She talks to Stylist.co.uk about Jennifer Aniston, Dolly Parton and learning to love yourself.
The day Danielle Macdonald turned 26 was the day she met Jennifer Aniston.
The Australian actress had been called to a meeting with the Friends’ star about a role in Aniston’s latest project: the Netflix adaptation of Dumplin’, the story of the plus-size daughter of a faded beauty queen who decides to compete in a pageant as an act of defiant protest. Macdonald, fresh from her breakout performance as a prodigy rapper in Patticake$, a film that earned her rave reviews from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, was being tapped to play the titular Dumplin’. Aniston was going to play her mother.
“I was like, this is the most insane day,” Macdonald recalls on the phone from Sydney, where she is currently filming her latest project, a biopic of a cult Australian singer. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope I get this movie, otherwise I will remember this as the worst birthday ever.’”
What was Aniston’s house like? “It’s amazing,” Macdonald laughs. “It’s epic. I rocked up to the front door and I was like ‘Wow, these are some doors.’ Even the doors are amazing.”
Reader, Macdonald got the movie. Hitting Netflix today, Dumplin’ is joyous and uplifting, a film about learning to love yourself, and Macdonald is its brilliant heart. As Willowdean Opal – or Dumplin’, as her mother Rosie (Aniston) insists on calling her – Macdonald is the heroine every plus-size girl wishes they had growing up. Part blistering confidence, part heartbreaking insecurities, she’s a ray of sunshine whenever she’s onscreen. In short: she’s a teenage girl.
“I just fell in love with Will,” Macdonald says, “because she reminded me of who I was as a teenager. Everyone goes through that time in their life when they’re trying to figure out who they are find their own purpose and their own way. I wanted to do this movie for my 16-year-old self.”
At the heart of the movie is the thorny relationship between Willowdean and her mother. Rosie, a Texan beauty queen and former Miss Teen Bluebonnet who, magnificently mascaraed and hair lacquered to high heaven runs the pageant to this day. Rosie loves her daughter but struggles to get through to her. Willowdean was always closer to her aunt Lucy, a big-hearted Dolly Parton fan who taught Willowdean that anything is possible.
Rosie, on the other hand, is a realist. She points out the spots on Willowdean’s face and tells her not to eat the greasy food at the diner she works at after school. “I know what this world is like for big girls,” Rosie says, pity crumpling across Aniston’s face.
So far, so rote. But this isn’t your usual by-numbers feel-good film.
Unlike the more reductive pieces of plus-size pop culture – some of them on Netflix, like the abysmal television series Insatiable – Dumplin’ tells a far more exciting story: of a fat girl who is as happy in her skin as any other 16-year-old girl is. She has a best friend with whom she blasts Dolly Parton songs and a cute, burger-flipping boy who wants to show her shooting stars from the back of his truck. (Not a euphemism!) What more could a girl want?
Macdonald grew up in the nineties and came of age in the noughties, and the only piece of pop culture she remembers having a plus-size heroine was the Zac Efron and Nikki Blonsky reboot of Hairspray. For me, it was Circle of Friends and Minnie Driver’s performance as big, beautiful Benny from Knockglen, who just wanted Chris O’Donnell to ask her to the rugby match and for a tray of chips afterwards.
“I remember loving Hairspray,” Macdonald says. “I was obsessed with it, and I didn’t realise why. I felt so connected to it at the time because there wasn’t any other kind of representation. So when it happens you think, wow, I really connect with this movie. Why is that? Maybe it’s because there’s a girl like me up there on the screen.”
What drew her to Hairspray’s Tracy and, later, to Willowdean, was the fact that she “wasn’t the sidekick or the funny best friend.” Willowdean is the main event, the star of her story. She’s the one who decides to enter her mother’s beauty pageant as a protest against the way her smalltown community treats women who look like her. It’s Willowdean who ropes in a couple of friends to compete with her, and it’s Willowdean who takes her motley crew to a Dolly Parton drag bar for equal parts advice and makeovers.
And it’s Willowdean who, alongside her best friend Ellen, sticks the landing on the movie’s climactic moment: A hostile takeover of the beauty pageant’s swimsuit competition in which both girls wear bathing costumes emblazoned with the words ‘every body is a swimsuit body.’
“That was a terrifying day,” Macdonald recalls. “For all of us. There’s a genuine crowd of 200 people out there just sitting in the audience and we’re about to go out and parade around in swimsuits!”
Director Anne Fletcher made sure, though, that none of the actresses had to wear bikinis. She also encouraged the women to support each other before they had to go in front of the camera. “It felt a bit like, ‘Look at us go,’” Macdonald says. “It was really empowering. We lifted each other up, and it became this special thing of a group of people making each other feel better about ourselves.”
Like all good performance movies – Center Stage, Miss Congeniality – the pageant is the best part of the film. It’s here that we get to see the fruits of all of Willowdean’s labour, and it’s here that we can watch the big emotional showdown between Willowdean and Rosie.
But Macdonald’s favourite moment is just before, when Dumplin’ has to face off against her mother to sign up for the pageant in the first place. “I had so much fun working with [Jennifer],” Macdonald says.
“In that scene there’s so much tension and the back and forth of it felt so good to do it with her. Filming that scene was one of those moments, like, wow, that was cool. I just got to do a challenging scene with Jennifer Aniston! That’s unreal to me.”
Dumplin’ streams on Netflix now.
Images: Netflix, Getty