Kelly Macdonald looks every inch the star, in a stylish dress and perfect makeup and manicure — which she proudly notes she did herself. And yet, the Scottish-born actress says with mock distress, she’s cast as the servant rather than leading lady in films including Gosford Park and the upcoming Holmes and Watson.
That’s not always the case, witness The Child in Time, based on Ian McEwan’s acclaimed 1987 novel about a toddler’s kidnapping and its aftermath. Macdonald and Benedict Cumberbatch star as the couple whose world is staggered by the loss.
Potential viewers shouldn’t be put off by the tragedy that propels the story, as heartbreaking as it is, Macdonald said of the drama airing 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece” (check local listings for times).
“This isn’t about a missing child and finding that child in a procedural (crime story),” she said in an interview. “At at the end it’s about love. … It’s nuanced and beautiful and uplifting.”
Nuanced applies as well to Macdonald’s body of work, whether as a bereft parent in Child, a woman threatened by a hired killer in No Country for Old Men, a gangster’s wife in Boardwalk Empire or, yes, even the naive maid she played in “Gosford Park.”
Acting was always her preoccupation. “I used to dress up as Wonder Woman in my backyard in Glasgow in the ’70s,” she recalled, smiling at the memory. “From day one, I wanted to watch films all the time and I would re-enact scenes from Calamity Jane and Singin’ in the Rain, which is weird because they’re musicals and I’m not a song-and-dance person.”
She made a quick career start with Trainspotting and kept going. She marvels that the temporary visa allowing her to work in America is the O-1B issued for people “with an extraordinary ability” in the arts, movie or TV industries, according to federal rules.
“Oh, so you’re exceptional?” a Los Angeles airport passport control agent said to Macdonald as he checked her documents earlier this year, the actress recalled.
“It’s just a bit of an ego boost when you come here and you’re ‘exceptional,’” she said, adding, “Thank you very much!”
She’s playing opposite another outstanding British actor in The Child in Time, and found Cumberbatch “a dream to work with.”
“He’s so good, and I think we’re both quite generous actors,” she said. “I have worked with people where you give, and you don’t quite get back. … Some people just know what they’re doing and do it regardless of your intonation.”
She and Cumberbatch take different approaches to acting — he’s intellectual, she’s more instinctive — but “it’s like we get each other,” Macdonald said.
Cumberbatch, whose company produced the film, returned the compliment earlier this year during a Q&A with TV critics. Macdonald is “astonishingly natural and open and fluid and just completely at ease with her craft,” he said.
The stars acknowledge that the film, in part a time-shifting meditation on childhood lost and found, may seem dauntingly painful.
But the “real story isn’t about the missing child. It’s about a real relationship and the breakdown of that relationship and the possible coming back together,” Macdonald said.