Swallows and Amazons star Kelly Macdonald on updating a classic

BY Tom Browne

1st Jan 2015 Celebrities

Swallows and Amazons star Kelly Macdonald on updating a classic

After wowing America on the big and small screens, Swallows and Amazons sees Kelly Macdonald returning at last to British soil. The Broadwalk Empire actress talks breaking America, family life and the legacy of Trainspotting 20 years on.

Over the years, Kelly Macdonald has slowly but steadily built up a reputation as one of our most respected actors.

After exploding onto the scene in Trainspotting in 1996—as the underage girlfriend of Ewan McGregor’s Renton—she’s had starring roles in Gosford Park, Finding Neverland and A Cock and Bull Story, picking up an Emmy Award and an Oscar nomination in the process.

Her early success continued across the Atlantic. Although many British actors struggle to establish themselves in Hollywood, Kelly struck gold early on with a small but significant part in the Cohen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, displaying a talent for accents in her portrayal of Texan wife Carla Jean Moss.

This, in turn, landed her the role of Irish émigré Margaret Thompson in HBO’s acclaimed crime drama Boardwalk Empire, for which she and the rest of the cast won a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Boardwalk Empire started in 2010 and ran until 2014, so her latest film—an adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s much-loved children’s classic Swallows and Amazons, in which Kelly plays the matriarch of the Walker family—represents something of a homecoming for the Scottish-born actress. Not before time, you sense.

Swallows and Amazons
Kelly with Jessica Hynes and Harry Enfield in Swallows and Amazons

“It was such fun to be involved in something that was absolutely British,” she says with enthusiasm, “and also not to be playing the character I’ve been playing for years. It was just nice not to be Margaret Thompson for once. It gave me a bit of a bounce!”

Swallows and Amazons is that rare thing: a British film with a heritage look (steam trains, rolling countryside, picnic hampers) that will nonetheless appeal to audiences of all ages. Following the fortunes of John, Susan, Tatty and Roger Walker (the Swallows), and Nancy and Peggy Blackett (the Amazons), it takes full advantage of its Lake District setting in mapping out the children’s swashbuckling adventures on land and water.



"People get freaked out by their kids even walking to school these days"



Although these exploits are very different from Kelly’s own Glasgow-based childhood, she can relate to its depiction of a time when kids had a lot more freedom to roam. Can she imagine, for example, allowing her own children (she has two, with musician husband Dougie Payne) to sail off in a boat unaccompanied, as the Walker gang do?

“Hell, no!” she replies, aghast at the thought. “It’s just not something you can do now. People get freaked out by their kids even walking to school these days. I was always playing in building sites as a child—just half-constructed houses, really dangerous places. And I’d be gone for hours and hours."

“Kids sort of accept terrifying things. I remember going off on my bike with some friends to this little hill near us, and there was a flasher at the bottom of the hill. We were in the middle of nowhere, a bunch of little girls. Someone spotted him and we screamed and ran away, but it was kind of an adventure—you just think, Oh, that happened. But for a parent, it’s absolutely traumatising.”

Kelly Macdonald
Kelly shot to fame in Trainspotting when she was just 19

Much of the success of the film, in fact, is down to a similar sense of danger and realism, and also the quality of its child performers—mostly newcomers. “That was down to [director] Philippa Lowthorpe,” acknowledges Kelly. “She worked really hard, going round so many schools and seeing so many children. We ended up with a tight-knit and cool little group!”

“I’ve worked on a few films where there have been a lot of child actors, and I’ve been really lucky,” she continues, alluding to her part in the Harry Potter franchise (she played Helena Ravenclaw) and the difficulty of being thrust into the limelight at an early age, as happened with Daniel Radcliffe. It’s something that applies to Kelly herself, who was just 19 when she was cast in Trainspotting.

“Yes, that’s true, but things are different now with the internet and social media,” she points out. “That film was a great success, but we were pretty protected at the time. If it happened now, I think we’d be tabloid fodder.”

The original impact of Trainspotting, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, is hard to overstate. Coming as it did during the height of “Cool Britannia” and boasting a memorable Britpop-era soundtrack, this darkly funny but bleak tale of Edinburgh-based heroin addicts was a huge boost to the UK film industry. Even its poster—a line-up of the main characters gesturing defiantly at the camera—seemed to capture the zeitgeist and added to the hype. Did Kelly find the overnight fame difficult?

“I don’t think it was difficult,” she replies, chewing over the question. “It was a shock, and unlike anything that had happened to me before. The poster you mention was quite a new way of promoting a film. It’s normal now to do a long run-up to the release and throw money at the advertising, but Trainspotting was first of its type.”

Kelly wasn’t the only actor whose life was transformed by the film—it also catapulted Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle, among others. All of them have since reunited for the sequel, which is currently in production, although Kelly herself is tight-lipped about her involvement (“I couldn’t possibly say” is her only reply, delivered with a mischievous laugh).


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