Kelly Macdonald: Strong Woman On The 'Boardwalk' The Scottish actress plays Margaret Thompson, a young Irish widow who marries a corrupt politician on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. Macdonald, who got her start in Trainspotting, tells Fresh Air that she enjoys playing a "strong character" for a change.
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Kelly Macdonald: Strong Woman On The 'Boardwalk'

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Kelly Macdonald: Strong Woman On The 'Boardwalk'

Kelly Macdonald: Strong Woman On The 'Boardwalk'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" premiered its third season Sunday. Our guest, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, plays Margaret, a young Irish immigrant mother of two who becomes involved with Steve Buscemi's character, Nucky Thompson, a bootlegging gangster and corrupt politician in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. They married last season and when the season ended, she was defying him. Her defiance continues into this season.

Here's a scene from the next episode in which she's talking with her maid.


KELLY MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Prudence?

UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Yes, ma'am?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Mr. Thompson has a morning suit, the striped trousers and cutaway jacket. Do you know where it is?

UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) No. But I'm sure I can find it.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Check that it's sound and have it cleaned. He's going to need it when he meets the bishop.

UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Oh, did you not get the message, ma'am?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) What message?

UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Mr. Thompson. He left word that he won't be attending the ceremony.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Clean the suit anyway. I'm afraid he's mistaken.

GROSS: Kelly Macdonald got a role in the Danny Boyle film "Trainspotting" at the age of 19 with virtually no acting experience and launched a successful career in television and movies. She's appeared in the films "Gosford Park," "The Girl in the Cafe," and "No Country for Old Men," as well as the hit British TV miniseries "State of Play," and this summer's Pixar animated film "Brave."

She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. They began with a scene from the first episode of "Boardwalk Empire"'s first season. Macdonald's character Margaret was then married to an alcoholic. She's heard Nucky Thompson give a speech about temperance and she's meeting with him to seek help for struggling family.


STEVE BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Does your husband work?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) He's a baker's helper. But till tourist season and with winter and the children without boots, I - your story moved me so. If you could see your way to give them a job, sir.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) As you say, until tourist season. However, this should see you through winter.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I'm not here looking for charity.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I insist.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I don't know what to say, how to thank you. I'd be honored to name my child after you.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Enoch? You couldn't possibly be so cruel.


Well, Kelly Macdonald, welcome to FRESH AIR. This, of course, is a scene from the first episode of "Boardwalk Empire," in which you play a young woman, an immigrant from Ireland, and the heart of the story, really, is your character, Margaret Schroeder's relationship with the - Nucky Thompson, the corrupt politician who rules Atlantic City, played by Steve Buscemi. And it's interesting - as this relationship develops, I mean we don't see a lot of on-screen passion.

I mean there's a difference in ages, right? And they're sort of a reserve, a kind of a formality in their interactions, which I imagine might be kind of hard to get emotionally right.

MACDONALD: It's a tricky relationship to sort of nail down, really. I think it's not a great romantic love that they've got but they've definitely, you know, they bring something to each other's lives, and it's like a gentleman's agreement almost. That doesn't sound very romantic at all. But, you know, they're good for each other and, you know, they respect each other and enjoy each other's company. Well, that's certainly what it was like in the first season.


MACDONALD: But that's the amazing thing about it, you know, it changes all the time so you kind of, it keeps you on your toes. The characters are constantly evolving, you know, the way that we do in real life, so you can't be sort of tied down to your idea of the character because I'm always surprised by things Margaret comes out with.

DAVIES: I wanted to hear another clip. And this is from late in the second season when your relationship has evolved quite a bit and Nucky Thompson - again, this corrupt Atlantic City politician, who your character, Mrs. Schroeder, has moved in with, is in trouble. His political and mob allies have turned on him. He's under investigation for many crimes - including murder - and your character's daughter has contracted polio. And your character, Margaret Schroeder, is at heart a religious person and believes that God is punishing her for the evil in her life. And she's been subpoenaed, perhaps to testify against Nucky Thompson in his case. And you and Steve Buscemi, the Nucky character, are talking about that. Let's listen.


MACDONALD: (as Margaret) We began in sin.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I do not want to hear about...

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) We began in sin. We'll end in it unless we change.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) The beginning's over. The end hasn't come yet. All I care about is now.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Then look what's happening now.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) What's happening now is you talking rubbish.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You're wrong. I've never been so sure of anything in my life.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Emily was stricken with a disease.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) And I am culpable.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) How?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I've stolen and cheated and deceived and now I'm being punished for those sins, as are the ones I love.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Who did you steal from?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) My family. My employer. You.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Who did you deceive?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Anyone who thinks I'm good.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) And who have you cheated on? Say it.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I have - I live with the man who had the father of my children murdered.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Really? When did I do that?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You said...

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) That he deserved it. And whatever you think I did...

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You're lying to me and to yourself.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Whatever misguided martyrdom you're contemplating while I'm...

DAVIES: (as Margaret) I can go on pretending.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) ...breaking my back providing.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I'm not being called to account.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Are you actually talking about testifying? Have you lost your mind?

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Let go of me.

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I will not. You listen. If you want to punish yourself because your daughter got sick, that's your business, but I will not permit you to sacrifice me.

MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Won't permit?

BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) And if you don't think I'm as good as my word, you don't know me at all.

DAVIES: And that's Steve Buscemi and our guest Kelly Macdonald from last season of "Boardwalk Empire." The new season premieres September 16th. This is quite a transition from where your character began. How much notice do you get of where your character is going as you do the series?

MACDONALD: Little to none. I mean, really.

I'm kind of fine with it. The first year was the trickiest. I kind of struggled a little bit like, you know, how quickly she seemed to recover from losing the baby. She had a plan from that moment. She was like, OK, this man can help me out of the situation. And in my head I was thinking, no, she would just take to her bed and be sobbing for weeks and not, you know - but it's, there's a lot of hidden strength and I think as the show is going on they're bringing it out more and more. And I'm really enjoying it because I get cast in certain films and I don't generally get to play the stronger characters. I get very lovely parts but they're quite quiet and thoughtful and watchful and that's all well and good but I kind of have been enjoying getting my teeth into something else.

DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I really like about the series is the period that it's set in. It's set in, you know, the early Prohibition era in Atlantic City and there's just this enormous attention to period detail. I mean I'm told that a lot of the clothes are actually vintage clothes, I mean not reproductions. And I wonder if, you know, being in that kind of world where there's all this attention paid to detail makes for a different kind of acting experience.

MACDONALD: I think it really does. I mean I don't do a huge amount of research and work before I actually arrive on set for jobs, generally, unless I have to learn how to do something, you know, like horse ride or, you know, something strange that I'm not familiar with. But I really find it helpful wearing the costumes and being in the surroundings. I had a small role in "Harry Potter" a few years ago and that was all green screen. And so, you know, I was in costume but it was in a big warehouse and I was on my own pretending to talk to Harry Potter and that's quite tricky. But - so it's definitely easier when you're in the right surroundings.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies just recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson, as Nucky Thompson's wife on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

DAVIES: You have an interesting history as an actor. I mean your first roll was "Trainspotting," the film made by Danny Boyle, who directed "Slumdog Millionaire" and a lot of other great films. How did you get that role?

MACDONALD: I went to an open casting, which is sort of unlikely where I'm from - it was in Glasgow - and they were going to be shooting the film mainly in Glasgow, even though it's an Edinburgh-set story. They handed out flyers around Glasgow and Edinburgh. They were looking for an unknown to play the part of Diane.

DAVIES: Had you done any acting at all?

MACDONALD: I had not, you know, no - I mean I had, I was in an amateur dramatics kind of class for a few weeks and but I don't think that really counts.

DAVIES: What was the audition like?

MACDONALD: It was kind of a casting call where I think they were first of all looking for a face, and so I went along to - I think it was Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and I was in a big hall full of all of these other girls of the same sort of age, and we just were called forward one by one to sit in front of the director and his casting director. And then the second time I got called back, I read with Ewan McGregor and I hid behind - I actually, he says this, I don't remember, it was just like I was in a blind panic. But he said that I held the script in front of my face the whole time. He had no idea what I looked like.


MACDONALD: And then the third callback was the screen test and at that point I had been told to learn the scenes and we had to be up and moving around. And so that was the more challenging audition of all. The most challenging, rather.

DAVIES: Did you practice in your apartment beforehand? I mean how did you...

MACDONALD: All I could think of was sitting in the front garden with my mom, learning the scene. And then so my mom was reading the Renton part and being really annoying, because she was really super-acting and I had to keep stopping and saying, just read it, just read the words.


MACDONALD: And she was - and weirdly, I got the same, you know, direction from Danny Boyle at my screen test. For some reason at the screen test I decided I was going to do - this was it. I was going to do super-acting, kind of like my mom. And as soon as I started doing it it was all wrong. And Danny stopped me and said, you know, just, you know, John Hodge has written a very good script and the words are all there and you don't have to put gaps in. Just read it. Just, you know, just say the words. And that's advice that I've kept with me.

DAVIES: Let's listen to a scene from the film here. This is, you played Diane who is a very young and precocious teenager who is very much at home in the nightclub scene. And in this moment she's just come out of a club and one of the film's stars, Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, has followed you outside the club and introduces himself and makes a play. Let's listen.


DAVIES: And that's our guest, Kelly Macdonald, and Ewan McGregor in Kelly's first film role, in "Trainspotting."

Was it hard to pull this off? I mean do you think your inexperience as an actress help you relax and just do it?

MACDONALD: I don't remember being very relaxed. It was a really fun shoot. It was really, you know, all these amazing young British actors just being very charismatic and fun. And I don't think I spoke very much. I was very, very shy and I kind of hid in the toilets most of the time when we weren't, you know, required on set. But it's just...

DAVIES: Really?

MACDONALD: Yeah. I mean I was - yeah. The A.D.'s would come and find me in the toilets.


DAVIES: You were just hiding?

MACDONALD: Yeah. Like, I kind of was like that at school as well. I don't know if that - that's a kind of a strange thing, but, yeah, I kind of would dilly-dally around the toilets until I was needed.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, because you said you do play a lot of roles in which you're quiet and sometimes deferential, but the character here is anything but. I mean, she is - she's got a lot of brass.


MACDONALD: Oh, yeah. And I think that between "Trainspotting" and the next time I played a ballsy character, it was quite a huge...


MACDONALD: of time, which is good, because I wasn't typecast any way.


DAVIES: Well, you just go in, and then you do it and it works. One other thing about the "Trainspotting" role, I mean, there's some pretty explicit nudity in that performance. Did that make you uncomfortable at all?

MACDONALD: Oh, yeah.


MACDONALD: I was in denial, head in the sand about that day's work, so much so that I (technical difficulties) spoken to me from the very beginning. Danny Boyle had said, you know, there is this scene, and it's necessary, the nudity, and explained why. And I just, you know, would nod my head and agree and go along with it, and I kind of - I thought, well, that will never happen. We'll never get to that day.


MACDONALD: And then - and we did, and it happened to be the day that I had invited my family to come and visit the set, which is just completely unthinking and...

DAVIES: Oh, my heavens.

MACDONALD: ...shows how young and daft I was. So my mum and brother had to just sit in the catering bus the whole day, and they didn't get to see any. Well, luckily, they didn't get to see me working that day. They saw it in the end, though.

DAVIES: And how did they react?

MACDONALD: My mum's amazing. She, you know, I think now that I'm a mother, I think I would feel very differently. But she was completely positive and behind it. I think my brother got a bit embarrassed, but I think that's completely normal.

DAVIES: Would you feel differently about taking on a scene like that now?

MACDONALD: Oh, yeah. Nudity's out. It's out. You won't even get me in a bikini on set, frankly. Yeah. I was 19. It was a different body, a different life.

DAVIES: We have to talk about the Coen brothers film "No Country for Old Men," where you play the wife of a west Texas welder, who's played by Josh Brolin. You're Carla Jean Moss, and for folks who haven't seen it, I mean, your husband finds this satchel full of drug money, ends up being pursued by a psychopathic killer who's played by Javier Bardem.

The scene we're going to hear is one late in the film, where this killer Javier Bardem plays, Anton Chigurh, has already killed your husband, but before, he had warned him that if he didn't hand over the drug money, that he would kill you. It's late in the film. Your husband is now dead. You come home to your house, and you find this killer played by Javier Bardem waiting for you. Let's listen.


DAVIES: And that really is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald there...


DAVIES: ...with one of the scariest people ever in a movie, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh.

MACDONALD: Oh, I know.

DAVIES: Was he scary to be in a room with?

MACDONALD: Oh, not in any way, out of character. Javier is the most fun person on a set, I think. And I remember that day, as well, because it was a very intense, important scene, and I just remember lots of laughter. But as soon as he put on his Anton hat, or whatever you want to call it, he was pretty terrifying. I think it was the haircut, actually. He put on his Anton hair.

DAVIES: Right. It was that weird, kind of, long hair. Right. Right.

MACDONALD: Bowl cut. Yeah.

DAVIES: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. You know, we hear you doing a West Texas accent here, and I will tell you, I grew up in Texas, and I have a lot of folks still in that part of the country.


DAVIES: And you really nail this. Is this something you had to work hard on?

MACDONALD: I do work - although I was saying I don't have a method or I don't, you know, I don't do a huge amount of preparation before I land on set, I do - if there's an accent involved, I do work quite hard. And some accents come easier than others. And for some reason that one, I mean, I pretty much got that one overnight, because I had very short notice for the audition. And so I phoned a friend and got her to help me. And then, yeah, it kind of clicked in for me quite quickly.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies just recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson, Nucky Thompson's wife, on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about "Brave." This is the new Pixar animated film, which is the first female protagonist of their films, and that is you as a Scottish princess whose mother wants her to wear dresses and submit to an arranged marriage. But she is, in fact, a young, fiercely independent kid who wants to ride horses at breakneck speed and shoot arrows.

And we're going to hear a scene here. This is where your father - you as the princess - your father, who is the king, played by Billy Connolly, is telling his sons one of his favorite stories about a battle he had with a ferocious bear, and then your character, Merida, interrupts. Let's listen.


DAVIES: That's our guest, Kelly Macdonald, playing Merida in the movie "Brave." Also in that scene, Billy Connolly, and at the end, Emma Thompson. You know, a lot of your performances are sort of quietly powerful. Nothing subtle about the kid you play here. I mean...



DAVIES: ...was it a challenge to put all of this into your voice?

MACDONALD: Oh, my goodness, yes. It really, really was. Doing an animation, you just - everything's huge. You have to - everything - like, even listening to that clip, you hear all the footsteps and, you know, you hear so many more sounds than you can believe. And the voices just have to be, you know, you have to multiply everything by a hundred. And that was - that just goes against everything that I know. And so I had to really - it was a real challenge. But I loved it. I really, really loved it.

DAVIES: And, of course, in the finished product, it's not your face. It's someone who's completely different, this young kid with this flaming red hair.


DAVIES: Is it kind of an out-of-body experience to see it and hear your voice?

MACDONALD: It's an odd experience, because when I first saw it - I saw it a few times, but the very first time, I kept thinking, wow. She looks like my son. She really looks like my son. And, you know, when you're doing an animation for Pixar, they film the actors at work so, you know, they'll film you at the microphone doing your thing.

And then the animators will use that footage, you know, as a tool, you know, because everybody's mouths move in different ways when they say different words and, you know, they would use certain expressions that we all had. And so they had been doing that. And when I'm looking at it, I see my son, but actually, it's me.



MACDONALD: Because, you know, he makes - my husband says that, you know, because he's - my son's blond and blue-eyed and doesn't look very much like me, but my husband always says he's got, you know, his father's face, but his mother's using it...


MACDONALD: ...which is very true. He's got a very elastic face. He's always pulling.

DAVIES: You grew up in Glasgow, and you've moved to London. Is that right?

MACDONALD: I lived in London for years, but we now - we sort of jump between Glasgow and New York.

DAVIES: Have you gotten used to celebrity, to having fans who adore you?

MACDONALD: I don't know if it's celebrity. I do get - you know, people shout Mrs. Schroeder at me in the street. But I don't get it anywhere near as, you know, Steve is definitely Nucky, you know, everywhere he goes. But I think I managed to fly under the radar a little bit, which suits me fine.

DAVIES: Well, Kelly Macdonald, it's been great. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

MACDONALD: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Kelly Macdonald spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She plays Margaret Thompson on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Episode two of season three is coming up Sunday.

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