James Harkness, Kelly MacDonald, and John Hannah in THE VICTIM | ©2019 Britbox

James Harkness, Kelly MacDonald, and John Hannah in THE VICTIM | ©2019 Britbox

In Britbox’s four-part drama THE VICTIM, shown earlier this year on the BBC, Kelly Macdonald plays Anna Dean, a married mother in Edinburgh, Scotland. Anna and her husband Lenny (Jamie Sives) have two remaining young children, but Anna has never recovered emotionally from the murder of her elder son. When the boy’s presumed killer is free, Anna is accused of identifying him online, which leads to the man being beaten almost to death. Is he actually the killer? And whether he is or not, are Anna’s actions justified? John Hannah plays the police detective looking into the matter.

Macdonald, herself a native of Glasgow where THE VICTIM was primarily shot, won an Emmy for her role in the telefilm THE GIRL IN THE CAFÉ, and was nominated for a Supporting Actress Emmy for her work as Margaret Schroeder, a role she played for five seasons on HBO’s BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Macdonald is also known for a multitude of other characters, including those she played in both TRAINSPOTTING films, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and NANNY McPHEE, as well as being the voice of Merida in Disney’s animated feature BRAVE.

When Macdonald sits down to discuss THE VICTIM, she is joined by Paul Sheehan. Sheehan is Chief Operating Officer of STV Productions, the company that produced the miniseries.

ASSIGNMENT X: When did you come into the process of making THE VICTIM? Was the role of Anna written for you, or did you come in once it was all scripted?

KELLY MACDONALD: I don’t think it was written for me …

PAUL SHEEHAN: Well, we had it in development for about four years before we were in production, so when we were green-lit, and we started the casting process, Kelly was very much top of the production team’s list. And that went out to Kelly’s agent, and when we got the interest, and when Kelly confirmed she was able to take part, we were absolutely delighted because she’s a fantastic actress.

MACDONALD: [appreciative] Aww.

SHEEHAN: But also, Rob Williams, our writer, has continued to write the rest of the scripts with Kelly in mind. So in terms of Kelly’s persona, her age, all of those elements, which dictated to a large extent the other cast, the family, and [other aspects]. So although Kelly wasn’t there at the beginning, it became very molded around Kelly.

AX: Is THE VICTIM based on a book, or is it based on something that actually happened?

SHEEHAN: No, it’s not an adaptation, it’s an original idea by Rob Williams. Rob, our writer, is fascinated by the criminal justice process. And he’s worked in prisons, he’s taught in prisons, and he’s just very, very interested in concepts of punishment, particularly concepts around where the criminal justice system may fail victims of crime, and whether there are other ways, particularly of restorative justice.

Kelly MacDonald in THE VICTIM | ©2019 Britbox

Kelly MacDonald in THE VICTIM | ©2019 Britbox

AX: Anna is caught up in grief over her dead son. How well is she dealing with the fact that she does have two remaining young children?

MACDONALD: Not at all well. She’s on the surface a good parent. She’s loving, she’s there, but she’s never processed her grief, and she’s got stuck in that anger stage. She’s a desperate woman. She desperate for her pain to end, for justice to be served, and she feels like everybody failed her, and her dead son. And it starts to play havoc in her life in a wee bit. The action she takes has this devastating effect on everybody around her. It’s the domino effect on so many other people.

SHEEHAN: She’s such a victim of trauma and anxiety, in terms of her heightened protectiveness, that actually, for her remaining children –

MACDONALD: She’s so damaged, she’s been very damaging.

AX: So she’s protective, but not perhaps as nurturing as she might be?

SHEEHAN: I think she is really nurturing, but she’s so protective, particularly of the young son, that it’s sort of damaging. And I guess, as any victim of trauma, that sense of anxiety – she’s also frozen in her grief, and she’s frozen in her anger. So although she’s enormously angry, and you see it at points when she really does lose it, she’s also steely in her quest for justice.

AX: A lot of people know you from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, where you’re playing an Irish character, and other things where you’re playing non-Scots. As you are Scottish, and THE VICTIM is set and made in Scotland, when this came up, were you looking to work in Scotland, is it a relief to work in Scotland …?

MACDONALD: I wasn’t actually looking for something set in Scotland. I work more from London, really, so it was an appealing thought, the fact that I could be in my own home while we were shooting. The best part about that was, usually when I’m filming, say, in London, on days off, they’re my travel days. I travel back home, and so I don’t get to really rest on those days. So my days off on this job were actually …

SHEEHAN: Just a taxi.

MACDONALD: [laughs] Yeah.

AX: How did it work out that you’re shooting Glasgow for Edinburgh? I apologize, but not being Scottish, I don’t know if that’s like trying to shoot Los Angeles for New York, or how different are those two big Scottish cities from one another?

SHEEHAN: It’s not uncommon, really, to do that. It’s only an hour on the train, so I think one of the big challenges was the courtroom, because we were three or four weeks in the court scenes. It’s a courtroom drama. In an ideal world, we would’ve shot on location in an unused court. But courts are busy, so we built that as a set, and that was in a warehouse on the outskirts of Glasgow. It’s an incredible set once you’re inside it, because you really feel you’re in this Victorian courtroom, but it’s all fictitious. But it allows you to use jibs, and the walls come away, so it allows you to do a lot of different things, but a lot of the exteriors are in Edinburgh.

MACDONALD: We shot in Edinburgh.

SHEEHAN: Physically, the cities are very different, but very complimentary. One is very Georgian, one is very Victorian. So I’m sure lots of eagle-eyed viewers will say, “That’s not Edinburgh.”

AX: Does the Scottish justice system have differences to the English justice system, and would the story play out the same way if it were set here in the U.S., or is that even knowable?

SHEEHAN: Yes is the answer. [The Scottish justice system] is different from the English system – I think it’s actually probably closer to the American system as I understand it. [In Scotland], the procurator fiscal of the Crown office, they are the ones who investigate the crime, and it’s at their discretion how you’d be charged with crimes, which I think is similar to the district attorney kind of system, whereas in the English system, it’s the police who drive an awful lot of the investigation, and have greater involvement and discretion in terms of the charging process. But we’ve also met a lot of legal advisors and people giving advice regarding accuracy. I think any court system, the concept of the criminal justice system being applied really anywhere, I think it’s quite universal.

MACDONALD: The thing that I remember in Scotland is, there are three outcomes – guilty, not guilty, or not proven, which I think is interesting.

SHEEHAN: Yeah. It creates confusion at times. [People understand] if you’re guilty or not guilty, but “not proven,” there are sometimes questions as to whether juries realize what the “not proven” verdict means, because it’s an acquittal, like “not guilty.” But that’s a really good point to raise, because if you say to someone, “Well, it’s not proven, so you’re acquitted, you’re free to go,” it’s not quite like saying, “You’re not guilty.”

MACDONALD: It’s saying you don’t know. Which I think is sort of weird, because “guilty” and “not guilty,” that black and white thing, the whole show is about things aren’t black and white, there are so many gray areas in life, and I think if there’s not enough proof to prove someone guilty or not, just plumping for one over the other, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

SHEEHAN: It must be such an experience and a responsibility to sit on a jury.

MACDONALD: I got called for jury duty, and [under British law] I can’t do it, because I’m recognizable. It’s a funny thing. It’s different here [in the U.S.], because I think Tom Hanks was on a jury. Many differences.

SHEEHAN: Yeah. The other thing that we consciously decided to do was avoid the wigs, because there are two types of lawyers in high court – there are advocates who wear a wig, and then solicitor advocates who only wear gowns [but not wigs], and we opted to go that route, because part of the purpose of those wigs is to anonymize lawyers, that’s the historic reason for it, so that people don’t recognize them in the street. But I don’t think it’s very satisfying from a viewer’s perspective, because there are a lot of lawyers in that courtroom, so it would just be a sea of wigs. So that was an aesthetic decision, but a genuine one, and accurate as well.

AX: Part of the way through THE VICTIM, Anna starts thinking that maybe she got the wrong guy, and obviously, there is some reconsideration there, but as it proceeds, how much of her internal journey is about, “Maybe I got the wrong guy, so who is the right guy?” and how much of it is, “Maybe I shouldn’t have done this”?

MACDONALD: I think the reason this story is such a good one and is so well-written is because it doesn’t ever take you where you expect it to go. It’s not like a procedural drama, it’s not about finding the guy. It’s kind of about this one action a woman takes on social media, about how that just snowballs, and how it affects so many people, and how they all are dealing with that, rather than it being just about, “Let’s get the guy.”

AX: So part of THE VICTIM is about what you do on social media, and how much intention needs to be behind something you do before it rolls out of control?

SHEEHAN: I think so. Earlier, someone had a really enormous question about whether social media was a good thing or not, in terms of it’s such a powerful tool, and it can be a great tool if used in the right way, but it can have devastating consequences. I think that was what Rob really wanted – one of the many questions he wanted to explore with the script, with this story, was trial by social media, how once something’s out there, [it cannot be taken back].

MACDONALD: Now, it used to be that people would say [of print newspapers], “It’s tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper,” of something that’s in the press, and now it’s not that at all. It’s there forever.

AX: Social media has become much more powerful than I think it was when THE VICTIM was first conceived. Do you feel like society has made your show more relevant than you intended when you started?

SHEEHAN: That’s a good question. I don’t think social media was so much in the media, but there’s such an awareness of it in terms of the potential dangers. There’s a lot of great stuff, there’s a lot of social communication and opportunities, but I think it’s interesting when something is written and then is made, and then things happen subsequently, it’s almost as if you’ve forecast the future. But I think it’s something that is very much within the focus of Rob, the writer. [THE VICTIM] was very much influenced by the [real-life] Oscar Pistorius case, and that was a lot of influence, which was a very, very different story, but in many ways, that was a trial by media, as well as social media.

AX: Is there any difference between making something specifically for Britbox, and working for some other company?

SHEEHAN: Well, not so much. This was made for the BBC initially as well, and I think in terms of particularly with U.K. broadcasters, I think most people would be able to watch blindly, not knowing who it was for.

AX: So it’s more a matter of distribution?

SHEEHAN: Well, no, I think it’s tonal. I think it’s about tone and the right casting. This show could easily have started on ITV or Channel 4. It’s unusual, because I think it could sit on any of those channels, but what was really interesting was the press reaction and great critical acclaim.

AX: And what would you both most like people to know about THE VICTIM?

SHEEHAN: It’s an emotional roller-coaster.

MACDONALD: To expect the unexpected. Or maybe, it’s not about what it seems to be about.

This interview was conducted during Britbox’s portion of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with THE VICTIM star Kelly Macdonald and executive Paul Sheehan chat about the new Britbox miniseries


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