The Life of Reilly

The Sunday Times, 1st October 2006

She’s shared the screen with Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley and has won almost every theatre award going. So why can’t you place the name or the face? And what makes Kelly Reilly the best actress you’ve never heard of? Scott Athorne reports.

Before meeting the actress Kelly Reilly – not exactly a name that jumps out at you – I ask a number of friends whether they’ve heard of her. Nobody has. A photograph also draws blank expressions. Who is she? Clearly not a “big” name or recognisable face in the same way that Keira Knightley is. But probably more deserving, I discover, after delving into her modestly sized cuttings file.

Critics who are supposed to know about these things are calling Reilly “the most promising actress to emerge from London theatreland since Dame Helen Mirren”. Then there’s her impeccable CV, the kind that Hollywood stars would kill for, full of critically acclaimed performances on stage and film.

The plaudits started in 2004, when Reilly became the youngest ever “best actress” nominee at the Olivier awards for her role in Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie at the Donmar Warehouse. In 2005 she won best supporting actress at the British Independent Film Awards for Mrs Henderson Presents, and best newcomer at Cannes for the French film Les Poupées Russes, co-starring Audrey Tautou. She played the haughty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, alongside Keira Knightley, and a prostitute to Johnny Depp’s Earl of Rochester in The Libertine. And this year she received “best newcomer” awards from the London Critics Circle and the Empire Film Awards. “She is hugely talented”, says Stephen Frears, who directed her in Mrs Henderson Presents. “A complete natural,” says the distinguished playwright Terry Johnson, who is currently directing her in Piano/Forte at the Royal Court Theatre. “Kelly is possibly the most natural, dyed-in-the wool and deep-in-the- bone actress I’ve ever worked with. She’s utterly instinctive. She seems to know absolutely what it is to be human. In Piano/Forte I don’t direct her so much as point to a line and open my mouth.”

So what does Reilly think of the heaps of praise? “Oh God!” she shrieks, feigning embarrassment. “I work hard. People will sometimes bring these things up, and that’s really nice, to think I’ve actually achieved something. I’d just better not f*** it up.”

We are at a French bistro in Clapham, south London – Reilly’s choice, because apart from absolutely adoring its rustic charm, it’s close to the flat she rents, and quiet, so we won’t be disturbed. The “quiet” also makes it an ideal place for her to learn her lines, which is what she was doing when I arrived – the only person inside, her slight frame hunched studiously over a script, one knee hugged protectively towards her chest. Elegant and stylish are two words that spring immediately to mind, notwithstanding that she is rolling her own cigarettes, drinking beer, and wearing white tracksuit bottoms, pink flip-flops and an old purple cardigan.

“I’ve come straight from the rehearsal room in Brixton,” she explains, placing the well-thumbed script of Piano/Forte to one side. “My head’s completely full. My character’s a real talker, so I’m in nearly every scene, and I have to memorise every single word, pause and rhythm. Nothing seems to be sticking.” Piano/Forte is a black comedy about a disgraced Tory MP and his two daughters – a subdued pianist (played by the American actress Alicia Witt) and the fiery Louise (Reilly) – who are hellbent on sabotaging his plans to marry a page-three girl.

“It’s a demanding role,” says Reilly. “Acting doesn’t just click immediately into place. You have to work really hard for it – which isn’t to say it isn’t enjoyable. It’s the best job in the world to be able to just play. That’s all it is in the end, really – just playing.”

Unusually for a stage actress, Reilly never went to drama school. Instead she learnt it at the deep end, by going to countless castings for theatre, television and film, and by absorbing like a sponge the knowledge of those she worked with. Her first significant theatre role was in Terry Johnson’s The London Cuckolds, when she was 18. Johnson remembers it well: “A choreographer spoke to me after the first dance session. He said, ‘Well, one thing’s for certain, Kelly’ll have to dance in the back row.’ I said, ‘Give her till Thursday.’ Come Friday, she was in the front row, and had a solo in act two.”

Reilly had an uncanny instinct for acting. Her performances were commanding without being histrionic – she possesses a raw energy and authenticity that most actors find hard to tap into – and a stream of theatre work followed, including sparkling performances with big-name stars such as Kathleen Turner in The Graduate; and Minnie Driver and the Friends funny man Matthew Perry in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Eventually, her outstanding reviews got noticed by top British film directors such as Stephen Frears (Mrs Henderson Presents), Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice) and Laurence Dunmore (The Libertine). “Apart from being lucky and working hard, I’ve always stuck to my guns,” she says. “I don’t think I would ever do a big, glitzy film just to be in a big, glitzy film. I still have to love the film and feel good about the script.” Isn’t there more to it than that? “I’m versatile. I can be completely unrecognisable from one part to another. That serves me well. The roles are never about me, and I never want them to be. I never want to be [just] the name ‘Kelly Reilly’, or for it to be about what I’m wearing, or the parties I’m going to. It has to be about the work. That’s the one rule I’ve always lived by.”

She’s ambivalent about fame – “I don’t want the pressure of massive fame, I come from a very down-to-earth, grounded family, I’m not an exhibitionist” – and abhors hollow celebrity, the idea that people will do almost anything to get their picture in the paper. Before the photoshoot, her publicist points out that Reilly doesn’t want “overtly sexy pictures”, the kind that grace the covers of men’s magazines. Not because she’s shy (she happily got naked in Mrs Henderson Presents, and rumour has it that she will do so again in Piano/Forte), but because she doesn’t want to be portrayed as vacuous totty.

“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.” What kind of neuroses, I wonder. What doesn’t she like about herself? “I can be impatient,” she says finally, “and moody, and quite hard on myself. I always question myself – my motives, whether I’m on the right track. I don’t want to be indulgent, but those questions are always asked. I’m learning to deal with it.”

Does she get nervous on stage? “Absolutely. Opening nights can be terrifying. It’s not like doing a film, there’s a different kind of adrenaline – more adrenaline.” How do you deal with it? “You just live with it, and by doing it every night it becomes a part of you. It’s like throwing myself off a cliff every night, and not knowing whether or not I’m going to be able to do it. That’s my buzz. It’s what I get off on: throwing myself into different worlds, the challenge of changing characters, and letting my imagination run riot. Some people get it out of jumping out of planes; I get it out of acting on the stage.”

Reilly’s dedication and wilfulness can be traced back to her early years. She grew up in Chessington, a small suburb in Surrey. Her upbringing was ordinary enough. Her father was a police officer; her mother worked part-time at a local hospital. At the local all-girl comprehensive, she wasn’t academically gifted, didn’t have much of an attention span, and was a bit of a loner. “Even today I only have a couple of really close friends. Up until the age of 15 or 16 I was probably quite geeky. Or not geeky exactly, but a bit awkward, quite shy, and not in with the group. Then suddenly I came into my own skin a bit. I came out of that really awkward time and started to enjoy myself more.”

Drama helped a lot, she says, as did her school drama teachers, a married couple who are still “dear friends”. They provided her with the encouragement and inspiration she craved. “They were kind of radical, not your usual teachers; they were completely inspiring. Without them I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. No way.” Her parents, on the other hand, were more hesitant, less supportive about her pursuing an acting career.

“I guess there was a certain amount of fear,” she says. “I mean, having a 16-year-old daughter go, ‘Right, I’m going to be an actor’ is a world that is so far removed from their own idyll, so it was quite scary when I was younger. I was also quite headstrong. They probably wouldn’t have been able to hold me back even if they’d tried. They knew that it was something I was incredibly passionate about.” Which partly explains why, at the age of 16, Reilly decided to leave home. “I was a pain in the arse at that age, but I wouldn’t change it for the world because my life was sort of my own.” What gave you the confidence to do it? “I was a very headstrong, fiercely independent 16-year-old. I wanted to have my own space and to live an independent life where I could do as I pleased. I was chomping at the bit to leave home, to be a grown-up as soon as possible.”

She rented a place near Guildford with friends, and made ends meet by working as a waitress after school. Does she still think it was for the best? “Looking back, life was a lot easier when I left home, and it was probably for the best – for all of us. Now I have a great, wonderful relationship with my parents, and as the years went on, they saw that I was actually doing well and earning money and people wanted to employ me.”

The notions of “home” and security are important to Reilly. That’s a Cancerian trait, she tells me. Other traits of this star sign, I go on to discover, are “emotional”, “artistic” and “thoughtful”, all of which fit pretty well. “I’m a real home-bird. I like nesting. My flat is decorated purely for comfort – comfy sofa, scented candles. It’s a place where I can shut the door and be completely on my own, watch mind-numbing TV and just zone out.”

The subject of being alone, and of independence, come up repeatedly. They seem to be particularly important to her. “I’m not a very needy person, I’m pretty self-contained,” she explains, before excitedly recalling a road trip she made alone in December, to a horse ranch in Arizona. She booked it on a whim, setting off from Los Angeles after attending the premiere of Mrs Henderson Presents.

“Suddenly I was packing my sexy Nina Ricci cocktail dress for the LA premiere next to my old riding boots, and I didn’t know when I was coming home. I love horse-riding, and being outside. I spent two weeks up there, getting up at five every morning with the wranglers, getting all the horses out and running amok. I learnt how to rope, and was in bed by nine every night. It really set my head straight. I needed time away – to be completely away. Sometimes I just need time alone. I love it.” Reilly’s trip also marked the end of a long run of filming – Mrs Henderson Presents, The Libertine, Les Poupées Russes – and the final stages of an eight-year relationship with her then boyfriend, the British actor J J Field.

“J J and I are still very close friends,” she says, “but it’s not something I discuss.” So what’s her official status? “I’ve been single for a while now, and yes, I have met somebody, a new acquaintance, and I’m having a nice time.” Again, she steadfastly refuses to expand.

Being interviewed doesn’t come naturally to Reilly. To begin with, her eyes are wary and watchful; her answers are cautious. One of her biggest weaknesses, she says, is dealing with the business side of acting. “I’m not great at networking,” she admits. “I don’t go to premieres if I don’t have to, I don’t publicise myself a huge amount. Which isn’t necessarily a good trait. It can be crippling.” She stops. “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?”

For the same reason, she’s wary of working in Hollywood. All that fawning and schmoozing and networking. Not to mention the ageism. “Do you know how many people, especially older women in the industry, say to me, ‘Don’t tell me your age, I don’t wanna hear you’re any older than 26’? It’s kind of creepy, really.” You could always lie about it, I suggest. “I’m not going to lie about my age,” she snaps back. “I thought acting was about me pretending that I’m something I’m not. It’s crazy, the hot age in Hollywood right now is 21.” She shrugs as if to say: “What can you do?”

Does getting older worry her? “No, I like that I’m getting older, I like that I’m 29. I’m actually looking forward to being an older woman. Why not? The nice thing about getting older and having more life experiences is being able to explore the more difficult roles.”

What if the right Hollywood project came up? “Sure. I’ve had interviews in the past where I’ve gone, ‘I’m really not interested in Hollywood,’ and it’s read as if I’ve shut the door and I haven’t. I’m not averse to it at all. The theatre will always be there, whatever happens to my film career, and that’s a lovely feeling. It’s where I’ve grown and developed, and where I’ll always return.”

It’s now dark outside, and the restaurant is filling up. Reilly needs to go home to cook dinner for her mum, who is visiting. “I love my mum to bits,” she says, her voice softening. “We’ve come a long way. She’s a really good friend. There’s something to be said for getting a bit older and more compassionate.

“I really want kids one day. The idea of those kids being part of your whole heart is something special. And then they leave you, go away, that must be hard. But of course that’s the way life is, isn’t it? That’s how it has to be.”

Piano/Forte is currently playing at the Royal Court Theatre in London.