Kate Dickie: ‘I think I’m happiest being in other people’s skin’

Earlier this year, an Observer reader asked me the question: “Which actor do you think has produced the greatest quality of work across their career?” My answer was Kate Dickie. The Scottish star made a splash in Andrea Arnold’s directorial feature debut, Red Road, in 2006, for which she won a Scottish Bafta, and has gone on to appear in a bewilderingly diverse array of films. These range from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster Prometheus (2012) to Robert Eggers’s indie chiller The Witch (2015), Tom Geens’s mysterious, grief-stricken Couple in a Hole (also 2015, for which Dickie won a second Scottish Bafta), and more recently David Lowery’s epic chivalric poem adaptation The Green Knight (2021). In some of these films Dickie takes the lead; in others she plays a supporting role. Crucially, in none of them does she give less than 100%. And as I said in response to the reader’s question: “You can watch three Kate Dickie films back to back and not realise you’re watching the same person.”

“That has actually happened quite a lot,” says Dickie, who is guest of honour next weekend at Screenplay, the Shetland film festival that I have proudly co-curated for more than a decade. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘Oh, I saw a film you were in and I didn’t even realise it was you.’ That’s great because it means that you’re doing your job properly – although it’s maybe not so great for networking. But my whole thing with acting is that I’m here to tell these characters’ stories as best I can, even if they’re not at a great point in their lives. I think I’ve got one of those faces that changes with the characters I play – I’m not a ‘pretty’ person, but I’ve got strong features. And to be honest I generally don’t do a lot of press or interviews or photoshoots because I’m not really bothered about how I look, and I tend to feel that the less you know about me outside of the roles I play the better.”

So how does she feel about doing this interview and photoshoot? “Oh, this is fine,” she laughs, “because we’re talking about the films rather than me. And the photographer was really lovely – none of that ‘smile please’ stuff, which I really don’t do well.”

Watching films like Ladybird, Ladybird, I started to realise what interested me was films about people on the periphery

Dickie was born in East Kilbride in 1971. Her parents owned a dairy farm before her dad discovered his true calling as a professional gardener. “He was very working-class, but he was really creative working with flowers. So a large portion of my early life was living in the gardeners’ houses on these big estates where I’d be sent out to the walled gardens to pick tea and dig up tatties. It was a really beautiful way to live – you know, swimming in the river, that sort of idyllic existence.” As a kid, with older sisters and brother, Kate was always “reading, reading, reading; always had my head stuck in a book”. When she was nine, the family moved to Ayr and she started going to a Saturday morning drama class. Here, she found herself involved in “a Threads-style nuclear catastrophe improv piece” which she loved. “I went home after the first or second class and said ‘I’m going to be an actress’. That was it.”

Her parents were supportive, telling her: “You can be whatever you want, if you work hard.” And so she did, earning herself a place at drama school and doing 12 years of theatre before breaking into the movies. After landing the role of Jessica in an Andy Arnold production of The Merchant of Venice (“my audition was just terrible, but he gave me a break”), she worked with Suspect Culture on a series of “quite abstract” productions by David Greig, and then with Cathie Boyd’s Cryptic company. “I did a lot of quite experimental, physical theatre,” she remembers. “I did a play called Running Girl where I had to run 10k on a treadmill. I always liked it if someone said: ‘Oh you’re never gonna be able to do that.’ It always made me think: right, now I want to do it.”

Despite remembering Dennis Potter’s BBC TV series The Singing Detective as having a profound impact on her life (“the darkness, the weirdness… it was so brave and different”), Dickie’s early movie memories are more mainstream; The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music on telly at Christmas, and Herbie Goes Bananas on her first cinema trip. “And then as a teenager it was all the Hollywood brat-pack stuff like The Breakfast Club, all the Rocky films. It wasn’t till I was a bit older that I started watching things by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, films like Ladybird, Ladybird, and I started to realise that what interested me was films about people on the periphery. People with messy lives, working-class people, with shit going on. That touched my heart.”

I can’t stand watching something and thinking ‘any minute I’ll turn up and ruin it’

When Andrea Arnold auditioned Dickie for the central role of a CCTV security operator with a traumatic past in Red Road, she set her a simple task: to walk down a street in Soho, and then to realise that her purse was missing from her bag. “She was looking for someone who wasn’t acting acting, but just doing what was needed.” During filming, Arnold’s key instruction to the theatre-trained Dickie was always “less, less, less – she had to get me to understand not to do a show-and-tell, just to be the character, and to understand that it would read on camera.”

Kate Dickie, left, with Nathalie Press and Martin Compston in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).
Dickie, left, with Nathalie Press and Martin Compston in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006). Photograph: Alamy

That’s a quality that Dickie has retained throughout her screen career – whether playing a heartbroken mother singing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in Paul Wright’s 2013 gem For Those in Peril, or leading the audience into the creepy island horrors of 2021’s enjoyably unsettling Shepherd. But it’s Couple in a Hole (2015) that most viscerally showcases Dickie’s ability to get inside a character. The film is a raw, emotional drama about a Scottish couple literally holed up in a cave-like dwelling in the Pyrenees after losing a child. “That was one of the saddest, purest characters I’ve played,” says Dickie. “Her grief was just so focused on her son that anything outside of that hole felt like a betrayal, to the point of shoving her husband away. She was one of the characters that I struggled the most to let go and grieve. I did that film back-to-back with The Witch – and by the end of it I was in a dark place.”

Even when her performances draw rave reviews, Dickie has always found it hard to watch herself on screen, to the point that “there’s a lot I’ve been in that I actually haven’t seen. I can’t stand watching something and thinking ‘any minute I’ll turn up and ruin it’. When I watched The Green Knight, I was just really relieved because I loved it. But with film – unlike theatre – it’s easy to watch something and just think how you could have done it better. To this day I still go over the monologue from The Witch where my character talks about loving Christ, and I still wish I’d done it differently on screen. In fact, when the film premiered at the Sundance film festival, [co-star] Ralph Ineson caught me on the balcony, having a cigarette, talking to myself. And he said: ‘Were you just doing your monologue from the film?’ I said: ‘No! Of course not!’ He said: ‘You were, weren’t you?’ And I had to admit: ‘Yes, yes I was, because now I know how to do it.’ And he said: ‘Kate, for heaven’s sake, we’re at the premiere – stop it!’”

On Prometheus, I was so worried about anything getting out that I slept with the script under the bed

When it comes to film festivals, few experiences can match the madness of the Cannes premiere of Red Road, Dickie’s first feature film. “I was so naive, I didn’t even understand what being ‘in competition’ meant. When Andrea told me we’d got in, I said: ‘Is that good?’ And then when we got there it was absolutely terrifying. I was really skint at the time and I’d just brought along something I’d borrowed to wear. And then at the photocall there was this bank of a hundred photographers all shouting your name. That was a real baptism of fire. When it was time for the premiere, the enormity of it all had hit me and I was in floods. Andrea came to the room to pick me up, and as we were leaving my hands just grabbed on to the door jamb and they literally had to drag me out of the room – unpicking every finger. I think the scratch marks are still there. It’s still so strange to think about it. One day you’re in Glasgow in the winter, making a low-budget film in 19 days in the cold and the wilds. And the next you’re in the south of France and the film’s getting this huge standing ovation. Then a few days later I was back home, and I got a phone call from my pal saying: ‘I saw you in Cannes! So fabulous! What are you doing now?’ I said: ‘I’m in the pissing rain, walking the mile because I don’t have the bus fare, pushing my daughter Molly in the buggy with the rain hood up, to return the dress that I borrowed!’”

The baptism of fire of Cannes also taught Dickie about the perils of press interviews. “That was when I discovered that I didn’t really like that side of the job,” she admits. “I’ve never spoken to tabloids anyway, but after Cannes I did a load of interviews for Red Road, which I’ll always do to support a film, particularly low-budget films. Anyway, this interview was going fine, the journalist seemed really nice, and then out of nowhere she said: ‘I hear people were saying that you and Tony Curran [her Red Road co-star] were very close at Cannes.’ And I was really taken aback and annoyed, you know. So I said: ‘I don’t know what you’re suggesting, or implying, but I’m quite happy with my partner and my daughter, thank you.’ And then when the article came out, it didn’t say anything about the question, it just said: ‘Kate says she’s “quite happy” with her partner Kenny and daughter Molly.’ And Kenny was like: ‘You’re “quite happy” with me and Molly?’ I was mortified! I felt tricked. That shocked me.

“And then on Prometheus, I’d never signed an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] before and I was so worried about anything getting out that I slept with the script under the bed, and a cricket bat to fend off potential thieves. I wouldn’t even run lines with Kenny because I was that secretive about it. I remember telling him: ‘If there’s a fire, get the script before me!’ Then suddenly, one Sunday, we got a call from Kenny’s sister saying: ‘Oh there’s a big piece about Kate in the Daily Muck, a big interview about Prometheus.’ I said: ‘What?!’ I sent Kenny out to get the paper and it was a spread with a pretend interview with me, revealing stuff about the plot – all of which was wrong. But I’d never even met the journalist. They’d just taken quotes from me from an interview I did in Cannes five years before talking about something else. I phoned my agent sobbing: ‘My life is over! Tell them it wasn’t me!’ Anyway, the studio took one look at it and knew it was all rubbish. But even today, if you Google ‘Kate Dickie Loose Lips Prometheus’, up comes this video from some American site saying: ‘Oh my gawd, Kate Dickie just spoiled the whole movie!’”

I tell Dickie that nothing like that will happen when she comes to Screenplay (alongside Game of Thrones and Peaky Blinders, her TV credits also include an episode of the crime drama Shetland) and she bubbles with enthusiasm about the prospect of the festival, where we are screening Couple in a Hole. “But you must know,” she cautions, “that I’m a really socially awkward person. On sets and at work I’m fine, but meeting people in the street or in a pub can be really weird and awkward. Kenny has to do the social stuff. I think I’m happiest being in other people’s skin. I’ve always been a square peg in a round hole, particularly in the film world. I’ve been told that I haven’t got a ‘modern face’. Apparently I’ve got a ‘period face’ or a ‘medieval face’, whatever that means. I just think: well, that’s as may be but I grew up watching Mary Poppins and Herbie and The Breakfast Club, so what are you gonna do?”

I leave her with a question. Since she started by saying that “the less you know about me outside of the roles I play the better”, what’s the one thing she’d like readers to know about her. “Oh, I can’t answer that!” she laughs. I ask her to think about it, and maybe email me. A few weeks later, I get a reply: “I’ve really struggled with that question! I don’t know! But I think I’ll go for ‘authentic’.”

I can think of no better description.