For an actress who has tread the mean streets of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the killing grounds of No Country for Old Men, and most recently the shady promenades of prohibition Atlantic City in Boardwalk Empire, Pixar may seem an unlikely employer for Kelly Macdonald.
Since bursting on to the scene in 1996 as an underage seductress in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Welsh’s cult novel, the Glasgow native has become renowned for her diverse filmography.
Her latest project, Disney Pixar’s 3D computer-animated fantasy adventure Brave, takes Macdonald back to her roots in a mystical adventure set in Scotland.
Brave tells the story of Merida, a young Scottish princess who feels trapped by the expectations thrust upon her. A fiery haired rebel, Merida looks at marriage, frocks, and traditions with disdain, yearning to be free.
However, her efforts unleash an ancient curse that threatens to overcome the land and she is forced to confront her misdemeanours.
It is difficult to pigeonhole Brave as just another glittery, Americanised Disney frolic-fest, with the movie Pixar's first fairytale, in the tradition of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, and set in the 10th century.
There are dark edges to it with obvious moments of peril alongside light hearted Scottish stereotypes – including the lifting of kilts and baring a hairy highland behind.
Macdonald skirts around the edges in what can be expected of the movie – but she is full of assurances that it marries the character of Pixar with something a little different.
“Well it’s a Pixar film. So you’re safe in the knowledge that it’s going to be good”, Macdonald says, the Glasgow twang still very much apparent. “I mean, it’s got all the things that make Pixar films great, plus it’s a little different. There are dark moments, funny moments; I’m really excited about it.”
The setting and atmosphere of Brave are not the only elements worlds away from the Pixar norm. The movie marks a significant milestone with Macdonald’s portrayal of Merida being the first female protagonist in Pixar history.
Forget Buzz Lightyear and Mr Incredible, fiery female spirit has replaced muscle – yet another challenge Macdonald takes in her seemingly unflappable stride.
“I think that it is obviously a great thing [to have a female lead for the first time], but if I’m honest it is something I didn’t even realise when I was offered the part, and I didn’t let it influence my performance at all.
“Merida is a really adventurous and energetic character, so I think she’s perfect being the first female lead – I just did my job, and Merida’s personality made it great fun.”
It is perhaps fitting that the first female protagonist hails from the rugged windswept glens of Scotland. And although Pixar’s base in California may be far from the Scottish Highlands, Macdonald is satisfied with their representation of her homeland.
“Well I think that it’s [Scotland] been painstakingly recreated, down to every gust of wind through the trees and quivering blade of grass. The crew came across a few times to see it for themselves, so it’s very authentic, and the scenery in the movie is really impressive.”
Incidentally, Brave has been seen as the perfect opportunity to sell Scotland on a global scale, with First Minister Alex Salmond and VisitScotland among those keen to capitalise on the high profile of the film to boost the country’s tourist appeal.
Geography is not the only consideration when making a film set in Scotland. Any Scot worth their salt will cringe at the sight of someone wearing a ‘see-you-jimmy’ bunnet with its tufts of orange hair, such preconceptions more likely to receive a Glasgow Kiss than the renowned friendly Scottish welcome.
Macdonald, however, jokingly quells any worries that Scots may have about how Pixar portrays them. “Well...it’s all in the lineage isn’t it? I’m a wee bit of a redhead now after playing Merida, and I’ve had a few red-headed fans coming up to me and saying how great it is to have a ginger hero in a movie. Merida’s hair colour reflects her personality more than anything anyway, so there isn’t anything suspect,” she jokes.
“I was given pretty much free reign to keep as close to my own accent as I wanted to. There were a few times where I made noises or words that had to be softened up a wee bit, because of the American audience, but apart from that the guys really wanted to keep as many Scottishisms in the film as possible.”
Hair colour is only one point on a ridiculously long list of considerations when it comes to making a movie like Brave. For an actress more used to tackling her roles in person, the process was something new, and Macdonald explains that it took time and imagination to get used to making an animated movie.
“It was a really big learning curve for me,” she admits. “You’re in a room with just a script; it’s totally different from what I’m used to. I have a good listening face, so I’m told, so I had to really concentrate hard on my voice rather than the rest of my acting.
“There were moments where it was difficult, there are a lot of noises and things happening that get put in later on in production, so you have to just pretend. I’ll be getting hit on the head with things or falling off my horse and at one point I’m sword fighting – so during the scene I was pretending to sword fight with one of the guys in the studio – so it was a lot of fun and a different, but great, experience.”
Macdonald’s rough treatment of Pixar staff aside, working on an animated production has meant that she has not collaborated directly with the rest of the cast (which she assures is nothing to do with the sword fighting). In fact, the film’s premiere in Californian will be the first time she meets many of her fellow Scots and British co-stars Julie Walters and Emma Thompson.
“I never met any of the other cast really, which was strange. I’ve worked with Kevin McKidd before years ago, and I bumped into Billy Connolly a few times but that was it. I’m looking forward to the premiere so I can properly meet everyone.
“The people at Pixar were just fantastic too, they all just love their jobs so much. I’d be coming out from the studio, and they would always be saying ‘thank you so much’ and I’d be like ‘no, thank you!’ They all work so hard, and it makes Pixar a great environment to work in.”
Macdonald is ever the consummate professional in her approach to roles. Her performance in Brave was sandwiched between series of the critically-acclaimed HBO venture Boardwalk Empire, where she plays Margaret, the wife of criminal kingpin Nucky Thomson.
It would be difficult to imagine two characters and indeed productions with such contrasting flavours. “I suppose it can be difficult, but I always concentrate on what I’m doing there and then,” she says.
“There’s not really any time to think about it, and I suppose it’s all about being adaptable and having the ability to switch between roles.”
Boardwalk Empire itself has become nothing short of a global sensation and, going into its third series, will showcase Macdonald’s acting ability alongside the likes of Steve Buscemi while under the watchful eye of legendary director Martin Scorsese.
“It’s amazing, we have such a great cast and crew, and HBO are just fantastic to work for. I feel very lucky to still be involved and I can’t quite believe that being Margaret is my day job.”
With an impressive range of distinctive performances, and a hectic shooting schedule on the Boardwalk ahead of her, it is difficult to imagine that Macdonald was merely a waitress in Glasgow before attending an open audition for Trainspotting.
Her effervescent demeanour and staunch professionalism make her one of Scotland’s finest performing artists, and even though she currently calls New York home, she leaves with a parting shot that suggests she has not lost any of her Glaswegian character. “What do I miss most about home? Family... and potato scones, of course.”