At the beginning of the last decade, 30-year-old actor Danielle Macdonald packed up her belongings and moved from her native Australia to Los Angeles in the hopes of finding acting work that she wasn’t finding Down Under. She got a one-shot on “Glee,” was cast in the Brit Marling-starring, eco-terrorist drama The East, and has worked on and off since then doing bit parts in everything from “Pretty Little Liars,” “2 Broke Girls,” and “American Horror Story” to Clark Gregg’s Trust Me and Amy Berg’s Every Little Thing. Little did she know that in 2016, when musician-turned-writer-director Geremy Jasper cast her as the lead in his feature debut Patti Cake$, that her life as a virtual unknown would change. After more than a year being workshopped and rewritten as part of the Sundance Directors Lab, Patti Cake$ (2017) became the story of a lonely but confident 20-something woman from New Jersey whose dream is to become the next big hip-hop sensation.
Later in 2017, she also showed up in Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, and soon she was showing up in several films a year, including Skin, the Netflix hits Birdbox and Dumplin’ (as well as the streamer’s popular series “Unbelievable” and “Easy”), Paradise Hills, I Am Woman, and last year’s French Exit.
In her latest work, Falling for Figaro, Macdonald is given her first starring role since Patti Cake$ in the story of Millie, a brilliant young American fund manager living in the UK who leaves her unfulfilling job and long-term boyfriend to chase her lifelong dream of becoming an opera singer in the Scottish Highlands. She begins intense vocal training lessons with renowned but fearsome singing teacher and former opera diva Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Joanna Lumley). It is there she meets Max (Hugh Skinner), another of Meghan’s students who is also training for the upcoming “Singer of Renown” contest. What begins as a brutal competition between Millie and Max slowly turns into something more, and although this sounds like the set-up for a romantic comedy, instead, much like Patti Cake$ (and Macdonald’s life as well), it’s more about a woman throwing caution to the wind and pursuing her dreams while she still can. Directed by Ben Lewin, the film is light and breezy, for sure, but it’s also inspiring and very funny at times, thanks in large part to Lumley and the great Scottish character actor Gary Lewis.
I had a chance recently to chat with Macdonald (our third time speaking over the years) about the film, working opposite a legend like Lumley, and the film’s message about following your dreams. Please enjoy…
When you first read the screenplay or heard about this character, what was it about Millie that you latched onto and thought “I can do something with this”?
Honestly, the dialogue in the script was quirky and unique, and I love a good rom-com. So I saw this fun rom-com, but then to have it be bright and quirky but also have that British/Australian sensibility to it was really fun. Also, I’m a huge Joanna Lumley fan, so that made it a no-brainer.
Since you brought it up, she’s a bonafide icon, without question. What do you learn from working so closely with her, about acting, comedy, being a human being?
She’s amazing and such a great human being. She’s caring and kind to everyone. She’s incredibly intelligent and a really amazing woman, she really is—very compassionate as well. Having someone like that around, someone who is also incredibly non-judgmental, she makes you want to be better. Her comedic timing and her whole essence leads you to believe there’s nothing she can’t do. She’s so in it at all times. She never needed a second take—she got it, but she didn’t need it. It’s amazing and inspiring to be around some people, and she’s definitely one of those people.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that wasn’t you singing opera in the movie.
[laughs] That is correct, yeah.
So what is the toughest part about pretending to sing opera? I imagine you have to match the breathing method of an opera singer still. That seems like it would be tiring.
The toughest part is singing opera badly, I would say. I did have singing lessons and had to learn the songs, so I could do it properly on set and be replaced in post. It’s terrifying because you’re still up there performing, some days are easier than others for some songs. For some songs, we could have the vocal track play really loudly as I was going along with it, which is great. And sometimes we had to record it silent, so people could hear me, and that part was terrifying, but was honestly so fun and challenging in a whole different way.
Were you much of an opera buff before this, or have you become one as a result of doing this?
I definitely wasn’t an opera buff, but I have become more of one now. If I see an opera is playing in a city where I am, I’ll think “Oh, I should see that,” whereas before it never would have entered my brain. I’ve seen a couple live now and would love to go again when the world opens back up. I watched a lot of YouTube clips for a lot of different songs and have such a different appreciation for it now than I used to. Before, I was just like “Oh, that’s cool.” I didn’t really think about what went into it. And now, knowing what goes into it, I know what an incredible feat it is to sing like that. It’s a really beautiful art-form, and I really enjoy it. I find opera incredibly entertaining, honestly.
My father was a big opera fan, and the way he tried to convince me to give it a try when I was younger was by pointing out that someone always dies in an opera. Your character says something similar to someone in this movie.
Literally always! Someone always dies in opera; they’re so dramatic.
I read somewhere that you might be doing something with Bo Burnham. Is that still a thing or is that a vicious rumor?
It was a real thing and it did get shelved for now, and I don’t know if it’s going to become a real thing. Who knows what the future holds, but it’s on pause for right now.
Based on this movie, do you recommend everyone taking time out of their life—especially when they’re young enough to do so—and pursuing their dream that they might not be able to later on in life?
It’s never that easy. I’m not saying you should move from London to the Scottish Highlands. I’m not saying leave your life, but definitely take a step in the direction of what you want to do, follow your passions for sure. Even if it’s a tiny baby step that you need to take at first because everything else seems too scary, take that step and see if it keep growing and keep taking more steps. It’s your happiness, you have to follow that.
Danielle, it was great to see you again. Best of luck with this. Thanks for talking.
It was great seeing you too. Thank you. Bye.
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