Danielle Macdonald often plays formidable characters. In his new aria-light romantic comedy, “Falling for Figaro”, Macdonald plays Millie, a fund manager living in England with her boyfriend Charlie (Shazad Latif of “Profile”). When offered a big promotion at work, she turns it down, saying that’s not who she wants to be. Instead, she chooses to take a year to fulfill her lifelong dream of singing opera.
Unschooled, but not discouraged, Millie travels to the Scottish Highlands to seek tutorship from an unorthodox teacher and former diva, Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (a funny, fanatic Joanna Lumley). Millie soon finds herself attracted to Max (Hugh Skinner), Meghan’s other student, who also works at the pub where Millie is staying. While training in hopes of winning the annual “Singer of Renown” competition, Millie makes decisions about her life.
Macdonald is attractive as a young woman who steps out of her comfort zone. As she finds her voice – and generates praise for her performance in a qualifying competition – Macdonald shows how Millie’s confidence grows, but she still has insecurities.
The actress recently spoke with Salon about her new movie, music and comedy, and what brings her out of her comfort zone.
I love Millie’s line about being “irresistibly drawn to the tragedy of it all” when she explains why she loves opera. What motivates you as a performer?
I would say, well, not the tragedy of it all. I fell in love with acting when I was a teenager and it was something I couldn’t explain at all. It attracted me. I love being able to learn new skills and see different perspectives that I wouldn’t have otherwise if I didn’t play these characters and put myself in someone else’s free space. It’s really unbelievable.
Millie is pursuing the opera, what she says isn’t something she does on a whim. If you weren’t living the dream of acting, what would you be doing with your life?
I do not know. I’ve never had a plan B. That’s what I really love to do. It was always that. If I couldn’t act, I would be involved in making movies in some way. It has always attracted me. But all I want is to act. It’s not like I have any editing skills. [Laughs] No plan B for me.
“Falling for Figaro”, like “Patti Cake $” and “Dumplin ‘”, in which you also played, are competition stories. They certainly provide meaty roles and characters for the audience, but how attractive are these tales of ambition and self-doubt?
There is something about competitive films that allow the ups and downs of life and the challenges we face in two hours. I’m really drawn to this kind of movie because it’s the ups and downs that you go through, just told in different stories with different characters. It’s just like life. There are good times, there are sad times, there are funny times, and there are bad times – all of them. It’s always a journey, so seeing the ups and downs of people’s lives, thoughts and emotions, and feelings draws me in any movie. I like to see the characters grow. It’s more fulfilling.
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What can you say about your penchant for playing stubborn characters? Although I have seen you play vulnerable in “Bird Box”, I find that you are often chosen as women who should not be challenged. Millie claims she’s simple, but she really is more complicated than she admits. What do you think of her?
We are all much more complicated than we think. There are a lot of things going into us. At times we feel incredibly boring and at other times we face every emotion under the sun all at once and have to figure it out. It’s never easy, to be honest. We are all more complicated. What’s interesting about Millie is that no matter how simple she thinks she is, she might have more complications in pursuing her dream because she faces more challenges. Her heart and her dreams are at stake. Before, maybe she was pretty straightforward. It was, go to work at a job she doesn’t really like, and come home. It is very simple. Now the journey we see is Millie finds out that there is more to life, and it’s more complicated. And, she is more complicated because she feels more. We all come to those stages where we don’t know what to do next, and we’re kidding ourselves, but it’s about getting through and learning from the process.
Do you have any real experiences that reflect this?
Always! There have been many instances where I think I am less complicated than I am. [Laughs] I really think there have been times when realistically in this industry you have to believe that you will book a job that thousands of people audition for. “Yeah, it’ll be easy, I’ll do it, I’ll work.” Not that it will be easy, but you have to have a sense of stubbornness and self-confidence in this industry because you face a lot of rejection. You will be wrong. You are not good at it or do not get it. But you have to keep going and convince yourself to keep going.
Danielle Macdonald in “Falling for Figaro” (IFC Films)
“Falling for Figaro” offers you another opportunity to make comedy. Can you talk about acting? Millie takes herself and her job seriously, but she’s not a serious person.
Yes, she’s straight in the comedy world in this movie. But at the same time, she has a playful sense of humor and goes with the flow. He is a very open person. There are so many different experiences that she has in the movie and she just says “Yes”. This is an amazing quality and very unique for a type A personality, which it is. This is where comedy can come in. She’s so open to new experiences because she likes to be in control.
Millie takes lessons from Meghan, a teacher who pushes her. Have you ever had a teacher or mentor who shaped or inspired you with a tough love? Where do you find your inspiration or motivation?
A lot of people have inspired me over the years, but there has never been a turning point. I remember the first dramatic performance I ever did that someone had ever seen. I played the funny character there and I remember people really laughing while I was on stage. I thought it actually worked! I was in eighth grade. It was a great moment. After that, I thought I could actually do it. There were a lot of people after that who believed in me, and that helped. I had a lot of support, an amazing team and friends. This support continues to carry me, but the motivation comes from within.
Millie feels worthless and must suffer for her art. It also extends her potential relationship with Max a bit. What do you think of the way we suffer for our love and our art?
I think there are a lot of benefits to being in this industry, but there are some life experiences that you will never have because of it. I would have loved to get a college degree, but I had the opportunity to act, so I won’t have that college experience that others have. I had to give it up, but I was able to follow my passion and my dream. We can’t always have it all, so it’s all about choosing what’s best for you. So if something is a big regret, it’s never too late. You can go do that. If one thing doesn’t make you happy and another will make you happier, I would say this is where you need to go. There will always be sacrifices no matter what you do. But we like to suffer for the sake of art and that makes us more fulfilled. I really felt this one because I really suffered from it! Each has its different processes.
You’ve now played rap and opera (sort of) onscreen. What can you say about learning the trade of these very different genres?
They are so different, and they were both very foreign to me. Don’t get me wrong, I know a few operas, and I knew rap, and I liked it a lot, but I didn’t know the full extent of it. But you never really know the full extent of it until you dive into it, I found out. You take a step and realize I didn’t know there was so much in there! It was fun. I booked tickets for an opera in Los Angeles, “Light in the Piazza”, which is an operetta, and then I saw a very traditional and very tragic Italian opera in Montreal right before we started filming – and that was unbelievable. It lasted three and a half hours, but the tragedy and drama of it, speak of suffering for your art! You feel it all, and it’s really entertaining. I liked it. I listened to so many songs and clips on YouTube and kept rehearsing to make it familiar to me. I immersed myself in the whole world of opera.
What would you sing if you did karaoke?
I always do it, and I never do it alone, “Tiny Dancer”. It always comes back. The last song I played as a duet in karaoke was “Stuck in the Middle with You”. I have a super eclectic taste in music. I like classic hits, 80s power pop rock, 2000 pop punk, rap, lots of different things.
Can you share something you have done in your life that took you out of your comfort zone?
I have done so many things that have taken me out of my comfort zone. In every job, I have done something that also takes me out of my comfort zone. Playing is absolutely terrifying for me. Maybe this is the first thing that scares me, and for some reason I keep making movies with music, and I have to keep playing. I can sing, in my opinion, badly. I learned to rap and played for “Patti Cake $”, but because it’s speak word, it terrified me less. Moving to America, halfway across the world on my own at the age of 18, was definitely not in my comfort zone. But when something really scares me, this is where I want to take the plunge. Because I know that I will grow up from this.
What haven’t you done that you wanna do?
There are so many things I want to do. I want to travel to many countries and want to speak Italian fluently. I’m learning Italian, but I’m not there yet. So I hope it will take [root] one day.
“Falling for Figaro” is in theaters and on VOD on Friday, October 1.