23 Nov 2003: Kelly Macdonald made a huge impression in State of Play, now she is making films with Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp. And yet she’s still looking for work. By Amy Raphael.

Kelly Macdonald says people have started to look at her strangely. She always glances over her shoulder, hoping they are gazing at someone else, but she knows it’s her. She might be buying a DVD or browsing in Selfridges and suddenly she is aware of being stared at. It used to happen before, back in 1996, when she appeared out of nowhere to seduce Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting.

  1. Intermission
  2. Production year: 2003
  3. Countries: Ireland, Rest of the world
  4. Cert (UK): 18
  5. Runtime: 106 mins
  6. Directors: John Crowley
  7. Cast: Cillian Murphy, Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson
  8. More on this film

These days, it’s because of State of Play, the political drama in which Macdonald played journalist Della Smith alongside David Morrissey, Bill Nighy and John Simm. Arguably the best series on television this year, State of Play reminded us of Macdonald’s talent. Her old friend, Colin Firth, puts it best: ‘Kelly is fantastic; she can pop up and be dazzling or fade into the wallpaper as required. She has real presence.’

Yet the 27-year-old remains the sort of actor people stare at rather than talk to. Not because she is remotely aloof or intimidating, as her fragile beauty is more girl-next-door than catwalk. It’s just that people can’t quite place her. They may have admired her as a naked teenager in Trainspotting , as Mary Maceachran in Gosford Park or perhaps even as the star of the low-budget indie, Stella Does Tricks. But she simply does not have the flamboyant presence or grandeur of an actor and so they are never quite sure it really is her.

Sitting in the restaurant of the Charlotte Street Hotel in central London and nursing a cold, Macdonald tells a story in her soft Glaswegian accent. ‘I was in Gap in Los Angeles and this really camp young guy who was working there got really overexcited. He started shouting, “I know you!” I assumed he’d seen Trainspotting, but instead it was this Gregg Araki film, Splendor. It’s the weirdest film I’ve made, one I didn’t think anyone had seen, myself included. I played a les bian with blue hair and this awful miniature dog called… was my name Mike or was the dog’s name Mike? Whatever, he wouldn’t stop shouting, “I love you!” at the top of his voice.’

She laughs and orders a hot chocolate and a mixed tomato salad: she forgot we were meeting for lunch and ate a sandwich on the way. We talk about her recent white wedding and her new husband, Dougie Payne, a fellow Glaswegian with whom she lives in north London and who is off playing bass in Travis. They have been together for almost four years. ‘I was a three-weeker before I met Dougie,’ she says, giggling. ‘So I’m doing OK. We actually met a long time before we started going out, when I was working in Brunswick Cellars pub in Glasgow and I used to have my hair in Princess Leia buns, but he doesn’t remember me.’

Macdonald was 19 and working in a bar – she always started off as a waitress but her clumsiness soon saw her serving drinks – when a friend showed her a flyer. It read: ‘The makers of Shallow Grave are looking for a girl between 16 and 21 to play a charismatic schoolgirl.’ She had always wanted to act but her housewife mother and postman father didn’t take her seriously. Still, she went along for the audition.

‘I wasn’t terrified, but I felt a bit silly,’ explains Macdonald. ‘There were all these wannabe young girls sitting in rows and rows of chairs in a big university hall. Actually, I felt idiotic; I was terrified of spotting someone I knew, because basically I was sitting there saying I was a charismatic schoolgirl. I didn’t look the part. Well, I didn’t look like all the glamorous girls in pretty summer dresses who were swishing their long hair around. I had short hair, jeans, these big ugly shoes that my mum hated and a big jumper from Oxfam with a hole in the sleeve.’

She sips some hot chocolate. ‘Everyone had two or three minutes with [director] Danny Boyle. I remember him looking at me before I went on stage and I got really hot and sweaty. It was like being picked out by the headmaster.’ She was called back a second time to read with producer Andrew Macdonald and a third to meet Ewan McGregor. She was so shy she hid behind her script. Finally, it was down to two girls; at this point, she really wanted the part.

Boyle warned her about the full nudity in the sex scene with McGregor, where she writhes around on top of him in her single bed. ‘To hide my extreme panic, I said it was OK. I could hardly say, sorry, my buttocks are lopsided. When I got the part and that day came, I remember having a wee talk with myself in the shower in the morning, telling myself to go for it. Ewan was brilliant; he didn’t make a big deal about it at all. I still felt we had to get it right in a few takes, or else it’s like the crew are sitting there with scorecards.’ She screws up her face and hides behind her hands. ‘Put more gusto into it!’

Kelly Macdonald always finds it hard turning up on set the first day, not knowing any of the actors or crew, wondering who she will end up close to. She says the best sets are those when all the actors end up in one caravan, huddled together and gossiping between takes. It happened on State of Play and it happened again with Intermission, the smart Irish comedy drama starring Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, directed by first timer John Crowley.

She hadn’t seen Farrell in anything and was wondering if he would behave in the debauched manner of his interviews. ‘I’d read all the stuff about him, so I wasn’t sure. But he was brilliant. He’s on it all the time. He doesn’t hit on everyone; he’s just honest in interviews about the fact that he behaves like any other young man in his position’

Macdonald has an understated presence in Intermission yet she impresses again. A second series of State of Play has been commissioned by the BBC and she has the plum role of Peter Pan in J.M. Barrie’s Neverland, co-starring Johnny Depp and out next spring (‘I learned to fly and I started smoking again because Johnny is very generous with his rolling tobacco’). But despite these high-profile projects, she is fed up because she hasn’t worked all year. She acknowledges the phenomenon of Trainspotting but insists that her career has never gone ‘whoosh’. Argue that she’s one of the most underrated actors in the country and she blushes furiously.

‘People say such nice things but… I just want to work.’ She giggles. ‘I need to work. Dougie only left for the Travis tour yesterday morning and already I’ve changed all the furniture around. I never know if I should warn him or leave it as a big shock for when he gets back.’ A waiter appears and asks if we would like anything else. Macdonald asks for another hot chocolate, saying her first one was only lukewarm. He returns with a scalding drink. ‘They were like: burn, bitch!’ She laughs and tells another story. ‘I still get star-struck. I had done a read-through with Bill Nighy at some point – I remember because there were all these well-known actors sitting round the table and he stole the whole thing – but when we started State of Play I felt the need to introduce myself.’

So she approached him and started to explain who she was. He looked at her, bemused, and said: ‘I know who you are.’ She shrugs. ‘I always assume people forget they’ve met me before.’ Her self-deprecation is unusual in such an egotistical industry, but it seems genuine.

If Macdonald is sometimes happy to fade into the wallpaper, she is ready to dazzle again. ‘I am ready for my next job. I’ve had enough time to myself. I’ve had a great year, got married to the sweetest, loveliest man.But I’m skint now and I’m so much happier working.’

· Intermission is released on 28 November