Mrs. Henderson Presents… The Breakout Star

Interview with Empire Magazine, 2005

You may not know Kelly Reilly’s name, but chances are that you’ve seen her in small roles on TV, or in this year’s Pride & Prejudice when she played Caroline Bingley. She’s now onscreen in Mrs Henderson Presents, where she plays a vital (nekkid) cast member of the titular society lady’s nude review in 1940s London. We talked to Reilly in London this week about her grand plan, stripping on camera and gossiping with Judi Dench…

You’re on these faces that keeps popping up for a while. Is this all part of a grand scheme to become a big film star or it is just taking parts as they come?
No, I just go with the wind, honestly! There’s absolutely no master plan, or plan. It really is that I was really lucky last year. I did four films, three of which were British. Pride and Prejudice, which was a huge business and The Libertine, which has just opened today, and then this – you can’t help but do well with Stephen and Judy involved. They’re all three jobs that I’m all very proud of, albeit I have very small cameos in the first two, but that’s nice as well. So it was my year, last year, in working in film, because usually I’m in theatre. It took on a whole new lease of life. But there’s no master plan…let’s see if my luck continues.

So how did you get involved in this?
Well, I knew Bob Hoskins through a film called Last Orders, which I did five years ago with him. He remembered me, and I think he name-dropped my name to Stephen. Stephen had also seen me in Miss Julie at the Donmar and so I was asked to come in and meet him for a chat. I was nervous, because it’s Stephen Frears. I remember just being as high as a kite, and I got a call saying, “come in and read”. And I got the job, and it was very, very exciting.

Did you do a lot of research into the era and the characters? Did you meet any of the real Windmill girls?
I didn’t meet any of the Windmill girls, which is a shame, I know some of the others did but I wasn’t around. But I did hear lots of radio archives – I heard them talking about it, which was really lovely because I also got the voice. It’s all awfully awfully, but also it’s terribly innocent. It’s all very jolly; they say things like, “Vivian looks after us very well” and “we don’t mind taking our clothes off because it’s so jolly lovely. You know, we get our hats and get our stockings and all go to tea afterwards”. It’s just insane! And you’re sitting there thinking, “Could it really have been like this?” It really is such an age of innocence…innocence of public sexuality. So that fascinated me.

Nowadays, in Soho, there’s sex shops on every corner. This film is a strange contrast to that which comes across as very innocent…
And wholesome! That word, wholesome, you think of brown bread I suppose. But this is wholesome and colourful, delightful, fun and life-enhancing almost. Especially when the Second World War broke out, this became the nucleus. This became a place where you could leave the Blitz outside and have an hour and a half of fantasy. For these boys who were going off to war, to see a naked woman in the flesh before they went and might not come back, definitely was a service, and one entered into with great spirit.

How difficult were the nude scenes?
Considering everything we’ve talked about, the nude scene pales into insignificance of my own vanity or my own fears. Those pop up, and you just literally have a word with yourself and say, “It’s not about you”. There are worse things than standing there naked. It does feel a bit vulnerable and you feel bizarre. In another director’s hands, it could’ve been a very different film and I’m not interested in that film. The fact is that Stephen’s directing it made me relax. One day he came into my dressing room and he said, “We’re re-shooting the fan scene, because you look like something out of The Sun.” (laughs) And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “Well, you’re not covered up quickly enough. It’s all about boobs and not about the feeling of it.” And I loved that! Because most other directors would’ve loved it all to be about boobs. I knew then that I was safe.

To encourage the girls to strip for the first time onstage, the entire cast of the theatre strip off in the film. That must have been a strange day.
That was the first day that we all got to strip, ‘cause we were all nervous. But that date kept being put back, so by the time we actually got to do it, I was like, “Let’s just get it over with”. But you’ve got Will (Young), and you’ve got Bob (Hoskins) and you’ve got all the other guys who were very funny people. I was crying with laughter, it was so funny. You’re standing there and you do become children, almost. You’ve got nothing to hide behind. There’s something joyful about that and I think if you took it too seriously or demanded a really close set you’d lose that. Oh, that’s a really fond memory of mine.

I talked to Stephen, and he really emphasised the silliness of the film.
He just thinks the film’s just silly. He doesn’t acknowledge at all there’s any other weight to it. But that’s his director’s prerogative. We’re all allowed to put that on it, but he can’t say it.

So the actors delved deep into the social significance-
Actually, a very little bit!

And the director goes for the jokes?
Only now, afterwards. When we’re talking about it, he will say that. I think he means it but Stephen doesn’t do anything without being fully conscious of the human element of what it’s about. So it would seem an odd question I imagine to him. He’s a unique guy.

How was working with Judi? You were both in Pride & Prejudice, weren’t you?
Well, Judi I hadn’t worked with although we were on the same film, so we’d never met. I was nervous, not because I thought she’d be a monster or anything like that, but purely because I hold her right up there. I stayed away from her for quite a while because I didn’t want to be gushing or say anything stupid. So she probably thought that I was a bit rude and cold and stand-offish at first but our relationship developed through the work. There is a mutual understanding between the two of them that you couldn’t get two different characters. That they pushed each other’s buttons. It was nice that there was this distance between us; it’s not like we were sitting between scenes having a cup of tea and gossiping. It wasn’t about all being best friends. Consequently afterwards, now we’re doing all of this, I got to know Judi much better because we’re out of that space. Because she’s not concentrating on her character, I’m not concentrating on mine, and we’re not all worrying about what we’re doing.

We went to Morocco, the Marrakesh Film Festival, to present this film and we had such a fabulous time out together – it was lovely. It was a bit of a dream come true to work for people like that.

What’s next for you? Have you made any decisions yet?
Well, after I did these films, I did a play and that took me up to March. I hadn’t stopped [working] for about 2½ years, so I took the rest of this year off and went travelling all over the world. I’ve just come back to start this promotion of this film and now I’ve got to make a decision for what’s next. I’ve got some offers, but I don’t know yet. I know that I’m doing a play at the Royal Court at the end of the year.

Which play are you doing?
It’s called Piano/Forte. It’s Terry Johnson’s next play; he’s the director. It’s extraordinary. So it’s all open at the moment for me. I don’t know where I’m going.

Any comments on the Oscar buzz around this film?
I think Judi will have to be nominated for this.

And how about Pride & Prejudice?
Photography…and maybe best director. Its Joe’s first film and I think it’s a real achievement. But I think his photography really stands out.

INTERVIEW: Helen O’ Hara, from Empire Magazine Online