“It’s Good Days and Bad Days – No Rules”

By Kate Kellaway, The Observer, Sunday, 3rd September 2006

Kelly Reilly has acted with Judi Dench and Kathleen Turner and is now about to star at the Royal Court. And all without a day at drama school.

She is standing outside Clapham Picture House in the rain. Tousled pale gold hair, flip-flops, nail varnish on the toes. She has mastered the art of disguising herself as just another trendy south Londoner, pitching up a little too early to see the evening film. She finishes a miserly rollup and we cross the road to a cafe where she is charming to the staff. Perhaps it comes from empathy, having toiled as a waitress in slacker times.

Not that Kelly Reilly has spent much time handing out menus. She was only 17 when, thanks to talent and persistence (badgering letters to agents), she won a part in the TV drama Prime Suspect. On stage in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago (2004), alongside Matthew Perry and Minnie Driver, she had a fine ferocity that showed up the competition, and was nominated for an Olivier for Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie.

The big screen loves her, too. In Mrs Henderson Presents, with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins, she showed how a small role can be pivotal, and she won Best Newcomer in Cannes last year for Les Poupées russes (Russian Dolls). Later this year she stars in Nicolas Roeg’s film of Fay Weldon’s Puff ball, and has just signed up for Mike Leigh’s next movie.

Our reason for meeting is Terry Johnson’s new play Piano/Forte, previewing at the Royal Court in London from 14 September. He wrote it (according to a source at the Royal Court) for Kelly. ‘I feel incredibly indebted to this man,’ she says. ‘Terry gave me my fi rst play when I was 18 [Elton John’s Glasses, at Watford Palace] and my second [The London Cuckolds, at the National].’ She did The Graduate with him, too, playing Elaine opposite Kathleen Turner’s Mrs Robinson. ‘He has been a huge teacher and is now a dear friend. He is a wry sort, kind, thoughtful, funny … a beautiful person.”

Piano/Forte is about a disgraced Tory MP who decides to get married, for the third time, to a much younger woman. He has two daughters, a subdued pianist (Alicia Witt) and fiery Louise (Reilly’s part), who is determined to sabotage her father’s nuptials. Of all the characters she has ever played, Louise is the one she likes most. ‘She is wild. A complete liability.’ Kelly would like to meet Louise, she says, but only ‘on a good day, over a bottle of wine’.

Kelly is ‘more chilled out’ than Louise. She grew up in Chessington, Surrey, the daughter of a policeman. Her mother worked in Kingston hospital. She never went to acting school but had excellent drama teachers at the local comprehensive, Tolworth Girls’ School in Kingston.

It is moving to hear her describe the late Karel Reisz. She was in what he described to her as his ‘swan song’, a production of Brian Friel’s The Yalta Game at the Gate in Dublin. ‘He was my masterclass. There is no way I would have been able to do Miss Julie if I hadn’t done that play.’ She is afraid of sounding pretentious when she explains how Reisz used to talk about colours. ‘He would ask, “Kelly, where are all your mauves and dark browns?”‘

Nowadays she compares acting to being in a relationship. ‘You have good days and bad days and there are no rules.’ She is in a new relationship herself – but prefers not to talk about it.

She talks about the importance of looking after yourself, of knowing how and when to let go. People get the wrong idea about actors, she says: ‘Everyone imagines that we are extroverts, wanting to show off. Actually we are juggling our own neuroses – which is probably why we do it.’

She can imagine not being an actor: ‘There is a part of me that is not fulfilled by acting. It is a self-involved life, it can feel shallow, but not very often. I know there’ll be a day when I’ll want to have a family – and I know that life takes precedence over my work.’

Now 29, Kelly hasn’t changed much from the girl she describes starting out as an actor: ‘I was introverted about what acting meant to me. It was so magical and private. I am a slow worker, incredibly diligent. I’m getting faster now but then I’d sit at the back of the class until I could find my voice. Working with other actors was my training.

‘I am happier now than in my twenties. Women do well in their thirties. They put their bags down and say, this is who I am – like it or lump it. There is a more relaxed quality, which I like.’

(From observer.guardian.co.uk)