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Kelly Macdonald Talks ‘Puzzle’ and the Power of Silence

Kelly Macdonald is such a compelling actress, she can make putting together a jigsaw puzzle required viewing.

Of course, her new film, “Puzzle,” is about much more than that. Macdonald plays Agnes, a complacent American housewife who discovers a skill for assembling puzzles that leads her to move outside her comfort zone. That includes a relationship with a fellow puzzle fanatic played by Irrfan Khan. As Agnes begins to change, her confused husband (David Denman) isn’t sure he likes their world shifting, and Agnes has to figure out the answers to some real-life conundrums as well.

The Scottish Macdonald has long been a compelling onscreen presence, whether on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” or in films like “No Country for Old Men” and “Gosford Park.” Directed by Marc Turtletaub and based on the 2010 Argentine film of the same name, “Puzzle” puts her charms front and center. It opens this week in New York and Los Angeles before expanding across the country.

How did the role of Agnes find its way to you and what interested you in her story?
I was sent the script and all I knew about it was it was that it was about a woman who was really good at jigsaw puzzles. That didn’t bode well! (Laughs) But I read the script and it was beautiful and so unexpected. The film is about so much else; it’s about the fact that doing something outside her family opens her world up.

Hearing that description, I might not have read the script. What compelled you to give it a chance?
Well, my agent said it’s worth reading and I knew Marc was an interesting man who’d done some great movies. I met with Marc after I read the script and it felt like a good fit. But honestly, as soon as I started reading it I knew it was more than I expected.

Are you naturally adept at puzzles or did you have to learn?
I really didn’t have to learn it or fake it; I think I’m a natural to some extent. And, to be honest, in some scenes we did several takes so I’m taking apart and putting together the same puzzle again and again. So it makes me look like I’m better than I am.

Agnes is such a kind, loving person. Was it fun to play someone like that?
I just loved her. On the surface she seems so simple, but it turns out there’s a whole world she’s kept to herself on the inside. And when she starts to live it, there’s no stopping her. I can relate to that. People change constantly and I think change is to be embraced, really.

You have a real facility with accents; did you have a dialect coach on this?
Most definitely, I was so lucky to have her with me every day. It helps take the pressure off and I can think about the acting instead of the accent. But I think I have an ear for accents. Growing up I was always mimicking voices and accents and it’s served me well. Also, a general American is very difficult. If someone asks for a generic American accent, I falter. But the more specific, the easier it is. Agnes is very much Bridgeport, Connecticut.

You’ve played a lot of great characters but how often do you see a script with such a strong female point of view?
I’ve been pretty lucky in that sense. Recently I’ve been playing really strong female characters. For instance, I did an episode of “Black Mirror” called “Hated in the Nation” and it was me and Faye Marsay at the helm. It felt really good.

That was a great episode and warned about the dangers of social media. Did it turn you off to things like Twitter?
Well, I’m not on social media anyway. I think Twitter was interesting for all of about a minute.

I want to talk about your leading men in this movie; David Denman plays Agnes’ husband and it’s not an easy role. You have such natural chemistry, had you met before?
We’d never met. I think David gets a lot of credit for bringing that character into the real world and not making him a stereotype. He’s such a lovely man, he really struggled with playing someone who’s not the most modern in his views. He always tried to find the empathy.

You also share scenes with Irrfan Khan; I understand the role wasn’t necessarily written for an Indian man?
No, it wasn’t, it was just a genius casting choice. I love the fact it’s not even referred to. I knew his work and was very excited. He arrived at just the right time, we filmed all the family scenes first and I was sad to see my family leave. And Irrfan brought a whole other energy that helped me not be so sad.

What was the most challenging part about playing someone as internalized as Agnes?
I spend quite a lot of it on my own. I hadn’t considered that when I read the script but so many of the scenes it’s just Agnes and the audience is getting a glimpse into her world. Sometimes it was a wee bit lonely.

You spend a lot of scenes in silence.
I do. And I’m always trying to get rid of dialogue. I’ll say to directors, “I can say that with a look.” I think actors are always trying to get the word count up but I go the other way. It’s not that I’m being lazy, I just feel sometimes things can be a bit overwritten and I’m more likely to get rid of words.

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