Kelly Macdonald is the voice of the high-spirited heroine in Brave, the latest film from Pixar. She was 19 and working as a barmaid when, in 1995, she went to an audition for Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and won the role of schoolgirl temptress Diane. Since then she’s sustained a career on both sides of the Atlantic, with highlights including the canny maid in Gosford Park (2001) and the innocent wife in No Country for Old Men (2007). Recently she’s made a splash as an Irish mother and activist in HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire – something rather more edgy than her cartoon role as Princess Merida in Brave. We found out more from the 36-year-old Scot about portraying a credible version of her homeland and playing Pixar’s first female lead.
When you signed up for Brave, was there any concern it might be a tacky Hollywood version of Scottishness?
I had no concerns at all going in. I was working on a Pixar picture and there wasn’t a thought in my head it might turn out a twee version of Scotland.
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And strangely, for an American movie, the accents are fairly undiluted, including some choice expressions you might have to explain to the rest of the world…
You mean like ‘Jings! Crivvens! Help ma Boab!’ That comes from the Oor Wullie comic in [Scottish] newspaper The Sunday Post, which I grew up reading and they let me sneak it in there. Basically, if you had a better version of a line, they were up for it – even if they didn’t understand what the words meant.
Was the whole process of voicing such a boisterously loud character as Merida something new for you? Your screen presence is usually a lot more subtle.
It made me feel as though I’ve been resting on my laurels, actually. You get used to a way of working and you get cast in certain roles for those qualities, but Merida was something very different. It was great to play someone who’s a bundle of energy, very cheeky, very teenage. Actually, Diane, that very first role I had in Trainspotting, is rather Merida-like.
It’s a fairly universal mother-daughter story. Why do you think Pixar chose the Scots setting?
Brenda Chapman, the writer, based it on imagining what might happen when her young daughter grew up. But the director [Mark Andrews] and John Lasseter, the head of Pixar, love Scotland. They’ve holidayed there, honeymooned there, and when they took their drawing pads over to do a recce, it just felt like the right place.
Do you think animation allows you a return to the girlish roles you once played, but have outgrown?
Oh, if it had been live action I wouldn’t have gotten near this. I’m much too old for Merida.
You might have played the mum…
Hmm. Thanks for that.
Which roles changed people’s opinions of you, do you think?
I guess the ‘feisty girl’ thing really only lasted for Trainspotting and Stella Does Tricks (1996). After that, in terms of industry perception, I’d say Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men. And I signed up for Boardwalk Empire to shoot a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, but now the writers have made my character, Margaret, really challenging for me, quite controlling. She’s so interesting, I’m definitely not bored with her.
You went home to Scotland in June to launch Brave in Edinburgh. That must have given you pause to think about how far you’ve come in the past 17 years…
It does. But then everything I do is a lot like that. I can’t quite believe what’s happened to me. When I stop to think about it, it’s pretty extraordinary. The funny thing is I never pretended to be the Disney princess when I was growing up. My former self would just be in shock at what’s going on now.
Brave is in UAE cinemas now.