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Actor Emma McDonald: ‘After he saw me in a school play, Michael Frayn set me up with an agent’

She got into acting after playwright Michael Frayn saw her in a school play by chance and was so impressed that he set up a meeting with an agent. Emma McDonald chats to Giverny Masso about her latest role in Macbeth at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre and discusses why she believes it is important to have hobbies outside of work…

How did you get into theatre?

I started off doing school plays. I went to St Marylebone School in London and I was in a production of Anything Goes. Michael Frayn [1] came to see his granddaughter in the show and afterwards he wrote this lovely letter to the school saying that he enjoyed it and that I was wonderful in it, and if I wanted to pursue acting he would love to try to help.

What happened next?

He set up a meeting with Dallas Smith at United Agents, who came to see me in a show at Nottingham Uni, where I was doing a four-year sciences degree. United Agents signed me and it was completely mad – I’d be doing a production at Sheffield Crucible while running back and forth to Nottingham for exams. I actually missed a couple of exams and had to take them in Mumbai the next year, where I was doing something called the Tuk Tuk Challenge [which involves travelling through the country in a tuk-tuk].

How important are the hobbies you have outside your job as an actor?

I love exploring and challenging myself in that way. It’s so important to have things outside work that stimulate you and that you have a passion for. As well as adventure stuff, I make headdresses. I started off making them for festivals, and then selling them. I’ve actually sold two to the National Theatre for a community show.

Tell me about Macbeth.

The production itself is different as it is set to music. A couple of people have come into the Watermill saying: “I want to book tickets to Macbeth the musical” – which it’s not! Instead, the music adds to the words and offsets the text. We’ve got some Rolling Stones in there, Johnny Cash, Glass Animals and the XX. There are 10 of us in the company, all actor-musicians and it’s a 50/50 male-to-female split. I play Lady Macbeth, and because it’s been done so many times before I tried to block it all out and approach it like a new bit of writing. I play violin and saxophone and I also sing in the production. I’m going to be playing drums and piano too. It’s very young and exciting, and the movement work is phenomenal. It’s very much an ensemble piece.

What has been your biggest career challenge to date?

In general, it’s balancing my time. A specific challenge came on a film I did earlier in the year, called Get Luke Lowe, where I had to do all my own stunts, including hitting an actor in the head with a baseball bat. I also had to pour boiling water on him from a kettle – the poor guy really got put through it! My biggest challenge in this production is self-inflicted: Billy [Postlethwaite, who plays Macbeth] and I get into the pond [next to the Watermill Theatre] in the mornings for a cold-water dip. If I can face that, I know I can face anything.

CV: Emma McDonald

Training: None
First professional role: Georgiana Darcy in Pride and Prejudice at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield (2016)
Agent: Dallas Smith at United Agents

Macbeth runs at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, until March 30. More information is available at watermill.org [2]

The Big Interview: Michael Frayn [1]