Emma McDonald is a force of nature and immensely charismatic, which exhibits immediately after hearing her speak her first few words. The serene British actress is multi-talented and has accumulated tremendous experiences – from starting her acting career on stage to now fascinating the audience in the AMC production Moonhaven, a utopian drama in which she portrays the pilot Bella navigating a murder happening in the fictional world on the moon.
On a late, soft summer afternoon, Schön! spoke with Emma McDonald over zoom and dived into her world of acting, her latest book finds and her favourite places to get lost in London.
Emma, you recently made your U.S debut as the lead in the utopian drama Moonhaven, portraying the pilot Bella Sway. Could you give us a summary of the storyline?
We’re 150 years in the future and human beings using an artificial intelligence have terraformed a small portion of the moon and three generations. There has been a civilization of mooners that have come from the earth and have now lived just among themselves and developed a culture. At the start of the show they’re on the bridge of bringing back the culture and technology to the earth to save our dying planet. Then, a murder takes place. My character, who is a pilot and smuggler, gets wrapped up in this whole investigation and has to save human civilization.
Tell us more about Bella. Are there any similarities between you and your character?
Yes and no. We do share certain attributes. I can be quite feisty and she certainly is. Her exterior is quite hard and tough as well which I think I could probably let on if I was trying to be cool but, ultimately, I’m a massive softy. I am very emotional, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I cry quite a lot. She does not and this is something that during filming that I struggled with a little bit because I can’t help but sort of emote when I feel certain ways. She has to keep her military background, so she doesn’t weep like me. She loves science and technology and I did a math and psychology degree and I love the space. She’s a great mover her inner sort of stunt fight sense. Me, I love to dance and use my body as a tool to express myself. To me, my friends and family are the most important thing. For her, once you are into her inner circle, which takes a lot because she’s a tough cookie to crack, she’s fiercely loyal.
What was your favourite part of starring alongside your co-stars? How was the dynamic on set?
I was very fortunate because Bella is in quite a lot of the series. I got to spend a lot of time with the cast and creatives which means you build very strong relationships, especially because we’re filming during the pandemic. I was on set every day which meant that I got to form really beautiful friendships and be really open and vulnerable in scenes. I loved filming with Martha, who plays little Elna. She is an incredible actress and we have a funny and surprising friendship that develops throughout the first season. She has this beautiful dance that she does for me in the first episode, which is all about releasing grief. I loved filming that. With Dom, we just have so much fun. He asked me loads of questions all the time. We’d have great chats as well. We go to the gym together. And we just worked well together. We complemented each other styles like that and we just had a very strong understanding of one another.
Kadeem was like my big brother on set. He’s hilarious and he’s such a good listener. Joe, I respected him as an actor. He’s also really silly which I found quite fun. You don’t expect that from this sort of tall brooding man. He’s just really silly but also incredibly professional and knows how to balance the sort of fine line between those two perfectly. We had a stunt scene and working with him and Vic Armstrong, who was Harrison Ford’s stunt double, was just brilliant. Ayelet and Amara are just beautiful human beings we’d have such giggles that they just have a real knowledge of their craft and also the technical aspects of shooting which I admired. Peter Ocko, the show-runner, is a genius. Anytime I could pick his brain and talk to him I would. He has the most beautiful understanding of people and gives everyone on the set time, attention, love and support. Having that example right from the very top, especially for me being quite new to the field of screen acting, was so important and so valued.
Moonhaven has been renewed for a second season – what are you looking forward to the most and how do you think Bella’s character will develop?
I am most excited to see everyone and play again. I just love them all so much. They’re like great friends of mine now. As a fan of the show, I’m really excited to see what happens next and else to work alongside Peter again. He’s the kindest man and I think it’s a really different show as well. It’s unique in its approach and I’m excited to see what happens. For Bella, she grew so much as a character throughout the first season in her approach to the people and the planet itself. But she also stayed very true to her earthy roots and her sense of humour. I’m excited to delve more into that. Her humour, her dry wit, but she’s also such a badass and so fun to play. I’m hoping maybe she meets her mother and that she has some insane fight scenes. I’d also love to see a little bit more into her past maybe even if it’s her recent past on Earth. I think it’d be fun to see that side of things.
You mentioned earlier that you’re quite new to screen editing. You started your career on stage in Pride and Prejudice and over the years you have played a number of great Shakespearean roles. How did you experience in theatre help you with your role as Bella?
It really helps. I think in terms of stamina, as well. I’ve had to get really good at learning lines quickly. I’ve done plays in Rep as well, which is when you do two plays at the same time. I was holding a lot in my brain. It’s helped me be silly and playful and not afraid of making mistakes. In doing something like this, which is episodic, you’re doing two episodes at once. They are completely out sequence and you’re not getting the script to the next two episodes until a week or so before. You have to get really good at moving quickly and staying on top of things in your own mind. I think Shakespeare and doing plays has helped me enormously and just really helped in my love of language and performance of working with people for long periods of time and stunts.
What would you say is the greatest lesson that you’ve learned while working on the set of Moonhaven? So is there anything mind blowing or anything that you know will stay in your mind forever that you’ll remember that you learned?
There’s a few things. Dom said something great. He’ll said actors never do the same tape twice in terms of how they perform it. I think that’s interesting because when you’re filming, you film that scene and then that’s it. You think, “Oh, I could have done that or I could have done this.” I suppose having a fresh approach to each take and surprising yourself and being open is a good one. For me, letting go and trusting myself was a really big one as well on this job. With theatre you might be doing that same show for two months so you get so many chances to do things and learn from it and that character grows alongside you. But with this, you have to let go each day. I had to learn to trust myself and others because once you’ve done your job, then it’s someone else’s to take over and to edit. I think Moonhaven has taught me to be curious, to be kind and to really appreciate one another and our environment. It’s so precious and it has so many beautiful concepts within it, but it also has an ultimately hopeful outlook. I think having that optimism and that appreciation of beauty and one another is something that I think is really important, especially in our world at the moment. It’s a hopeful view of what could be in the future. I think that’s really important and should be celebrated.
In 2020, you played Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the production is based on a philosophical novel by Oscar Wilde. Did you read the book before taking on the role?
I did. I listened to the audiobook, which I can’t remember now if it was Russell Tovey or Stephen Fry who did the recording of it, but it was brilliant because they are both in the production which is such a gift. I was working with great, great actors. Tamara Harvey, who directed it, was the director that was part of me getting my first ever role. She directed Pride and Prejudice at the Sheffield crucible theatre. Then, I think it was something crazy like five years later or something, I got an email out of the blue from my agent saying that she wants me to be Sybil Vane in this in this production. It was raising money for regional theatres and had incredible actors in the cast and we were able to produce a unique fresh approach to Dorian Gray, which had the utmost respect for the original Wilde book. It was just fascinating bringing all of those people together in that time during the pandemic and doing something for regional theatre in a unique way.
Speaking of literature, is reading something that you enjoy in your time off-set? What are your favourite books currently?
Just before this, I walked down to Camberwell to get some pictures developed and I popped into a charity shop and I bought three books. I will show you them! First, The Prophet. I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages. I heard a passage of it read at a wedding I went to recently, it was stunning. I’ve been recommended it so many times. It’s by Kahlil Gibran and it speaks of love and marriage, joy and sorrow, reason and passion, beauty and death and conveys the yearning for a unity of Being that can only be achieved through love. The second one is by Elizabeth Strout, it’s called My Name is Lucy Barton. I read her book Oh William recently and loved it. I connected to her as a storyteller. It painted a very sort of different picture of love and relationships and how that can develop over time and change into platonic love and just companionship and was funny. The third is Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. It was shortlisted for Booker Prize 2016. I feel like I must have read a book by Deborah Levy before. It’s got brilliant reviews and talks about her as a sort of contemporary storyteller.
As you mentioned earlier, you studied maths and psychology, which is very impressive. How did your degree help you with your acting career?
It helped me live by myself live independently, which is important. It gave me a different outlook on life as well. It helped with my determination. I got good late nights spent in the library. I worked a lot, I spent most of my time actually in the theatre. We had the only student-run theatre in the country and they put on two plays every week. I think I developed my fierce determination in uni and my independence. I learned more about myself as a human being and developed really good friendships and came out with a first in my degree, which was helpful.
In terms of my career it has helped me self-motivate. When you’re an actor, you’re self-employed. You’re doing everything by yourself. You have an amazing team behind you which I have, which has grown over the years for me. You have to motivate yourself, especially when you’re not working. When you’ve got an audition tape come through, you have to have a quick turnaround. You have to learn you have to get good at learning what your technique is and how you work as an artist. Psychology is something I find fascinating still. I will unpick a character in a script. I’ll go through it with a pen. It’s helped in that way how I approach scripts and characters. I might look into what’s made them who they are. Their relationship with their mother, father, lack of things. With Bella, probably PTSD was a big part of it. For me coming up from a psychological perspective, I found that quite interesting.
You are based in London – what do you enjoy most about the city and do you have any favourite spots you can share with us?
I’m a Southeast London girl. Brixton, Camberwell is where I grew up around those areas, the vibrancy of it. The fact that you could walk down one street and there’ll be something you’ve not seen before. You know, you can never explore the whole of London you just can’t do it even in a lifetime. Yeah, and I find quite exciting. Diversity, the number of different languages spoken and people like people from all corners of the world. I think it brings so much to a place, it’s history as well. Especially for me, being close to Brixton and the Jamaican culture, that’s there as well. I love the community garden at Brockwell Park. I’ll go there to sit and read. I love all the little cafes as well in Herne Hill, especially the market on a Saturday. I like going to the South might like going to BFI in the understudy such an actor thing to say for a drink but I like being close to the river. Blackfriars is my favourite station, it’s beautiful. The fact that you can see the river on both sides. The ladies pond in Hampstead Heath for a dip. It’s one of the places you can sunbathe naked in London and no one bats an eyelid. Walking down Hackney. I love the walks next to the canals. Charity shops is the only place I will shop at and there’s so many of them in South London, Peckham as well. I go do aerial hoop in Camden.
There’s so much to do in London.
And all the theatres and the fringe theatres! Wiltons Music Hall I love like Victorian musical in London. They do shows there, people get married there, it’s this stunning hidden venue. I just think it’s beautiful. It’s so many theatres as well in London. That for me is so important. Mostly the culture is why I’d never really want to leave the city.
In terms of your career, is there a dream role that you are working towards to or do you have any actors that you would love to work with?
Oh, gosh, yeah. I just love stories. Anything and everything A24 make I’m excited by and would love to be part of one of their projects. I think everything they touch is just magic. I think Jodie Comer is excellent. I saw Prima Facie the other day, she’s just a force of nature. I think she’s wonderful. Stephen Graham, again. They’re just so great. I also love Adjoa Andoh, I think she’s beautiful. I’ve known her since I was really small. I look up to her and I’d love to work with her professionally at some point. I think she’s a genius. Who else did I say? Did I say Helena Bonham Carter? I think she’s so much fun. She also makes hats. So I’d love to work at the National. I’d love to work at the Young Vic. I think everything they make is brilliant. I think Michaela Coel is incredible and is an inspiration to me.
Can you tell us more about what the future holds for you? Any exciting upcoming projects?
I finished shooting a film in South Africa. A BFI Film recently. It’s not been announced yet. I think it’s over the next couple of weeks that will be announced. I did three weeks on that in Cape Town. It’s the most beautiful and important story. I was working with incredible filmmakers and having just the best time as well. Some of the most fun I’ve had on set. I got to be messy. I think as a young woman, you don’t often get to be horribly messy and a film that allows you to do that and to be funny to improvise, to have dark moments as well. So that will probably be coming out early next year. I’m excited about that one.
And lastly, what is something you want to be remembered for?
Curiosity, kindness and probably listening. As an artist, I think it’s really important to listen and make space for other people and to share their stories, but mostly just connection. I hope people have fun when they work with me. That’s all I want to do. I think for me, it’s everything and anything to do with nature and the environment. It’s something close to my heart and the thing that can get me really stirred up and quite upset is that and how we we treat nature. I think we should treat others like we treat nature with love kindness, nurturing nourishment. But yeah, I think to nourish, to have fun to listen to be playful. Also the last thing is to not limit ourselves in terms of our gender or what we think or by putting people into boxes by playing with that masculine and feminine energy and just to not getting boxed in.
Thank you. I enjoyed the interview and everything that we talked about.
Thank you so much Maja.
Moonhaven is out now.
photography + creative direction. Kane Layland
production. Anthony Pedraza
fashion. Emily Evans @ The Only Agency
talent. Emma McDonald
make up. Emma Miles @ Caren Agency
hair + locs. Venner James @ The Only Agency
make up assistant. Eve Taylor
hair assistant. Nickelle Morgan – Scott
location. Sunset Studios
words. Maja Bebber