'Skin' star Danielle Macdonald on playing the wife of a Nazi – not once, but twice
The Australian actress, known for her role in 'Bird Box' tells us about taking on a tricky and topical issue in ‘Skin’
It could hardly be more poetic that in the week after the US president told four Democratic congresswomen to “go back” to fix their “corrupt and inept” home countries – despite three being US-born-and-raised and the fourth a naturalised American citizen – Guy Nattiv’s Skin should land in cinemas in both the US and here in the UAE.
The film tells the true story of erstwhile white supremacist Bryon Widner, previously the subject of the 2011 documentary Erasing Hate. Widner, who is actually a producer on both the 2011 documentary and the new film, became a skinhead as a young boy, and went on to be a founding member of the Vinlanders Social Club, an Indianapolis white supremacist gang with a reputation for extreme violence.
By the mid-2000s, the gang was one of the fastest-growing neo-Nazi organisations in the US, but Widner had had enough. In 2005, he had married Julie Larsen and taken her three daughters on as his own. The couple were expecting their own child, too, and Widner wanted out of his skinhead past.
His former gang buddies were not keen on this idea, and with a face and body littered with Nazi tattoos, meanwhile, society wasn’t in a hurry to welcome him back into its ranks with open arms either.
In an incredible turn of events, Larsen and Widner teamed up with anti-racism activist Daryle Lamont Jenkins, who found an anonymous donor to help Widner with almost two years’ worth of tattoo removal surgery in return for Widner’s information about the activities of white-supremacist groups.
From Down Under to the big time
For Danielle Macdonald, the Australian actress who plays Julie in the movie, the story came as something of an eye opener.
“We actually got the film funded just after Charlottesville happened. It’s incredible that this is still happening and it’s terrifying,” she says. “I grew up in Sydney and never saw anything like this, but this is happening and it’s something you can’t ignore.
“The next question is ‘how can you change it?’ It really does all go back to education. What are you teaching your children? And if it’s education how do we break the cycle?
“Bryon broke the cycle for himself, and I think that’s a story that needs to be told just to show that it can actually happen.” With growing concerns about the rise of white-supremacist thinking in the US, it seems strange that this topic isn’t discussed more widely in Hollywood cinema, but to find mainstream examples we have to look back to 1998’s brace of American History X and Apt Pupil.
Has social media normalised white supremacy?
With the two lead roles in Skin taken by non-Americans, the Australian Macdonald and Brit Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) who plays Bryon, I ask Macdonald if this is a part of American culture that Hollywood just isn’t ready to address yet?
“I’m not sure if it’s relevant that the leads aren’t American,” she says. “And I don’t know if the problem is hugely bigger in the US than in other places in the world. It’s still only a small percentage of the population, but they’re getting loud, and the current climate allows them to keep getting louder, that’s the thing that’s changed.
“They’ve been given this legitimate voice to spread hate, which is terrifying. Are US filmmakers scared to address it? Is that part of it? I honestly don’t know.”
There’s one other factor that Macdonald feels has played a role in the current rise of the white-power movement, and although it’s de rigueur to blame social media for many of the world’s current ills, she has a point: “It’s a different world today, and social media helps normalise these opinions.
“This kind of thinking used to be very niche, but now you see other people expressing the same views and it seems OK. There’s a really tough question there of how you can change this, because on the face of it [social media is] such an innocent thing, but so many people now are using it to spread hate. It can be a great thing, but it really is a double-edged sword.”
It's not the first time Macdonald has played this role
Skin is in fact the second time in under a year that Macdonald has played the wife of a Nazi. The first was her role as Christa in – wait for it – director Nattiv’s unrelated, Oscar-winning short Skin. That film also deals with issues of racial tension, but narratively has no connection to Nattiv’s second 2018 film of the same name. Macdonald has something of a track record of picking out quirky characters to play, from the unlikely white rapper in Patti Cake$ to the feminist beauty queen in Dumplin’.
Still, with two roles as neo-Nazi matriarchs under her belt in identically named films from the same director in under a year, does the actress worry about typecasting, or simply getting confused? “Guy had actually written the feature before he wrote the short, so I knew this was on the cards, and right after we filmed the short he asked me to be part of the feature,” she laughs.
Macdonald says that by the time the short film hit the festival circuit in late 2018, the feature had already been shot. The buzz generated at festivals and then by the Oscar win surely can’t hurt the new feature?
“Oh, what happened with the short was crazy,” she says. “It was getting so much attention, and then the Oscar. I don’t know that it was intentional, but for sure it was amazing marketing. I just hope it helps to encourage people to watch this film because it’s an incredible true story, and I think people really should watch it.”
For all Macdonald’s indie cred for her roles in films like Patti Cake$ and now Skin, she is probably best known to mainstream audiences as Olivia, the pregnant survivor in Netflix’s most-watched film to date, Bird Box.
As such, the actress has a unique perspective on the raging “Netflix is killing/saving indie cinema” debate.
In conclusion, I ask for her take on the divisive subject: “It’s a tough question, but ultimately I welcome anything that gets films made,” she says. “I love to go to the cinema and watch a movie, and I hope that continues, but people are watching more stories because of outlets like Netflix.” Significantly, Macdonald says that streamers like Netflix are offering viewers a different proposition than cinemas: “They’re watching different stories to the ones that would get them off their couch to go to the cinema, so it’s really two different things.
“I want people to keep getting off the couch and go to the cinema – starting right now with Skin. But it’s great that they now have more options for when they want to stay on their couch too. I think it’s the best of both worlds.”
The film is cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, July 25
Updated: July 25, 2019 09:47 PM