April 2024

Danielle Macdonald is levelling up

The Australian actor is booked, busy and feeling blessed. By Courtney Thompson

PHOTOGRAPHY by Manolo Campion

STYLING by Rachel Wayman

A 20-year-old Danielle Macdonald was sitting on set in New York City, absolutely petrified. It had only been a year since she moved to the US to pursue a career in Hollywood, and she was playing her first leading role for the thriller, Every Secret Thing. Starring opposite Diane Lane and Dakota Fanning, Macdonald recalls looking around at the bustling film production and thinking, “I am terrified.” Picking up on her anxious energy, one of the film’s producers approached her and struck up conversation. “I remember telling her I was nervous and she was like, ‘are you kidding me?’” Macdonald says. “She told me this story about how she was once terrified and how like, you know, a director inspired her essentially in that moment.” It bears noting here that the producer who was sharing their vulnerabilities to affirm a young Macdonald also happened to be Oscar award-winning actor Frances McDormand.

“That always stuck with me,” Macdonald continues. “Because she told me this personal story about how she was nervous on one of her first jobs. I was like, ‘wow, so you were once me and you're someone that I see as like, holy. She just helped ground the situation for me and I've always thought about that. Like, oh, it's always gonna be scary. You're always gonna learn. You can always grow. And no one got to where they are just from nothing.”

Eleven years later, and the days of Macdonald being the rookie on set are a distant memory. When we speak, she’s settling back into life in Los Angeles after one of the busiest 12 months of her career. She started the year in Ireland, where she made the second season of the successful drama, The Tourist, then went to New York for the upcoming comedy If I Had Legs I’d Kick You with Rose Byrne, and finished up 2023 by spending the summer back home in Sydney, filming the latest adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, The Anniversary. “I haven't really had downtime for the last year,” she tells me. “I’ve been going from job to job. So part of it is just like, I'm really excited to have a routine that is my own. Do you know what I mean?”

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Growing up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Macdonald describes her younger self as reserved. She started doing theatre and unlocked a new side of herself. “I felt so at home when I was acting, like I was fairly shy when I first started doing performing arts classes but whenever I was acting, it just, I didn't have to be,” she pauses, finding her words, “I could just kind of let out the parts of myself that for some reason I kept inside.” Despite good grades and a well-rounded extra curricular life, she knew it was always going to be acting and spent all of her free time watching films. “I've just always loved movies,” Macdonald explains. “My dad said we probably kept the video store afloat (back when there were videos) with our rentals alone.”

After graduating, she went to university, but couldn’t escape the desire to be doing something else. “I was like, ‘oh wow, I really don't wanna be here’,” she recalls with a laugh. “I wanna be acting, how do I get to America and act? And I remember thinking that for the whole year I was at uni. So the moment the opportunity came up, I was like, absolutely.” Over her summer break, she went to Los Angeles and planned to just do workshops for a couple of weeks, but ended up landing an audition. “I met a casting director out here from one of the workshops and he literally like, then and there, just called these managers and they were like, ‘yeah, send her over.’” They had her do a screen test for a series regular role in a new sitcom, Huge, that Macdonald ended up booking. As fate would have it, she wasn’t meant to be tied down to a years-long contract (she had to decline the role due to visa issues). “But it was one of those things that, like, without that opportunity, I don’t know how I would've got out here,” she says earnestly. “So I'm so grateful to that even though I wasn't part of it.”

It’s just as well, because if she had gone through with that role, she might've missed out on the indie films that ended up shaping the first half of her career. Her breakthrough came in 2016 with the Geremy Jasper drama (and undeniable charmer), Patti Cake$. Macdonald became the talk of Sundance, where the film premiered, thanks to her turn as the aspiring rapper, Patti. It earned her a standing ovation. This year marks ten years since she first met with Jasper about the film. “It's so weird, like how long it's been, because we all still circle each other's lives,” she says. “I still meet up with Mamoudou (Athie, who played Basterd), I still meet up with Sid (Dhananjay), who played my best friend in the film. Geremy, and the producers — they were young guys who were only a few years older than me — I meet up with them whenever I'm in New York. They're some of my New York family, you know. It’s really nice, because I feel like that's quite rare for a job — especially a job that you did 10 years ago — to still carry on certain relationships. It was a special one.”

To this day, it’s still the project Macdonald is most proud of. “It was just one of those things where it was so far from myself and I genuinely didn't know how I was gonna do it, to be honest,” she admits. “I was like, how, how do I do this? I'm not musical. It forced me to trust myself in a way that I hadn't before. I don't know that anything will ever be that hard again, mentally, to get over. Also because it was the first time I was really putting myself through that. So I am really most proud of that because it pushed me in a way I've never been pushed before. But I also, you know, I'm proud of a few things I've done.”

Macdonald name-checks the 2018 Netflix coming-of-age dramedy, Dumplin’, as one of the other films she holds close. “I felt like it was really cathartic for my 16-year-old self, you know?” she says of the film that saw her star opposite Jennifer Aniston. Macdonald played the young Willodean ‘Dumplin’ Dickson who has a complicated relationship with her former-beauty pageant star mother (Aniston). “It was just one of those things where I know that movie meant a lot to people. And it's funny 'cause it meant a lot to me. I've been told so many times throughout the years how much that meant to people. And I'm like, I'm so honoured and proud to have been a part of something that meant so much to people and to help people feel seen. I'll always be proud of that. Really, more than proud, just honoured that I got to be a part of it.”

Dumplin’ was one of two Netflix films Macdonald filmed back-to-back in 2018. In fact, she tells me she got the audition call for Bird Box — the blockbuster suspense thriller helmed by Sandra Bullock that became the most-watched film on Netflix within 28 days of its release — while filming Dumplin’. She didn’t have enough time to film an audition tape, so they organised for her to talk to the director, Susanne Bier. “I remember I got home at like 3:00am, I slept three hours, woke up, read the script and spoke with Susanne like 30 minutes later,” Macdonald remembers. “She asked me two questions and then was like, ‘okay, thanks, bye.’ And I thought, well that went terribly. I spoke for two minutes and I was so tired. I just read the script and I was like, this is exactly how I see it. I got nothing in me. And then I found out I got the job.”

"I'm so HONOURED and PROUD to have been a part of something that meant so much to people and to have helped people feel SEEN"

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HAIR Keiren Street MAKEUP Linda Jefferyes

“I remember meeting Sandra Bullock for the first time and she was like, ‘oh my God, I just had dinner with Jen and we were talking about you,”’ Macdonald says of the sometimes bizarre out-of-body experiences she still has with her colleagues. “I was like, I don't actually know how to comprehend my life right now, that you two were at dinner and talking about me. It was just one of those weirdly surreal moments where I'm like, what is life?”

Working with heavyweights like Aniston and Bullock has instilled in her an appreciation for the stars who are able to remain human. “It was kind of really amazing because I learned like, it doesn't matter who you are, how big you are, you're a human being and just connect with people, like, don't think of yourself as this amazing thing,” Macdonald explains. “And they really don't. They're just like open, honest, incredible people. And they’re such hard workers. You know, they've got busy lives, Sandy has two kids. But it was one of those things where they were always on time, always knew their lines, always had interesting ideas and suggestions. Always asking questions like, ‘Hey, if the camera is really tight, how can I get like half an eye in so that she can see me and connect?’ You know what I mean? It's not those crazy stories that you hear about people, where it's like they're not even on set.

“When you work with these incredible people, they're at that level and they stay at that level for a reason. And they also have respect for everyone. That was really incredible to see. You hear horror stories about Hollywood, and I'm like, no, you guys are what make me wanna be in this. You guys are what make this experience fun. So I learned a lot from them.”

"At the end of the day, what decides it for me is my gut INSTINCT"

But one of the remarkable things about Macdonald is that even when working with stars like Aniston, Bullock or Jamie Dornan — who she plays opposite in The Tourist — her performances stand on their own. She’s a performer who can traverse genre and brings a raw humanity to her roles that is singular. “At the end of the day, what decides it for me is my gut instinct,” she tells me of how she decides what projects to pursue. “If there's a director I really want to work with, if I think there's like a really great cast or just a story that I can't put down — there're always things that stick out to me. But mostly it’s always just a gut feeling. You either fall in love with the story or you don't.”

Today, Macdonald is still splitting her time between Los Angeles, New York and Sydney. When I ask if she has any desire to permanently move back to Australia, she’s unsure. “I wanna get home as much as I possibly can,” she explains, noting that her recent experience working on The Anniversary in Sydney was the first time she felt like her personal life and work collided, offering a familiarity she hadn’t experienced before. “My whole family's here and all my like high school friends and all of my other friends from Sydney. Then I also really like everyone I'm working with and a lot of the crew were from the same hometown as me. So we had mutual friends, one of the crew members, her uncle, was my year coordinator in high school.”

“So I love working there and I wanna get back home as much as possible, even if that just means more trips. But I don't fully know where I end up. Acting has really taught me, like, I really have no idea what I'm doing next month or even next week, let alone the next 10 years. So I really am open to just going with the flow as long as it feels like home.”

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