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Futures: 'Flight' Breakout Kelly Reilly on Auditioning Opposite Denzel Washington and Why She'll Never Fly With Robert Zemeckis

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire December 6, 2012 at 10:57AM

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.
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Kelly Reilly
Robert Zuckerman Kelly Reilly

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.

"Flight"
Paramount "Flight"

The first?!

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.

"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."

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.

"Flight"
Paramount "Flight"

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.

This article is related to: Kelly Reilly, Flight, Futures, Interviews