Kelly Macdonald talks to Salon about stepping into a starring role with "Puzzle"

"Trainspotting" made her a '90s icon. The Scottish actress sits down with Salon, over a puzzle, to talk "Puzzle"

Published August 1, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Kelly Macdonald in "Puzzle" (Sony Pictures Classics)
Kelly Macdonald in "Puzzle" (Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s been 22 years since actress Kelly Macdonald lightened our hearts with her presence in the groundbreaking, boys-will-be-boys romp, “Trainspotting." After all that time, she is now finally the sole center of a feature film, “Puzzle,” which is now in theaters. Not that she hasn’t had a host of great, supporting roles, from an unforgettable turn in "No Country for Old Men" to her recurring role in "Boardwalk Empire." But now, an entire story hangs on her.

It’s been worth the wait. In “Puzzle,” the Scottish actress plays a meek, suburban housewife who finds a ticket in her new-found gift: puzzle-making. She rides her new hobby into a new world of possibilities in director Marc Turtletaub’s quiet, indie drama. As unshowy as Macdonald’s performance is, it is subtle, nuanced and revelatory.

Macdonald sat down in Salon's studio recently to do a puzzle (actually, no two pieces were connected but many did get flipped over), discuss why there aren’t enough Scottish actresses stateside, and talk about her role in “Puzzle.”

Our transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Watch the full interview with Kelly Macdonald

The "Trainspotting" icon steps into a starring role

Let's talk about how this film came to you, and what it means to you. It is directed by Marc Turtletaub. How did you get the script?

Well, like every job for me, my agent phoned and said, “there's this movie” and she explained very vaguely what it was about, and it didn't sound that enticing.


Well, because it's called "Puzzle," and she said, “it's about this woman who's quite unhappy, then she finds she's really good at puzzles,” and I kind of started checking it at that point and I read the script, and it blew me away. It was so not about puzzles, and this woman Agnes, within the first few pages, she felt very familiar. She felt like a version of characters that I've played before, but there's just more depth than anyone else I feel, and these hidden depths, it's her struggle to sort of release them.

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The fact that her name was pretty much on every single page of the script, I'm sure, is unusual for you.

Yeah, but I didn't think about that. It's funny, because I've been doing press for the film for a while now, and it's only since I started doing press that people are saying "you're the lead." People keep saying that to me, and I hadn’t… I knew I was number one in the call sheet, but didn't sort of think about it more than “oh, I'm number one.”

I just felt I was part of a really great ensemble. I've been really fortunate in that regard since "Trainspotting." So yeah, it's been a while since I've been the lead.

You have a male director directing a very female focused film. Did you find yourself changing the character at all?

No, but interestingly, every day I was surrounded by men, because male director, and my co-stars, the majority were men. There was… and my sister in law.

Two sons.

Yeah and my son's girlfriend in it, but they weren't in so much. But yeah, I suppose that might have… I mean, it's like writing an essay, when something just kind of making things up, like I could say, “that really did help in a way”, because I felt like the lonely female on set, but at the time I just was enjoying myself with all.

We can't get any torrid tales of what happened on the set? No, nothing?

Torrid tales, no. I mean, there was a lot of puzzling on the set —

There was?

And that is the absolute truth. Between setups, it was always a puzzle in the goal because I realized that I really love them.

All right, that's actually a good segue to a surprise.

I brought a puzzle.

Oh, and it's one I haven't done.

For real?


I don't know, is it possible to have a conversation while we're doing a puzzle?



Yeah, yeah, yeah.

It makes me nervous, actually. 

It doesn't give you PTSD to look at this?

No, it really doesn't. It's funny, because I did puzzles in my 20s a little bit.

You did. This is what they do in the movie, actually, and I really thought it was cool how they put it out. There's a whole system. But you did it in your 20s?

Well, they liked the clattering, the noise. It was all for the sound. I did them in my 20s when I was between jobs, which was most of my 20s, like I kind of worked. I did maybe one film a year.

While Leo DiCaprio is doing Nintendo, and playing those games, and doing the other things he's doing, you're doing puzzles.

I was like an old lady. He was like a wee boy, and I was doing old lady stuff.


You know the first thing you do is you have to turn them all over, and you're not helping at all.

No, I'm not, because I can't do more than one thing at once. They are more thing at once.

You just proved it.

The sort of fan base for this film, I mean, you've been at Sundance and you’ve shown it a little bit. I think you just came up from DC. Are you getting a sense that there's a puzzle contingent –

Contingent that needs a voice. I can be a voice for them, yeah. There's a lot of puzzlers coming out of the woodwork.

For real?

For real.

Sometimes it's not clear if you're being truthful . . .

No, I'm being absolutely truthful. I don't think people are embarrassed about doing puzzles, but it doesn't come up that often, and then it's surprising doing this film. If I've spoken to anyone since, I will say, “I did this film” and I tell them what it's about, and people say, “I love puzzles.” And there's quite famous puzzlers. I saw an Instagram thing of, you know Megan Mullally?

I don't.

"Will and Grace." She was the secretary —

Oh, right, yup.

And her husband who's an actor [Nick Offerman]. They do puzzles, and they Instagram photographs of them, and I think they're quite cool. Are you getting this? If you find any edges put them to the side.

So, you go to the edges?

So, you do two jobs at once. You turn them over, and –

And then you look for edges. But in the film, they talk about color. They always talk about going for color.

Yeah, I'm not like really –

You're not into that.


I did a little research, and I was thinking, what are the other great Scottish actresses out there? We know some actors, Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor, those guys, but we don't know that many Scottish actresses other than you. What's going on?

Oh, do you not know Kate Dickey.

I know who she is, yes. She's great.

Shirley Henderson.

Shirley Henderson, yes. Thank you.

And does Tilda Swinton count as Scottish or not really?

I have a problem with people that are Scottish but don't sound it. I get very, very confused.

People who don't sound it?

Yeah, I don't understand. But yeah, she's based in Scotland.

I think her parents are kind of Scottish, but she grew up in England.

She's posh Scottish. Posh Scottish people are really English.

I see. And you are working class?

I am not posh.

You are not posh.


But what's the deal, why haven't more Scottish actresses hit the scene in America?

Well, I think it's that thing. If I just did Scottish things I would be more of a theatre actress, I think, and you have to do accents, I think, and I like doing accents, and I've always messed around with my voice since I was little. There's an edge right there.

I got an edge here, green one.

I think that's helpful. But I don't know. Scotland's not massive, is the other thing.

But come on.

There's a decent amount of Scottish.

Did you ever move to LA and try to do the Hollywood thing?

No, I've always been fascinated by interviews I've read of actors, British actors and actresses saying after this job I'm going to go to Hollywood and it’s like what is that? What do you do when you get there?

Because they want to make it big, because they want to get all the plum roles.

Yeah, I've never done that thing though. I mean, I did my first American film, I was based in Los Angeles. It was filmed in Los Angeles, and I was staying in downtown Bonnie Burbank, and then I thought that was Hollywood, and it was really disappointing, no offense to anyone from Burbank. But yeah, it was not what I imagined.

What was the film?

It was a film called “Splendor.” Yeah, a Gregg Araki film.

Oh yeah, Gregg Araki. Speaking of some of your films, let's talk about a few of them. My brain immediately jumps to "Trainspotting Two." What was that about?

What do you mean?

I mean, it's obvious why they did it. The guys wanted to get together. How did it come to you, and what was your reaction? Was it like, this was not necessary? Why are you doing this? Or cool, let's get the gang back together again?

Yeah, no, I mean they'd been talking about T2 forever, and I think from what I read in the press when Danny [Boyle, the director] would talk about it, everybody just was aging very slowly, and that was a problem, because if he made T2 he wanted it to be they're older, and a bit more beaten up. But you know, Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller, and hilariously the last time Ryan, everybody was really young, and going out all the time, and having fun, and doing what you're meant to do when you're young, and this time they were going out running together, and being super fit, and not smoking.

But yeah, my part in it was very small, and I was sort of approached when they were all ready, they were about to start filming, and then Danny came over.

And you play, she who becomes a lawyer. 

Yeah, I had a few scenes in it. They were actually cut down for the film, but I actually get them out of a bit of legal trouble, and she kind of is just taking the piss out of him while he's sitting there, so it's quite fun. Although, I had too much dialog.

Too much dialog?

I couldn't really relax that much, because –

The scenes.

Well, when you play a lawyer, or a doctor . . . I could learn pages of emotional discourse between me and another character, or a few characters, but when it's like chunks of legal jargon, like it’s the thing at skill on my report card, a teacher wrote Kelly only makes an effort with the things she's interested in or something like that.

A for effort, that's what we used to say.

Yeah, but I didn't always get A for effort.

I mean, not even that. What about cops, are you good at doing cops?

I love being a cop. I love being a —

This is a segue to your future role. You're going to be a cop, right?

Yeah. I also just played a police officer in "Black Mirror."

Oh, I love that, yeah, that's fantastic.

And I loved her, because she was just really moody. I swore a lot.

Yeah, so you're going to be playing this police officer in a film that's coming up, that's shooting now.

Yeah, it's a TV series for Netflix and the BBC, a co-production. And I'm going to be playing a bit of a mess of a police officer –

A mess.

Well, she’s not very popular. That word –

I'm translating some of this. I hope you don't mind.

Mess. Yeah, she's not very popular with her co-workers, and it's with a director that I've worked with before as well, which I'm excited about too. But yeah.

You were fabulous in that "Black Mirror" episode, a show that many people love in the States. Do you have a "Black Mirror" perspective on the future of the planet?

No. I just am glad I don't live in Charlie Booker's head.

It's dark, yeah.

It's very, very dark, and yeah, I'm glad I was in one of them, but I wouldn't like to be if it was an ongoing thing.

Are you more into a "Wreck-It-Ralph" world? You're in the "Wreck-It-Ralph" sequel, one of the voices in the animated film. It's coming out very soon, right?

Yeah, it's this year, and it's this hilarious little minute in the film . . . the character in it happens upon a room full of all the Disney princesses just hanging out, and then… I mean you watch a Disney film with the Disney princesses, and the story, you just take it for granted. You don't think about it too much, and when they all start saying what their individual problems have been, in their princess life.

It's great.

It's hilarious. They would be locked up and have serious mental issues.

Right, of course, yeah, if you're stuck in a tower with long hair with this awful mother, and all these awful stepmothers.

Held captive by a stepmother. Oh, the stepmothers are terrible.

So, it goes there with the movie. I mean, I love the first movie. It's really smart, and really fun. So, which princess are you?

I'm Merida from "Brave," who's not like other princesses, and that's part of the fun of the scene that we did as well.

The fact that "Puzzle"'s coming out now, let's do a little more focus on that, and that it's a film with a very strong female role, even though she's a really quiet character, that are coming of age.

She's got a quiet strength. I always say.

Just being an actress now living in the #MeToo movement, does that touch you? Do you have to deal with that?

It's touching me in the sense that I've started this hilarious new thing with my friends, where if someone tells you something, and you text #MeToo just in a general. I'm misusing the hashtag.

Me too.


Like "I’m hungry." "#MeToo."


That might get you in trouble –

That’s why I find it funny.

That might get you in trouble on this side of the water, the ocean.

Well, I mean I'm not on Twitter or any of that stuff, that’s why I do it, can I. Yeah and I heard He Too as well. . .

He Too is just as bad as White Lives Matter Too, or whatever it is. That was a response to Black Lives Matter. But yeah, since we're talking about politics, let's talk about politics.

Oh no, can we not talk about politics?

Are you not into what's happening across the country, the fact that our President goes to Scotland and hits the links?

Actually, I did a morning television program this morning, in Washington D.C., and I was standing waiting to do my segment, and then suddenly there was this big voice, and I thought a maniac had walked into the studio, and I was kind of looking around, but it was the news item, and they had turned the volume up, and it was your President talking. And it was like oh, it's that maniac. He's not actually in the room.

You didn't want to go there with the politics, but you're not into this certain state of things, or how our President is?

Are you?

I am interested. I’m disturbed.

Well, like we were talking about this the other day, it’s sort of the positive thing is it's got people talking about politics, in a way that if you had to sort of say something good that's happened.

Right. People are talking about it. And also, I do think it creates a space, actually, for a film like "Puzzle," because people want to get away from the disturbing awfulness. The fact that are —

It's what movies are for. I mean not always. You want to be entertained, but a film like our film, people are very moved, and I am often in the mood for watching a film that's going to move me, because sometimes you feel like you need to be given permission to have a little weep, and I think it's just been lovely. We've been doing lots of screenings, and Q&As, and people are responding in a way that's sort of a bit overwhelming. It's nice.

I mean, are you sitting in screenings and hearing peers?

Well, I mean we're doing Q&As afterwards, and then I'm talking to people afterwards.

And people are identifying with the character?

Very much so. Men and women, and also people are, I think, delighted that it's not a film about puzzle competition. I think it's a bit of a relief to watch a film that sort of is surprising at many points, I think. Certainly, when I was reading the script, you think it's going to take you one way. You think it's going to be about a puzzle competition, and it's not. Then you think oh, it's about her falling in love, and it's not either about that. It's just quieter, and realer, and then…yeah.

And your director, Marc Turtletaub, how does he direct? What's his style?

Well, he didn't want to rehearse, and we didn't even have a read through, which is highly unusual if you've got all the actors available for a week before we start shooting. We didn't have a read through, and at the time I was… I sort of thought that’s sort of odd, but okay and I get it, he just wanted to sort of keep it fresher. I mean, we did discuss the characters, and we changed slight things, and really what I feel anyway about a rehearsal period is 90 percent of it is just getting to know the people. You have to establish quite quick friendships with people, so it's just about hanging out, and spending time together.

So, you're with the movie now as it open tomorrow in theatres in LA and New York.

Yup, bi-coastal.

Bi-coastal, that's what they're telling you to say. And what does that mean for the next few weeks, months of your life? Are you just traveling around, or when do you start shooting your next movie? Are you going back home to Glasgow? What's your take?

My itinerary. I'll print it out for you.

Would you?

I think that'd be easier. I've been sort of doing a bit of a little U.S. tour. We did LA, and a few screenings there, and then San Francisco, and we've done DC and New York. And so, I'm going home, and I'm going to start my "Giri/Haji" project, which is the one you were talking about earlier.

Right, where you're going to play a police officer?


"Giri/Haji," and it's about Japanese underworld and crime, and it all kicks off in Tokyo, and the story sort of finds its way to London.

Does your character kill anyone?

Not so far.


By Tom Roston

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