Kelly Macdonald is driving and talking on the phone. It sounds dangerous, but with her trademark burr, the Scottish actress assures a worried Variety reporter that she can juggle both tasks. She will, however, periodically stop mid-sentence to say she needs to concentrate on the road.
The subject at hand is “Puzzle,” a low-budget drama about a housewife and mother named Agnes who discovers she is something of a savant when it comes to assembling puzzles. The film premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and offers the 41-year-old Macdonald a chance to step toward center stage after decades of supporting turns in everything from “Trainspotting” to “Boardwalk Empire.”
“I’m rarely ever offered the female lead in anything,” Macdonald admits. “So that appealed to me. And there was something about Agnes that intrigued me. She was a bit of an enigma.”
Discovering her gift helps draw Agnes out of a shell she’s constructed for herself, one that finds her sublimating her own identity while doting on her two sons and clueless husband. It’s a family that takes advantage of Agnes’ generosity, expecting much from her and offering little in return.
After she teams up with Robert (Irrfan Khan) on puzzle competitions, Agnes begins to realize that she is not fulfilled by her life in a blue-collar section of Connecticut. All the while, Agnes keeps her partnership with Robert and her newfound interest in games from her loved ones.
“She’s from a small place, the kind of town where everybody knows everybody’s business, and she has no friends and is just kind of alone,” Macdonald said. “She’s a bit of a child-woman who is used to being given instructions and is smothered and never really grew up.”
With small gestures, showing Agnes staring longingly out the window of a Metro North train or furtively glancing down at her cell phone for a text from Robert, Macdonald and director Marc Turtletaub build a portrait of a woman living a “life of quiet desperation.” Macdonald also delicately shows Agnes’ rising confidence as she begins to acknowledge that the road she took in life may have been the wrong one. Agnes is the kind of person you might pass on the street or at the supermarket without realizing the depths she contains. The raging turmoil inside Agnes’ placid facade was something that attracted Macdonald to the part.
“You don’t have to move mountains to be interesting,” she said. “This wasn’t about a film about some superhero with puzzles.”
“Puzzle” also helped Macdonald rediscover her own love of puzzles, sometimes to the detriment of the low-budget film’s tight shooting schedule.
“I’d done a lot of them in my twenties, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed puzzles,” Macdonald said. “I was surrounded by puzzles on the set and I became this nut. I’d do them all over the place — when I was on the hair and makeup chair or in between takes. They’d be ready for me on set, but I’d have run off somewhere to work on a puzzle.”
Agnes’ story of self-realization is being released at Sundance at a time when women are speaking out about abuse of power and sexual harassment in Hollywood. It’s a conversation that was touched off after allegations broke in October that producer Harvey Weinstein had harassed or assaulted dozens of women. Since then, scores of actors, directors, and media figures have found themselves accused of misconduct.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Macdonald said. “I’m quite pleased to see all these women standing up, and there are a lot of men in the industry who are questioning their own histories and behavior right now. We’re shining a light on something that was a dark secret. I hope things can finally change for the better.”
One thing Macdonald isn’t looking forward to is sitting in a darkened theater and seeing her work in “Puzzle.”
“It’s so hard to watch,” she said. “I’m used to being in great ensemble pieces, and I always get irked every time I pop up on screen.”