When Kate Dickie was declared Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards last year following her award-winning turn in Andrea Arnold’s debut feature film, Red Road, nobody expected such a rank outsider to end up knocking the Queen into second place. As it is, following fellow BIFA nominee Helen Mirren’s Oscar win last weekend, that’s precisely what Dickie has done. With a BAFTA Scotland win also in the bag, as well as a nomination in Montreal for the star of a film which scooped the Jury Prize in Cannes, such a flurry of red carpet activity is about as far from Red Road’s material as you could get.
As Jackie, the troubled young woman who confronts a tragic incident from her past via the inner-city CCTV network she’s employed to watch over, Dickie gives a fearlessly raw performance. Which is the main reason why, prior to Red Road’s Berlin Film Festival appearance last month, she was named by European Film Promotion as one of 25 ‘Shooting Stars’ to keep an eye on for future success. Previous recipients have included new James Bond Daniel Craig and Oscar-winning star of The Constant Gardener, Rachel Weisz. Following the announcement, one newspaper ran a story accompanied by a cartoon caricature of Dickie’s lean, hauntingly distinctive face. This immortalisation now holds pride of place on the 35-year-old actor’s fridge door.
“All you can see are these really large nostrils,” Dickie says of the image, having just jetted back from Sundance, her most recent date on the international film festival circuit prior to Berlin. Bunged up as she is with a transatlantic cold, and more concerned with arranging child-care for her baby daughter Molly than with the film geek who chased her down the street shouting that she was the girl from Red (+ital)Door(-ital), Dickie remains refreshingly un-star-struck by the experience. “I think Winona Ryder and John Cusack were there,” she says of one possibly star-studded festival party, “but I never remember what people look like so I never meet people. I was supposed to come back with some great showbiz stories, but came back with nothing.”
With Red Road just released on DVD, its bleak backstreet poetry is revealed as a European masterpiece falling somewhere between Lynne Ramsay and Lars Von Trier. Dickie’s next role sees her returning to the stage in a piece that’s as similarly informed by international sensibilities as it looks unflinchingly grim. Aalst is named after the Belgian town where, in 1999, two parents murdered their children. Acclaimed theatre company Victoria made a play inspired by the furore that followed. This new version of director Pol Heyvaert’s script by Scots novelist Duncan McLean - a co-production between Victoria, The National Theatre Of Scotland and Tramway – sees Dickie set once again to put herself through an increasingly familiar and very public emotional wringer.
“She’s really very damaged,” Dickie says of Cathy, who she plays in Aalst. “She’s really quite hard to like, and it’s quite difficult to play someone who the audience aren’t necessarily going to relate to. She’s got a lot of problems, and I found it quite difficult the first couple of weeks. I shed a few tears, because I know it’s based on a true story, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking.”
Anyone who’s observed Dickie’s career over the last decade will recognise her willingness to push herself to places other actors fear to tread. Onstage, she’s appeared mainly with more consciously left-field theatre companies. For Suspect Culture she appeared in their generation-defining Edinburgh International Festival collaboration, Timeless. With Theatre Cryptic she was in their version of Trojan Women and took the title role of Electra. For Boilerhouse, Dickie was pushed to the limits of physical endurance when, in Running Girl, she delivered her lines every night while running several miles on the spot. On television, she was an unhinged DJ in the late-night clubland drama, Tinsel Town.
“Most of them involve death in one way or another,” Dickie says of her acting back catalogue. “Dead children or children who are going to be dead. In Running Girl I was dead. Electra and Trojan Women were both about death. So,” she laughs, “there’s a bit of a theme, shall we say?”
Does Dickie, though, actively seek out such edgy roles?
“God, no!” she hoots. “I started to ask myself that recently, because I looked back and there’s assorted prostitutes and troubled women, and maybe I do subconsciously seek out roles that are more challenging. I’m a mum and I’m going to play a child killer, so it’s very difficult to understand how someone could murder a child. I don’t get it, so I find that I want to understand it. I want to explore what happened to this woman to make her so damaged that she would end up doing that to kids. I find things like that really fascinating,” she says. “When I hear of a part like that I always get tingles, and just want to look after it. Parts like that are quite precious, and I want to open them up and find out what’s going on. It’s about wanting to take care of something. It’s like precious cargo you have to be really careful with. You have to forget your ego, get it all gone until it’s just you and the character.”
Dickie could be talking about the relationship between mother and child, and it’s clear having Molly has in turn affected her approach to work. Part of this is becoming more comfortable in her own skin as she gets older. In her 20s, she says, she. didn’t feel comfortable in herself at all, so hid behind characters.
“I know now what I need to do to walk away,” she admits. “When I was younger I didn’t. But I’m a mum now, and when I leave rehearsals I don’t have much time for me, because Molly’s the important thing. So I have to have a sense of objectivity, especially with the sorts of characters I play, otherwise I’d just lose the plot.”
Even though she’s “definitely mellowed,” Dickie admits that during the period after Red Road, she spent a couple of months feeling totally empty.
“I didn’t know who I was,” she says, “and felt completely knackered. I don’t mean emotionally, but I’d been in every day at 5 0’clock in the morning and was in every scene, so I was exhausted.”
Despite her gritty professional track record, Dickie is no city slicker hard-nut. With her Dad a dairy farmer, then a gardener, Dickie, the youngest of four children, “ran wild” in the Perthshire grounds which he tended. He told her stories while her siblings were at school and adored the attention whenever she showed off. At school, she was good at English, and toyed with the idea of journalism, but, even growing up in a household where television ration protected her from any obvious role models, knew she wanted to be an actress since she was 10. At 17, she signed up for a Scottish Youth Theatre summer school, which took her to Glasgow and was, she says, “the most exciting time of my life. I came up from Newton Stewart, we did a show at The Glasgow Garden Festival, and I made some brilliant friends.”
Drama school was inevitable, and, after a “disastrous” year living in Holland, a part in The Merchant Of Venice at The Arches took her down a more experimental route.
“If you’re going to give your life up for acting,” she says of her uncompromising approach, “and if you’re going to spend your career making hardly any money, then you’ve got to really go for it, with no half measures, and be prepared to put yourself in places you’re maybe not comfortable with. Otherwise what’s the point? It’s good,” she says, “to do things that scare you.”
Of the Red Road DVD, she thinks it might do well, having hardly been ideal material, she observes, for a Friday night out with your girlfriend. Beyond Aalst, there’s no masterplan other than filming the other two parts of the trilogy Red Road forms part of. Dickie is under no illusions, though, of her current status as a Shooting Star. “In Hollywood terms I’m ancient,” she says, “and I probably won’t get to walk down a red carpet in Cannes again.” If she couldn’t act, she’d happily work in a bookshop or library. If, that is, she could spend all her time in a corner under a desk.
For all the angst of Red Road and Aalst, self-deprecatory laughter like this is never far away from Dickie. She “loves” doing comedy, and has appeared on television in Still Game and Rab C Nesbitt. But, she quantifies, “I think there are people who are far funnier than me, and I think my role in life is to maybe be a bit of a voice for all those poor crazy lost souls that nobody else wants to touch. It’s funny, isn’t it,” she says.
Dickie sees Jackie and Cathy as “Ordinary women who’ve had extraordinary things happen to them. Both are survivors of some sort. Even though they’ve had a lot of problems, they manage to keep going. These characters I play are never victims, and I’ve never interpreted them as such. There may be misery there,” she says, flaring those famous nostrils once more, “but they’re always strong women. They have a stamina for life.”
Aalst, Tramway, March 21-31, then tours. Red Road is available on DVD now
The Herald, March 3rd 2007