The rags-to-riches journey of Margaret Thompson (formerly Schroeder) is one of the more captivating plot lines of Boardwalk Empire. At the end of the HBO Probihition-era drama’s second season, she had just married Atlantic City political boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and, in an effort to make peace with God for her shady choice of companion, signed away her husband’s land to her local Catholic church. In the show’s Season Three premiere, Margaret is suffering the repercussions of her underhanded scheme, with her marriage to Nucky foundering.
Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald is no stranger to playing bold women, from Ewan McGregor’s underage conquest in 1996’s Trainspotting to the feisty Princess Merida in Disney’s Brave. The 36-year-old, who is currently shooting Boardwalk’s season finale in New York (“We’re on the home stretch!”), offered up some insight into her enigmatic character.
In the season premiere, Margaret’s relationship with Nucky is close to nonexistent. Do you think she got what she deserved or is she being treated unfairly?
I think it’s fair enough that Nucky is upset with her, because it was quite a devious thing to do, and she did it knowingly – it wasn’t an accidental thing. It was pretty harsh!
There were a couple of moments where Margaret hints at more of a desire for freedom, and then there’s the final scene of the episode where she’s watching that female aviator fly off into the horizon, which is a pretty blatant metaphor. Is it safe to say that the theme for Margaret this season is independence?
I think last year the theme for Margaret was very much her family and the home and that’s where she was rooted, and I think this season is more about how she’s trying to find something for herself. She wants to be more proactive, and take charge of things a little bit.
You looked rather wistful during that scene, but you mentioned how it was very cold when you shot the first couple of episodes. Were you absolutely freezing when you were filming on the beach?
[Laughs] I really was – is it that obvious? I was kind of furiously freezing! All I could think was I was going to have to go straight to hospital and get my feet amputated, as I was sinking into the freezing sand. They’ve always got thermals for when we need it, but there’s not much you can do with your feet. I just remember, like, female crew members from costume and makeup, they would run toward me in the sand with their Puffa jackets open to make a human tent around me to keep me warm. It was very sweet. They’re a lovely group of people.
Where did you shoot that scene on the beach?
I think that’s somewhere Far Rockaway-ish? I’m not sure. I’m so hopeless anything outside Manhattan. I told someone I was going upstate and I wasn’t – I was going somewhere else completely – so I’m not to be trusted.
What do you think Margaret wants out of life at this point? She’s got the security, she’s got the power, she’s got the money, but she’s still not happy.
She’s not happy. I think she wants to do good. She’s just got this streak of goodness in her, and she wants to help where she can, and sometimes though, it’s helping her more than it’s helping others, so there is that side to her as well. She can be quite, like I said, devious and unpleasant in order to get what she wants. I think that she changes a lot from the first season where the impression was that it was all for her family and for security, and then as the seasons have gone on, you realize it’s not the best way to give your children a stable environment. So she’s very hard to pin down, which makes it really interesting work for me. And from what I hear from the other actors, they feel the same way – everybody’s desperate to know what their character is up to next. I think that bodes well for the show.
Now that you’ve played Margaret for three seasons, do you feel you understand her more, or is she still the enigma that she is for the audience?
I think I understand her more. I think as the seasons have gone on the different sides of her personality have emerged. She did her best with the cards life had dealt her – and she’s kind of been making a mess of things as well. She’s very human, and she’s certainly not one-dimensional. And she’s a product of a pretty rotten childhood.
That brings me to my next question, which is about an episode from last season – “Peg of Old” – where Margaret goes to visit her Irish family in Brooklyn.
I know! I loved all that stuff! It was one of my favorite episodes to shoot.
When you read the script were you like, “Finally! An explanation about her background!”
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so heartbreaking – I mean, I haven’t watched the show, so I don’t know, but certainly to play it was just really emotional and heartbreaking for her to be rebuffed the way she is by her brother.
What can you tell us about Margaret’s relationship with Owen Sleater (Charlie Cox), her husband’s driver and bodyguard, these days? In the season premiere alone, there’s still plenty of sexual tension.
There is! Well, that’s another example of Margaret having some outside interests! There’s definitely a tension and there’s this weird connection and weird sense of history between them because they’re from the same kind of background, the same country. Owen sees right through her when she’s trying to be all Miss Perfect and running a household, and that bothers her. I think she loves and hates him [laughs].
And what can you tell us about that handsome doctor at the hospital [Dr. Mason]?
I know! I know! She’s got plenty of male companionship! She’s hanging out with some good guys.
I like seeing it because she’s certainly not getting any affection from her husband, so she might as well seek it out somewhere else.
I’m not saying it’s affection – I’m not saying anything is happening with anybody – but she needs more. She’s trying to find more.
One of Margaret’s new storylines has to do with educating the women of Atlantic City about health and reproduction – and it looks like she’s going to be spending some more time with Dr. Mason as a result.
I think Margaret’s in quite a privileged position and she’s eager to make some changes for women. And that’s a great thing about the Dr. Mason character – he’s all for that as well. And for a man at that time, that was probably quite unusual. So he’s the one who gets the fire in her belly, really.
Do you see Margaret as a feminist?
I do. I’m sort of terrified of that word in a way – because it’s got a funny connotation. I don’t quite understand what it means now [laughs]. But she’s out to help women and she’s a good role model in her way. I think she’s a bit rubbish in other ways, but mainly she’s someone that’s got aspirations and she wants to make her mark.
Do you think Nucky has irrevocably turned to the dark side now, or can he still be saved?
Well, I think he was there anyway, but it’s just more blatant now. This season you’re going to see why he’s in charge of this really dangerous, corrupt town. It’s not because of his quick sense of humor, his funny asides or his negotiating skills. He’s a very, very dangerous man and I think that’s awesome. It’s brilliant watching Steve do all that stuff.
Is there any hope for Nucky and Margaret at this point?
Oh, who knows? It’s such a complicated relationship and I think they’re very similar people, and I think – Margaret really is a liability in so many ways, so the fact that she’s still around [laughs] – there’s still this thing connecting them. So we’ll see how it pans out.
Does it throw you for a loop as an actor when you’ve spent two seasons in a relatively happy, comfortable bond with your co-star, and now you and Steve Buscemi have to change gears and undo that relationship onscreen?
I think we’ve established a good working rapport, and whether you’re playing scenes where they’re getting on or scenes where they’re fighting it kind of works. I really like it when we’re up against each other rather than when things are going well. The weird thing is, because they’re not a tight unit, and Margaret is finding things outside of that life, I actually have fewer scenes with Steve. And then when I do get to work with him, I’m like, “Yay!”
Do you have any other projects in the works besides Anna Karenina and giving birth [Macdonald is pregnant with her second child] later this year?
No! I really just want to put my feet up for a while and not learn lines and not think about anything else outside my family.
When are you returning to Scotland?
Imminently! I’m very excited. I’m sort of packing with my eyes, every time I walk into the closet I’m like, “I’ll take that, I’ll take that.” It’s been a great year, it’s been really fun – but I’m ready to [head home].