‘The Child in Time’: Kelly Macdonald on Benedict Cumberbatch’s Heartbreaking Performance That Left Her ‘Tearful’

The actress also looks at how her career has changed since “Trainspotting” and ahead to her next “crazy pants” movie.
The Child In TimeMASTERPIECE on PBSSunday, April 1 at 9pm ETIn an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s award-winning 1987 novel by the same name, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald star as the grieving parents of a missing little girl. Set two years after the girl’s disappearance, the film explores the dark territory of a marriage devastated, the loss of childhood, the fluidity of time, grief, hope and acceptance.Shown from left to right: Kelly Macdonald as Julie Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen LewisFor editorial use only. No third party rights granted.Courtesy of Pinewood Television, SunnyMarch TV and MASTERPIECE for BBC One and MASTERPIECE
Kelly Macdonald and Benedict Cumberbatch, "The Child in Time"
Pinewood Television/Sunny March

Before tackling her challenging role in PBS’ “The Child in Time,” Kelly Macdonald was thrilled to be able to work through scenes with her co-star Benedict Cumberbatch. In the adaptation of “Atonement,” author Ian McEwan’s novel, the actors portray couple Julie and Stephen Lewis, who suffer a heartbreaking loss when their child goes missing.

“We were really privileged to be able to have rehearsal time beforehand which doesn’t always happen,” Macdonald said in an interview with IndieWire. “We talked through all the scenes… It’s always really helpful if for nothing else than to get to know your co-star a little bit when you have to play quite intimate scenes. That’s quite helpful. If it’s a stranger on Day One, it’s a bit more difficult.”

“He’s just amazing. He was making me tearful in rehearsals with what he was doing. He really feels things,” she continued. “It’s like ping-pong. One person can’t make a scene great if there’s more than one person in it; it’s about the back-and-forth, and you have to be very generous as a good actor. He’s a very generous actor. He gets it a lot, and that makes your job easier.”

How Stephen and Julie work through grief and their identities as childless parents is at the forefront of the movie, which also includes a poignant, otherworldly storyline and quality that are difficult to describe. In fact, PBS even created this video below to attempt to demystify “The Child in Time” without giving away certain surprises:

“She’s a music teacher, happily married, mother, and then this very unspeakably awful thing happens,” said Macdonald about her character Julie. “She processes her grief in a very different way from the character Stephen [does]. In her process, she’s much more pragmatic and can’t find a way to move forward with her husband, and that’s another heartbreak for them both.”

For Macdonald, the choice to take the role came down to the writing, which Stephen Butchard adapted from McEwan’s novel.

“I just thought it was so well-constructed and beautiful,” she said. “Each scene had something in it that I was really excited about getting to play. I just cared a lot.”

How Her Career Has Changed Since “Trainspotting” and What’s Next

Macdonald found that watching “The Child in Time” was as “emotional” as when she performed the part. But she also had another odd takeaway from watching herself.

“It’s always a bit nerve-wracking. This sounds weird but I’m always slightly disappointed that it’s still me,” she said. “I think sometimes if I’ve really been in something I still think, ‘Oh yeah there I am. That’s me, not totally transformed into somebody else.’”

Kelly Macdonald, "The Child in Time"
Kelly Macdonald, “The Child in Time”Pinewood Television/Sunny March

Macdonald has been acting professionally for almost half of her life, ever since she worked as a barmaid in Glasgow and came upon a leaflet for an open casting call for “Trainspotting.” Before that time, it never occurred to her to really pursue acting as a career.

“I knew people did do it clearly. But I didn’t know anybody that acted,” she said. “It didn’t seem something that was really going to be very easy for me to … It felt like a secret fantasy that would never come true.”

Although Macdonald started in film, she’s also had a healthy career on TV. Aside from “The Child in Time,” she also starred on HBO’s acclaimed series “Boardwalk Empire” and in the “Black Mirror” episode “Hated in the Nation” (which fared well in IndieWire’s ranking of best “Black Mirror” episodes). Only recently though, she’s been able to catch up with much of the prestige TV that she’s only heard about.

“I’ve honestly only started really watching TV properly in the last year,” she said. I’ve got a lot to watch. I’ve never seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ never seen ‘The Sopranos.’ I watched nine hours of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ yesterday on the plane. I’ve got one episode left. It’s all sort of new to me, so ‘Black Mirror,’ no I hadn’t seen it. I just think he’s got an extraordinary mind, Charlie Brooker. Dark.”

While the Scottish actress, who won an Emmy for her role on “Boardwalk Empire” doesn’t have a preference when it comes to working in TV of film, she has noticed that the roles she’s being offered have changed.

“I’m working through them bit by bit. I think I’ve got to an age where it’s I’m getting to play very interesting women,” she said. “I’m starting to find my place. I’m playing mothers more, but I’ve been doing a little bit more lighter fare say, shall we say.”

One of those lighter roles is landlady Mrs. Hudson in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes comedy “Holmes and Watson” starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as the title characters.

“It’s coming out this year. It was just really interesting to get to just do that for a whole film. Or at least my part in it. I loved it, it was a hoot so I’m looking forward to see it. It was crazy pants. I don’t quite know how that happened.”


She also stars in “Puzzle,” which IndieWire film editor Kate Erbland reviewed out of Sundance. In the film, Macdonald portrays a suburban housewife who discovers a knack for solving jigsaw puzzles, which leads to a new world for her.

“That is a film that I did in New York last summer. It’s almost a coming-of-age [film] though she’s middle-aged, you know? She’s finally coming into her own, she’s there but not there. She’s unseen in her own little pocket in the world. It’s about this quiet little journey. It’s very quiet, sweet film.”

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Macdonald hopes that her roles continue to evolve, since that will keep her career going.

“I’m hoping I’m in it for the long haul. I’ve been doing it a long time,” she said. “I wasn’t sure of when I started that it was something that was going to go on. So after ‘Trainspotting’ when I got a TV film actually after that. That was my next job. I thought, ‘Ooh, so I am going to do something else.’ And then after each job, I always do little inwards hurrah. It’s something I really enjoy and want to do forever.”

”The Child in Time” premieres on Sunday, April 1 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

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