The Bravery of Kelly McDonald

| June 22, 2012

Scottish actress Kelly McDonald laughs when I suggest she’s the go to woman for Scottish heroines. “I dont know where you heard that nasty rumor”. Nor did she feel any pressure about starring as Pixar’s first female heroine in Brave. “Attention to detail is not my strong point and it didn’t occur to me that I was going to be the first female heroine in a Pixar movie,” the actress says smilingly. “It quickly passed me by that I was going to be the first female protagonist in a Pixar movie until quite recently, until, really until I started doing interviews. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know what I was doing, because it would have been a lot of pressure, but I don’t think I personally have watched a Pixar movie and felt wronged in that there wasn’t a female protagonist. They make films about fish, toys, and robots and there’s some really strong female characters in those films and in The Incredibles and Jessie from Toy Story. So I never felt like I was missing out on that. but I feel very privileged having said all that,” the actress explains.

Set in medieval Scotland, McDonald voices teenager Merida, upset by the prearranged wedding plans set in motion by her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), and mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), where the neighboring clans vie for her affections in a series of sporting challenges. Deciding it was all to unfair, Merida runs off follows a trail of glowing wisps to a witch’s hut. There, she is given a magic cake that will “change” her mother’s mind regarding the upcoming marital plans. Queen Elinor does change but not as Merida hoped, for, the queen is transformed into a giant black bear while still retaining her human mind, but only for 48 hours.

Asked about whether she could identify with Merida, McDonald says “I wasn’t Merida-like when I was a teenager. I mean she’s very adventurous, outdoorsy and energetic, and I was not. I was but I was a teenage girl, so that was the thing that I zoned in on really. All teenagers are awful, but teenage girls are kind of worst I think, than teenage boys.”. Nor was the actress as rebellious as her character. “I could have done with a bit more of that to be honest, something to rebel against. My mum was easy-going and I didn’t have much to rebel against. I moved away from home when I was 17 and that was fine and I made my own choices quite early on.”

Those choices would eventually lead to acting in her native Scotland and her career began while working as a barmaid. She saw a leaflet advertising an open casting session for Trainspotting and decided to audition, winning the part of Diane, the underage seductress to Ewan McGregor’s Renton. Other roles include Mary O’Neary in Two Family House and an actress playing Peter Pan in Finding Neverland. She also had major roles in Robert Altman’s British period piece Gosford Park, where she played an aristocrat’s maid, as well as in Intermission (2003), as Deirdre.

On television, her highest-profile roles have been in two BBC dramas, the Paul Abbott serial State of Play (2003) and the one-off Richard Curtis piece The Girl in the Café (2005). Both of these were directed by David Yates, and both also starred Bill Nighy. For her performance in The Girl in the Café, Macdonald was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2006, and won an Emmy.

Macdonald starred in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee, as the scullery maid Evangeline, and has since had supporting roles in A Cock and Bull Story (2006), and the Coen brothers’ Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men, (2007), Her agent was originally unsure she was right for the latter part, and Macdonald is reported as having to “fight for the role”. Her persistence paid off, however, as she was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress. Other films where she had supporting roles include Choke (2008), as Dr. Paige Marshall, the film which was adapted by Clark Gregg from the 2001 Chuck Palahniuk novel, In the Electric Mist (2009) (based on James Lee Burke’s In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993)), as Kelly Drummond, alongside Tommy Lee Jones and John Goodman and Skellig (2009), as Louise. She also played the lead in The Merry Gentleman (2008), as Kate Frazier. But she is best known for her current portrayal of Margaret Schroeder on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

But now a very new generation will recognize the talents of the Scottish actress, and she’s having a blast talking up her latest movie and character. “I had so much fun. I got to play this part that I would never get to play in a live action film because I’m not a teenager and I got to be really cheeky and obnoxious to my mom, which was quite fun. It was just the most fun I’ve ever had at work without having to wear a costume and get my hair done.”

And there was no question that the actress take this on, even before she read a script. “I think as soon as I was asked to go in and meet some people from Pixar, I mean, just the name Pixar, you know it’s going to be special. So, I had no doubt in my mind that the finished product was going to be just really special and cutting edge, That’s the great thing about Pixar, is like every movie that they bring out is like the most cutting edge technology. But you look back at the films, and Toy Story was 15 years ago and you don’t look back and think, oh, if they had the technology they have now it could be such a better film. It still stands up and what they do is extraordinary and to think that comes from the top. John Lasseter is a very special man and it’s just people that love their jobs and do their jobs very well.”

McDonald is currently shooting the new season of the Emmy winning Boardwalk Empire, but the actress was tight lipped about what fans of the show can expect. “We’re sort of past the halfway point, so we will see. But she’s still alive, she’s alive, she’s alive,” she concludes laughingly.

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.

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