8 Nov 2008: From Renton’s schoolgirl squeeze to the Coens’ Southern matriarch, Scots star Kelly Macdonald always plays it cool. ‘I’m nobody’s arm candy!’ she tells Amy Raphael
Kelly Macdonald doesn’t want to get nude on film again. In fact, she even stops reading scripts as soon as she comes across an intimate bedroom scene. She’d just turned 20 when she had screen sex with Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, but now she’s 32 and the idea of stripping off her clothes fills her with dread. “You can absolutely forget any more nudity. Noooooo!” Her Glaswegian accent reaches a semi-hysterical pitch. “I find just being on set embarrassing. Mortifying. And that’s with all my clothes on.”
- Production year: 2008
- Country: USA
- Cert (UK): 18
- Runtime: 92 mins
- Directors: Clark Gregg
- Cast: Anjelica Huston, Brad William Henke, Clark Gregg, Gillian Jacobs, Kelly Macdonald, Sam Rockwell
Which isn’t to say love-making has been completely banished. In her latest film, Choke, she repeatedly gets it on with sex addict Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell) in the chapel of a private hospital. A satire that follows Victor’s exploits as he tries to stick to his 12-step therapy with his best friend, it is part comedy, part edgy art film, part buddy movie. Choke takes its title from the choking fits that Victor simulates in restaurants; when saved by an unsuspecting fellow customer, he hits them for money to pay for his mother’s hospital fees. Sounds unlikely, but it works for Victor.
This is the second film to be adapted from a Chuck Palahniuk novel and although it embraces similar themes of alienation and loneliness, it isn’t as clever or visceral as Fight Club. In fact, the best thing about Clark Gregg’s debut feature is Macdonald, who plays Paige Marshall, a captivating young doctor ostensibly looking after Victor’s mother (Anjelica Huston). Gregg had admired Macdonald since Trainspotting and has talked of her “volcanic reserve of silent strength” and “invisible acting”. She has something special; she is contained, careful, and able to judge her characters particularly well.
Yet, despite her talent, Macdonald is not yet a household name. Which is the way she likes it. “I got a text yesterday from a friend I haven’t seen for a while. He’d just watched No Country For Old Men on DVD and didn’t know I was in it. That suits me down to the ground. People have arguments over whether it was or wasn’t me playing Josh Brolin’s wife in that film. I think if you’re too much of a personality then it’s harder to disappear into roles.”
Both Macdonald and her husband, Travis bass player Dougie Payne, who live in north London, have avoided all the usual celebrity nonsense. “Either that or we’ve failed miserably,” suggests Macdonald, laughing. The truth is that the young Kelly was terribly shy and — although she seems to still be surfing a wave of confidence from all those excellent No Country For Old Men reviews — she pauses when I ask if still feels as though she’s going to be found out: “I don’t knooooow … Less so now. Maybe.”
She has always been a beguiling mix of confidence and self-doubt. She remembers going to the Trainspotting audition in jeans, an Oxfam jumper, “big, ugly shoes” and with newly shorn hair. The flyer a friend gave her asked for a charismatic schoolgirl and she felt self-conscious at even considering herself charismatic. While other girls swished their long hair around at the audition, Kelly sat quietly, feeling hot and embarrassed. When she was called back, director Danny Boyle told her there’d be a sex scene and she had to hide extreme panic. Still, she got the part, sat astride Ewan McGregor and made a name for herself at 20.
Macdonald didn’t go to drama school — she sees her formative years in her bedroom, reading out loud and learning scenes from Sean O’Casey plays, as having been as useful as any course — and she insists that she initially thought acting was out of her league. Her decorator father and housewife mother neither encouraged or discouraged her; she thought it normal to be able to mimic people off the telly perfectly. The fact that she wasn’t ambitious and didn’t have a plan is an attractive side to Macdonald, but it’s perhaps led her to pick some odd roles: after Gosford Park and the brilliant State Of Play, she seemed to drift a little, until The Girl In The Cafe won her an Emmy.
After A Cock And Bull Story, in which she played Steve Coogan’s frustrated partner, she took roles in Nanny McPhee and Lassie before the Coens came calling. Or, rather, Macdonald’s agent bugged the Coens’ casting agent until she agreed to see the Scottish actress. Finally, the brothers, who’d been looking for an American to play the role of Carla Jean Moss, saw Macdonald’s tape, heard her flawless west Texas accent and gave her the role. Given that No Country picked up four Oscars, was universally critically acclaimed and a box office smash, how has life changed? She shrugs: “The doors to some magical world haven’t opened. I don’t think that’s the way it works for me.”
Yet Macdonald, alongside Sally Hawkins (currently being lauded in the States for her role in Happy-Go-Lucky) and Anna Friel (apparently signed up for another six years of Pushing Daisies), now has a profile in Hollywood. All are 32, all have the possibility of proper American success. But Macdonald won’t buy into the hype: “I’ve done a few American accents. I’ve maybe passed a test. But I don’t know if it makes things easier or not.” Success certainly doesn’t guarantee good roles. She has made another film with Tommy Lee Jones since No Country; I ask if she enjoyed working with him again on In The Electric Mist. She wrinkles her nose: “He’s great but … I felt completely uncomfortable the whole time because I play someone’s arm candy. I was miscast …”
She acknowledges that she was spoilt by No Country: “It was just so extraordinary. New Mexico was such a strange place; it was like filming on Mars. I felt totally comfortable with Joel and Ethan.”
Did she know that it would be ultraviolent? “Well, I came home for a few weeks and, when I went back to the film set, there were all these new continuity photos of decapitated heads, blood and gore. While I’d been away, Javier [Bardem] had just gone nuts.” She laughs: “But there are also many beautiful, quiet panoramic shots. It’s a perfect film.” And then she swoons over Josh Brolin: “He is very gorgeous. Really great. I was just the right age for The Goonies. It was my No 1 film in the mid-80s. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to bring it up, though.”
It’s time for Macdonald to get home to her eight-month-old son, Freddie. She took him on set for the first time recently, while shooting Skellig in Wales with John Simm and Tim Roth. “I was worried that …” she pauses. “I thought I might not want to act any more after having a baby. It turns out I still enjoy it. Though I don’t know how it will work out if I have to film in America again.” She loves being a mum, she says, then suddenly bursts out laughing. “Freddie’s such a big, long boy, like his dad. I’m small and he’s half my length already. When I carry him I look as though I’m being attacked by a wee, bald man.”
With this disconcerting image in mind, I ask what’s up next. She starts to whisper: “I can’t talk about anything. But it’s good. I play a game with myself, Top Trumps directors … I don’t know. Well, I do know, but I’m not saying. I’m doing quite well, though.” She squeals with excitement. “And on that non-bombshell, I shall go before I say something I shouldn’t.”
• Choke is out on November 21