Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens speaks to the award-winning actress Gillian MacGregor about Niall Johnson’s female-led western The Stolen in which she stars alongside Alice Eve and Jack Davenport.
Scottish actress Gillian MacGregor will have first come to the attention of most audiences when she appeared in Julian Gilbey’s British thriller A Lonely Place To Die. The versatile and now award-winning actress has also appeared in Beyond, Street Fighter: Resurrection and Nikola Tesla and the End of the World on the big and small screens.
Also a writer, she has penned several pilots and projects with an interest in strong female characters. Her role in Nikola Tesla and the End of the World gained her a Best Actress award at the 31st International Valencia Film Festival.
Her latest film The Stolen sees her head to New Zealand in Niall Johnson’s western about a woman who must find her kidnapped son in a country she’s not familiar with.
What attracted you to the part of Heather in The Stolen?
Initially, I was drawn to a cast full of great, varied female characters, each with their own unique backstory and view of the world. Heather is an ordinary person who has found herself in an extraordinary place and is trying to make the best of it. During my research, I found out some people from Ayrshire (where I’m from) had immigrated to New Zealand during the gold rush. That was totally fascinating and the opportunity to travel to New Zealand was too good an opportunity to miss.
Can you tell us about the character and the role you play within the plot?
The Stolen is an epic Western adventure set in the 1860s during the New Zealand gold rush. At the time, there was a huge influx of immigrants from Europe and the US all seeking a better life and new opportunities. This includes Heather, who travelled to New Zealand as a maid with the family she worked for during the gold rush, but ended up in prison after turning on her master. In prison, they cut off her hair and branded her neck with a tattoo. Finding herself unemployable after that, she has ended up working as a dancer and prostitute.
When Charlotte (Alice Eve) discovers she’s being blackmailed by her son’s kidnapper, she very bravely decides to cross the wilds of New Zealand’s South Island to try to get her son back. She joins our group of ex-convicts, hustlers and prostitutes (played by myself, Emily Corcoran and Mikaela Ruegg) also making the dangerous journey to Goldtown, led by a Maori warrior (Stan Walker) and Bully (Graham McTavish) who Heather is totally in love with. There, she meets Joshua McCullen (Jack Davenport), the owner of the mining town and the man who is key to uncovering the truth behind the disappearance of her son.
What was the experience of travelling to New Zealand? Had you been before?
I had never been but always wanted to go. The actual journey is pretty hardcore, although nothing compared to what the early immigrants would have had to endure of course! New Zealand is an incredibly beautiful place and I was lucky enough to be able to see some stunning sights as most of the film was shot on location. The light is so magical there and the beauty of Canterbury has truly been captured in the film.
What were the challenges in bringing the character to life and did this character differ from others you’ve played in the past?
Each character has been quite different but, looking back, they all have a real sense of confidence in themselves, for right or wrong. Heather is also a very capable person and I loved her sense of humour in the face of a very difficult life. This was the first time I’d done a period film so the costumes and corsets were definitely new to me and could be quite challenging sometimes.
What was it like working with director Niall Johnson and what sorts of strengths do you think he has as a filmmaker?
This was the second time I’d worked with Niall and he has a lovely manner when he’s directing. The sets are generally very calm and he’s interested in what his actors bring to the table so it’s a real pleasure to go to work every day. There were so many actors, a huge crew and he’s the one who has to answer everyone’s questions so I can’t even imagine the pressure of directing but Niall takes it all in his stride and I always feel safe to do my thing.
Do you think the strong female characters of The Stolen, particularly protagonist Charlotte, will help the film engage with audiences, especially at this time when Hollywood impropriety has come increasingly under the microscope?
The good thing that’s come out of all of these terrible allegations and reports is that the industry is talking about representation in front and behind the camera. It’s a shame it’s come to this but hopefully there will now be a real, considered change in the way things are done. The perception of female led films is definitely changing and I’m so proud to be involved in a film with so many excellent female characters played by epic actresses I really admire and was proud to work alongside.
Was it nice to see the western genre, not typically known for strong female characters although there are exceptions, fronted by a female protagonist instead of a Clint Eastwood-type male stereotype?
Definitely. There is still everything you’d expect… gunslingers, bandits, wagons, horses and all the epic landscapes you’d recognise from a traditional Western but it’s told from Charlotte’s perspective rather than, for example, Bully’s, so it’s an interesting twist on the genre.
Do you think the film managed to avoid its own stereotypes – Emily Corcoran’s writing involvement presumably had a positive influence on capturing the authenticity of these characters?
Emily is a great friend of mine and this has been a passion project of hers for a number of years. It was a long road to get it made for her and she fought to have a female protagonist. She and co-writer Niall wrote an ensemble of well-rounded characters so there is always a sense that there is more going on than is shown on screen and that these are real, imperfect people trying to survive.
Had you worked on a western before? What has your experience of the genre been as a fan of film, and do you have any favourite westerns or ones that stand out from those you’ve seen?
This is my first western and it was so much fun! I loved working with the horses and guns. The only thing I didn’t like was the corset! It’s always interesting to try a different genre as each one has its conventions and rules. An actor is just a small part of a huge machine so watching everything going on around us – the set builds, epic locations, etc – is mesmerising. In terms of other films, I have a soft spot for Dances With Wolves but I do tend to prefer a modern take on things. Django Unchained was a brilliant contemporary western.
On seeing The Stolen, what were your first thoughts? What do you think its strengths are?
That’s a difficult question as I’m not sure I can be completely objective because I’m in it. Clearly I knew the story when I watched it so the first thing that caught me was the sheer beauty on screen. New Zealand almost becomes a character in its own right. I really enjoyed the film and it’s thrilling to see a female led film with well-rounded characters. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
What’s next for you?
Since the UK release, The Stolen has just been released in the US by Universal and it’s still in New Zealand cinemas so it’s great that the public are enjoying it. Now, I’m in the early stages of prep for a new film with a superb team. Shooting starts in a few weeks so watch this space!