Rambette of the Caves

Submitted by Brian Pendreigh on Sun, 07/10/2005 - 16:00

Shauna Macdonald made a reluctant acting debut 20 years ago in a church hall in Portobello, Edinburgh. She was just four and her mum had to force her on stage. The fairy she played that day has little in common with her latest role as a sexy action woman, fighting for her life against vicious subterranean creatures in The Descent, the film that is being hailed as the best British horror movie in years.

Writer/director Neil Marshall scored a surprise hit with the werewolf movie Dog Soldiers in 2001 and his new film looks set to be even bigger. Shauna tops the cast as one of six young women who go on a caving holiday that goes spectacularly wrong. The film brilliantly mixes action, atmosphere and jump-out-your-seat scares. It has been sold to distributors all over the world and fans are raving about it.

The female cast, which includes Nora-Jane Noone from The Magdalene Sisters and Saskia Mulder from the Channel 4 sitcom The Book Group, could take the film beyond horror's usual male constituency and kick-start Shauna's film career. She was only 17 when she made her debut with Billy Connolly in The Debt Collector, a violent thriller that bombed at the box office. She had a starring role in The Rocket Post, which was shot on the Hebrides four years ago. But, despite high expectations, it never came out, following the death of the director and complications with potential distributors.

On television, Shauna had a regular role in the spy series Spooks and the small, but vital, part of the political researcher whose death provides the starting point for the acclaimed BBC political drama State of Play. But she is determined to make the leap to cinema.

"I got far too excited about The Rocket Post and then was so disappointed," she recalled. This time round her film is definitely coming out and her hopes are high. "My face is on buses now," she said, with a laugh. And just as she says it a bus comes into sight, bearing her freckled features, blue eyes and blonde hair in an advert for the film.

Shauna is 24 now and not only has she had to wait, she has also had to suffer for her big break. During the shooting of The Descent, she was cold, wet and filthy, covered in mud and sprayed with blood. She was battered and bruised in intense action sequences and had to confront her claustrophobia and fear of the dark.

And she does not even like horror films.

"My sister loves things like that. She's my older sister and when we were kids if she wanted to watch something on the telly that's what would happen. I watched some and they scared me so much that I just avoided them. I'm genuinely scared of the dark and I don't like being in enclosed spaces and I don't particularly like being on my own in a house."

The film's opening white water rafting scene was shot in Perthshire, which also doubled for the Appalachian Mountains in the United States when the women reunite for their caving expedition a year later. The caves were recreated in Pinewood Studios, near London, but the cast experienced the real thing in Derbyshire.

"You're hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet underground and it's like a labyrinth of cave systems," said Shauna. "We climbed up waterfalls and we connected ourselves onto the walls and shimmied and shuffled through these tiny cracks. There's a constant feeling of claustrophobia."

Memories of the expedition helped recreate the mood at Pinewood. So did the physical ordeal to which the cast was subjected.

"They drag you through the mud in the morning and spray you with blood," Shauna recalled. "Everything soaks through your clothes and into your skin and it dyes you for 12 hours. When we went out at night it would be hilarious, because we would just keep finding dirt in each other's ears and under our nails. My hair would go unwashed, because I knew it was just going to get absolutely filthy the next day."

She spent much of the time scampering through tight tunnels at high speed and her injuries were not all the work of the make-up department.

"It's not till you're in the shower at the end of the day you think, that's not mud, that's actually a huge, big bruise on my leg. I was bruised all over, cuts all over. When I went and visited my mum she was horrified."

Her action woman is closer to Rambo than the little fairy she played two decades ago.

"I was a really shy kid and my mum bullied me into it," said Shauna, who was born in Malaysia, where her father taught English, but grew up in Edinburgh. "I was waiting in the wings and I was supposed to sort of twinkle on with a friend of mine and I just got total, utter stage fright. In the interval my mum came downstairs and said to me, 'Do you know how long it took me to sew those sequins on your tutu? You are going on stage.'"

After attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, she moved to London and has worked regularly in film, television and theatre. Her big breakthrough has proved elusive, however.

Until now.