Actor Kelly Macdonald recently got a taste of what it feels like to have reached a new level of fame.
She was taking a train down to London from her native Scotland when the conductor approached. A character actor wearing a mask, she felt quite inconspicuous.
But Macdonald didn’t even have to speak before she was found out. “He pointed at me and he said, ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’” she recalled. “It’s something I’m adjusting to.”
The actor’s outsized fame is largely due to her appearance on the BBC police drama series “Line of Duty,” a show which has taken Britain by storm. “More people have watched this than have watched anything else I’ve done ever,” said Macdonald.
The season six finale in the UK was watched by more than 15 million viewers, becoming the most-seen drama so far of the 21st century in Great Britain. It’s estimated that more than half of all TVs switched on at the time were tuned to “Line of Duty.”
“It’s really hard to explain. As a content creator, as a writer, all I can do is do my best job in telling stories and filling out the characters. You can never plan for that level of success,” said writer and series creator Jed Mercurio, whose other hits include the medical drama series “Bodies” and the political thriller “Bodyguard.”
“I think everybody involved in the show was taken aback and found it a kind of surreal experience that there was so much ‘Line of Duty’ mania in the last couple of months over here.”
American and Canadian audiences have a chance to check out what all the fuss is about on BritBox, where the series is currently streaming. The show also stars Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar.
The series is ingeniously created to allow first-time viewers access while also rewarding long-time fans. It focuses on an anti-corruption unit within the police force. The characters in the unit remain the same each season, but the case and perceived villain are new each time.
The baddie in season six seems to be Macdonald, whose credits include “Trainspotting,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2” and “The Girl in the Cafe,” which earned her a best supporting actress Emmy.
She had a lot of catching up to do since she hadn’t watched any of the previous seasons. The role as a senior officer was strong, but it was in an unfamiliar project — a tense procedural where the pressure adds up turn by turn. “It was sort of part of the reason I thought I really have to do this,” she said.
The actor tapped into her dark side, which she refined on “Boardwalk Empire,” where she played a woman likely enough to level a shotgun at a foe. “I have historically played quite innocent creatures,” she said.
“Line of Duty” comes at a time when more questions are being leveled at police departments about their officers’ fairness, use of force and honesty.
“I think that what we’ve seen in recent years is that people are becoming much more aware of the way in which policing can sometimes depart from the standards that we expect from law enforcement officers,” said Mercurio.
“Line of Duty” serves as a necessary corrective to the glut of cop shows that formulaically lionize officers as incorruptible and invariably honorable while usually debasing fellow officers charged with investigating them.
“I think the audience is more sophisticated than that now,” said Mercurio. “They appreciate that there has to be checks and balances in policing because police officers are capable of inflicting lethal force on citizens, and some of those citizens who are tragically the victims of lethal force are innocent. There’s a tremendous injustice that is being perpetrated.”
Macdonald argues that anyone given power can be in danger of misusing it. “It’s like in any of the superhero movies, it’s a worry. You can become like Lex Luther like that,” said said, snapping her fingers.
As for the success of the show, she has a theory: “People love to be like a detective themselves,” she said. “And the great thing about ‘Line of Duty’ and Jed is he keeps that going like no one else.”