“Lords and ladies of the Royal Court, bow down. The QUEEN is in the building.” So announces Jheri (played magnificently by newcomer Siddharth Dhananjay) in Geremy Jasper’s Directors’ Fortnight closing-night film Patti Cake$. And for anyone who sees Danielle Macdonald’s breakthrough performance as aspiring New Jersey rapper Patricia Dombrowski, it’s hard to argue with this assertion. As the titular Patti Cake$ (aka White Trish, aka Juicy Luciano, aka Marilyn Mansion, aka Jane Dough, aka Killa P), Macdonald spits rhymes and takes names with the greatest conviction, bringing heart, humor and no small amount of pathos to the role.
It’s a character Macdonald lived for a full two years, starting at the Sundance Labs, where, in 2014, Jasper called on her to read the role as the film was being developed alongside Bridget Everett, as Patti’s mom Barb, and Dhananjay. Then, after months of intense preparation, the Labs cast reunited on set in 2016. Jasper’s call had come out of the blue for the Australian-born actress, who hadn’t demonstrated any particular aptitude for rapping, let alone doing it in a New Jersey accent. But she jumped at the chance, delighted that she’d been considered for her first lead role, and keen, if a little apprehensive, to take on the challenge.
What was your initial reaction to the call that sent you to the Sundance Labs?
I kind of thought the director, Geremy, must be insane. [Laughs] He was asking me to do this, but he’d never met me, and I’ve never done anything like this, so he definitely hadn’t seen me do this work. And he didn’t even ask me to audition for the Labs. I thought, I’m just going to be real with him and tell him I can’t do a Jersey accent and I can’t rap. I spoke to him and he kind of had to convince me it was going to be OK, because it terrified me. He said, “But did you grow up listening to rap?” And I said, “Yeah, of course.” He just had this blind faith.
What happened then?
He gave me three raps to learn for the Labs, and they were ones he’d written for the film. I had maybe a week and a half before I left, so I learned them by just listening to them constantly. I remember, I was sitting at the Labs and Sid [Dhananjay] was next to me, and Geremy was in front of me. I’d just met them that day, and they were like, “OK, moment of truth, go.” It wasn’t very good, because I was petrified, but I did it, and then Sid looked at Geremy, and Geremy’s like, “OK, I think we can work with this.”
Sid and I, Bridget and I, and Jeremy and I, we all developed relationships at the Labs, and by the end of that experience it was like, we all wanted to do it together. But I never really thought it would get funded with me in the lead. I had a strong feeling this film would get made, but I wasn’t sure if it would get made with me.
So, when the film got a greenlight, with you in the role—is that when the real work began?
Yeah, my manager read the latest draft before we started shooting, because it had changed quite a bit, and he called me and said, “I’m freaking out for you, I don’t know how you’re going to do this. You’re on every page.”
Just what you want from a manager!
Yeah [laughs]. I appreciated it because he was being honest, but I knew I wasn’t going to have any downtime. But that was part of the magic of it when we got to it, because we were just working constantly. Whenever I wasn’t on set or sleeping—and there wasn’t much sleeping—I was learning songs, or we were recording or figuring something out. It was very intense, but those experiences are incredible because you become like a family and your whole world is revolving around this. I live in LA, but we shot in New York, so I was out of my life—and that actually helps you enter this whole new world and not worry about what you worry about in your day to day.
What was involved in learning the raps?
It was a lot of hard work, listening over and over, and just really taking on anything anyone would say. My roommate even helped out, because she grew up in Miami and listened to rap like it was her job; it was her whole life. A lot of the songs that I would get from Geremy to practice with, she knew them completely. If there was a bit I couldn’t get, she’d be able to break it down for me. And then, a month before we started shooting, I got a rap coach to really cement everything I’d learned and put it all together. That was about letting go of everything I’d learned—just having to trust that it was in there now—and be natural with it. A few months out from shooting I learned how to do the Jersey accent, and within a month I was starting to put the Jersey accent into the raps. I had to completely slow down the raps, put the accent in, and then quicken it up again to get my mouth around it.
When did you get the actual, original raps that are in the movie?
Well Geremy loved to rewrite the raps, the weekend before, the night before. We would be recording on weekends, and he’d be like, “So here’s the song.” I’d be holding the lyrics, learning the flow and filming it the next day. We had time to prepare, but then everything was so last minute when it came to it. I had to learn the foundation in the time before, because there was no time to actually learn the material when it came to it.
That was the funny mix; I didn’t have two years to learn the songs that I was performing—I had maybe 24 hours sometimes—but I had to learn how to understand rap so that I could do that in such a short amount of time. Same with the accent. That’s why I listened to it just over and over and over again, because I had to be comfortable enough to be able to go into it if it wasn’t a line that I had rehearsed. I needed to be good enough to be able to speak it conversationally.
You’ve talked about family. After two years of working on this movie with the same people, did it help to sell the emotion of the movie that you knew each other so well?
It helped so much. When I was doing the final performance it was terrifying, because we had 200 people in the audience, watching. I hadn’t had to perform in front of that many people before. But when Bridget came in, and she’s giving so much, I’m so focused on her that it made me kind of blank out what was happening. We were looking at one another, both terrified because we’re performing, and the emotions were real and it was all there.
Does a big rap career beckon?
[Laughs] People keep saying that and I’m like, “No, this is for this movie only.” I don’t have the confidence to do that. I can’t write lyrics either; that’s all Geremy. It was a great experience, and I loved being able to do it for the part, but I’m going to leave that to Patti.
Did you ever imagine something like this would ever be in the cards for you?
Never. I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and I started doing acting classes when I was in eighth grade. I think it was just one hour of improv a week, and then there was also musical theater, which I was terrible at the singing. I loved it, but I was not musical at all. I got stuck in the back of the chorus.
When did you decide to move to Los Angeles?
I’d had an agent for a couple of years in Australia, but I’d never gotten an audition. They were great, but there wasn’t really the work for me there. There seemed to be in America. I came out to LA and did a casting workshop and the casting director said, “Oh, you would work out here.” He introduced me to my manager the same day. I went straight to their office, and they got me an audition for the next day. It was for a series regular on a show. I booked it. It was one of those crazy experiences that never happens, where you book something off the first audition.
How did that work out?
I got my visa and moved to LA. I didn’t get my visa approval in time to do the show, which really sucked. But I wouldn’t have gotten my visa without that, so I’m grateful for it. It meant I was able to come out to LA and start from the ground up; otherwise I’d still be in Australia wondering how to work. I’m kind of glad I didn’t get the show, because you have to then learn how to figure it out; how to live away from home and not have any guaranteed work. I started from the ground up, and I’ve been here since I was 18; seven years now.
Was it ever scary?
It was terrifying. But I was excited to start doing what I wanted to do. I felt there was this big piece of me missing, because I knew I wanted to be out in LA, trying to act. I loved it so much. So the moment the opportunity came up, it was like, “Well, of course I’m going to do it.” It takes hard work, and it’s tiring, but you just have to be really prepared. You have to have the steady belief that it will eventually happen for you, because why else do you go out there? When it does happen, part of it is timing, but it’s timing meets preparedness, I think. You really have to have both.
It definitely took me a while to adjust to LA. I came out knowing nobody, and I’d never lived away from home before. But after a few years I found the people that I love and the places I love. And I got animals a few years ago, which really helps. I have a dog and a cat, and they are best friends. It creates a life.
Why do you think it was hard to land parts back home?
I don’t know, but there wasn’t the opportunity. I know it’s changed since, and there’s a lot more diversity in films and television now in Australia, but seven years ago there wasn’t a lot. And there aren’t as many shows and films being done. What there is, is a very specific type of casting. But people want to see themselves represented. I think the moment that started happening, people were able to feel more confident just knowing there were other people out there who looked like them in society. Social media has helped a lot with that, I think. When you’re having a hard time growing up, you can kind of see, “Oh, OK, there are people out there going through what I’m going through.”
Honestly, I didn’t realize how much it had affected me until I moved the U.S. It gave me a certain perspective, and I’m glad that I traveled out here and got to see a bigger world, because I think in the media we have a responsibility to show that. Not everybody gets to travel halfway around the world to see a whole different perspective. If we can see that on TV, we’ll know that society is bigger than the small world we all live in.
You’ve been on a new journey with this film since Sundance. Until then, it was a family secret, but now it’s receiving so much praise—Fox Searchlight picked it up, and now you’re in Cannes with it. How has that felt?
It has definitely opened up doors for me, which is really, really nice. It’s been overwhelming, but all in a positive way. It’s all good things. I’m hopeful that there’s more to come, and more projects and stories to be told, that I’m going to love and be passionate about. I also think this is a story that needs to be seen. I think it can give people a little bit of hope at a time when people are feeling a little hopeless.