WHILE the memories are now as wispy as the feathers on an Easter chick, Kate Dickie thinks her name was Buttercup and one of her dogs was called Soft Paw. The narrator was Big Chief Fluffy Cloud (also known as "Dad"), and he spun his yarns about Buttercup as young Kate sat by his side in fancy walled gardens straight out of storybooks while … CUT!

This will not do. One cannot have a piece on the actress behind some of the most harrowing performances seen on Scottish stage and international screen starting with a scene that would have made Mary Poppins vomit into her hat. Where is the miserable childhood, the Sturm und Drang required in the hinterland of any serious actor? Sorry, cannot help you. The woman in the chair opposite, all windmilling arms, laughter and stout opinions, is fortunately not that predictable. 

It is true, though, about those roles. Red Road (harrowed CCTV operator with tragic past), Aalst (stage play, murderer), Prometheus (distraught astronaut), For Those in Peril (anxious mother), Game of Thrones (crazy mother) – just some of the occasions when we have seen Dickie in the eye of an emotional hurricane.


She is on similar ground in her new film, Couple in a Hole. Directed by Tom Geens, it is the story of a middle-class man and wife (Dickie and fellow Scots actor Paul Higgins) who live in a forest in France. For a long stretch we do not know what brought them to this pass and why they stay. It sounds as punishing as, well, living in a hole, but inspired direction by Geens, a Belgian, and outstanding performances from the two Scots combine to deliver a picture that is one of the most unusual, moving and genuinely rewarding “Scottish” films in years.

Couple in a Hole, which won best picture at Dinard British Film Festival last October, was almost as tough physically as it was mentally, with Dickie having to lose more than a stone from her already slight frame. “I was constantly hungry,” she says when we meet in Glasgow during the city’s film festival, where Couple had its UK premiere. Currently, Dickie is also enjoying great reviews for The Witch, a horror set in frontier America. In both films, Dickie goes to places no sane person would willingly want to tiptoe near. A smile cracks her face. “I do, don’t I? It fills me with glee.”


“I’ve got this obsession with people in extreme situations, people pushed to extreme places. I enjoy playing characters who aren’t necessarily understandable or even likeable at times, because it’s just life, you know? There’s a lot of people in life going round quietly heartbroken and harbouring a lot of pain.”

Dickie does have experience of that, as we shall see. Even the happiest of childhoods cannot insulate a person from sorrow for ever. For now, though, it is back to the start and the Buttercup years. Dickie’s father was a farmer and gardener for hire (those grand gardens were not his), and her mother had various jobs, including cook and housekeeper.

Born in East Kilbride, one of four children, Dickie and her family moved around Scotland a lot because of her father’s job. While not easy being the new girl at so many schools, it probably helped make her an actor. 

Not that she knew, back then, that an actor’s life was for her. She did not see her first film (Herbie Goes Bananas) until she was nine and the family had moved to Ayr. At home, the television was switched on for specific programmes and turned off again. Life was all about playing outside. There were no actors in the family either. But off she eventually went to what was then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.


She thought her career would be confined to the stage and “fell into” film when the director Andrea Arnold came calling with Red Road (2006). Set in the titular Glasgow flats and retina-searingly gritty, the film was feted at Cannes, winning the Jury Prize. Dickie found the whole cinema-going experience in the south of France just a wee bit different from that in Ayr. When Arnold phoned her beforehand and said the film had made it into competition, Dickie asked, “Is that good?” And when her partner and his mum asked if they should travel to France she didn’t want to put them to the bother, saying it was “just a film festival”.

Except it was not. “Oh my God. I got there and realised the importance of getting into competition and it wasn’t just a film festival. Then it came to the premiere and I took fright. I said, 'You know what, I’ll just stay in the room.'” Arnold had to eventually drag her out the hotel and on to the red carpet. Then came three days of interviews, with one journalist wondering why Dickie was not on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), the online Yellow Pages for the film industry. She did not know what IMDB was. “I was so green,” she laughs.


The films remained micro budget and solidly indie until she was cast by Ridley Scott in Prometheus (2012) alongside Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace and Charlize Theron. Even then, with the Cannes win, Baftas and other awards to her name, she thought she had been a beneficiary of mistaken identity, that it was another Kate Dickie the producers had in mind.

“I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' Though I knew rationally I had been given the job, that they knew it was me, I spent the first few weeks thinking this is ridiculous that I’m standing on a set with these actors and Ridley Scott, this doesn’t make sense to me. I’m going to wake up and go, 'Wow, that was a really cool dream.'”

Scott does not make those kinds of mistakes, though. Nor, searching for someone to play Lysa Arryn, do the makers of the mega-earning international television success that is Game of Thrones, in which Dickie appeared from 2011 until 2014. 


I’ve always wondered if the actors like to switch off from all the sex, dragons and Machiavellian manoeuvrings by knitting or playing video games between scenes. Apparently not. 

“People don’t have time for that. The crew are so busy and the sets are incredible, there is very little CGI.” Lysa’s eyrie, to which she has retreated from the world with the son Robin on whom she dotes, was a work of art, says Dickie, and every costume she wore was beautifully made. “You are working with departments at the top of their game.” It is GoT that gets her recognised in the streets of Glasgow, where she lives with her partner Kenny, a sound engineer, and their 11-year-old daughter Molly. But it is only now that she has left the series that Dickie has started to watch herself in it. “I have such a terror of watching my stuff.”

Between being press-ganged on to the red carpet at Cannes and not watching herself in GoT, I’m beginning to think that Dickie’s intensity on screen is matched off it. She cops to the charge, but it is only when she is working she says, and just in films, not the theatre.

“The problem I have with filming is that once you’ve made your choice and it’s laid down there’s no way of going back and changing it. In theatre you don’t necessarily change a performance but you have a way of working on it and trying to make it what you set out for it to be.

“It’s a funny one. I’m not easy to live with when I work, not because I turn into a monster but I tend to have odd lines. Kenny says the nearer I get to filming the more I disappear.”

When working she takes to muttering in her bed at night.

“We should really have a spare room when it comes to shoots. He says it’s like living with someone else. I’m not methody … I just get lost in the thoughts.”

Not lost in the darkness, though. Dickie, 45, knows from personal experience how to pick her way slowly out of that. She has lost both her parents, with her mother’s passing particularly wrenching. When she talks of “a lot of people in life going round quietly heartbroken and harbouring a lot of pain”, she knows of what she speaks. 


“Especially in the western world we’re not really honest about our feelings to a degree. The times I’ve grieved, like when I grieved for my parents, I really did want to be lying on the ground beating the floor and wailing for days. Instead it’s hidden.”

It is almost like there is a time frame, she says, though it is not really spoken about, in which a person is allowed to fall apart and people will understand. “I don’t know what the time frame is but after that it becomes an issue. It worries people. Isn’t that odd, that you could have someone in your life all your life but when you lose them you are expected to very quickly compartmentalise it and move on?” It sounds as if she chose, as so many people do, to put a brave face on. 

“Definitely. To be honest I’ve really not grieved my mother properly yet. My mum got Alzheimer’s in her forties. It was such a horrifying illness and it was a horrifying way to watch her die. I was in my teens when she started getting ill. I don’t know if it was the illness or my age or the way she died, but I feel I really never went there because I honestly don’t think I would stop.”


She is well aware that people might see her choice of roles as a kind of therapy, but it is not that, she insists. It is the taking up of other people’s burdens for a while, acting out what they are going through to show it is OK to feel like that, to behave in such ways. 

“When I get characters I look after them. I never feel, ‘Oh, it’s a job.’ I’ll get a character and I’ll feel this is my responsibility, I have to look after them, I have to give them the voice they deserve and the respect. Kind of love them. A lot of characters I get need to be loved, and I feel it’s my bag to do it. It’s funny, it’s only as I get older I go OK, there obviously are things there I am interested in exploring. It’s not just the parts I happen to get. I’m attracted to … darkness.”

Dickie is at ease with that, as she is with what some critics have called the miserablist tendency of Scottish cinema. “This is a thing that comes up a lot about Scotland. We’re a country that’s got socialist roots and social issues take up a lot of our time and thoughts.”

She wonders why it has become so frowned upon in some quarters to be left wing. “How did we get to a society where caring about society as a whole, and not just about what is happening in our own lives, when did that become a bad thing? It’s hard not to be socially involved when you live under a government that absolutely abhors poverty and working-class people and yet have done nothing but try to shove those people into those boxes and turn their backs.” 

She supports independence. “If you don’t take a gamble or a risk nothing is going to change. Yes, you’ve no idea the outcome and it could be really scary but things have got to be scary to change.” What has particularly pleased her since the referendum is the way younger Scots have become more politicised. Her daughter goes on marches and the family has become involved in the campaign to save the North Kelvin Meadow in Glasgow.

“I am determined, especially as a woman, that she feels her voice is as equal as anyone else’s and if she is annoyed about something she makes a noise. There was a long time when people felt no matter what you voted it didn’t make a difference … Now they think we can have a voice.”

Kate Dickie may be known for playing victims of life’s sometimes cruel fortunes, but never make the mistake that she is a victim herself. Buttercup would be pleased at how her story turned out.

Couple in a Hole (12A) opens in cinemas on April 8. Twitter: @dickie_kate @coupleinahole