Kate Dickie: 'I’m definitely attracted to complicated characters'

“I don’t read about myself on the internet. The best advice Andrea Arnold gave me on my first film was ‘don’t Google yourself’”

Sitting across from me in a busy Glasgow cafe, Kate Dickie is reacting to the fact that I’m glancing at my mobile phone as I reel off a lengthy list of her film and TV roles. This month alone sees three of her 2013 films arrive on DVD, each one showing a different side to the actress.

From the manipulated Chrissie of Jon S Baird’s Filth to the emotionally scarred Cathy of Paul Wright's For Those In Peril via the champagne quaffing Anne of John McKay’s Not Another Happy Ending, there’s a range to Dickie which clearly appeals to both directors and audiences.

Growing up in Lanarkshire, Perthshire and Dumfriesshire, a love of acting in school took Dickie to Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the The Royal Conservatoire of Glasgow) in the 1990s.

“I think that when I discovered I could be someone else and be able to explore other emotions and situations, it was just what I needed,” she says. “When I get given a character, I feel like I carry them about with me and I have a responsibility to give them what they deserve and what the script deserves.”

After college Dickie moved to Holland, returning to Scotland a year later to focus on a theatre career. “I came back but didn’t get an agent for years, I kept putting it off. I was doing interesting things like Theatre Cryptic and then I did Tinsel Town with Raindog for the BBC. Caroline Paterson and Stuart Davids were involved in the Glasgow Arts Centre and Raindog came out of that, they both directed some of Tinsel Town, so did Davey Mackay.

“We filmed it in 1999 and it was on in 2000. Round about that time there was Queer as Folk, but it was quite a full on series for Glasgow. The main protagonists were two gay men and my character was bisexual. It was really fun and we had a great time filming it.”

Roles in short films and TV followed, including parts in Rab C Nesbitt and Taggart - “When you were drama school you wanted to do a Taggart, it was almost a rite of passage. I ended up doing two” - before Andrea Arnold's 2006 film, Red Road, introduced her to a global audience with the role of grieving CCTV operator, Jackie.

“I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I was kind of flung in at the deep end,” says Dickie of the promotional whirlwind that followed. “I’d never walked a red carpet before. I remember Andrea phoning up and saying we’d got into competition at Cannes and I thought that was good. My partner’s mum and dad and were saying ‘Should any of us come?’ and I was saying ‘It’s just a film festival’ so I went on my own and it was mental, in a really exciting way.

“I took a panic attack before the first screening. I said I was going to wait in the hotel room and I had my hands around the door jam. It was a fantastic experience, especially with someone like Andrea, who looked after me. We had a great laugh. I went so many places with Red Road, different film festivals, and it was a real learning curve.”

Since then, Dickie has moved back and forth between film and TV, including 2008’s Somers Town for director Shane Meadows and 2009’s harrowing Wasted, which reunited her with directors Caroline Paterson and Stuart Davids.

In 2010, the opportunity arose to star in an Edinburgh-set horror film, Outcast, despite the fact the actress won’t watch them herself. “I watch horror films like someone who’s never been to the cinema before! I liked that Outcast was set in this urban world but with these myths and other world around the peripheries.”

Mention that many Sighthill flats have since been demolished causes Dickie to shake her head. “Sighthill had this amazing community spirit. I’ve got a bee in my bonnet just now about the way these places are portrayed in the media, Benefits Street and things like that, this scaremongering of the poor and the vulnerable by the Tory Government. We should be more scared of what the rich are doing.”

The same year saw the release Morag McKinnon’s Donkeys, the semi-sequel to Red Road originally planned as the middle film in the ambitious Advance Party Trilogy. Dickie returned as Jackie, though a different version of the character seen in Andrea Arnold’s film. Co-starring James Cosmo, Donkeys had a troubled production history which found it gathering dust on a shelf before finally being released to cinemas. It went on to win two Scottish BAFTAs.

Kate Dickie, Brian Pettifer, James Cosmo and Morag McKinnon

“Morag’s a great director to work with and James Cosmo is amazing, him and Brian [Pettifer],” says Dickie. “Donkeys walks the line between making you laugh one minute and pulling the rug out from beneath you the next. That’s Colin McLaren’s writing. There was such a beautiful quality to their friendship, James just made me want to cry all the time. We thought we were going to do three but the third was never made. Donkeys didn’t quite reach the audience I would have liked, but anyone I know that’s seen it loves it.”

A hit US TV show, in the shape of HBO’s Game of Thrones, followed in 2011. “That’s been an incredible project to be involved with. The directors you work with and the people involved, the scale and the fantastic production values. My character is troubled, shall we say, and she’s still breastfeeding her son who’s eight or nine. She’s not well liked by other characters or probably the audience, but I know why she’s like she is. It’s like she’s ready to snap at any point and has suffered a lot of tragedies.

“When you meet her she’s a very isolated woman and there are a lot of wars going on. Lady Lysa wants none of it. It was a really exciting project. I was involved in the first season and I remember sitting with the other actors and wondering where it would go. My pal went over to America and told me how huge it was. I don’t have Sky Atlantic I’ve not seen season three yet.”

Discussion moves on to how the actress chooses her roles - is there a Dickie master plan? “I see myself as a jobbing actor. I’m definitely attracted to complicated and dark characters. I feel lucky if I get interesting characters to play and I want to enjoy every experience.”

Those used to seeing Dickie in down-to-Earth British films may have been surprised to see her popping up in Ridley Scott’s 2012 sort-of prequel 1979’s Alien, Prometheus.

“It was surprising to me to see me popping up in that one!” laughs Dickie. “I had a great time on that. The first month I couldn’t quite believe I was there and I remember thinking ‘I’m either having this vivid dream or I’ve lost the plot and I’m delusional’. Then I thought they’d maybe meant to call Kate Winslett, it just seemed too surreal.”

The chance to work with Scott was the main reason for taking on the role of Ford. “He’s incredible, a powerhouse that doesn’t stop. Alien’s such an amazing film. Then there's Thelma and Louise, I loved that movie when it came out. The cast and the whole concept were exciting. Michael Fassbender was very kind to me, I think he could see I was quite nervous.”

A small role in Scott Graham’s 2012 BAFTA-nominated Shell found Dickie heading to the Highlands for a few days shooting. “I did a short with him a few years back and he asked if I’d look at the role,” she says. "I thought the script was beautiful and I liked the fact it was out of an urban setting. It’s a deep and profound film which used the landscape so well, it became such a big part of it.

"I think Scott’s a really interesting writer, the issues he looks at are very edgy and push boundaries. I like that, being pushed somewhere I don’t feel comfortable but can’t stop watching.”

Dickie starred alongside James McAvoy in Filth

One of the biggest films to come out of Scotland in recent years, 2013’s Filth was the latest adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel. Directed by Jon S Baird, the film starred James McAvoy as Edinburgh copper, Bruce Robertson, while Dickie co-starred as Chrissie.

“I went for a coffee with Jon and we talked about the character,” she explains. “I was excited that he had his vision of Filth and was very strong with it. He was very clear how he saw it and I felt really inspired. When I first read the script I cringed, thinking it was really full on. I put it down and picked it up again and said ‘I have to do this!’. I loved the way Chrissie starts quite needy and wanting and by the end the whole thing’s flipped. What an exciting part to play and project to be part of.”

As might be expected in an Irvine Welsh film, Filth included its fair share of sex, drugs and violence, with Dickie required to be naked in a sex scene with McAvoy.

“In the wrong hands that would have been horrible and a completely different film,” says Dickie. “I gasped while reading the script, but at the same time there was this switch going on in my head. Once that happens I’m going down this road, like a flume, there’s no stopping me. Then meeting Jon and hearing his ideas, I had no doubt in my mind. When there’s trust and security on set, and this is with the director and the other actors, you can be free. That’s not just about being physically naked but also emotionally. Getting your clothes off is never fun, but you can be shut off from that.

“I find that being naked emotionally, that’s when you need to feel really safe. That’s when the director/actor relationship and the vibe on the set is vital. I did read something about Filth, it must have been a review, and someone had written something along the lines of ‘poor Kate Dickie doing this kind of thing again’ and I thought ‘Noooo, I choose this’ and I wish people would see past the being naked.

"Those characters are just one bit of it and there are other exciting elements. I wouldn’t like people to think I was the go to person for getting your kit off, because I’ve turned down a lot of roles like that. These are all really exciting choices for me and I feel really honoured to be asked to even audition. I feel it’s interesting that people get fixated on those things.”

The release of the upbeat Not Another Happy Ending within a few weeks of the darker Filth once again raised questions of what Scottish cinema should and could be. Does Dickie think it’s been a bit too depressing in recent years?

“I get asked about this a lot. Scotland has many geographical areas and that’s what makes something like Shell so interesting, there was no light and fluffiness, it wasn’t ‘Let’s go into the countryside and go all och aye the noo’. That’s what I loved about Not Another Happy Ending, it was lighthearted and easygoing and funny and Karen [Gillan] is a dream. There’s definitely scope for more films like that, because Scotland isn’t a one-note culture or country.

“I love the thought of a Scottish film studio, I don’t see what’s not to love about it. Different cities and environments. I think it would be great. Are they not building studios for Outlander? We need to nurture talent, both Scottish and other talent that wants to come here. I think it makes a lot of sense, it could only be good. We could also do more post-production, encourage new talent.”

Would she ever move into producing or writing? “Me? No! I wouldn’t know what to do as a producer, I’d be too scared and would cry all the time! I used to write poetry and perform it 20 years ago. I ended up writing something for Nicola McCartney’s lookOUT Theatre Company and one of the last projects was getting four people to write 20 minute monologues and they get performed. I wrote one and it was the most frightening experience of my life, the amount of sweat and stress.

“These days, instead of counting sheep, I get to sleep every night by writing the first page of my novel in my head, but I never get past the first page because I fall asleep. It changes every time and I never remember it the next night.”

Finally, I ask if there are any roles she’d like to play? “I don’t have any specific roles in mind,” she says. “I sometimes feel I’m lurching through life, and I know it’s not like that but I see people who seem to have plans and I think it frightens me to look that far ahead. I like to just wait and see.”

Related links

James McAvoy on Filth

Jon S Baird on directing Filth