Why She’s On Our Radar: Already an award-winning stage and screen star in her native Britain best known for appearing opposite Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” re-imagining and its sequel, 35-year-old actress Kelly Reilly takes on her most high profile role to date stateside in Robert Zemeckis’ first live action film in 10 years, “Flight.” In the R-rated drama that closed the New York Film Festival and surprised many by becoming a box-office success story for Paramount since opening November 2, Reilly gives a revelatory and deeply committed performance as Nicole, a recovering heroin addict who develops a deep bond with a troubled pilot (Denzel Washington) after meeting in a hospital stairwell.
What’s Next: “[After ‘Flight’] I took some time off, a couple of months, and then I did a cool little indie movie with Sam Rockwell called ‘A Single Shot,'” Reilly told Indiewire. “After that, I did another indie called ‘Innocence’ with the director Hilary Brougher. ‘Innocence’ is another, slightly off-the-wall, movie based on Jane Mendelsohn’s book of the same name, about this harem of ancient witches, almost. It’s kind of bonkers — I haven’t seen it yet, but it was interesting and that was in New York. And then I just finished doing two films, one called ‘Calvary,’ with John Michael McDonagh, filmed in Ireland with Brendan Gleen and Chris O’Dowd, which was delightful. And I’ve just done a French film called ‘Chinese Puzzle,’ which is a trilogy of two other French films, with Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, and Cecile De France. I’m going to Paris on Sunday to finish that up. So it’s been really exciting, really interesting, lots of different things.”
I’ve long admired your work, but this no doubt marks meatiest on screen role to date. How hard did you have to fight for this role?
The thing is, people think that you just suddenly pop up from nowhere but the truth is, I’ve been working for so long now in England. I moved to New York, because I married a New Yorker — and I was like, okay, I can’t go home to England every time I work, which I was quite happily doing, doing a lot of theater. I thought, I really need to start to work in New York, in America, so I got myself an agent… And this was the first job I got.
And I was like, God damn it, why didn’t I come here before?! Seriously, I still had to work hard for it. You put yourself on tape as an actor a lot — and you send them off, they go out into the ether, and you have no idea what’s going to come back, or when. This was one of the scripts that I read and I can honestly say that I read it and got goosebumps. That doesn’t happen very often, you know — and she’s a bit of a ghost, Nicole. And I always like slightly, what would seem, underwritten characters… Or scripts, where you’ve got to read between the lines or bring something more to it. It always pulls me in, rather than a script that tells you absolutely everything. She was little bit of a mystery, and then, seeing where the story goes, I just thought it was a nice quality about that, and I could do something with it. So then I put myself on tape, and I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere near me.
To a Brit, no less.
Exactly. And we’re in the name game, and I’m nobody here — in the world of putting bums on seats and numbers, at least. Anyway, I put myself on tape and Bob [Robert Zemeckis] saw it and then he asked me to do another one, and I did another one.
He then he asked me to come to Los Angeles and screen test with Denzel [Washington], so I did that. I was Bob’s number one, and Denzel’s, but I had to get the studio to agree to me. They came around, obviously, but I think they were nervous about casting this role to an unknown, so to speak. I think they’re happy about it now. I hope they are.
What was it like screen testing with someone of Denzel’s caliber?
It was intense. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been doing this, it’s still feels like every job is your first, like you’re starting from scratch again. Auditioning is a horrible experience because you know you are being absolutely scrutinized and judged. There are days where you can do it and days where it’s just not happening, and I feel like that’s how it is with all artists; you have some days it kind of works. I didn’t even know if I was reading when I met Denzel. They said, “He may read with you, he may not read with you,” and I was like, “Alright.” I just went in, I was terrified — but at the same time, I’m not twenty years old anymore; I said, “Alright, I’m here. I haven’t got anything to lose. If I don’t get it, this is an amazing experience.” I met Denzel; he was obviously charming and incredibly intelligent, and we started talking about the script and the parts. He eventually said, “Okay, let’s read.” And so we started to read… It wasn’t that I forgot it was Denzel, but I’m much happier when I’m doing the work rather than when I’m talking about it; get me into doing the scene, and that’s where I can do my job. That’s where it felt amazing, just to play with someone who’s so good at what they do — it makes you better. It was exciting, and interesting, and it was kind of like a challenge, someone throwing down a gauntlet: “Are you gonna be up for this or not?” And, that particular day, I was up for it. And I walked out, and I thought, regardless of whether I got the role or not, I was so happy just to have experienced that and to go in and know that I offered up something that I was happy with.
Once on set, how did you and Denzel work together to achieve the level of chemistry your characters have when together. Was it just all on the page?
I mean, it’s on the page to begin with and then, of course, it’s somewhere else — and who knows what chemistry is. Who knows when you’re going to have it and when you’re not going to have it? Denzel and I didn’t spend much time together. He was very much off preparing, and I was figuring out how this big film was going to work and how I was going to find my way into it.
I stayed very close with Zemeckis; he was my champion from day one. He believed in me, he was very calm and very kind with me. And he just kept reassuring me that the way I wanted to play her — which was opposite from the way that Denzel was playing his addict — quieter, with a different energy, and I think that’s what Bob saw would make these two people surprising, but somehow, it could work in terms of chemistry. But I don’t think it’s a love affair between these characters — I think they just recognize the brokenness in each other, and their level of self-destruction.
He’s also a hero, right? Doesn’t he want to save the day and save everybody? And in a way, when he shows up at her apartment, she’s like, “What the fuck?” What does he want? Suddenly, it’s a very odd scene. She clearly has no one, has nothing, no one’s probably shown her any kindness for the longest time, especially a man. And then suddenly, you have this man whose saved all these people on this aircraft — because all of the stuff about his drinking hasn’t come out yet — I don’t know, it’s just a lovely meeting of two people, who try and serve something. It’s just one of those meetings in life. And then she ultimately can’t stay, but I don’t think, initially, either of them are at a point where they can ‘fall in love.’ It’s more of a human, recognizing something in somebody.Zemeckis is renown for being such a visual filmmaker, especially given his recent foray into animation — but he’s always mined incredible performances from his actors. What’s his approach to directing his cast?
I think everyone in the cast really respects him. He doesn’t shout, he’s not a bully, he’s not a taskmaster. He’s much more thoughtful; he’s very caring, very smart, and the material meant so much to him. He was living, breathing, eating this film. I remember him telling me he didn’t read a newspaper or watch TV or do anything when he was filming; he just didn’t want his focus to be swayed at all. So when he’s bringing that level of commitment to something — which is only a film — it’s like, well, then I’m not going to bring anything less to the table for your vision. Ultimately, you’re just trying to tell a good story. This subject matter is very close to him, very close to the writer, John [Gatins]; there’s not one person, whether you know someone or you have experienced it: addiction touches everybody. And how people can try and endeavor to get out of it. I just think we all felt very passionate about it.
This marks his first live-action feature in 10 years. Did he have a certain kick in his step on set or was he visibly timid or nervous?
Quietly confident. Not quietly confident in that he’s making an incredibly amazing film, but confident in his own skin. Confident that he’s going to tell the story that he wants to tell, and if people like: Who knows? And he would shrug, and smile. It wasn’t fear-based. He was genuinely excited about the material.
Actually, when I was in LA doing the press junket, I did a few interviews with him, and he would speak about how people have been saying to him, “You’ve been out of live-action filmmaking for ten years, what’s it like being back?” And he was like, “I never went away! For me, it’s a film. A film is a film. I’m still making movies.” He was like, “I don’t understand why people think I’ve been away.” I thought that was interesting. He’s a very special man, I mean — “Forrest Gump”? I know it’s a universal, family-friendly movie, but he treats every character with such compassion and humor. He’s not afraid of the darkness of the humor, but he always infuses it with warmth.
Were you scared to take on Nicole? She goes to some pretty dark places — granted, she’s on the road to recovery throughout.
I wasn’t scared because of the dark places, I was more scared that I wouldn’t be able to get it right. I think that every actor just wants to honor a character, and be true to it — and to not fuck up, really. The pressure, for me, was also who I was working with; suddenly, the audience was going to be a bit bigger, for me, and I really wanted to just stick to what I felt and how I visioned this character. I also felt a slight responsibility playing a herion addict, since it’s a role that’s filled with such stereotypes. I’m not interested in the addict, I’m interested in the human being who’s just so lost. There must be some fire in her, some real life, some humanity; what’s happened to her that she’s ended up in this place and where can she find her way out? That’s the only thing that I could keep going back to, that the herion and the addiction was a symptom of pain. That was a simple truth for me, and I tried to stick with that.
Was she tough to brush off after shooting?
I was so relieved. It’s heavy. It was wonderful to play, but by the end of the shooting, that level of brokenness — especially when she is into the drugs, and that fear of death, and the heartbreak of her mother… You don’t want to stay in that headspace for too long. For anyone, it’s not good. My personal life, my normal life, is so important to me. To be able to go back to my personal life and leave characters behind is important; I don’t keep them with me.
“Flight” surprised many by opening to over $20 million at the domestic box-office, despite being an R-rated character study. Have the offers been flooding in since that first successful week?
Oh yeah — can’t walk out my front door! No, not at all. That stuff takes time to build up. I can certainly say on a personal level it’s so nice to be proud of something that’s so successful. It’s not that I wasn’t proud to be a part of the “Sherlock Holmes” movies, but they didn’t necessarily take up as much space in my heart as maybe this would. I’m proud for people to see it, it’s my first movie in America, and now this is my home.
Given that you don’t appear in the most talked about scene in the film — the plane crash — what was your own reaction upon experiencing it?
I saw it the way you saw it; I had no idea. My shooting was before and after they did that, it was sort of in the middle. I had no idea it was going to be that terrifying. But that’s great drama, isn’t it? Even when we know the ending, we’re still watching, hoping it’ll be alright. Bob does it so simply, almost, I don’t know how he does it. But “Castaway” was his last live-action movie and there was a plane crash in that, as well. Don’t get in a plane with Zemeckis.