Why did the actor who shot to fame in Trainspotting panic about her new Line of Duty role?
By Emma Brockes | Irish Times
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.”