By Bryan Alexander, USA TODAY
VAN NUYS, Calif. - Under the watchful eye of an archery instructor, Kelly Macdonald slowly draws back the string on her lightweight recurve bow until her left hand reaches the bottom of her jaw. She takes a relaxed breath while eyeing the target 25 feet away at the Woodley Park Archery Range and releases the arrow.
It sails high, landing with authority in the purple foam wall - missing her target by at least 3 feet.
"Oh, for God's sake," Macdonald cries as she surveys her shot. "My eyes fail me. I think I need glasses."
Fortunately, actual archery skills were not needed for Macdonald's work on Brave, Pixar's animated tale (opening today) of the Scottish princess Merida, who can wield her bow and arrow with deadly accuracy even from atop her faithful horse, Angus.
"I didn't have to do archery. I didn't even have to ride a horse," Macdonald says. "I didn't have to claim to do any of those things."
Instead, the Scottish Macdonald, 36, had the task of giving voice to the passionate, rebellious teen - the first lead female hero to carry a film in Pixar's 26-year history. By all accounts, she hit the bull's-eye.
"Kelly has a true Scottish spunkiness in her," says Brenda Chapman, one of Brave's directors, who originally imagined the characters. "And that really comes through. Princess Merida is a girl with a great spirit. And Kelly is able to depict that. There's a sweetness and an appeal in Kelly that she infuses in Merida. Yet there's a strength. Kelly has it in spades."
Though the critically lauded and immensely popular film studio has featured its share of strong female characters, the story of Merida's turbulent relationship with her by-the-royal-book mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), breaks through as an action-filled fairy tale set along a female story line.
"The fact Merida is the first lead heroine was sort of news to me well after I started working," Macdonald says. "When I do think about it, it gives me the fear slightly. But I am very proud to be that person."
Chapman came up with the story concept eight years ago when dealing with her headstrong daughter Emma, then 5. "The relationship with my daughter is what really sparked it for me. She was saying things at that age that an actual teenager would say," Chapman says. "And I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, what's she going to be like as an actual teenager?' And it evolved from that."
Soon, the tale of a willful young woman attempting to break out of the restrictions of royal life - and forced marriage - came to life. In Chapman's view, it's the world with a hero gender-gap issue.
"You don't have a strong female character in a fairy tale that isn't waiting around for a prince to show up," Chapman says. "I wanted to pay homage to a fairy tale, set in that world, yet not give you the same old character."
Originally, Reese Witherspoon voiced Merida. But when Mark Andrews replaced Chapman as the film's director in 2010 (Pixar and Chapman cite "creative differences," and Chapman still maintains a director's credit), the Legally Blonde actress had to step aside because of commitments that did not allow her to voice the extensive story reworking.
Witherspoon "was rocking the Scottish accent," Andrews insists. "But she had to bow out since she had other stuff to do."
The Emmy-winning Mac-donald (for 2005's The Girl in the Cafe) immediately popped onto his radar. Bonus points: The Glasgow-born Macdonald had the appropriate accent, and it wasn't too thick. "It's good because I'm understandable," Macdonald says. "A lot of Glaswegians have a hard time being understood."
Macdonald had the right mind-set as well, growing up fantasizing about her favorite movie character -Calamity Jane, played by Doris Day in the 1953 Hollywood musical by the same name. Settling down on a bench near the archery range, Macdonald even proudly shows off her well-worn fringed suede boots she calls her "Calamity Janes."
"I used to watch the movie constantly, twice a day during the summer," Macdonald says. "Calamity Jane is actually quite like Merida. The same sort of tomboy character who does things her own way. She sort of does things wrong and then makes them better."
Cultivating a quiet strength
At 20, Macdonald broke out as a headstrong schoolgirl in 1996's Trainspotting.
"Now she was feisty," Macdonald says. "I started out being feisty, and then I got lost along the way."
But Macdonald continued playing quietly strong characters in acclaimed productions such as 2007's No Country for Old Men and HBO's Boardwalk Empire. On Boardwalk, Macdonald's Margaret Schroeder has transformed from what creator Terence Winter calls a "mousy little housewife" into a true "fighter" who even crossed her crime boss husband big-time in last fall's Season 2 finale.
Much of the upcoming season will deal with the repercussions of Schroeder's secret decision to sign away Nucky Thompson's (Steve Buscemi) ill-gotten land to the church.
"You start to see that there is a deceptive strength to this character," Winter says. "When she needs to be feisty and tough, you see that part of her personality. Kelly can bring all sides of this."
Macdonald's inner teen
The challenge for Brave was bringing those traits into Macdonald's voice for a truly animated performance. It's not normally Macdonald's way to be that out there.
"Kelly is much more internal as an actor. She commands that presence on film," Andrews says. "That's totally void in voice acting. She had to be really outspoken and suddenly be an extrovert. This was new and kind of uncomfortable for her at first."
Macdonald took a simple approach. "I just sort of channeled my inner teenager," she says.
The action aspects of the job were created in the sound studio, with Andrews literally shaking Macdonald during some of the action scenes while she threw punches in the air, or having her run in place to inspire Merida's movement.
"It was a very physical process to draw out the physicality," Andrews says.
The result is that 5-foot-3 Macdonald sounds entirely at home in athletic Merida, who proves to be a strong role model for girls, with her independent spirit and real body image - gymnast legs and powerful arms. Chapman says her now- 13-year-old daughter has a role model to counterbalance her favorite TV shows, which feature "girls that are really skinny and snotty to their parents."
"She's very proud of Merida," Chapman says. "She recognizes a lot of herself in the film. But she's a teenager. She likes the good and the bad. I'm happy she can relate to stronger characters who are not all about makeup."
Move over, Katniss
The movie marketplace seems ready to take the character on as well, proven by another bow-wielding heroine - Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen, who led The Hunger Games' $402 million box-office charge.
"The Hunger Games has shown that female-centric films can have massive appeal and certainly cross over to male audiences," says Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. He foresees Brave as the clear winner this weekend with an estimated $60 million box office (putting it in the range of Pixar's Cars 2, which opened a year ago).
"Princess Merida is going to take out the competition," he says.
Macdonald, who has a 4-year-old son, Freddie (with her husband, Dougie Payne, the bassist for the Scottish band Travis), says she finds it hilarious that Merida will take her place in the Disney pantheon (Pixar is owned by Disney) with the other far-daintier princesses.
"It's hysterical, Merida is the anti-princess," Macdonald says. "She's going to be skulking around Disneyland."
The actress, meanwhile, is enjoying her stint in animation, which allows her to be an action-filled teenager on-screen.
"I'm not going to be cast as a teenager ever again," she says with a laugh. "I think I can safely say that."
After all, even if Macdonald hasn't read or seen The Hunger Games, she is sure she wouldn't last in any real-life gladiatorial competition based on her own physical skills.
"I'd have to rely on my friends to help me in any Hunger Games," she says. "Does it not work like that? Well then, I'd definitely have to do a little hiding."
But Macdonald is sure her feisty heroine would give Katniss a run for the money.
"I think Princess Merida's the winner in that one," Macdonald says. "Katniss doesn't have a horse."