EXCLUSIVE: Kelly Macdonald Pieces Together Portrait of Middle-Aged Woman’s Self-Discovery in ‘Puzzle’

(l-r) Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert in PUZZLE. ©Sony Pictures Classics. CR: Linda Kallerus.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Kelly Macdonald is best known for delivering memorable performances in films including Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” and Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting” movies as well playing a pitiful young widow turned mob boss wife on HBO’s acclaimed “Boardwalk Empire,” and the voice of Merida in Pixar’s “Brave.” The Scottish actress is eager to talk up her newest film “Puzzle” in which she plays a milquetoast suburban housewife and mother who pieces together her true self after stumbling into the world of jigsaw puzzle competitions.  As Agnes, she enters into a whirlwind romance with a fellow puzzle aficionado who becomes her partner preparing for a tournament.

Based on an Argentinian film, “Puzzle” is adapted by Oren Moverman (“Love & Mercy,” “The Messenger”) as an American drama, with Agnes (Macdonald) living in a blue-collar Connecticut where her life revolves around her family and home. She becomes hooked on jigsaw puzzles after receiving one as a birthday present. It doesn’t take long for Agnes to discover her aptitude for putting the little cardboard pieces together quickly. While picking out another puzzle at a shop, she sees an ad posted by a man looking for a puzzle partner. She responds without telling her husband or her teenage sons. Soon she and Robert (Irrfan Khan, “Life of Pi,” “Jurassic Park”) are covertly meeting at his posh New York townhouse putting puzzles together as they prepare for a competition. As the two outsiders get to know each other, their friendship turns to something more. The film is directed by “Little Miss Sunshine” producer Marc Turtletaub.

Dressed in a peach-colored ensemble, she recently sat down to discuss her latest film and what’s ahead.

Q: You’ve gotten some positive feedback from people already on this film. What do you make of the positive response?

Macdonald: It has been moving people, men and women alike, and that pleases me. That’s kind of what it was meant to do. Job done!

Q: There are so few films in which a female, especially a female over 40 is at the center of the story. How did you find a project like this?

Macdonald: I’m grateful. I think Marc (Turtletaub) had seen me in a couple of things and he’d been following my career. So, when this came up, he decided he wanted to meet. He thought of me and I’m glad he did.

Q: How did you go about preparing to play Agnes because she’s not your typical central character?

Macdonald: Yeah, she’s kind of shy, in her shell, initially, awkward. But she’s not a completely down in the dump. She knows there’s something there. She’s a vulnerable person and you know that there’s been something in her past and that she’s gone to a dark place, I think. At some point in her past after her father passed. She’s a product of being the caregiver for her dad and looking after him, and then she gets married and then she’s the caregiver for her family and does everything for everyone else. Her husband (Louie, played by David Denman) is very aware that she’s delicate. She’s had these episodes before and she’s to be looked after, and he’s a man and he’s not a modern man. He’s just like this big guy that think it’s his job is to look after his wife, go out and work, and she looks after the home. I think he has no idea how smothering that might be.

It gets to a certain point. I think the timing in the film is interesting, because her kids at the age where they’re about to go off and it won’t be her job anymore to look after them. I think that’s often the case that things change for women at that point where their main focus is being a mother. You’ve got to have something for yourself.

Q: Agnes is a woman with a very traditional role in the home, which we don’t think is that prevalent these days depicted on film.

Macdonald: Oh, my God, it’s absolutely there and it’s a great thing. Agnes is different. It’s not about there being more to life than being a homemaker. To her, specific as she was, that she hasn’t found her voice or she hasn’t been give the space to find her voice or know what she likes or what she might have to offer. I think at one point in the film she talks about she being good at math, and that might have been something that she’s really on a voyage of discovery, as they say. I think once she completes the first puzzle, it’s possibly the first thing she’s done that isn’t for someone else or she had to do. It’s not a chore. It opens something inside of her that could never be closed again.

Q: It’s interesting that she has this birthday party she receives a brand new iPhone, but she tosses it aside and is more excited about the puzzle.

Macdonald: Yeah. She definitely feels like someone that’s a bit out of time. I think this is interesting to me. When you start watching the film, you think “When is this set?” because it feels very sort of 1950s or something. So, when you do see things like iPhones, they feel completely alien in her environment and that’s the way she feels about them. It’s just fun to see her. It’s like she’s a teenager exploring.

Q: It’s based on an Argentinian movie and still has a foreign film vibe.

Macdonald: Yeah, it’s set in Bridgeport (Connecticut) but we filmed it in Yonkers (New York). She and her family are small-town people. They live so close to this metropolis, and it’s sort of funny that it’s just a train ride away and she does that. It’s not for the first time, but it feels that way. It’s momentous for her.

Q: Do you think she would be any different if this story were set in Scotland or somewhere else?

Macdonald: I think it’s a universal story. I think it’s relatable in any era as well. It’s about someone that’s been stifled and not quite grown up and something’s got to give at some point. Her husband had done what he thought was the good things too. She’s obviously had something in her history where she’s had a period of being not in her right mind. I think that’s the way to put it. He’s overprotective of her and she’s just been kept in this bubble. It’s just not healthy.

Q: Marc Turtletaub, your director and producer, had you guys going to dinner to get to know each other?

Macdonald: We went to cooking class together. That was a bit awkward. That’s like forced. It’s sort of like I hate New Year’s and all these forced group activities. But we had to start the ball rolling somewhere. We didn’t rehearse, per se, but we sort of hang out, we chatted through scenes. We went and visited some of the locations. That’s kind of what you come away from the rehearsal with, I think. One of the main jobs (of doing rehearsals) is to get used to new people that you’ll be working quite closely with. You can rehearse a scene as much as you like, and then you get on set and it’s going to change anyway.

Q: You’ve been a professional actress long enough that you know what you have to do.

Macdonald: (laughing) I know.

Q: Your children are still quite young. Do you bring them with you to set?

Macdonald: They came out actually on this for a couple of weeks. If I’m away for a film for a while, I try to make sure they come out at some point if not for the whole thing. It’s tricky, though. I can’t just take anything.

Q: Did this film make you think how you’ll feel when your kids are grown and about the fly the coop, because they grow up so fast?

Macdonald: Yeah. Well, that’s what everybody says. It’s absolutely true. It just goes so fast. It goes so fast. And actually David (Denman, who plays her husband in “Puzzle”) has just a six-month-old just now and that’s gone super-fast. My oldest is— I’m not a very tall person—but he is pretty much my height now. We’re almost the same shoe size.

Q: Do you try to look for projects that’s closer to home so you can be there with them while they’re going to school? Or do you kind of have a system with family members where you can go out and do projects for weeks or months at a time?

Macdonald: I wish I had control over that sort of thing, but it’s generally about the stuff that I’m drawn to and that comes my way. I was lucky enough that the last job I did was quite a long one. It was 10 weeks. But it was in Glasgow and that’s where we are based.

Q:  Which one was that? Which project was that?

Macdonald: It’s called “The Victim.” I just finished that. Yeah, that was the last thing like two weeks ago. I was in Glasgow, so you’d think that would be great but I was also working anyway. So, it’s that thing where you could be anywhere, but I was glad I wasn’t in Tokyo or somewhere.

Q: You’ve lived in London and in New York at various points. IIs it good to be back home?

Macdonald: I loved New York and it was my home and it was very much part of my (life). I lived in the East Village. Still, when I go back to New York, if I drive past Tompkins Square Park, I recognize people in the park. That was my neighborhood. But I was so pleased to get back to the UK and to become part of the UK community, to be with my peers there, because I missed a lot of stuff that happened in the UK while I was in the States, TV shows and things that passed me by. So yeah, it’s good to be back.

Q: What is next for you? What are you working on here now or coming up?

Macdonald: I’m going to be doing another TV thing and I’m doing an independent film in Australia in a few months.

Q: You’ve got a couple of projects completed too, including “Holmes and Watson,” with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. What a great cast!

Macdonald: I know! It’s crazy. I’m friends with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly! That blows my mind.

Q: And you’re reprising your voice role as Merida from “Brave” in “Ralph Breaks the Internet” with John. Was it fun to reprise that character?

Macdonald: Well, it was funny because I’m doing her, but there’s a twist. She’s doesn’t talk quite the same.

Q: Voice actors generally don’t get to see each other when you’re recording but did you run into John at all when you were doing your recordings?

Macdonald: No but we were sending (text) messages because I did my bits. I’ve gone in a few times. We’ve played around with it and done different things. When I was in the last time, they said, “Oh, John says hi.” So, we send messages back and forth.

Q: Do you do puzzles? Do you like putting them together?

Macdonald: I do. I went on a holiday and I had my puzzle I like to take with me and I just thought realistically that’s not going to happen because I was with my kids in the evening, and I just thought I’m going to be exhausted after being on holiday. But, yeah, I do puzzles and I enjoy them.

Q: What are you supposed to do with a puzzle when you finish it?

Macdonald: You take it apart and you put it back in the box. You do not glue it together and put it on your wall. That is wrong. I took mine at home. My kids got really upset because while I was doing “The Victim,” I was doing a particularly tricky one with a repeating pattern, and it had been lying out. Work just took over and I was working long days every day, and it was literally gathering dust on the table and I thought, “I need to put this away,” and my sons were like, “No!” All that work that I had done. I was like “It’s fine.”

Q: That’s because you’re an actress. You can put it behind you and then go on to the next thing.

Macdonald: Yeah, I put it back in the box, and then I go on to the next one.