Kelly Macdonald: Great expectations
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 06/01/2008
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She was the teenage barmaid with no future, plucked from obscurity to star in 'Trainspotting'. Now Kelly Macdonald is the heroine of a new Coen brothers film, with the world at her feet. She talks to Lucy Cavendish about distant hopes and imminent motherhood
When Kelly Macdonald strides into the restaurant where we are meeting, many heads turn. This is surprising as Macdonald is very small - or 'wee' as she'd say in her Scottish accent - and has in the past been described as 'shy' and 'quiet' and even 'like a rabbit caught in the headlamps'.
She tells me later on that she's never understood why people write about her in that way, and I am too nervous to tell her that I was one of them. I first encountered her years ago when she'd been in Trainspotting (1996).
We met in a similar restaurant and she slid round the tables looking as if she wished the ground would open up and swallow her. Years later I bumped into her again and she was scurrying through Soho as if chased by her shadow.
But today everything has changed. She is smiling, confident and glowing. Is it because she is 25 weeks' pregnant (though you can't really tell as she's artfully disguised her bump under a smoky-grey Missoni smock-top)? Or is it because she has just put in a luminous performance in her latest film? For 31-year-old Kelly Macdonald has landed a starring role in No Country for Old Men, the latest film by the Coen brothers, the fêted directors of Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
No Country for Old Men is a gory, nail-biting affair based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. It is set in the badlands of Texas in a rolling, dusty tract of land on the Mexican border. Getting the part was a bit of a coup for Macdonald. Not only is the life of her character - Carla Jean Moss, an American trailer-park wife - about as far removed from Macdonald's own experience of growing up in Newton Mearns, a suburb of Glasgow, as is possible, but also she has to spend the entire film speaking in a west Texas accent.
'I know. It's incredible, isn't it?' she says. 'I didn't expect to get the part. I was in New York for a friend's wedding and I heard from my American agent that the Coen brothers were casting for a new movie. My agent got hold of the script and I read it and I could just hear and see Carla Jean. I immediately knew her. She's poor but loving and kind, and she has a great relationship with her husband, with a lot of respect there. I was so excited. I asked my agent to see if the casting director would put me on camera with a thought to me playing that part.'
Obviously, the casting director thought she was mad. 'Joel and Ethan [Coen] had already said they'd be casting near home, and I'm just about as far away from that as you can get,' says Macdonald. But her agent bugged and bothered, and eventually the casting director agreed to see Macdonald. Fortunately, she has a friend who is a dialect coach, and she taught Macdonald how to do the accent. 'It's not just a Texas accent but a west Texas one,' emphasises Macdonald. 'Anyway, the casting director told my agent she was blown away by me, so she then sent my tape on to Joel and Ethan.'
Unfortunately, they weren't interested at first, either. 'The battle to see me began again,' says Macdonald rolling her eyes. 'They didn't believe I could do the accent.' But the casting director kept going on and on at them and eventually they looked at the tape and they loved it as well. 'They called me in to meet them,' says Macdonald, 'and I felt very nervous. I have always loved their films and I was desperate to work for them, but I thought they'd say no.' As it turned out, Macdonald says, 'They obviously loved what I did.'
When she went to New Mexico to make the film she found herself alongside the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin and Woody Harrelson. This was serious A-list stuff. How did she cope with it all?
'The first day was nerve-wracking,' she recalls. 'I kept wondering when someone was going to turn around and say, "You're not supposed to be here."' Then again, she says she's always felt that way when it comes to acting. 'After Trainspotting, because I wasn't trained, I was sure I would never act in another film again. Even though I've now done many films, the idea that I've just happened on this career has never really gone away, and so I am always waiting to be found out.'
I tell her that if I had a penny for all the actors who have said the same thing… 'But I don't feel like that now,' she says. 'I do actually see that this is my career. With this film it was different, though, because I was terrified that Tommy [Lee Jones], who is from west Texas, was going to turn around and tell me how bad my accent was. I had heard he could be quite tricky.' And was he? 'No! Absolutely not. He told me I had it down pat and I've done another film with him since.'
So is No Country for Old Men Macdonald's big American breakthrough film? If it is successful, which it is bound to be, will she up sticks and move to the States? 'Absolutely not,' she says. 'For one thing, Joel and Ethan have a great reputation, but they don't make blockbusters - so you can never guarantee that any film [of theirs] will bring you more work. Right at this moment I've had more work in America than in Britain but that could change any day.'
Macdonald was first noticed some 11 years ago when she played Ewan McGregor's schoolgirl love interest in Trainspotting. Her rags-to-riches tale has often been told. She was working in a bar when someone came in with a flier from a production company that was looking for a person to play a schoolgirl. As Macdonald had nothing better to do, she went along and got the part.
'Oh, it wasn't like that,' she says, laughing.
'I'd wanted to go to drama school but I kept giving things up. I went to school and I didn't like that, and then I went to college and I didn't like that, either, so I dropped out. Thank God acting got me before I could go to drama college and leave that as well. I know I would have done. It's what I'm like.'
Since then she's been in independent films such as Stella Does Tricks (1996) and Strictly Sinatra (2001) and, recently, more mainstream fare such as the Robert Altman film Gosford Park (2001), Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story (2005), Nanny McPhee (2005) - which was adapted by and starred Emma Thompson - and the Richard Curtis television drama The Girl in the Café (2005).
It was the last film, a made-for-television special alerting the nation to the goings-on at the G8 summit (in itself a weird concept - Richard Curtis writing a romance set in a grey Euro-gov building in Brussels), that brought her to the attention of the Americans. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance.
But she says there will be no more trips to America at the moment: 'I'm having a baby, so me and Dougie are staying put right here in London.' She is referring to her husband, Dougie Payne, the bass player of the rock band Travis. They met just under a decade ago in a bar and have been together ever since. They married four years ago in Scotland and have always seemed a very content, low-key couple. 'We are very happy,' she says. 'We are very happy about this baby. Dougie and I never really plan anything, but we really wanted to start a family. I was surprised about how strongly we both felt about it. It wasn't a case of, "Oh, yes, maybe I'll get pregnant one day." It was, "Now's the time. Let's get going."
'People keep asking me what I am going to do about work when the baby is born and my answer is I have no idea. I've done a lot of films, but still there are great chunks of time when I am not working. At the moment I'm really enjoying being pregnant. The baby moves all the time and I love that. I'm almost wishing I didn't have to give birth, because I'll miss having the baby inside me.'
She is so obviously thrilled to be pregnant it's touching. Yet with her an actress and Payne a pop star, life could be peripatetic for their offspring. Macdonald's own childhood was one of moving hither and thither, albeit within a pretty small area on the outskirts of Glasgow. Her mother, Patsy, and father, Archie, split when she was nine, and her mother ended up on the register for council houses. 'You know how that is,' she says. 'You have to take what you're offered.'
In the past she has spoken of how difficult life was when she was younger. The family didn't have a lot of money; they had hardly any clothes, and had to put items back on the shelves when they were caught short at the supermarket till. 'My mum did her best,' says Macdonald now.
It was when she met Payne that life slotted into place. It turns out that he also grew up in the same area, which, according to Macdonald, means they 'really know each other. We went on the same bus routes and knew similar people. We had the same experiences of growing up in Scotland, and I think it makes us very close. We don't have to fish around wondering who the other person is, because we sort of are that person.'
She says that when the baby is little she hopes to be able to work and take him or her along. 'Lots of actresses do that,' she says. 'We'll see how it goes.'
The most amazing thing about Macdonald is how she accepts her career is so erratic. Has she ever chased a job? 'I chased Carla Jean!' she says. 'No, I don't, really. I hear of things. I audition. I get some parts and I don't get others. I auditioned for Martin Scorsese for that film that has Nicholas Cage and Patricia Arquette in it [Bringing Out the Dead]. I didn't get that job, obviously.'
She says she hates auditioning and that she also hates doing anything that involves a lot of publicity. 'Dougie and I avoid it,' she says.
'I mean, I keep hearing of people who get sent free clothes. I'm not one of them. All these events are a sartorial nightmare. I also think that once you start doing interviews and cover shoots when you don't have anything to promote you are getting into a world where you end up having no privacy. Dougie and I don't do that. When I go to my antenatal class I am Mrs Payne. No one there knows who I am unless they have young girls. The girls always know me because of Nanny McPhee. They say, "Are you Evangeline [the scullery maid]?" It's very sweet.'
Then she stops and thinks for a bit. 'I had a builder in the other day,' she says, smiling. 'He asked me where I was going and I told him I was off to the premiere of No Country. He said, "You're a film star?" and his mouth just hung open. Well, I went and put on my dress and my make-up and then I came downstairs and he said, "Ah, now you look like a film star." I think that says everything about me, really.'