In there somewhere

Kelly Macdonald on her character in Marc Turtletaub's Puzzle

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kelly Macdonald with producer Wren Arthur and director Marc Turtletaub on her Puzzle costumes: "Mirren Gordon-Crozier did a great job."
Kelly Macdonald with producer Wren Arthur and director Marc Turtletaub on her Puzzle costumes: "Mirren Gordon-Crozier did a great job." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The day after Marc Turtletaub introduced me to Kelly Macdonald at Sony Pictures Classics, the star of Puzzle met with me for a conversation that started out with the meal that Kelly as Agnes prepares for her husband Louie (David Denman), their two sons Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams), and his girlfriend Nicki (Liv Hewson). Kelly and I leap from Isabelle Huppert's shoes to the stoop that Jack Lemmon sits on in Billy Wilder's The Apartment, from a Fred MacMurray resemblance to her The Child In Time co-star Benedict Cumberbatch to Cameron Crowe's persistence, and her character in Marc Turtletaub's Puzzle.

Kelly Macdonald on appearing saintly as Agnes in Puzzle: "I knew that Chris Norr, the cinematographer, was filming it in a certain way ... "
Kelly Macdonald on appearing saintly as Agnes in Puzzle: "I knew that Chris Norr, the cinematographer, was filming it in a certain way ... " Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Puzzle, Agnes's life in Bridgeport, Connecticut has been revolving forever around the demands and needs of the men in her family. She can predict her husband's sentences, when his snoring sets in, and what would make him upset. When an inventor named Robert (Irrfan Khan), living in a beautiful old, mostly empty, house in New York City, is looking for a jigsaw puzzle partner for an upcoming tournament the opportunity for a change in the course of her life arises.

Her name, Agnes, the pure, the holy, the one associated with the lamb, is only one of many puzzle pieces connecting to Catholicism. From an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead to the dying of Easter eggs, the calendar of the church is never far as reference.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When Marc introduced us, we briefly spoke about the vegetable fish [a curious dish served by Kelly's character Agnes to her family].

Kelly Macdonald: That looked like in pieces like a puzzle.

AKT: Exactly. Do you ever approach a role you play like a puzzle? Picking puzzle pieces from other people, I don't know, let's say a bit of Amelia Earhart, and a touch of Steve McQueen, and a little from my aunt Edith?

KM: Ah, I don't, I don't. It's not a conscious thing that I do. I read other actors talking about their process and think, hmm, that's interesting. So I might watch a film that is along the same lines but different. But then I forget about it.

Kelly Macdonald on the vegetable fish for Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), Louie (David Denman), and Gabe (Austin Abrams): "That looked like in pieces like a puzzle."
Kelly Macdonald on the vegetable fish for Ziggy (Bubba Weiler), Louie (David Denman), and Gabe (Austin Abrams): "That looked like in pieces like a puzzle." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

AKT: It's remarkable how calm Agnes is in all of this turmoil. She is so relaxed in a fascinating and strange way!

KM: In all the chaos, she's sort of removed. She removed herself. She's not quite present in her body, in a way. She's taken herself into another safe place so she can manage to stay calm.

But then as the film goes on she starts to become slightly more grounded. You know, that's when she starts reacting to people and saying "No, that's not what I think." Or "This is what I want."

AKT: She removed herself from her body to be there for others, you say. Her whole life is about the others. In order to do that, you have to remove yourself from your body?

KM: Well, she's in there somewhere but she's sort of locked up and she is in a very private place. She's on the spectrum, I think, is the thing.

AKT: The costumes for her were quite brilliant.

KM: I know. Mirren [Gordon-Crozier] did a great job, yeah.

AKT: They are many things at once. A little bit normcore.

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) and Robert (Irrfan Khan) jigsaw puzzling.
Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) and Robert (Irrfan Khan) jigsaw puzzling. Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

KM: Yeah.

AKT: But Agnes has her own style.

KM: Style?

AKT: Yes, she does. I will defend her. There's a childlike quality in what she picks. I'm thinking of the color combination of the pink plaid shirt with the coral cardigan, for instance. That's something a child would pick to go with the Wellies.

KM: Absolutely. I now know what you mean. She could be. Her clothes could be cute if her hair and her makeup was different. Or the shoes were different maybe. But she's just very unusual.

AKT: Did the clothes help?

KM: Costumes definitely help. I always think they help. You know, I've never done a part where I've had "a walk" or anything. But when you put clothes on you start to feel - especially period costumes - you hold yourself differently.

AKT: Isabelle Huppert told me that it's the shoes for her. And the nail polish!

KM: You see, she plays different parts from me though! She gets rocking shoes. I never get my nails done! I do my nails myself for press junkets. I watch the other actresses sitting in the makeup chairs next to me getting - not in this film, but, you know, they get their nails done.

Kelly Macdonald and Benedict Cumberbatch in Julian Farino's The Child In Time
Kelly Macdonald and Benedict Cumberbatch in Julian Farino's The Child In Time

AKT: I recently saw The Child In Time [based on the novel by Ian McEwan], which I really liked.

KM: I love Julian Farino, the director. He's a friend of mine and actually my next job he is directing as well. I'm excited to work with him again.

AKT: Benedict Cumberbatch reminded me suddenly - and I never put the two together before - of Fred MacMurray.

KM: Oh really? I've got Fred MacMurray up on my wall at home! The Apartment poster. It's Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

AKT: Did you ever think of them together?

KM: No. That's so funny. I have to have a look.

AKT: You like Billy Wilder?

KM: I love Billy Wilder! I've got a book a friend gave me years and years ago, called Conversations with Wilder. Cameron Crowe wrote it when he was a young journalist. He sort of stalked Billy Wilder and would hang around outside his office because Billy Wilder refused to be interviewed. And then eventually he gave in. Because this kid just kept hanging around.

Kelly Macdonald on Billy Wilder's The Apartment: "I've got Fred MacMurray up on my wall at home!"
Kelly Macdonald on Billy Wilder's The Apartment: "I've got Fred MacMurray up on my wall at home!"

AKT: Volker Schlöndorff is another one who succeeded to get Wilder to talk. Back to Puzzle - a lot of Agnes's life is structured around the links to Catholicism. From Ash Wednesday to you crying while dying Easter eggs. How did you approach that part of the story?

KM: I didn't over-think the religious aspect. In the film it was to be clear that it's just like she is institutionalized almost in her family and within the church. That's just what she does. I knew that Chris Norr, the cinematographer, was filming it in a certain way where Agnes ...

AKT: … appears saintly?

KM: Yeah, it's not exactly The Song of Bernadette [directed by Henry King] or something like that. She's not a deity, but there's something.

AKT: Saint Agnes, with the lamb. There's some of that.

KM: There's something there. I didn't over-think the Catholicism too much.

AKT: Did you get a chance to see the Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination exhibit at The Met?

KM: No, they scheduled me to within an inch of my life on this job.

AKT: Parts of Puzzle feel a bit like time travel. Robert's house in New York.

Robert (Irrfan Khan) with Agnes (Kelly Macdonald): "As the film goes on she starts to become slightly more grounded."
Robert (Irrfan Khan) with Agnes (Kelly Macdonald): "As the film goes on she starts to become slightly more grounded." Photo: Linda Kallerus - Sony Pictures Classics

KM: I know. It could be in black and white, the film. We talked about The Apartment, the film that I like. You can see the front of the building was very similar to when Jack Lemmon is sitting on the stoop.

AKT: History is there and you don't have to explain anything. Where was the house?

KM: That was on the Upper West Side somewhere.

Read what director Marc Turtletaub had to say on Mike Leigh, Alfonso Cuarón, the screenplay, and locations for Puzzle.

Read what composer Dustin O'Halloran told us about fitting music to the Puzzle.

Read more from Kelly Macdonald about working with Marc Turteltaub and her upcoming projects.

Puzzle was the opening night film of the Edinburgh International Film Festival and had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Puzzle opens in the US on July 27 and in the UK on September 7.

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