Telegraph UK: “I’m not an exhibitionist”

October 9, 2006

Kelly Reilly talks to Alastair Sooke about her new, possibly naked, stage role.

‘With Terry, every play requires a nude scene,” says Kelly Reilly, glancing with a demure smirk at her chipped scarlet nail polish. “He’s an eroticist.” The freckled, tawny-haired actress is talking about the playwright Terry Johnson, who is directing her in his new black comedy Piano/Forte, previewing at the Royal Court in London next week.

Hitchcock Blonde, Johnson’s last play for the Court, included a spellbinding sequence in which former Bond girl Rosamund Pike took a shower in the buff. Piano/Forte contains a similar pulse-racing moment, but Reilly is coy about whether she or her co-star, the American actress Alicia Witt, will strip off.

“I don’t want it to be perceived as another Terry Johnson play with another actress getting her kit off,” she says. “The nudity in this play isn’t brash or salacious. If I didn’t want to do it, Terry wouldn’t make me.”

Fair enough. While Reilly shed her clothes last year as a showgirl in Stephen Frears’s film Mrs Henderson Presents, it would be wrong to suggest that she is cornering the market as a sex kitten.

Since her debut in front of the camera opposite Helen Mirren in a 1995 episode of the TV drama Prime Suspect, she has always been in the ascendant. Now 29, and with a plethora of critical plaudits to her name, she is one of the most versatile young actresses at work in this country today.

She held her own against Kathleen Turner in the Johnson-directed West End production of The Graduate six years ago, and pulled off the tricky task of twinkling among a firmament of stars, including Friends funny-man Matthew Perry, in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago in 2003.

Her white-hot performance as the sadomasochistic heroine in After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s Strindberg update at the Donmar later that year, earned Reilly an Olivier nomination for Best Actress. “Miss Julie was so hard to play,” she recalls. “She’s a spoilt, annoying woman. But if you didn’t sympathise with her, then the whole play was lost.”

Last year, she topped her Donmar triumph by starring in a string of high-profile films: she crackled opposite Johnny Depp’s Earl of Rochester in The Libertine and glittered with cut-glass froideur as the haughty Miss Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. This spring she was in Ireland, shooting a film based on Fay Weldon’s novel Puffball with Miranda Richardson.

Now Johnson, who gave Reilly her theatrical break after spotting her teenage turn in Prime Suspect, has tailor-made an entire play for her. The dramatist wrote the two leads – chalk-and-cheese daughters of a disgraced Tory MP who is about to marry a glamour model – with Reilly and Witt in mind. How does it feel to have gone from aspirant actress to playwright’s muse? “Completely flattering,” Reilly giggles. “But daunting. You don’t want to mess it up.”

It helps that she is tuned in to the dramatist’s wavelength. “We’re both from the outskirts of London – Terry comes from Watford, I come from Surbiton – and neither of us comes from a family connected to the theatre, so there is a level of understanding,” says Reilly, whose father is a policeman. “Terry has an incredible take on the world that is dark but very compassionate and gentle. I love that about him. We have good banter with each other.”

Despite an impeccable CV, Reilly feels ambivalent about celebrity. “Do I want to have the same fame and success as Keira Knightley?” she asks. “I wouldn’t mind the amount of cash she probably has in her bank account, so I could buy myself a house [Reilly currently rents a flat in Clapham, south London]. But I don’t want the pressure of fame. I come from a very down-to-earth, grounded family. I’m not an exhibitionist.”

Indeed, Reilly – like Johnson – used to be queasily shy. “I’m not great at networking,” she says. “I don’t go to the premières, I don’t publicise myself a huge amount. That’s not necessarily a good trait. It can be crippling.” She pauses to sip a frothy coffee, before her coral-red lips form a wide grin. “It’s crazy: why is it that I can’t stand up in public and make a speech, but I can stand on stage and be free as a bird?”

‘Piano/Forte’ previews at the Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5050), from Thursday.