determination.
Whither received pronunciation? “I’ve noticed that a lot of Welsh and English people lose their accent when they move to London,” she observes. “Maybe it’s because they’re geographically closer. I wouldn’t know how to go about losing mine.”
Macdonald is a natural actor in the way that certain footballers are natural strikers. In keeping with her wee voice, she works in deft, wee movements. Her performances within the larger ensembles of Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men are ingeniously unaffected; she’s seldom broad or ostentatious, even as Peter Pan in Finding Neverland or as Helena Ravenclaw in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
She insists there’s no chicanery involved: “I’m not interested in preparing,” she shrugs. “I’ll learn my lines. But I like things to happen in an organic way on the day. Boardwalk Empire suits me because the scripts are kind of written as they go. They have an idea where they are headed but they change along the way. I’ve gotten really used to working like that.”
Boardwalk Empire is a big deal for Macdonald, who has hitherto negotiated hit movies, blockbuster TV series and almost 10 years of marriage to Travis’s Dougie Payne without attracting the dubious honour of celebrity.
“The show hadn’t started over here but it had been on in the States when I got on a plane in Glasgow and these Americans recognised me. It has brought me to a wider audience than I’ve ever had before, I think. People call me Margaret in New York now.”
Her delivery remains subtle across an entire spectrum of accents: as the widowed Irish mistress of Atlantic City mobster Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) in Boardwalk Empire; as a West Texas white trash young bride in No Country, as an unlikely New Jersey-based health worker in Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke.
“I work with the same voice coach on Boardwalk that was there for No Country,” she says. “He’s very good at finding me voices to listen to. For No Country I had this documentary about drug testing in West Texas schools that I listened to a lot. For Boardwalk he found this woman Mary Owens, a set decorator from Castleisland, Co Kerry. She was working on another film at the time but in a weird coincidence she now works on Boardwalk.”
Macdonald had no formal training and was working as a barmaid when director Danny Boyle picked her from the thousands of girls who turned out for an open acting call for Trainspotting.
“I do feel really lucky,” she says. “It’s not like I just wandered on to sets where they happened to be shooting a movie but there is an aspect of luck to it. I still have to pinch myself quite often. My mum said the other day ‘I really miss you when you’re away but I know you’re living a great life. Nobody could have imagined your life’.”
Her career certainly has been glittering, though it hasn’t always been easy. “I used to talk to other actors and they’d complain they hadn’t worked in six months but I’d be worried because I hadn’t worked in a year,” she says. “It was when the jigsaws would come out that my agent would start to worry about my mental health. That’s when having a husband is a help. Then something amazing always comes up and the jigsaws go away again.”
And now she’s a princess, albeit a reluctant one. Set against a mythical medieval Scottish backdrop, Pixar’s splendid new film Brave sees Macdonald’s Princess Merida attempt to wriggle her way out of choosing a royal suitor in favour of archery, rock-climbing and tomboy tomfoolery. The character is the first Disney dolly spin-off to attract speculation about her sexual orientation. Writing in Entertainment Weekly in June, commentator Adam Markovitz outed Merida as the House of Mouse’s first genuine LBGT icon.
“I never thought too much about the significance,” says the actor. “I was never a Disney girl. I just had a Sleeping Beauty colouring book. And a poster of Bambi where you could see Bambi’s eyes in the dark. I must be the only kid in the western world who was afraid of Bambi. But I know Merida is definitely a bit outside the Disney-Pixar box.”
She conferred with her Boardwalk co-star Steve Buscemi, star of Monsters Inc and incoming sequel Monsters University, about the voice work but still found it challenging.
“It was really hard work,” she says. “Usually it’s going into a booth and reciting some lines. For this we were on a huge sound stage. The director, Mark Andrews, would say ‘Now say it like you’ve been hit with a branch’. So I’d think about that and then give it a go. And then he’d say: ‘Now do it like you’re getting hit by a bigger branch. On a horse’.”
She enjoyed being a tomboy teen though admits she was a failed tomboy in real life.
“I couldn’t have been rebellious because I had nothing to rebel against,” she says. “I wanted to be a tomboy rebel. Calamity Jane was my big heroine when I was growing up. I used to run around pretending to be on a horse. I still love the film. When I told Martin Scorsese, he looked appalled and started pleading for me to watch Annie Get Your Gun and Singin’ in the Rain.”
She looks contemplative. “I did used to climb trees,” she offers. “I’d sit in a tree and make little noises to freak out the neighbours: ‘Helloooo!’ But most of the time my mum was trying to get me out the door. I was a homebody. I was never as strong willed as Merida.”
She remains rooted in Glasgow with husband Dougie and four-year-old son Freddie, though the family do have to spend half the year in New York when Boardwalk Empire is in production. “New York is vibrant – I love the energy. But when I come back to Glasgow my shoulders drop. And I end up being early for Freddie’s preschool every day because it takes no time to get anywhere.”
Brave is on general release.
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