Kelly MacDonald Discusses Her Leading Role in ‘Puzzle’ and the Hard Work of Finding Oneself

Halfway through “Puzzle” housewife Agnes (Kelly MacDonald) angrily confronts her mentor and lover Robert (Irrfan Kahn). Denigrating the big picture importance of jigsaw puzzles, she asks, “Why are we doing this?” Robert’s answer hits at the thematic core of this quiet, character-oriented movie. “Life is random, but when you finish a puzzle you know you’ve made all the right choices.”

“Puzzle,” originally based on the Argentine film “Rompecabezas,” is the story of Agnes, self-effacing and dedicated to the role society has given her. She married young. She cooks, cleans and otherwise supports her husband Louie (David Denman) and her sons, Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) and Gabe (Austin Abrams). They take her for granted.

This soft repression continues until Agnes discovers her talent for completing jigsaw puzzles in record time. Keeping it a secret, Agnes travels to a puzzle store in Manhattan where she sees a request for a “puzzle partner.” She answers the ad and meets Robert, a recently divorced puzzle master looking for a new partner for the upcoming National Championship. They schedule practice sessions for twice a week in New York City.

Robert and Agnes begin an affair. Louie finds out. Like Robert said, “Life is random.”

There are no cardboard characters in this film. No easy villains. First time feature director Marc Turtletaub shows the same humane sensitivity that must have guided him as producer of “Little Miss Sunshine.” “Puzzle” is well cast with outstanding performances from everyone. The contrast between locations in Manhattan and Bridgeport define each character and the environment in which they were shaped.

A quiet power arises deep from within the talented actress Kelly MacDonald.  Since her memorable debut in “Trainspotting” in 1996, McDonald has performed in big budget fantasies like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two,” and episodic television. Born and raised in Glasgow, the Scottish actress was the voice of the rebellious Merida in Disney’s “Brave.” Presently, she can be seen in “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” as well as “Puzzle.”

MacDonald sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss her role of Agnes in “Puzzle” and the challenge of portraying a devoted mother and wife lost in the repression of her domestic role.

You are known for your facility with accents. How do you describe Agnes’ accent and the work it required?

The movie takes place in Bridgeport, Connecticut, so it’s a Bridgeport accent. I only had the week before production began to learn it. I had a dialogue coach, very lovely person. And she gave me some really good material she had found online. But it’s like anything. You can be good at anything if you put in the hours.

It’s such a different locale than you may be used to. What drew you to the script?

I just loved the script. It wasn’t about some big jigsaw competition. No big dramatic thing happening but it was completely compelling. Her (Agnes’) story felt very real, very intriguing. I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into it.

Again, it took place in a different location than maybe you are used to. Did you find you had to make some adjustment to the culture?

I think there are things you grow up with. These certain women that are lost in their own families. I don’t think that’s cultural. It’s sort of a universal thing. It could be set in any country or any era.

Louie was very old fashioned. He could have been like a cardboard cutout. But David brought elements to that role that made him someone you could feel great empathy for. He couldn’t be just someone who was bad.

The house we filmed at in Yonkers took David and me back in time a bit. It felt like we could have been making a film in the fifties.

Your character Agnes experiences so many dramatic changes to her life. And yet the film is often quiet and restrained. What was it like working on such a jewel of a film?

It was a small film. It didn’t have a big budget or anything. But the people, the crew that were there, it was a privilege to work with them.

The director was very open. It was a very collaborative set. Filming it was like filming two different movies. I shot with the family those first few weeks and then for the last two, I shot with Irrfan.

But from day one with the family, it just felt very honest and very real with everyone talking through each other. The characters all felt very fleshed out. The kids had their own personalities. It was interesting what they did with the oldest son Ziggy. Because he is the eldest son, he could have been expected to follow after his dad, like he was passing on his dad’s attitude about family and work. But at some point, things have to change. That’s life.

There are many scenes that involved jigsaw puzzles. The initial ones were at home and then at Robert’s apartment and finally the championship competition. Just the fact that you did a puzzle at various stages of completion must have required a strategy or at least a detailed focus on how to handle the puzzle while at the same time acting in the scene. How did you do that?

I like to do puzzles and I got quite into it. I stole a couple from work, not that they’d be happy with that. But I had to sit and work out which pieces of the puzzle I was going to do and make sure I remembered the order and where they were and that sort of thing. It was really hard but it was something I had to do so I did it.

But you have to understand that certain stages of the puzzles were already built. The prop people had made these different stages. Also I would cheat a little bit if it benefited the scene.

What do you love most about acting? What do you hope audiences take away from your performances?

If it moves people, I’m happy. I want to tell a story in a way that makes people think and feel something.

Puzzle” opens July 27 in New York and Los Angeles.