From Israeli-born filmmaker Guy Nattiv, Skin is inspired by the true story of an American neo-Nazi skinhead named Bryon Widner (played in the film by Jamie Bell, who delivers a shocking and sometimes frightening performance), who abandons his life of hatred and violence, after becoming disillusioned with the lifestyle and mentality that accompany it. After a difficult childhood led him to a white supremacist gang, Bryon found himself dependent on a family that justified and encouraged the evil behavior he’d been a part of, over the years, only to later lead him to question whether he’s worthy of repenting for the damage that he wants to put a stop to.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Australian actress Danielle Macdonald (who plays Julie, the young single mother who falls in love with Bryon) talked about working with Guy Nattiv on his short before it evolved into this full-length feature, figuring out how to understand her character, having previously been sheltered from these kinds of hate groups, bonding with the young actresses who played her daughters, working with co-star Jamie Bell, what it was like to see him with all of those tattoos, and what she has coming out next.
Collider: You worked with director Guy Nattiv on the short that he did. How did you originally get involved with the short? What was your experience working with him then, and were you surprised that this happened?
DANIELLE MACDONALD: I actually met our director in a social setting, which is strange ‘cause I’ve never actually worked with someone that I met randomly, by chance. My best friend actually is friends with the director’s wife, Jaime [Ray Newman]. He would look after their dog when they would go out of town, so I met his dog before I met him. And then, I went with him when he was dropping their dog back, one day, and I met them. A few months later, Patti Cake$ came out at Sundance and Guy asked me if I would read a short film that he wrote. I read it, and I thought it was one of the best shorts I’d ever read, and I immediately wanted to be a part of it. So, I did the short with him, and after that, he asked me to do the feature. It’s been an incredible ride. I only worked on the short for a few days. It was a very short shoot. So, working on the feature definitely was different, but it was great to work with him on the short, to have an understand of how the process would be.
Did who he is as a director feel very much the same, between the short and the film, or did you see an evolution with him, as he learned along the way?
MACDONALD: He definitely did learn, along the way. I think he also found more confidence, along the way, which I think is always key with everyone. The more you do something, you always find that. He was really great on the short, and on the feature, it was just even more. He wrote the feature seven years before we shot it, or something. It was a very long time before, so ‘cause he’d been with it for so long, he knew exactly how he wanted to do it, whereas the short happened a lot more quickly. It was actually really cool to see that shift in him. It was great working with him both times, honestly, but definitely it was a little more all-encompassing on the feature ‘cause it’s such a bigger scale.
How did you view this character, when you read the script? What did you immediately like about her, and what did you see as the biggest challenges, in figuring her out?
MACDONALD: I think the biggest challenge, for me, was understanding her and why she made the decisions she made. For someone that doesn’t want to be involved in this life, why would you date someone that is in this life? That was the main question that I had to ask myself, at first. Honestly, research was the only way I found the answer. I really had to understand how she grew up and what she knew. Her whole life was in this world. She didn’t know anything different. When you’re trying to get out of a life that’s the only thing you know, it’s incredibly difficult because they were the only ones giving her a chance to work, make money and support her family. She was homeless for awhile, and that’s terrifying. It made me understand how someone who was actually nice, for the first time, could win you over, even though they were in this life that you didn’t want to be a part of anymore. It was familiar to her. Her dad was in that world, and a lot of other people were in that world. That made me have an understanding for her. That was the biggest challenge for me, and also the most rewarding thing for me to find. Once I understood, I felt like I could play her and be her.
It seems like when you do research for a film like this, it could be very helpful, but it could also be very scary and frightening.
MACDONALD: Yeah, it was definitely scary ‘cause you learn things that you wish didn’t exist. The thing is, it’s scary because it’s real, but at the same time, you’re learning things that you should know because it is happening in society. For that reason, it was good. It was good for me because I was sheltered from this. I’ve never met anyone that was in any kind of hate group. This was the first time where I really had to venture into an entire other world that I didn’t know. It really made me think about society and how we can change, and what we’re doing and what we’re saying. Those are important questions to ask yourself.
This character is a very fiercely protective mother, who clearly love her girls, and that makes her quite sympathetic and endearing. What did you do to bond with the young actresses that played your daughters? Did that all come very naturally?
MACDONALD: Yeah, it did actually. We were all staying in the same hotel, which was really cool. We were all in this little town, in upstate New York, and there were storms all the time. There was a snow storm. We even had to shut down production for a day. That really allowed us to all sit in this common area that was like a little game section, and get to know each other and hang out and talk, and just get familiar with each other. That’s the biggest thing with kids. When they’re comfortable around you, it’s so much easier being on set because when you’re like, “You’re gonna be okay, if I just pick you up here?,” they’re like, “Of course!” Whereas if they don’t know you, that’s a scary thing for a kid. So, the main thing was just familiarity. It was really great. They all also got along really well. They all found their own dynamic with each other, and it was really fun. There wasn’t really much else to do, besides actually connect on a human level. That’s always the main thing.
Were you also able to spend time working with Jamie Bell on this, since that’s such an important dynamic between your characters?
MACDONALD: Yeah, definitely. Jamie was staying at the same hotel we were all staying at, so that’s how Jamie and I got to know each other, as well. Well, actually, Jamie and I did meet up in L.A., before we ever went. Because we knew that the story really rested on their relationship, we met up in L.A. a few times, before we ever even went to New York, just to really talk everything out. We would talk about the project for hours, and every concern we had, and how we saw their relationship. After he met up with Bryon [Widner], we talked about that. That was really cool because by the time we went to New York, we were very comfortable with each other. And then, in New York, it was more about hanging out and being friends outside of work, so that when we were on set, we had that easy chemistry with each other.
Seeing the physical transformation that Jamie Bell went through for this is shocking. What was that like to look at, when you were working with him?
MACDONALD: Honestly, it’s quite funny because I just got so used to him having face tattoos that, when he didn’t have them on, I was like, “Who are you? I don’t know this guy.” It just became so common to me. I only knew Jamie with a fake nose and face tattoos. It became so normal to us, which was good. It was scary, considering what was on his face, but I didn’t really know what the tattoos meant. Besides the obvious symbols, I didn’t really what they meant. They just looked scary. I found out what they all meant afterwards. I didn’t want to know, when we went into it because I was like, “No, I have to be in love with him. I want to be disturbed when I look at his face.” But I found out and I was like, “Gosh, that is just horrifying!” He had to keep them on, when we weren’t filming. I was like, “How did people not beat you up, on the street?” I don’t think he left the hotel much, quite honestly. We did actually venture out for lunch, one day, and trust me, we got so many stares. People were like, “Who are these people?!” It was fascinating to see how people react to tattoos.
You’ve been playing such an interesting variety of characters and doing such interesting projects. Do you know what you’re going to do next?
MACDONALD: I have a few projects coming out, in the next few months. I have a mini-series that I did for Netflix, called Unbelievable, coming out in the fall. That’s a story about two police detectives who are trying to find a serial rapist. And then, I have another film, called Paradise Hills, coming out in November. Right now, I’m releasing all of the things that I did in the last year, so that will be really exciting, to see them come out into the world.
Skin is in theaters and on-demand on July 26th.