At 9 p.m. on a Sunday in early May of last year, about one-quarter of the population of our terrified, contentious, and divided island huddled down to watch the sixth season finale of the BBC police procedural Line of Duty. Since contemporary records started approximately 20 years ago, it was the greatest television viewership for a drama in the United Kingdom.
It was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people of all genders, ages, and demographics to come together in a way that generally only happens during football championships or the Olympics. One that was amplified by the dreadful, housebound year we’d all recently through. The most of the time, though, it was simply fizzy, nerve-wracking television.
The lady at the center of it all, DCI Joanne Davidson, better known as Kelly Macdonald, a 45-year-old Scottish actress, was not among the 16 million viewers. We’d been trying to find out how awful she was for the previous six episodes – if she was a “bent” copper, in the vernacular of the AC-12, Line of Duty’s tenacious anti-corruption team.
Even though many of us hadn’t seen a water cooler, much alone a colleague, in 15 months, the conclusion was a real water-cooler moment.
So Macdonald didn’t watch it at all? “Nooo,” she says, her face contorted with horror at the thought. What’s to stop you?
“I’m not going to go out of my way to watch something if I don’t watch it at the time, say at a premiere.” I’ve got a lot on my plate.
“There’s always a need to unload the dishwasher.”
Macdonald is no stranger to large-scale projects. She made her film debut alongside Ewan McGregor in the 1996 instant classic Trainspotting, and has since worked with filmmakers such as Robert Altman in Gosford Park, Martin Scorsese in the TV series Boardwalk Empire for five years, and the Coen brothers in No Country for Old Men.
Her most recent film, Operation Mincemeat, is a feature drama about a secret WWII project in which she co-stars alongside Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen.
Still, Macdonald was caught aback when he was cast as the “guest” star on Line of Duty, a job previously held by Keeley Hawes and Thandiwe Newton. When we meet at a hotel in central London, she adds, “Oh my God, it was all a bit much for me.”
“It’s just something that everyone is interested in.” And everyone has a point of view. Everyone appeared to be looking at it.
When it comes to things I’ve done, I’m accustomed to flying under the radar. It was also a jolt to the system since it was a peculiar moment with Covid.
She says, “I was warned by people I worked with.” “They were like, ‘Are you ready for this?'” says the narrator.
And I thought I was, but it turned out to be more than I had anticipated. “I tell you what, I was very grateful for wearing a mask when I was out.”
In Line of Duty, Macdonald was outstanding, alternating between harsh and sympathetic, never an easy read and constantly hinting at guilt and misinterpreted naivete. DCI Davidson was subjected to a grueling, continuous 30-minute questioning with the AC-12 trio of Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar), and Anna Maxwell Martin’s DCS Carmichael in the series’ last episode.
In televisual terms, the sequence lasted an eternity, but the reward, as the pressure became more intense, making it one of the most memorable moments in Line of Duty mythology.
It was a fulfilling moment for Macdonald, who spent two days recording the scene: confirmation, 25 years after her exciting entrance in Trainspotting, of what she’s capable of as an actress. “I got to do what I was cast to do,” she recalls, “so it was a good day at the office.”
“I spent a lot of time preparing for it because it was the scene that everyone kept talking about nonstop while we were filming.” I was there for a reason.
And I was well aware that I was doing it. And it’s probably one of the most dramatic and emotional moments I’ve ever had to perform…”
Macdonald comes to a halt when she gets dangerously close to discussing pompous acting (which she hates). “When you talk about this stuff, you just sound like a jerk.” “However, you inquired!”
“I used to think my prep was just to stress myself out and lose sleep and think I couldn’t do it,” Macdonald says, encouragingly. Then, perhaps, I’ll be proven incorrect.
Oh, how tiresome and meaningless it is. But that’s merely the result of becoming older.
I know it’s in me to do it, and I’ve been doing it for a long time, and I know I should just let it happen instead of trying to second-guess it, because you can’t.” Macdonald lets forth a wailing shriek of pain. “You’re so wanky!”
So, in a nutshell, Macdonald doesn’t sweat as much as she used to? “I definitely sweat less,” she admits.
“However, I’m possibly perimenopausal, so I’m definitely sweating more.” “But metaphorically, I sweat less,” Macdonald exclaims, laughing.
Unless you include repeatedly rewatching Doris Day in the 1953 musical Calamity Jane as a youngster and then playing it out, Macdonald never trained as an actress. “I would try to enlist the help of friends,” she adds, “but no one knew it as well as I did.” “As a result, it was quite difficult.”
Macdonald was born on Glasgow’s Southside and moved to a council estate on the outskirts of the city with her mother Patsy and younger brother after her parents divorced when she was nine years old. At the age of 19, she had dropped out of school and was working in a nightclub when she was given a poster for an open-call audition for “the new Patricia Arquette.”
Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s book about a bunch of heroin-addicted Edinburgh miscreants, Trainspotting, was the film. Thousands of people auditioned for Diane, a spunky schoolgirl, and Macdonald got it to the final two.
“After my final audition, I remember getting on the bus,” Macdonald recounts. “It was a screen test, and I left their makeshift studio on Alexandra Parade [in Glasgow], and I sat up on the top deck while waiting for the bus.”
And I had a feeling it was only myself and one other person. And I had a feeling I’d figured it out. ‘This is the beginning of my life,’ I got a sensation. It was a fork in the path that was obvious.”
Macdonald takes a breath, grips her tummy, and apologizes to my Dictaphone. “I’m sorry, I’m really rumbling,” she adds.
“I hope you’re not picking that up.” “For breakfast, I had a very disappointing croissant.”
Macdonald is hilarious and winningly self-deprecating today, dressed in a Bella Freud “1970” sweater with matching red lipstick. She squirms when I refer to her as a “film star.”
She explains, “I just don’t think of myself as a movie star.” “I was a little nervous about checking into this hotel, so I didn’t.”
They were all extremely kind and introduced themselves to me, and I thought to myself, “Oh God, they think Tom Cruise is here.” That’s not who I am.
I’m OK, for example. I can go to the railway station on my own; I’m OK.”
I imagine Tom Cruise would insist on no one else staying at the hotel. “I haven’t seen anyone else,” Macdonald continues, a smile on his face.
“It’s been unusually quiet.” ‘Kelly may remain here,’ Tom Cruise would say. ‘But there’s no one else!’
Whatever she says, Macdonald is a cinematic star, and her latest film Operation Mincemeat demonstrates again how clever and understated she is as a performer. The film is based on a fictional actual tale about a clandestine MI5 squad tasked by Winston Churchill in 1943 with persuading the Germans that the Allies planned to attack Greece rather than Italy.
Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen), two “corkscrew thinkers,” were at the helm, devising an elaborate ploy to pass off an already dead homeless man as a British officer traveling with secret papers when his aircraft crashed. Jean Leslie, played by Macdonald, is a sharp, cunning MI5 secretary who worked closely with the guys, including developing a comprehensive biography for the officer and providing a personal picture that was put on the corpse as a hint of the love he’d left behind.
Operation Mincemeat was a pivotal moment in WWII, and it is today recognized as one of the most brilliant and bizarre military ruses ever devised. “It’s insane,” Macdonald says.
“I believe that if it were an original idea, the screenwriter would face numerous objections from producers and others who would say, ‘Oh, this isn’t believable.'” This isn’t going to sell.’ “You couldn’t make it up,” says the narrator.
The genuine Mincemeat crew got close, notably Macdonald’s Jean and Firth’s Ewen. This is a romance and intrigue narrative set during WWII, rather than mud-caked battles and rations.
Henri Matisse and Edwin Lutyens created the décor of the Gargoyle club in Soho, where they spent their nights dancing. “Jean isn’t just the office woman,” Macdonald explains.
“She’s going through what a lot of women went through during the war.” To be blunt, it was a pretty sad moment, yet there was also this gripping of life by the nuts. “It’s all about living it while you’ve got it.”
Operation Mincemeat is described by Macdonald as a “big, shiny job.” What does it imply?
“The catering shifts,” she explains. “Instead of vans, you get slightly nicer cars to drive you to work.” There was also enough money to pay for Macdonald’s dancing lessons.
“Learning that stuff with a real dancer was amazing fun,” she recalls. “I love it, so the more I can do it, the better.” “Not strictly,” says the narrator.
So Macdonald has ruled herself out of appearing on the program in the future? “I’m not sure why I even brought it up; don’t bring it up!” she responds “I said it as if I were promoting myself as a dancer.” “I’m not at all!”
“I move furniture,” Macdonald says of her hobbies outside of work. She recently relocated to Glasgow with her two boys, Freddie, 13, and Theodore, 9, whom she shares custody with her ex-partner of 14 years, Dougie Payne, Travis’ bassist.
I ask Macdonald to explain what he means by “move furniture.” She says, “I don’t move other people’s furniture.”
“It’s not like I’m working at Macdonald’s Movers as a side gig.” No, I’m too clumsy with my furnishings.
It’s starting to become an issue. And the kids don’t even notice; they come in and say, ‘Oh, it was over there.'”
Sighing, Macdonald thinks that it’s simply the time of life she’s in. She adds, “I’ve started growing my own flowers.”
“I’m working in the garden.” It’s all coming together.”
The work is still coming in. Macdonald’s just completed a road movie with Gina McKee, Typist Artist Pirate King, directed by Carol Morley.
She’s also having a great time starring in the English-language version of the smash blockbuster French comedy Call My Agent! She portrays a character that isn’t dissimilar to Cécile de France in the original, who gets turned down for a part in a new Quentin Tarantino picture due to her age.
“When my agent was informing me about the role I was going to play, I had a really Call My Agent!” moment,” she explains. “And she couldn’t say anything, and I realized it was similar to the Cécile de France storyline, but different.”
For someone who never saw herself as an actress and who, even when she got her break, didn’t envision it as a profession, Macdonald has – she admits – done well. She said earlier in our talk that she believes she would have become a journalist if she weren’t doing what she does today.
So, as we near the end of our time together, how would she complete the article? “Right now, my son is working on essays where the last paragraph must begin with ‘in conclusion,'” she explains.
So, what’s the bottom line…? Macdonald eventually determines, “In conclusion, I haven’t concluded yet.” “We’ll see how it goes,” says the narrator.
Thanks to Tim Lewis at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.