Kelly Macdonald: ‘I’m beyond sex scenes now. I just play detectives’

Why did the actor who shot to fame in Trainspotting panic about her new Line of Duty role?

Kelly Macdonald's roles are typically quiet and fraught with internal conflict, and entailing journeys that are more reflective than active. As a grieving mother in The Child in Time, a gangster's wife in Boardwalk Empire and the titular role in The Girl in the Cafe, the 45-year-old has, over the past 25 years, become known for the kind of thoughtful performances signified by the image of a woman staring out of a window. All of which makes our encounter today doubly surprising: that Macdonald, appearing via Zoom from her home in Glasgow, is here to talk about Line of Duty, possibly the least reflective television show ever made; and that she is a complete hoot.

Her role in Line of Duty has, over the course of the Belfast-filmed show's six seasons, become a coveted one in British television – that of the guest star brought on as a no-good cop to be investigated by AC-12, the show's now iconic anti-corruption unit. (Previous incumbents in the just-how-bent-is-she role include Keeley Hawes and Thandie Newton.) Line of Duty's twists are renowned and the embargoes fierce, and, following the roller coaster of season five – in which we grappled, briefly, with the possibility that Supt Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) was bent – we meet Macdonald in season six as DCI Jo Davidson, getting stuck into a case. And that is pretty much all, ahead of transmission, the BBC will permit either of us to reveal, which makes Macdonald crack up every time she thinks of it. "It's hilarious that they sent me a list of things I'm not to talk about, when I can't remember any of it."

They sent the first episode while I was on the train and I managed to download it and immediately got freaked out at the intensity

This is partly down to scattiness. Macdonald forgets words, dates, times. She has been known to rock up to auditions having failed entirely to study the script. “I’m horrible,” she says, cheerful in a chunky knit sweater, which is, she says, one notch up from her customary lockdown hoodie. “I’m just rubbish at reading the emails.” At home she’ll look up from whatever she’s doing and catch her sons, eight-year-old Theodore and, in particular, 12-year-old Freddie, regarding her with incredulity. “My son sits over there, plugged in on his iPad, and I’m on the phone and I just see the way he looks at me. I still remember thinking my mum was a fool, such a fool, about technology.”

It is there in her performances, this guileless good humour. Macdonald once described acting as “not brain surgery” – not a view shared by most actors at her level – a delight in the absurdity of it all that has been visible on screen since her first, explosive role, as Diane in Trainspotting. That was released in 1996, when Macdonald turned 20, and, as it turned out, Diane – brazen, impulsive, outrageous – was atypical of the work that would follow. The women she plays tend to be strong but not loud; simmering with ambition – as in Boardwalk Empire, in which her character, Margaret, crawls out from the shadow of her Mob-boss husband (played by Steve Buscemi) to eventually run her own show, or Mary, Maggie Smith’s shrewd maid in Robert Altman’s 2001 film Gosford Park.


In the past few years Macdonald has appeared in shows such as Black Mirror (Hated in the Nation), alongside John Hannah in the television series The Victim and as Sarah, a loner cop, in Giri/Haji, the British-Japanese thriller. Most affectingly, she played Julie in The Child in Time, the 2017 movie adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, as a couple whose child is abducted. In most of these projects Macdonald is the still centre of the action, a performer whose powers lie in her ability to communicate volumes with minimal movement.

Line of Duty is a different beast altogether, although, in keeping with Macdonald’s tendency to arrive late to things – “I mean, I’ve still not seen The Sopranos” – she had no idea about the show when she signed up for the role. She knew it was popular, of course, so when the call came through while she was on a train from London to Glasgow, she was excited to have won the job. (She wanted to scream but was on her own and couldn’t.) The jubilation quickly faded. “They sent the first episode while I was on the train. And I managed to download it and immediately got freaked out at the intensity.”

I love Line of Duty. I love the fact it’s all business, with no time to spare on the coppers’ personal lives. I love the jargon. In any given exchange it is perfectly permissible for one character to turn to another and say, “37, 45, status six,” receive the reply “10, 37, active message” and round it all off with a spectrographic analysis giving a 99.5 per cent probability of accuracy. I love DC Arnott’s odd diction and Kate Fleming’s knitwear, and I love Hastings’ flawed heroism. I have, over the course of five seasons, loved every corrupt guest star.

Ewan had done a lot of sex scenes before Trainspotting. I know the thing now is to have intimacy coaches to talk you through it. I've never done that. It's always been: make it up and hope it's not too embarrassing

Macdonald, in the first instance, was not inclined to fall in love; she was too busy wondering how she was going to learn all this stuff. “It was just a very dense script, lots of dialogue – I’d never done as much dialogue on any job. The jobs I’ve done have been emotional dialogue, and this was a different thing – it’s information. My first thought was that this would be really challenging, and that’s probably a good thing, but I did have to think about it. I know one person who had been offered a role in some season and turned it down because of the mental...” The sheer volume of details? “Yeah.” To try to inspire herself, Macdonald went back to the beginning and started watching the show, only to freak herself out even more. She abandoned it in season four, “because it started getting close to the beginning of filming and I really started panicking. And Thandie was being so good!”

Macdonald has always had nerves. It's mystifying to her how any actor might not. She characterises herself as a quietish person who in the early days of a shoot finds simply being in a room with strangers quite stressful. No one in her family worked in the arts. She was born in Glasgow, before her parents moved to Aberdeen; after they divorced, she was raised by her mum, who worked in sales. It was serendipity that she got cast in Trainspotting: she picked up a flyer advertising an open audition and turned up on a whim. She had done some youth theatre and remembers, very vividly, being in the cinema watching the 1989 movie The Delinquents. "Kylie Minogue was in it and all I could think was, I could do that, I could do that!" But that was the extent of her experience.

Looking back, says Macdonald, that Trainspotting shoot seems like prehistoric times – not least because they were drunk a lot of the time; she can’t imagine a film set being as louche as that these days. “I thought it was okay because everyone else was [drinking]. It was like high school: you just try to fit in.”

Wait, where did they drink? “We were just hanging out at the pub. The green room was a little caravan that we were all supposed to sit in. And the sensible people would sit and the others would go to the local pub.” When she filmed the famous club scene where her character meets Ewan McGregor’s for the first time, Macdonald had been drinking all day. “By the time it came to me doing the talky bit, I was already hungover.” She’s proud of the movie, and has a poster of it up on her wall, but says, seemingly reflexively, “I’ve not watched it since the premiere, so I have no idea. I’m sure I’m quite bad in it, actually.”

Macdonald has been lucky with directors. Danny Boyle, who directed Trainspotting, was sensitive to her inexperience, and she's never had a truly awful time on set. "Oh God, I've been so lucky. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. I'm quite good at not working for the sake of working, although sometimes it would have benefited me fiscally. But if my instincts say it's not for me, then I go with that. Because the couple of jobs that I've done that I've not really been right for, and I've had that feeling, I've generally been correct."

Would it be rude to say what they are?

“Oh yes. I wouldn’t say. And you live and learn, don’t you?”

There were lean years or, as she puts it, "I had long periods of time off and would start thinking of all kinds of other careers and would get jigsaws out." At the start of her career, work was so "super sporadic", she says, that "I had to move back home. And when I got together with my ex, he had to help me out at times." (Her ex-husband is Dougie Payne, the bassist in the Scottish band Travis. The pair were married for 14 years, until 2017, and share custody of their two boys.) Not long after Trainspotting came out and became a huge hit, Macdonald was called in for an audition for The Matrix, the 1999 blockbuster starring Keanu Reeves. She rocked up having barely glanced at the script, something that still makes her laugh. "I was just an idiot, there's no other... I probably attempted a few pages and thought, What? I don't understand. I'll just wing it."

Wasn’t that mentality cancelled by her nerves?

“No, stupidity is just stupidity – the nerves don’t affect it,” she says with a laugh. “But I wasn’t right for it, anyway. I was too young. No.”

In 2012 Macdonald appeared in the Joe Wright-directed film version of Anna Karenina alongside Keira Knightley – she interrupts as I mention this to tell me, excitedly, that Vicky McClure, who plays DI Fleming in Line of Duty, was also in the movie, although "she thinks she might have been cut out of it, I don't know. Anyway, neither of us have seen it." In a recent interview Knightley expressed doubt that she would ever film a sex scene with a male director again. Macdonald says she doesn't wholly identify with this, not for lack of sympathy, nor because her experience of shooting sex scenes has been particularly good, but as a matter, perhaps, of expectation. "I've worked with very few female directors. There was a female director on Line of Duty, which was nice. But I think I'm beyond sex scenes at this point. I just play detectives now. My experiences have been, I mean, they're horrible, they're uncomfortable, but you just get on with it. You think, I've got to be here and then it'll be over."

But have you ever had to assert yourself and push back against something worse, or more abusive, than the discomfort of being naked in front of strangers? “No. I’m unusual, possibly, in that the people I’ve worked with have thought about it beforehand and are thinking about it at the time, so it’s as comfortable as it can be. Hopefully, there’s not too many people in the room. You don’t want it to get too busy.” Trainspotting, oddly, was probably the biggest sex scene she’s shot. “Ewan had done a lot of sex scenes before that, and he was so sweet to me and talked me through it and made me feel as comfortable as I could be,” she says. “I know the thing now is to have people [intimacy coaches] with you and talk you through it. I’ve never done that. It’s always been: make it up and hope it’s not too embarrassing.”

She didn't audition for Boardwalk Empire. She was called in by Martin Scorsese, who directed early episodes and who, she's convinced, was labouring under the misapprehension that, like her character, Margaret, she was Irish. It got to the point, says Macdonald, that after winning the role she rang her agent in a panic. "I was, like, 'You need to let them know I need to do work on the accent! Because I'm not actually Irish!'" Her agent advised her not to sweat it. "It was too late by then, they had cast me."

It’s a period of her life she looks back on fondly. For several years, during the seasonal shooting of the show, the family lived in New York, which she loved, although she says, drily: “I do slightly wish I’d started my New York years before I’d had children. I spent most evenings at home.” Her older son, Freddie, started preschool in the city – he’s very proud of this fact and holds it over his younger brother’s head – and would get very cross when his mother slipped into British terminology. (“He’d stand there and shout, ‘Is it a buggy or is it a stroller?’ I thought, Fair enough: there were two words for everything.”)

The main appeal of New York, she says, is how friendly it was compared with London, where they had lived when Freddie was a baby. “I made proper friends in New York, people from all walks who weren’t in my industry. I spent most of my time in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village – if I wasn’t working, that’s where I was from morning to night, it felt like. And I would meet people and get chatting, and end up staying in touch and being friends with them.”

On Line of Duty you get a soggy sandwich. On American productions there's a food table laid out all day long

By contrast, in London, she says: “I was in the park every day as well and I would meet people and have a really nice chat and it would be great. And then I’d see them the next day and it would be like we’d never met. I’d say hello and they would look at me like I was a paedophile or something.” She hoots with laughter and puts on a posh English accent: “Don’t try to be friends with me!”

Boardwalk Empire, which ran to five seasons, was a hit. Macdonald was twice nominated for a Golden Globe and, in the off-season, won a coveted role to voice the lead in the Disney animated movie Brave. (She played Merida, the spirited, red-haired daughter of a Scottish king and queen, voiced by Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson.) It reminded her of being cast in Line of Duty, oddly – the sense of a big-ticket role in an iconic franchise. "The guest lead thing – oooh. When I was doing press for [Brave] I was, like, 'I'm a Disney princess – whoa, what?' Being a guest lead in Line of Duty is like that."

The tricky thing with Jed Mercurio’s show is that since the scripts were only released to the actors a few episodes ahead of filming, Macdonald had no idea as she shot each scene just how good or bad the woman she was playing might be. “Jed had called my character enigmatic, so I clung on to that.” Like an actor in a medical drama, she also had no idea what she was talking about a lot of the time. “We did a read-through, and it was pretty hard going. I think we read three episodes, and I was just a shell of a woman by the end.” This is why, she says, “when my publicist sent me a list of things I could and couldn’t talk about – to be honest, it’s the kind of detailed forensic policing that even when I’m saying the words, I’m only half aware of what I actually mean.” She bursts out laughing.

It was a fun shoot, she says, although BBC catering isn't in the same league as the HBO buffet table. "On Line of Duty you get a soggy sandwich. On American productions there's a food table laid out all day long."

I've had plenty of disappointments, like everyone else, and I have my little blips when I don't get a part I want

I can’t help it. The mad fan in me bursts out: what’s Vicky McClure like? “She’s lovely! You know, she’s that girl from school who’s superenergetic and popular, and has time for everyone. She has a big heart, she’s great.”

Like every other production filming in 2020, they were interrupted for several months by the first lockdown. Macdonald says she found that period easier than subsequent lockdowns – at least it was a novelty. Now she goes through revolutions of thinking the lockdowns will never end. She has binged a lot of television. In fact, she says: “All I do is binge. I watched Bridgerton. I did Call My Agent, the French show, which is brilliant and dry.” She watched Michaela Coel’s acclaimed I May Destroy You, which, to widespread dismay, was overlooked in the Golden Globe nominations. “It’s shocking that she’s not been recognised,” says Macdonald. “But they’re all idiots. Incredible.”

There are more projects in the pipeline, including a role in the Shakespeare in Love director John Madden's forthcoming adaptation of Ben Macintyre's second World War spy blockbuster, Operation Mincemeat. Professionally the hardest thing these days "is working out being away from the kids", she says. "There would be jobs that came up on the west coast of America and I can't do them, especially sharing custody. I was in Australia on a job a few years ago and that was hard. They came out for a couple of weeks, but it was longer than I thought it would be. I couldn't do that again."

She is, she says, almost certainly turning into her mother, whose daffiness makes her roar with laughter. Macdonald was in the bank the other day and forgot the word for “statement”. (“I ended up saying, you know the thing you send on the paper? And I made her forget the word statement. And I thought she was quiet because she was judging me and then she finally blurted out ‘Statement!’”) Whole sections of the Line of Duty script have quite gone from her mind. And she continues, with semi-regularity, to turn up at the wrong time for things.

Freddie, she says, regards her as if she is mad. Meanwhile, she can rarely get through a chat with her own mother without falling into hysterics. The other day on the phone, she says, her mum “was trying to remember an actress’s name and came up with...” – Macdonald starts laughing – “Blender Brethrone. She was, like, ‘It had thingy in it, you know,’ and eventually thingy became Blender Brethrone. And I was, like, ‘Mum, you do know, don’t you’” – she’s shaking, shoulders heaving – “‘that Blender is not a name?’”

The upside to getting older, says Macdonald, is that after years of feeling more or less terrified on every film and television set, she has, in the past decade, begun mildly to unclench. There was something she used to do, up to Boardwalk Empire and beyond, which was to cling very rigidly to whatever bag or prop she was holding in a scene, to the degree that no one could prize it off her. “We cut to change the camera position, costume would come to take the bag and I’d say, ‘No, no, no’; I’d want to hold it in exactly the same way, all the way through. Like a freak.”

Macdonald finds the adrenaline useful. But, what with the pandemic and everything, she’s learned, recently, to relax. The previous day, she saw someone with a tattoo that read “What’s for you won’t go by you”, which struck a chord. “I’ve had plenty of disappointments, like everyone else, and I have my little blips when I don’t get a part I want. But I sort of believe that line.” For those who are healthy and employed, it’s the hard-won lesson of the year. “I can’t be too disappointed about anything.” – Guardian

Line of Duty begins on BBC One on Sunday, March 21st, at 9pm