Danielle Macdonald: ‘Films that deal with body image by just saying, ‘Love yourself’? That’s not life’

Annabel Nugent
·7-min read
Macdonald’s idea of a fun night is having some friends over (specifically two) for a marathon session of the Noughties spy action drama ‘Alias’ (Rex)
Macdonald’s idea of a fun night is having some friends over (specifically two) for a marathon session of the Noughties spy action drama ‘Alias’ (Rex)

For the past few years, Danielle Macdonald has appeared on “Up and Coming” lists. She’s featured in “Young Hollywood” rundowns and has been named “One to Watch”. Nobody can seem to agree on when exactly, but the consensus remains: Macdonald will be a name to know.

You’ll have seen her before. A fierce expectant mum in Bird Box. Rape survivor in Unbelievable. Crazed superfan in American Horror Story: Roanoke. An appearance in Lady Bird. The Australian actor has range.

After she played wannabe rapper Patricia Dombrowski – aka Patti, aka Killa P, aka White Trish – in 2017’s Sundance hit Patti Cake$, it would have been a safe bet that Macdonald would find a forever-home in similarly offbeat indie flicks. But so far, no trends have formed in the actor’s career – neither in the types of characters, nor the genre or even the length of time that she appears onscreen. Just an array of nuanced, interesting characters to root for, if only for a few minutes.

Her latest role in I Am Woman is another first. The film is a biopic of Helen Reddy (played by Hotel Mumbais Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the singer who wrote and performed what would become the unofficial anthem of the women’s liberation movement in the Seventies – a song which Reddy credited to her friend, the raucous rock journalist Lillian Roxon. Enter Macdonald. Playing a real-life person is an intimidating prospect for an actor, and playing someone as fabled as Roxon on your first time at the biopic rodeo – well, that must be horribly daunting. “It’s so scary to know that there are people that know her who are going to see this. It’s like, am I doing her justice? Is this what she was actually like?”, Macdonald chirps over a video call from Los Angeles.

Similar to the rock stars she wrote about, what Roxon was “actually like” is mostly pieced together using interview fragments and anecdotes of wild star-studded nights. When she moved to New York in 1959 as the Australian correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, Roxon – and her writing – became a staple of the city’s rock scene. Ten years after her big move to the States, she wrote Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia. It was the first of its kind, and hugely successful. Within six months, the book had entered its third hardcover print run.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Danielle Macdonald as friends Helen Reddy and Lillian Roxon in ‘I Am Woman’Hugh Hamilton
Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Danielle Macdonald as friends Helen Reddy and Lillian Roxon in ‘I Am Woman’Hugh Hamilton

While Macdonald’s lockdown playlist has consisted more of Blink 182 and My Chemical Romance as opposed to the glam rock favoured by Roxon, there was at least one thing she didn’t have to worry about faking in the film: her accent. Macdonald’s voice still boasts an unmistakable twang from Down Under, although it certainly has been tempered by more than a decade living stateside. She and Roxon share a couple of other traits – Roxon spent her childhood in Italy; Macdonald has an Italian mother; Roxon moved from Australia to the US aged 27; Macdonald did the same at 18 – but the parallels more or less end there.

On Roxon’s rock’n’roll lifestyle, another critic wrote: “All she didn’t do in the Sixties was share needles with [Australian painter] Brett Whitely.” The journalist’s devil-may-care attitude and penchant for partying – despite her not taking drugs and being mostly teetotal – is perhaps what makes Macdonald’s recent role the biggest stretch of all. “Lillian owned any room. She was the centre of attention in any space because she knew everyone,” says Macdonald admiringly. “She was like the queen of the underground New York City rock scene. I can’t imagine even being accepted into those clubs – let alone being the leader of one,” she laughs.

Instead, Macdonald, who is 29 and down to earth, is the queen of her living room. Her idea of a fun night is having some friends over (specifically two) for a marathon session of the Noughties spy action drama Alias. Maybe reading a book before bed. “It’s a dangerous life,” she jokes. “We’re very different; Lillian was a force of nature.”

Macdonald goes by Killa P as the unlikely rapper in Geremy Jasper’s debut feature ‘Patti Cake$’
Macdonald goes by Killa P as the unlikely rapper in Geremy Jasper’s debut feature ‘Patti Cake$’

For many actors, success can be pinned to one breakout role. For Emma Stone, it was Superbad; Ellen Page, Juno; Saoirse Ronan, Atonement. In Macdonald’s case, there has been no singular movie to slingshot her career; even her most acclaimed films like Patti Cake$ have largely flown under the radar. Instead, a good portion of her success has been in spite of her films. Last year’s candy-coloured Paradise Hills was a misguided mishmash of Sofia Coppola and The Hunger Games, yet Macdonald still delivered a standout performance.

Sadly, it’s also the case in I Am Woman. Australian director Unjoo Moon’s biopic fell flat – something that was made all the more disappointing given Reddy’s death in September. At any rate, Macdonald’s energetic portrayal as Roxon shone through.

In her short time in Hollywood, Macdonald has made a lasting impression on audiences, too. The actor still receives Instagram messages from fans about Dumplin’. The 2018 Netflix film – based on the YA novel by Julie Murphy – saw Macdonald as the wry, Dolly Parton-fan girl Willowdean “Will” Dickson. The story follows Will as a plus-size teen protesting against a Texas pageant. Along the way she mends her relationship with her beauty-queen mother (Jennifer Aniston), falls in love, and challenges fatphobic beauty standards.

Dumplin’ hit home for many young women, as it did for Macdonald when she read Murphy’s book years earlier. “In high school, you’re trying to figure out where your confidence lies, what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad,” she remembers. “That was so relatable to me. I didn’t know that I could put that into words but then I read the book and I was like, ‘Wow, OK, yeah, that’s what it was.’”

Audiences welcomed the film’s realistic approach to body image – a topic that is often sanded over in movies by self-help truisms like stay positive and f*** what everyone else thinks. “It’s really not that simple to just be like, yeah I love myself. That’s not life,” she explains.

Macdonald was 16 years old before she felt seen in showbiz, thanks to a Broadway production of Hairspray starring Maddie Baillio. “What was so sad, and what actually makes me want to cry just thinking about it, is that I didn’t even realise I wasn’t represented. And I never even realised how much not being represented affected me,” she said. “It was so cool to see. And especially on Broadway because I’m pretty sure there are no plus-sized people on Broadway.”

Macdonald with onscreen mum Jennifer Aniston in hit film ‘Dumplin’’Netflix
Macdonald with onscreen mum Jennifer Aniston in hit film ‘Dumplin’’Netflix

Macdonald knows first-hand how important representation is, but she also knows that some of its most valuable iterations are the ones not about representation at all. “It feels amazing to have those kinds of conversations about body image in Dumplin’. That’s what that movie is about. But guess what? I don’t wake up every day and say, oh, let’s talk about my weight. It’s not something that affects me every day,” she says, sounding exasperated. “So we should also be allowed to just do a film where it’s not even mentioned. In Skin and in Unbelievable and in I Am Woman, it’s not addressed. I’m playing a human being and it’s not about her weight or what she looks like, ever. And it’s really exciting to get to do that as well.”

While the film industry has praised diversity in recent years, everyone will agree that meaningful change is still a long way off. “Hollywood right now is at the point where it’s starting the conversation, it’s changing the game – but it’s in a much more calculated way. It’s like, hey we have to talk about this, we have to change the game so let’s just show some diversity here and there, which isn’t the point,” says Macdonald. It’s about having more diversity in the writers’ room. “I can sometimes tell when, you know, a white man is writing a role for a black woman, for example,” she grimaces.

The actor is approaching 30 (“It’s all going too fast!”) and what’s next is up in the air. But Macdonald’s lockdown love of Alias has spurred a renewed interest in action films. “That’s what I’m putting out in the universe right now, so hopefully it’ll happen eventually.” If her past characters are anything to go by, chances are it’s only a matter of time.

‘I Am Woman’ is now in cinemas and available to watch on digital platforms

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