D ESTINY. Something Mary Queen of Scots knew all about. Fitting, then, that destiny should appear to have had a hand in the casting of ex-Spooks star Shauna Macdonald as Mary Stuart in the Royal Lyceum’s new production of Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which opens tomorrow.
The Edinburgh-raised actress explains, “I was supposed to play Mary once before but it never came to fruition. We only got through six weeks of rehearsals before it imploded, so in a weird way it feels as though I have been destined to play this role.” Laughing, she cautions, “but it still has time to implode, so I won’t count my stars until I’m actually on the stage.”
It’s not the first time that Macdonald has worked at the Lyceum either. In 2002 she appeared in Howard Baker’s Victory, and recalls, “That was my first professional appearance in Edinburgh but this will actually be my third appearance on that stage as I also did a National Theatre production of Realism there.”
Born in Malaysia, Macdonald came to Edinburgh at the age of three.
“My dad was working there,” she recalls, “I don’t remember much about the country but it’s bizarre. I remember drinking this oat drink about five years ago and thinking ‘That’s weird, I’ve had that before.’ I asked my mum about it and she said, ‘You used to drink that when you were two.’ So some things stay with you. Apart from that, however, my memories of Malaysia are just shapes and colours. I’d love to go back to see where I was born and see if I feel as though I belong there.”
Raised in Portobello, Macdonald attended Tower Bank primary and then Portobello High, but she got her first taste of acting at Musselburgh’s Brunton Youth Theatre, alongside some now famous names.
“When I was 14 I did a show with the Brunton Youth Theatre. It was a collaboration with Paisley Youth Theatre called Earth Crack and I got the lead part.
“It was so thrilling. David Sneddon played opposite me and James McAvoy was in it too. It was just so exciting and I remember thinking could this be it, but I wasn’t a very confident kid and it took me quite a few years, until I was 18 in fact, to be brave enough to say this was what I wanted to do.”
At 17, Macdonald found herself applying for university places, despite knowing her heart lay elsewhere. All that changed when she attended an open day at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
“Luckily I got in. You have to be good, but you do need a whole lot of luck on your side on the day,” she says modestly.
Straight out of drama school, the fledgling actress found herself thrust into the world of counter-espionage when she landed the role of Sam Buxton in Spooks, a role she played for two years - not that she was any stranger to seeing herself on screen.
“While I was in my second year at drama college I got a lead part in the feature film The Rocket Post, with Kevin McKidd. Back then it was kind of unprecedented to be able to do that and continue with your studies but I was adamant that I did want to finish my course,” she says.
Within one month of graduating, Macdonald was back in front of cameras on The Grid in Spooks.
“I don’t think I appreciated how big a break that was at the time... actually, I know I didn’t,” she confesses. “I thought it was a knock-on effect of doing the film but knowing more about the business now, it wasn’t - the film hadn’t even been released at the time.
“By my second series I knew that they weren’t going to go anywhere with the character and felt trapped. You are in it for five or six months at a time and, ironically, I felt it was holding me back. I wanted to get my career started so I asked my agent to get me out of doing a third series. She did, but actually I think they were very happy... both sides were a bit stuck over what to do with Sam.”
Spooks is just one of Macdonald’s TV credits, others include Taggart, State Of Play and Sea Of Souls. You might also know her from the 2005 horror film The Descent, in which she played Sarah, one of six women trapped in an unmapped cave system where they are hunted by subterranean flesh-eating humanoids.
She reprised the role four years later in a sequel, and reveals that like her character in the films, she too is a fitness fanatic.
“I’ve always been sporty in a kind of Jack of all trades way. I was never really good at one thing until I got into the triathalon which caters for that; swimming, running and cycling, but you don’t have to excel at any one.
“I’ve just completed an iron man actually, and I love running, doing marathons for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. As The Descent came straight after Spooks it was definitely the right choice, and it wasn’t until The Descent that I got cast in sporty parts, until then I’d always been the dreamy young thing. After The Descent the scripts I got were for evil psycho killers.”
From tomorrow, at the Lyceum, however, the 30-year-old will be focused on finally taking to the stage as Queen Mary I of Scotland.
“My Mary is very compassionate. She isn’t an innocent, she is savvy in that she is a monarch and was always groomed to be a queen. Things go bad for her, yet there is still an innocent joy about her.”
Much of that is in Lochhead’s poetic scripting
“Mary’s dialogue is full of fun, very sensual. She speaks with a French accent which always makes it sound a bit more exotic.”
So how is Macdonald’s French accent?
She laughs, “I’ll let audiences be the judge of that.”
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, tomorrow-October 15 (not Sundays/Mondays), 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm), £14.50-£29, 0131248 4848