Kelly Macdonald Talks 'Puzzle,' The Weirdest, Perhaps Best Romance Of The Year

We spoke to the star and director Marc Turtletaub about their jigsaw love story.

Sony Pictures Classics

It's called Puzzle. It's about a woman who discovers she has a gift for puzzle-making, finds a partner, and enters a competition. But Puzzle is really about the woman herself, Agnes, and how this new interest reinvigorates her moribund existence. She has an affair with her partner, and more, falls in love. Puzzle is about finding happiness, and how it's never too late.

Kelly Macdonald stars as Agnes in Puzzle and quietly gives a powerful performance. The character is a demure suburban housewife who's so cut off from the outside world she doesn't know what a vegetarian is when her son brings one to dinner. Appreciated by her husband (David Denman) as long as she plays her part, Agnes lives for her family, not for herself. However, her new hobby opens her eyes.

Agnes randomly discovers she's a puzzle whiz one day and perks up when she finds an ad looking for a competitive puzzle-making partner. Enter Robert (Irrfan Khan), a rich, bored, fellow jigsaw genius who brings Agnes into his world and almost instantly falls for her — as she does for him. Their quiet, mannered courtship flies in the face of most modern romances today. It's a subtle love story everyone should see. There's something about Puzzle that just feels right. You root for Agnes's happiness. She deserves it.

After seeing Puzzle, we were excited to sit down with Macdonald and director Marc Turtletaub recently to talk about their film. It's not often a romance arrives wrapped inside the world of competitive puzzle-making. In fact, we don't think there has ever been a movie made about competitive puzzle-making...

Kelly Macdonald Talks 'Puzzle,' The Weirdest, Perhaps, Best Romance Of The Year
Sony Pictures Classics

Zimbio: Marc, we don't see too many movies about puzzles. What appealed to you about the original film and Oren Moverman's script?

Marc Turtletaub: Yeah, I hadn't seen the original film, which was Argentinian, 2010. The script was sent to me by a producing friend. And I received it, not knowing anything about the original, read it, and fell in love with the story, and with the writing. I purposely didn't watch the original film until I finished this one so I kept my filter clean. The puzzle aspect wasn't what attracted me to it. I was worried it'd be a competitive-type, "Rocky of puzzling." That didn't interest me. But it's everything but that. As you know, the competition is only a fragment of the overall movie. It's the story of this one woman, played by Kelly, which is rare to see a woman as the center of an adult coming-of-age story. So I loved that fact, and the writing, and felt like I had to do it when I read it.

Z: Kelly, you haven't done many lead performances. Not in awhile anyways, can you talk about your preparation as the lead as opposed to a supporting character?

Turtletaub, Macdonald, and Denman at the Puzzle New York Screening on July 24, 2018. (Getty)

Kelly Macdonald: I didn't treat it any differently from anything else I do. Everything I work on feels like an ensemble so I didn't focus too much on that aspect.

MT: She said something earlier today, I loved this. She said she "acted harder." 

KM: (Laughs) I didn't act harder.

Z: (Laughs) It seems like there would be more lines, more preparation...

KM: No, it's really no different.

Z: You just get out there and do it...

KM: Yeah.

Z: It's an interesting main character. Marc, I'm always interested to see how directors introduce their protagonists and your first shot of Agnes is of her vacuuming in silhouette. I wondered about introducing her that way.

MT: That's an interesting question, great question. I wanted to get the sense that she was almost lost in the background. And by having her silhouetted in two or three shots like that one — she's spreading out some chairs right after that, hanging a "happy birthday" banner — it's all in silhouette. It's almost as if her individuality doesn't come to the forefront until much later. I just felt like it was a great way to start the story. And, also, shooting in silhouette made it feel like black and white, like from another era. And I've had several people say, "Oh, I thought this was a movie from 1955." And it's because this is a woman who's still stuck in the past. So it felt like a nice way to introduce that.

KM: It's like she's living the life of the generations of women who came before her. 

Z: That's one thing about this movie I really identified with. I grew up watching my mom defer to my dad, largely out of exhaustion, but not unlike millions of other women who've done the same. Kelly, did you see the role as an "everywoman" role. Who did you think it would appeal to?

KM: I think everybody recognizes something about Agnes in someone or in themselves. That's certainly been the response from screenings so far. All age groups have come up and felt like, "I know her." 

Kelly Macdonald Talks 'Puzzle,' The Weirdest, Perhaps, Best Romance Of The Year
Sony Pictures Classics

Z: It's a very true character. So, switching subjects a little, movies about affairs are usually told sensationally, but not this one. It reminded me of Take This Waltz which was about an affair that just belonged to the wife. It was hers. It wasn't because of anyone else...

KM: It reminds me of that movie with Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. They meet on a train to New York, commuting... 

Z: Falling in Love.

KM: Yes. And they end up having an affair. It's all about the journey.

Z: Right, it's all theirs. I was gonna say "The Deer Hunter" but that's not it (laughs).

KM: (Laughs) Nooo. Puzzle does not remind me of The Deer Hunter.

Z: The other one it reminded me of is a prodigy movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, which kind of had the same feel — a person who discovers he has a gift for a game. Did you guys refer to any movies in the making of this one? 

Searching for Bobby Fischer (Paramount)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (Paramount)

MT: I didn't use any movie as a reference for it specifically in terms of tone. But, in terms of the look of the movie, the cinematographer, Chris Norr, and I talked about a number of movies that would be interesting. And one was Ida by Pawel Pawlikowski. It was black and white, as I recall, which is a difference but there was something about it that resonated, the formality, the way there are a lot of shots through door frames, and she ends up going through a window frame at the end...

KM: That's shocking, that scene.

MT: It is. I love it. He's a great director. So I had that in my mind and when I sat with Chris, who I hadn't worked with before. He brought some references and that was one of them so I was like, "We've got something here."

Z: Very cool. Turning to the cast, Irrfan Khan is someone I can listen to all day...

KM: I know!

Z: The voice is amazing.

KM: He's hilarious as well. I didn't realize quite how funny he was. 

Z: What else did you learn about him? How was working with him?

KM: He's just like you say. You can't take your eyes off him. It's a very magnetic performance he gives and a physical performance. He really embraces the fact (his character) Robert is an odd guy (laughs) in a very different way from Agnes's oddities and it's just hilarious these two characters being in a quiet room together. 

Z: And what about Dave Denman. His character seemed an awful lot like his character, Roy, from The Office. He's very much an older version of Roy. Did that play into his casting at all?

MT: For me, it was more about his likability. That character says and does some things that make you cringe. he treats his wife in a way that makes you cringe at times. And, yet, you know underneath that he loves her. He loves his kids and he's doing what he thinks is the right way to be a father and a husband. So I wanted a character who wasn't, as I put it, a "stick figure." No stereotypes. I wanted someone with a warmth you immediately liked despite all that.

Z: Yeah, that's him in a nutshell in my eyes. Speaking of other characters, Agnes reminded me a little of Margaret Schroeder (Macdonald's Boardwalk Empire character)...

KM: She looks very much like her.

Z: Good one (laughs). So you didn't think about her?

KM: (Laughs) No. Honestly I didn't. I mean there are aspects, when I read the script, of characters I'm familiar with that I've played — quiet characters and characters who have a lot going on internally. So, in that sense, I recognized her, but she's (Agnes) different from anyone I've ever played before. She's unusual and vaguely on the spectrum I think. So that was the challenging aspect.

Z: Do you like her?

KM: Oh, I love her. I fell in love with her reading the script.

Macdonald in No Country for Old Men. (Paramount Vantage)
Macdonald in No Country for Old Men. (Paramount Vantage)

Z: So, last question, off-topic, Kelly, I wanted to ask you if you could give me one lasting memory from one of my favorite movies, No Country for Old Men. Anything that stands out from that set...

KM: Well, the thing that immediately comes to mind happened during my last scene of the film where he's come to kill her basically and she says, "You don't have to do this." It's a very dark scene in a dark room and a dark thing happens at the end of it that you don't actually see. But, on the set, the Coens (directors Joel and Ethan) are just fun, sociable company so there was a lot of chatting on set. There was lots of laughter and the D.P., Roger Deakins, got annoyed and asked for everyone to leave so he could concentrate. He was setting up an important shot and the noise was distracting him. He was a bit grumpy. He told an A.D. who asked me to leave the set. I had to leave the building! So, afterwards, the A.D. came up to me and said, “I'm so sorry, but I couldn't ask Joel and Ethan to leave.

MT: You were the sacrificial lamb (laughs).

KM: Yeah, I should've marched back in there. 

Z: Amazing, you should have. Well, thank you very much guys. Good luck with Puzzle.

MT: Thank you.

KM: Thanks.

Kelly Macdonald Talks 'Puzzle,' The Weirdest, Perhaps, Best Romance Of The Year
Sony Pictures Classics
Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
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