At 9pm, on a Sunday in early May last year, almost one in four of us on our scared, fractious, divided island hunkered down to watch the finale of the sixth series of the BBC police procedural Line of Duty. It was the largest television audience for a drama in Britain since modern records began almost 20 years ago. It was also a rare moment of mass connection, between genders, ages and demographics, that usually only occurs during football tournaments or the Olympics. One that felt especially heightened because of the crappy, house-bound year we’d all just lived through. Mainly, though, it was just fizzing, nerve-jangling TV.
The woman at the centre of it all, DCI Joanne Davidson, also known as the 45-year-old Scottish actor Kelly Macdonald, was not one of the 16 million people watching. For the previous six episodes, we’d tried to figure out just how much of a bad egg she was – whether she was a “bent” copper, in the lingo of the AC-12, Line of Duty’s dogged anti-corruption unit. The denouement was a true water-cooler moment, even if many of us had not seen a water cooler, or even a colleague, for 15 months.
So Macdonald really didn’t watch it? “Nooo,” she replies, looking horrified by the notion. Why not? “If I don’t watch something at the time, at, say, a premiere, it’s not something I’m going to go out of my way to do. I’ve got other things to do. The dishwasher always needs unloading.”
Macdonald is hardly a stranger to big productions. She made her debut in the 1996 instant classic Trainspotting, opposite Ewan McGregor, and has gone on to work with directors such as Robert Altman in Gosford Park, Martin Scorsese, in a five-year stint in the TV series Boardwalk Empire, and the Coen brothers in No Country for Old Men. Her latest movie, the feature film Operation Mincemeat, about a secret project in the Second World War, sees her share top billing with Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen.
Still, being the “guest” lead on Line of Duty – a role previously taken by Keeley Hawes and Thandiwe Newton – took Macdonald aback. “Oh my God, it was all a bit much for me,” she says, her eyes wide, when we meet in a hotel in central London. “It’s just of such interest to everybody. And everybody’s got an opinion. Everybody seemed to be watching it. I’m used to flying vaguely under the radar when it comes to things I’ve done. And it was a strange time, with Covid, so it was a shock to the system.
“I was warned by people I was working with,” she continues. “They were like, ‘Are you ready for this?’ And I thought I was, but it was more than I expected. I was very grateful for wearing a mask when I was out, I tell you that much.”
Macdonald was superb in Line of Duty, vacillating between tough and vulnerable, never an easy read, always offering a suggestion of both guilt and misunderstood naivete. This was especially evident in the penultimate episode of the series where DCI Davidson endured a gruelling, uninterrupted, 30-minute interrogation with the AC-12 trio of Steve Arnott (played by Martin Compston), Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and Anna Maxwell Martin’s DCS Carmichael. The scene felt like an age, in televisual terms, but the payoff, as the intensity ratcheted up and up, made it one of the most iconic moments in Line of Duty lore.
For Macdonald, who spent two intense days filming the scene, it was a satisfying moment: proof, 25 years after her exhilarating arrival in Trainspotting, of what she’s capable of as an actor. “I got to do the thing that I was cast to do, so it was a good day at the office,” she says. “It was the scene that everyone kept talking about nonstop when we were filming, and I put a lot of hours into preparing for it. I knew why I was there. And I knew that I was doing it. And I suppose it’s one of the most dramatic, emotional scenes I’ve had to do…”
Macdonald stops – she’s getting uncomfortably close to talking about acting in a pretentious way (which she hates). “You just sound like such a wanker when you talk about this stuff. But you asked!”
I did, and with some encouragement, Macdonald goes on: “I used to think my prep was just to stress myself out and lose sleep and think I can’t do it. Then hopefully prove myself wrong. And oh, it’s exhausting and pointless. But that’s just age. I know it’s in me to do it and I’ve been doing it for a long time, and to just let it happen rather than trying to second guess it, because you can’t really.” Macdonald lets out an anguished yelp. “So wanky!”
So, in short, Macdonald sweats stuff less than she used to? “Yeah, definitely, I sweat less,” she says. “Having said that, I am perimenopausal possibly, so I’m definitely sweating more.” Macdonald explodes in giggles: “But metaphorically, I sweat less.”
Macdonald never trained as an actor, unless you count endlessly rewatching Doris Day in the 1953 musical Calamity Jane as a child and then acting it out. “I would try and get friends involved, but nobody knew it as well as me,” she says. “So it was quite tricky.”
Born in Glasgow’s Southside, Macdonald’s parents separated when she was nine and she moved on to a council estate on the outskirts of the city with her mother Patsy and her younger brother. She left school at 16, and was working in a bar, aged 19, when she was handed a flyer for an open-call audition for “the new Patricia Arquette”. The movie was Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel about a group of heroin-addicted Edinburgh miscreants. Thousands tried out and Macdonald made it to the final two for Diane, a sassy schoolgirl.
“I remember getting on the bus after my final audition,” says Macdonald. “It was a screen test and I left their makeshift studio that we filmed in on Alexandra Parade [in Glasgow], and I waited for the bus and I sat up on the top deck. And I knew it was between me and one other person. And I sort of knew I’d got it. I had a feeling: ‘This is my life starting now.’ It was a clear fork in the road.”
Macdonald pauses, hugs her stomach and looks apologetically at my Dictaphone. “Yeah, sorry, I’m really rumbling, I hope you’re not picking that up,” she says. “I had a very disappointing croissant for breakfast.”
Dressed today in a Bella Freud “1970” jumper, with matching red lipstick, Macdonald is funny and winningly self-deprecating. When I call her a “film star” she visibly bristles. “I just don’t think of myself as a film star,” she says. “I felt it a bit checking into this hotel, I didn’t even check in. They were all very nice and met me and I thought, ‘Oh God, they think Tom Cruise is here.’ I’m not that person. Like, I’m fine. I can make my way from the train station, I’m good.”
Tom Cruise would insist no one else stayed in the hotel, I suggest. “Yeah, I haven’t seen anyone else,” Macdonald says, smiling. “It’s been quite quiet. Maybe Tom Cruise is like, ‘Kelly can stay here. But no one else!’”
Whatever she says, Macdonald is a film star and her new movie Operation Mincemeat shows again what a dexterous, unshowy performer she is. The action retells a far-fetched true story about a covert MI5 team that was charged by Winston Churchill in 1943 to come up with a plan to convince the Germans that the Allies intended to invade Greece not Italy. At their head was a pair of “corkscrew thinkers”, Ewen Montagu (Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Macfadyen), who devised an audacious ruse to pass off an already dead homeless man as a British officer who was travelling with secret documents when his plane crashed. Macdonald’s Jean Leslie is a smart, resourceful MI5 secretary who worked closely with the men, including hashing out a detailed backstory for the officer and supplying a personal photo that was left on the body as a suggestion of the sweetheart he’d left behind.
Operation Mincemeat proved to be a turning point in the Second World War, and is now regarded as one of the most inspired and strangest military deceptions. “It’s bonkers,” says Macdonald. “I feel like if it was an original idea, the screenwriter would have lots of objections from producers and people saying, ‘Oh, this is not believable. Nobody’s going to buy this.’ Yeah, you couldn’t make it up.”
The real Mincemeat team became tight, Macdonald’s Jean and Firth’s Ewen especially so. This is a Second World War story not of mud-caked battles and rations, but of romance and intrigue. Nights were spent dancing in the Gargoyle club in Soho, with its interior designed by Henri Matisse and Edwin Lutyens. “Jean’s not just the woman in the office,” says Macdonald. “She’s having a wartime experience like a lot of women were having. It was a very dark time, but there was also this grabbing of life by the nuts, not to be too crass. That thing of living it, while you have it.”
Macdonald describes Operation Mincemeat as a “big, shiny job”. That means? “The catering changes,” she says. “You get slightly nicer cars to take you to work instead of vans.” There was also money to splash on dance lessons for Macdonald. “That was amazing fun, to learn that stuff with a real dancer,” she says. “I really enjoy it, so the more dancing the better. Not Strictly, though.”
So Macdonald is ruling herself out of a future appearance on the show then? “I don’t know why I even mentioned that, don’t mention that!” she replies. “I said it like I was putting myself forward as a dancer. I’m really not!”
Outside work, Macdonald lists her main interest as: “I move furniture.” She lives in Glasgow with her two sons, Freddie, 13, and Theodore, 9, (she shares custody with her ex-partner of 14 years, Dougie Payne, the bassist in Travis), and moved house this year. I ask Macdonald to clarify “move furniture”. “I don’t move other people’s furniture,” she says. “It’s not like a side job I’ve got: Macdonald’s Movers. No, I move furniture too much. It’s getting slightly to be a problem. And the kids don’t even think about it, they walk in and go, ‘Oh, that used to be over there.’”
Macdonald sighs, and decides it’s just the stage of life she’s at. “I’ve started growing my own flowers,” she says. “I’m gardening. It’s all falling into place.”
The work continues to roll in. Macdonald’s just filmed a road movie with Gina McKee, directed by Carol Morley, called Typist Artist Pirate King. She is also very happily sending herself up in the English-language remake of the hit French comedy Call My Agent! In the transfer, she plays a character not a million miles from actor Cécile de France in the original, who is turned down for a role in a new Quentin Tarantino film because she’s too old. “I had a very Call My Agent! moment, actually, when my agent was telling me about the part I was going to be playing,” she says. “And she couldn’t get the words out and then I realised it was the Cécile de France storyline-ish but different.”
For someone who couldn’t envisage ever becoming an actor and who, even when she got her break, couldn’t foresee it becoming her career, Macdonald has – even she accepts – done all right. Earlier in our conversation, she said that, if she weren’t doing what she does now, she thinks she might have been a journalist. So then, as our time winds up, how would she finish the article? “My son is having to do essays at the minute where the last paragraph has to start with ‘in conclusion’,” she says.
So, in conclusion…? “In conclusion, I’ve not concluded yet,” Macdonald decides finally. “And yeah, we’ll see how it goes.”
Operation Mincemeat is released on 22 April
Fashion editor Jo Jones; makeup by Liz Pugh at Premier Hair and Makeup; hair by Paul Donovan using Kérastase; fashion assistant Peter Bevan; shot at the Rosewood Hotel
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010