Shauna Macdonald made her name with horror film The Descent. Since then, she’s starred in a variety of genre films, her latest being White Chamber. The film is set in the near future after England has been ravaged by a Civil War. It also screened at this year’s Arrow Video Frightfest. We caught-up with Shauna to find out more about the film, and more importantly, what it’s like to be in a Star Wars movie.
When we last spoke, we were chatting about Nails, a film where you spent most of the run time alone in a bed. When White Chamber begins, it’s just you in a room, I started to get a little bit of Déjà vu…
(Laughs) What is wrong with this actress?! She must just want to torment herself on her own! It’s awful, isn’t it? I think – did you make the distinction about if there’s a car involved, that my characters tend to end up in a lot of car crashes?
Yeah, I know. I don’t write this stuff for one. Both scripts were written by men so I don’t know if that tells you anything at all. I seem to be attracted to the dark side of things. The thing is with that genre, or my experience with that genre, at some point my character is tormented/tortured, and it just so happens in Nails it was she couldn’t move from the bed, and in this one, she can’t actually get out of the room/box. I like to refer to it as a box, it stops the nightmares coming, being stuck in a box is slightly funnier than being stuck in a white chamber.
But you’re absolutely right, it’s me alone again, but not for the whole shoot. We shot this in twelve and a half days, so it was short and sweet, whereas Nails was never-ending (laughs). That was a hard shoot. But this one seemed to go fast. I think if I was expected to do this film over six weeks I may have reconsidered my involvement in the film, but because I knew it was only twelve days, and half of it was gonna be in a chamber and half of it probably was not, I could get my head around it.
It’s funny with those torturing scenes because you have to – obviously, nothing is happening to me – you really just have to go for it. The experiment with extreme heat and extreme cold, that doesn’t happen. Electricity, I’m not being electrocuted, but I don’t know if you noticed the bruising on me. That’s all real. That’s not make-up. Even though I’m not getting tortured, I feel like I’m torturing myself in some weird fashion where I’m throwing myself all over this white chamber. It hurts man. It really did hurt.
Although you weren’t being made excessively warm or cold, I do think that it comes across really well on-screen. You do really feel for your character.
You do weird things when you’re researching for a film and You-Tubing. You have to be careful what you put into your search engines, be prepared for what you see as well, but looking at what physically happens to your body when that goes on is helpful. Paul [Raschid] and I together – I think I insisted he use his phone to search for it – we did look at what happens when you’re electrocuted. It’s not nice. We took some of those choices and put them on film. Also, the reality of things doesn’t always transfer onto films, so you do add your artistic flourish as well.
Some of the topics seem rather timely, is that one of the reasons that made you want to make the film?
Yeah, I guess so. The UK’s at Civil War in the film, and we’re at definitely in a political situation with Brexit and the mistakes with number 45. Everything is uncertain and it seems like we’re on the brink of some sort of horrendous disaster that we have made with our collective choices. It’s not new or anything, you go through history and you’ll find it’s a circle of what happens when people need someone to just tell them how it’s going to be, weirdly, even if that person is a complete maniac. So it does feel that we’re at the brink of something quite scary. Sometimes politically, things have to go tits-up and then everybody gets a grip and gets aware and does stuff and we get on track with things. But certainly reading it, I thought this would be interesting.
I think Paul started to write it not long after the London Riots. I think that inspired him a little bit. What happens when a whole load of people feels that they’re not getting looked after. When does anarchy happen? When do people choose to go to another side? I’m not saying that with the London Riots, that was a different aspect. When does someone become a rebel or a freedom fighter or whatever terminology you want to use? What pushes you to that? What part in your decision making, when do you do that next big leap? Or is it a big leap, or is it accumulative, social norms and all that? So yeah, it was a very interesting time to do a film like this. However, what has kind of shifted is with what’s been going on with the #MeToo movement, some people have picked-up about the woman in power and, although she does make questionable choices, a lot of the press wanted to talk to me about that angle as well. I didn’t even think of it as a woman doing anything, I just thought of it as a person who happens to be female making these terrible choices. You always read into art with what’s going on at the time.
Your character is quite a complex lady, what was it about her that you really liked?
I liked that she was so hard to like. So contained. She’s like a coiled spring waiting to just explode all over the place. I liked the challenge of playing her. I don’t think I’ve played someone like that on film before, someone so controlled and sterile, but there’s this earthquake going on inside of her. That as an acting challenge; I was really interested to play someone like her.
What do you hope that the Frightfest audience will make of the film?
I love my Frightfest audience. I’ve been part of Frightfest for a few years. I did Howl, The Descent Part 2 – I’m sure Descent was there, but I’m not sure I was there with it – but they are always really nice to me. I just hope that they get the film. In terms of being part of a horror festival, it’s a tricky one because it’s a psychological thriller really. Sometimes horror audiences are baying for blood, certainly in Brussels. We went to Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival and I got the sense that they wanted more blood and guts, but that’s just not what the movie is. I think because it’s not all blood and guts, it helped us get into the Edinburgh Film Festival. It’s funny.
I hope they get it. I hope they understand what we were trying to do with it. Not because I don’t think they will get it, they’re very, very intelligent people who know their films. That’s maybe why I’m worried because they have such a knowledge of films. I hope they get that it’s this slow intense burn, turning and twisting and twisting it until there is an explosion at the end.
Since we last spoke you popped up in a Star Wars film, what was that experience like?
Oh yeah, that was really bonkers. So I got a call from my agent, it went to answerphone and it was a bit muffled it was like, ‘mmm Star Wars mmm offer’. I was just, ‘What?!’ Sometimes, this has happened to me before, my agent has someone called Shaun on her list of books and I’ve been sent things for Shaun and I’d had to go, ‘thanks for the offer but I’m Shauna, not the guy.’ So I had a feeling it was that, because I didn’t meet anybody for this, it came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting anything from LucasFilm at all. I called up and asked what was going on and they said that Nina Gold sent your showreel to Rian [Johnson] and he loved it and wants to offer you a part. So instantly I’m spending the money in my head (laughs), and I’m thinking, ‘wow suddenly my genius is noticed’, and they say, ‘well we can’t tell you what part it is, you have to phone Nina’. You never phone someone like that, it’s just not part of the game. You go for an audition and then they phone your agent.
So I phoned Nina Gold, who I hadn’t seen for years, to catch-up on the phone, which was bizarre enough on its own, and she says, ‘so you’re playing a pilot of the resistance force and you’re going to be part of the main speeders. You’ll be flying the speeders and you’ll be working with…’, and she gave me a breakdown of what was happening. ‘But darling you won’t get a script, and I don’t know if you’re going to get lines if I’m honest, because that just gets attributed on the day’. I’m thinking there’s no way I’m going to get lines, everything has been story-boarded within an inch of its life. There’s no way Rian is going to start improvising on stage in Pinewood and go, ‘yeah Shauna what do you think your character would say in this moment?’ Anyway, she said that would be the situation, seven days in Pinewood, what did I think? I was like, ‘yes!’
So I went down, didn’t know what to expect. Pinewood is where I shot Spooks and The Descent, and whenever I’ve been there it’s just been somewhere I go to work. I’m not over-awed by the magnificence. So we went to Pinewood and I meet-up with Darren Morfit for one, who is in Dog Soldiers. I’m like, ‘what are you doing here?’ and he’s like, ‘what are you doing here? ‘I’m in Star Wars’, ‘So am I! This is weird’. There’s a handful of seven or eight of us who were well-known faces, you may not have known their names, but be on the tip of your tongue. You knew their work.
After the first day of filming, we all had a chat with ourselves, ‘Okay we’ve got to take this as an experience. We’re going to be here making the background look amazing! We may get a line, we may not get a line. We’ll definitely get to fly a speeder though, so that’s super exciting’. That was over the course of two months, coming in here and there for seven days and meeting the cast. It did feel like you were at a convention or some crazy ride at Universal Studios where you’re in the set. The set, apart from the green screen stuff, my first day was in the spaceship. It looked like, you went in and you were surrounded by all the cast, Carrie Fisher, everybody is there, R2-D2, BB-8, C-3PO. You’re like, ‘What?! It felt like a dream. It was lots of fun, and I just took it for that. My performance does not blow anyone away. My dad went to the toilet, and when he went to the cinema, he missed me. But it was a fun, cool thing to do, and a nice thing to have on your CV.
Your next project, The Cry, sees you move away from horror/sci-fi. What can you share about that show?
So I think I’m probably not allowed to share too much about it. Jenna Coleman is the lead and it transpires over…. she is going through a trial, a legal trial. Throughout the four episodes, you find out what she is being accused of. It’s a joint production, we filmed it in Australia and Scotland. I play a psychiatrist that’s been hired by the court to ascertain whether she’s of sound mind to be held accountable.
White Chamber screened as part of Arrow Video Frightfest 2018. You can read our review here.