Exclusive Interview with The Descent's Shauna Macdonald
23rd Jul 05
Perhaps you’ve heard by now, but The Descent is currently being hailed as ‘one of the best British horror films in years’, and quite rightly too. Blending terrific action with many literal ‘jump-out-of-your-seat’ horror moments, Neil Marshall’s follow-up to Dog Soldiers tells the story of an all-female caving expedition that goes terrifyingly wrong when an unexpected rock fall blocks the exit and the girls soon find out that they are not alone.
Featuring an impressive cast that includes Nora-Jane Noone, Saskia Mulder, Alex Reid and Natalie Jackson Mendoza, perhaps the standout performance belongs to Shauna Macdonald as the lead character Sarah.
Born in Malaysia, but raised in Edinburgh, Shauna began her career as early as four years old, playing a fairy in a church hall in Portobello before graduating up the ranks and securing her first film role opposite Billy Connolly in the The Debt Collector when she was 17. Another film, The Rocket Post, followed that, a well-praised film that was shot in the Hebrides, although due to several complications the film is still yet to be released.
Her first main break came with a regular role in TV’s Spooks as Sam Buxton before Marshall cast her in the lead role in The Descent as Sarah, a loving family women who is ultimately forced to turn savage in a desperate fight for survival. We spoke to Shauna about her involvement in the ‘one of the best British horror films to be released in years’.
EMB: Hi Shauna, so tell us, how did you get the role of Sarah in The Descent?
Shauna Macdonald: Well, I had three auditions. Initially I got to meet Neil and then one of the producers, Christian, and we chatted about the movie, and we chatted about the character. And then I got a call-back where I auditioned with Alex Reid (who plays Beth) as she had already been cast, and Neil set us – you know the scene where I get stuck in the tunnel? – he made us do that scene. We had to crawl through chairs that he had set up at Spotlight, which is used for auditions and meetings, and is funnily enough just around the corner from where the premiere was eight months later at The Vue on Leicester Square. So it was quite a fast audition, over two weeks I think, and then I heard I got the part!
EMB: Was Sarah a role you wanted as soon as you read the script?
SM: I did. I had seen Dog Soldiers, and I knew that Neil had a cult following. I was a little wary of doing a film with six females, because I thought that this could go terribly awry, and we’d all be ‘sexy chicks with picks’ fighting the evil monster men. And I thought ‘oh gosh’, but then when I read it, I thought this sounds really dark and terrifying and a bit horrific, and I thought ‘Excellent – I really want to do that!’
EMB: Was ‘Horror’ something you really wanted to do?
SM: No, not really. I’m not really a horror ‘fan’. I’m not really into ‘slasher’ movies. I quite like psychological thrillers, but The Descent is like an action horror, and to be an actor in that sort of film is loads of hard work, but the pay-off is amazing, because you just have to sort of pull yourself into it. You know, my life wasn’t anything but crawlers and caves for about two and a half months. It’s sort of all encompassing when you’re doing that sort of film. It’s great.
EMB: It certainly is action-packed. How long did you have to train for?
SM: Well, I got the part about a month before we started to film, so I sort of put in some private training and I went to a climbing wall and got a personal tutor to teach me how to look like I could do it. Then we had a week of climbing with all the girls, real caving in Derbyshire and then we went white-water rafting before we started to film. It was kind of like a crash course in outdoor activities. All of us girls had different skills, none of which really was what were we supposed to be doing though which is like white-water rafting and climbing. Our skills were more like Yoga and Pilates, you know the chilled out stuff (laughs)…
EMB: Are you going to keep on doing any of these outdoor activities?
SM: Well, yeah. I’ve even bought a pair of climbing shoes, and I kept my harness too so I’m going to a climbing wall, and I love it.
EMB: Sarah has a great journey in the film. In what way are you similar to your character?
SM: Yeah, she does have a great journey. The thing is about Sarah is that because she goes through something so horrific in the beginning, it’s almost as if the life is knocked out of her. So the way she was at the very start of the film is not what she’s like when it jumps to one year later. What I tried to do was sort of think what Sarah was like in the beginning, and try and play her as trying to get back to that point, and I think Sarah’s a very caring, fun and loving person. But I think I’m... I think I am that (laughs), but I think Sarah’s a lot gentler than I am. She’s very genuine. She’s softer than I am, which made it more of an interesting journey; someone who was, not timid, but softer and who then turns savage.
EMB: How was the filming, in particular the blood bath?
SM: It was really good fun. The blood bath bit, I think they were so scared that I would complain about being in cold blood all day that they heated it so much that I went a little bit doo-lally, because I was so dehydrated and I didn’t realise (laughs). I was basically sitting in a bath and doing a fight sequence in a bath, all day. But it was great fun, and I knew when I was doing the big sequence when there’s lots of blood and I get to fight three crawlers, one after the other, and I knew when I was filming it that this is going to be a brilliant part of the film.
EMB: What was the blood made from, do you know?
SM: No I don’t know. All I know is that it stained my hair, and it went a bit pink (laughs). Because it wasn’t make-up blood that washes out easily, it was from the Art Department, so all the pores of the skin just sucks in, so I had pink knees and elbows and pink hair for a couple of days after. But because it was chronological, it didn’t matter, because we’d just cover it up with mud the next day anyway. I think it’s a glucose and food colouring mix. Really thick.
EMB: What did you think when you saw the film for the first time?
SM: I first saw it at the cast and crew screening, about ten days before the premiere. I thought it was fantastic. I was really nervous. I brought my mum, my dad, my sister, by boyfriend, my friends, and quite a lot of people to see it. And I realised, ‘Oh my God, I have no idea what this is film is going to be like’. But, no it was fantastic, and all the girls sat together, and I was sat beside Saskia and we were clinging on to each other without realising, through excitement, and terror! We found it terrifying as well because the group splits up and gets lost, and we had no idea what the other girls were filming. You kind of forget where the jumps are, because it’s been months and months since we all read the script.
EMB: So what was your interpretation of the ending?
SM: You’re going to put the ending in the interview? That kind of spoils it don’t you think? (laughs) No, I think it’s great to say to the audience ‘Actually, now you have to make up your own minds. We’ve told the story, now you decide for yourself what happens’. But the way it was in the script was like, ‘There’s no way out’. That’s how I interpreted it when I read it, but when you see it there’s more than way to interpret it.
EMB: Would you do another horror film?
SM: Absolutely. Yeah, I loved it, I loved it, I really did. It’s because I got to do so much. It was just so exciting going into work and I’d phone my mum at the end of the day and I’d say, “Hi mum, I’ve just been fighting crawlers, and I’ve been covered in mud, and I had to break down, and I had to run through a corridor, and then I had to jump off the end of a… you know, whatever.” And it was just great fun with all the white-water rafting. And we all keep in touch. There were six of us, and we all got on so well and the film has just turned out great.
EMB: It certainly did well on it’s opening weekend..
SM: It was Number 3 in the UK charts last week and if you consider we’ve got Batman and War of the Worlds to compete with, and the fact that it’s an 18, then I think we’ve done really well. I think it’s also going to be a slow-burner. It’s a ‘word-of-mouth’ film.