Patti Cake$ is the type of film that can live or die on its lead performance. It follows Patti Dombrowksi, a white, overweight bartender from downtrodden New Jersey who dreams of being hip-hop’s Next Big Thing. The wannabe star, who goes by Killa P, is no parody. You’ve gotta believe in her, root for her, and most importantly, buy into her.
Luckily for writer-director Geremy Jasper, he found Danielle Macdonald … a now-26-year-old Australian who barely knew a lick about the genre and was “completely nonmusical” when the filmmaker fell in love with her for the part in 2014.
Macdonald is nothing like Dombrowksi in real life, all the more reason her revelatory turn in the Sundance hit, which recalls similar rap-centric underdog tales like 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow, should be applauded. It’s also why you’re guaranteed to see more of the actress in the coming years, like in the comedy Dumplin’, which she’s currently filming alongside Jennifer Aniston.
Here are $even things we learned about the Patti Cake$ star over a recent lunch in Los Angeles.
As mentioned above, she’s Australian. This bears repeating because if Patti Cake$ is your introduction to Macdonald, which it likely is, you’d never know it. The Sydney native absolutely nails the blue-collar northern Jersey accent of Bergen County, and her natural brogue has been surprising viewers since the film bowed. During an audience Q&A following the Sundance premiere, “I was so nervous, and I got asked a question and I started talking, and all of the sudden there were whispers throughout, like really loud whispers,” Macdonald recalled. “I was worried I did something wrong. And then Geremy, our director, was like, ‘They’re realizing you’re Australian.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that.'”
She’s the first one in her family to go into showbiz. Macdonald’s father works in shipping, and her mother is an accountant. “None of my family is in the industry,” she said. “But I watched movies like an insane person when I was a child. I used to make my dad stop at the video store every time we drove past it, and you had to drive past the video store to get to our house.” Though she was already competing in swimming, water polo, and gymnastics, she caught the acting bug in eighth grade and started taking classes. “Then I had to decide between gymnastics and acting and I was like well, ‘I’m not trying to be a gymnast,'” she said. By 10th grade she had made up her mind that she wanted to be an actor.
She came to Hollywood young but lost her first gig. Macdonald had an agent in Australia for three years during high school but couldn’t book any auditions. “I just didn’t fit the mold there,” she said. So she, along with a group of other aspiring Aussie actors, attended a casting workshop in Los Angeles. She soon landed her first stateside audition — for the ABC Family drama Huge — and booked the role. It was a major high … followed by a major low: Macdonald couldn’t take the job because she couldn’t secure a travel visa in time. Looking back, though, “in a way I am glad because it’s a little too easy to kind of come out at a young age and have a guaranteed 10 episodes,” she said. “It’s different coming out here and trying and failing. And I think you have to try and fail a little bit because you learn how badly you want it.”
Her first credit came in a short directed by Rachel Weisz. Three months after losing out on Huge, she landed a part as a grocery store cashier in a short called The Thief, directed by the Oscar-winning actress Weisz and starring Joel Edgerton and Rosemarie DeWitt. “I was kind of freaking out, because I had never done this,” she said of professional acting. “What if I just moved halfway across the world and I don’t even like it? And then I went on set and had one of the best days of my life. So I realized I’m doing this forever.” Gigs in the TV hit Glee (she played “Girl No. 1” in the 2011 episode Born This Way), the Clark Gregg-directed comedy Trust Me, and the Diane Lane-Elizabeth Banks thriller Every Secret Thing soon followed, not to mention one-off appearances on shows like Pretty Little Liars, 2 Broke Girls, and American Horror Story.
Watch the ‘PBNJ’ music video from ‘Patti Cake$’:
Macdonald was involved in Patti Cake$‘s development from the beginning. Jasper was selected to participate in the 2014 Sundance Director’s Lab, where filmmakers are given the opportunity to finesse their scripts alongside industry professionals. The young filmmakers are permitted to bring three actors with them to Utah to workshop the projects, and Jasper tapped Macdonald as well as costars Bridget Everett (a comedian best known for Inside Amy Schumer) and Siddharth Dhananjay (a parody rapper discovered by Jasper on Worldstarhiphop). All three would end up in the film (with Everett playing Patti’s mom, Barb, and Dhananjay playing her best friend, Jheri), which Macdonald believes is a first for the Sundance labs.
She got the Robert Redford bump. Jasper and Macdonald gelled during the Sundance lab after she learned and performed three rap songs he’d written, an impressive feat given her lack of musical background. But it was still unknown whether the film would secure financing, especially with an unknown lead. Macdonald pictured the role going to a more established actor: “Just generally any name that could fit the role. There aren’t a ton of them, but you can kind of imagine,” she said, which had us imagining Macdonald’s countrywoman Rebel Wilson. “But I was really lucky because [Sundance Film Festival creator] Robert Redford was at the labs and he told Geremy afterwards, ‘You have to cast her.'”
She listened to loads of rappers while prepping … just not Iggy Azalea. To prep for the rhyme-dropping role of Patti Dombrowksi, Macdonald learned the lyrics and practiced the intonations of hip-hop musicians like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Big Pun, and Action Bronson. “And I did Kendrick Lamar, which was just stupid for me to even attempt,” she said, laughing. Macdonald said she’s often asked if she studied Oz’s most famous emcee, Iggy Azalea. “She was the one that I never listened to,” the actress admitted. “Because she’s Australian and I didn’t want to hear someone rapping like that … I needed to stay far away from that just in case.”
Patti Cake$ is now in select theaters. Watch the trailer:
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