January 14-20th 2008
After arriving in style in Trainspotting actress Kelly Macdonald has been quietly building up a strong reputation for herself. Now co-starring in the new Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men, she tells Leigh Singer about handling awards buzz and what the press get wrong about her.
Kelly Macdonald would like to correct a few misconceptions given by previous encounters with the press. Firstly, she does not lack motivation for her chosen profession: “I think I am motivated,” she allows in her soft Glaswegian burr, “but there’s only so far that can get you as an actor or actress, because you can’t make work happen for yourself.” Yet she points out that she’s the one who put herself, as an eighteen-year old novice, in an audition room with director Danny Boyle, leading to her iconic debut in Trainspotting.
Secondly, despite an impression perhaps suggested by her petite size – accentuated today by the fact that she’s six months pregnant with the child she and husband, Travis bassist Dougie Payne, are expecting – Macdonald, now an experienced 31-year old pro, is not timid. “That’s so insulting!” she groans. “It’s been said once and it comes up again and again.”
Thirdly, and most reassuringly, she doesn’t “hate” doing interviews: “It’s totally egotistical, that’s the thing,” she argues. “You come away from a day of doing press and you think ‘I didn’t ask them about themselves!’” OK, then: I’m having a good day, thanks, though my iPod screwed up. And I’m having dinner with my girlfriend later on. “That sounds lovely,” she grins wickedly. “But back to me…!”
Indeed there’s no shortage of conversation around Macdonald’s latest film, the Coen Brothers adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel No Country for Old Men. Lauded since its debut at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film, a brutal neo-noir about three disparate men (sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, poor chancer Josh Brolin and ruthless hired killer Javier Bardem) pursuing $2 million of drug money, has been almost unanimously declared a masterpiece.
It might also seem an unusual place to find Macdonald, whose films, even ‘American’ ones like Finding Neverland and Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, have been typically set in Britain. No Country sees her as a loyal West Texan housewife Carla Jean, shacked up in a trailer with a husband who steals from the wrong people.
“I was in New York for a friend’s wedding and it was all very last-minute for me to go in and see the casting director,” she relates. “They were seeing me more as a courtesy because my American agent was so persistent, so when I actually read and it wasn’t terrible, I think they were quite surprised.” When told she’s being very humble, Macdonald rhapsodizes back, sending herself up. “When it was amazing, she couldn’t believe it!”
She’s joking but it’s far closer to the truth: a day after her reading, Macdonald was invited to meet the Coen Brothers. “They knew bits [of my CV] but I wasn’t somebody that they had ever considered,” she remembers. “They hadn’t even started casting yet, so by the time I got the phone call it was actually a couple of months later and felt that’s not going to happen and at least I got to meet Joel and Ethan Coen and isn’t that amazing?” She laughs. “But it’s much better that I actually got a part!”
The Coens have tackled the story of small-time-crime-gone-wrong before, most notably in their debut Blood Simple and Oscar-winning Fargo – which Macdonald describes in awe, as “a perfect film, it’s genius” – and No Country’s spare, elegiac tone is being spoken of in the same hushed tones. Amid all the film’s award buzz Macdonald’s affecting performance is also attracting attention. So how does she handle it?
“La-la-la is my reaction,” she says, miming putting her hands over her ears. “Even when I’ve been nominated, I’m still going LA-LA-LA.” Still one has to admit, Carla Jean, with key scenes opposite all three male leads, is one of those classic Best Supporting Actress roles? “Shh,” she chides with a grin. “I’ll have to stab you with my pencil. You can’t think about things like that.”
Maybe it’s this modesty that gets Macdonald pegged as timid. In previous interviews she’s lamented prolonged periods of “down time”, when she’s not working, Yet this conveniently omits the fact that, as she’s gone on in her career, she’s become more and more sure about what works for her.
“If it’s not for me I won’t even go for the audition,” she agrees matter-of-factly, “which can be a pain in the arse for my agent, I know, but I’m not daft and I know when I’m not suited for stuff.” Take drama school – or rather, don’t, which she avoided by landing her Trainspotting role.
“I’m not cut out for that kind of thing,” she insists. “Auditions can be really hard work, you’ve got five minutes with strangers, you’re sweating, you’re nervous, you’ve got to somehow let them know that you’re easy to direct, but they also expect you to be on the same page as them from the get-go. I just see drama school as a constant audition. I don’t think I would have lasted at all.”
Evidently it wasn’t an experience she needed either. Since Trainspotting, Macdonald’s racked up impressive homegrown credits including TV like State of Play or The Girl in the Café and films like Lassie or A Cock and Bull Story. Her US work hasn’t been too shabby either.
“If they could all be the Coen Brothers that would be lovely,” she says dreamily. “As far as American directors go, when you think of the Coen Brothers and Robert Altman, they’re the kings of independent film really, and I’ve worked with them, so all I’ve got to do now is a really ridiculous big-budget Spielberg film.”
She laughs, quickly adding that she’s “teasing”. “I like where I am,” she says simply. “I think I’ve reached a level of security, where there’s been sort of a nice respect for what I’ve been doing, which is lovely.” And with that, time’s up. With one more thing.
“Please don’t say I’m timid,” Kelly Macdonald implores. Then, genuinely feisty: “It’s not like I’m anything.” Now that’s one misconception the press really need to correct.
No Country for Old Men opens on January 15th.