My piece from The Sunday Times, Jan 27 2013
Kelly Reilly has made her Hollywood breakthrough in Flight, opposite Denzel Washington. She tells our writer why, at 35, she’s ready for the big time
Is there a more cautionary new-year tale than the film Flight? There’s something chastening about the sight of a bloated Denzel Washington hauling bin bags full of empties, accompanied by tepid resolutions about laying off the sauce. “I had friends come to see the film last night,” says Kelly Reilly, his co-star, the morning after the British premiere. “We were in the bar afterwards — I’d put on a little drinks thing for my family — and everyone was like, ‘Should we be drinking? I feel guilty. Why am I wanting this glass of wine?’”
Ostensibly a film about a plane crash, Flight’s touchdown here seems poignant in the wake of the recent Vauxhall helicopter accident, though the film is less about an aviation disaster than human wreckage — namely the plane’s pilot, “Whip” Whitaker (Washington), world champion soak, and a heroin addict called Nicole (Reilly), his unlikely bedfellow. Inspired by true events, Flight is based on the tragedy of Alaskan Airlines flight 261, lost with all hands off the California coast in 2000 after the plane flipped upside down following mechanical failure. Here, Washington’s cocksure captain successfully crash-lands SouthJet 227 smack in the Bible Belt between Orlando and Atlanta. So far, so heroic, so act of God — until a toxicology screen reveals that our saviour’s blood was more wine than water (well, Smirnoff) at the time.
A hit in America, Flight has garnered Oscar nods for Washington, going the full Ray Milland in Lost Weekend, and for the screenwriter John Gatins. No less impressive is Reilly, who crops up unheralded as a Georgia druggie, just a few soggy bills ahead of her next speedball. It’s a little bit of Ken Loach realism, as one American commentator noted, parachuted into a Hollywood drama. “How lovely,” Reilly trills. “I love that. I take that as a huge compliment.”
Nicole is an unusual role for Reilly. For one, the $31m film presents the British actress with her first lead American role. “It’s like, ‘If you had any idea how many films I’ve done for a million.’” And if the trailer is to be believed, she is not in the movie at all, its marketers preferring to pitch Flight as a thriller/courtroom drama, focusing on the spectacular crash sequence at the start.
“I thought I’d been cut out,” she admits. “When I saw ‘trailer release’, I was all excited. I went on iTunes, then it was, like, ‘Oh, I’m not in it. I didn’t make it.’ But I think it’s quite a clever marketing ploy, because more people will go to see a film about a plane crash than one about an alcoholic trying to find redemption.”
An absolute delight of an interviewee, Reilly has a sweet smile, luminous blue-green eyes and hair at the honey-blonde end of the auburn spectrum. Sipping breakfast coffee at a chichi London hotel, she’s dressed in a rather unseasonal cotton frock. Then again, after marching down assorted snowblasted red carpets in strappy dresses of late, it’s all relative.
I met Reilly some years ago, before her rise as a screen actress, and little, thankfully, seems to have changed. She remains good company, chatty, quite playful. Croissants arrive accompanied by a gondola of exotic preserves. “You see, these are things that just go into your bag, aren’t they?” she says. “Or are you not a thief of jams in hotels?”
The only differences seem to be that she has since given up smoking roll-ups and undertaken a not insignificant living rearrangement by relocating to New York, or rather the Hamptons, a shift that has imbued her speech with the occasional transatlantic inflection. She got married last year to a local chap who “owns a fishing station out there”, she explains, and of whom she is rather protective. They do have access to some nice seafood, though. “Yeah,” she grins. “We eat well.”
“So I needed to work there,” she adds. “It felt almost like I had to start again. I didn’t know anybody, so I had to get an agent there and figure all that out.” Reilly loved Flight’s screenplay, she says, describing it — rather appositely, in the middle of the Lance Armstrong/Oprah face-off — as a story about “running out of lies and facing your own personal truth”.
She spent countless hours deconstructing a Georgia accent and put herself on tape for the director, Robert Zemeckis. “He really liked it and homed in on me. I’m sure those a little higher up at the studio were surprised, because they wanted to fill that part with a box-office name [Angelina Jolie had been mentioned].” Or a native? “I don’t think Bob knew I wasn’t American.”
A stamp-of-approval read-through with Washington at the Chateau Marmont hotel, in LA, was “all quite glamorous and odd. It was like, ‘I just wish I could take the mystique out of it and be in some London basement with a casting director.’ But it was clear in the room that it was a great meeting.”
Reilly isn’t the only Brit in the film. Her winsome features are offset by the smug visage of Piers Morgan, who crops up in a TV news show. She rolls her eyes. “It’s hilarious, because for a while he was taken very seriously, and I was, like, ‘No, you don’t understand who he is.’” No less amusing is the American media’s “discovery” of Reilly, the “newcomer”. She’s 35, she points out. She’s been acting for 17 years and was the youngest recipient of an Olivier award nomination, in 2003. “An old rising star,” she chuckles. “It’s brilliant.”
Reilly, of course, is best known here as DC Anna Travis, from three outings of the ITV cop drama Above Suspicion, and as the other half of Jude Law’s Dr Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. Aficionados will know her as a star of the stage — she made her professional debut at the National Theatre and is a two-time Olivier nominee (for After Miss Julie and Othello — and as a stalwart of indie films such as the Asbo slasher flick Eden Lake.
She got her television acting break in 1995, when she bagged a one-off part in Prime Suspect. On stage, she played opposite Kathleen Turner in The Graduate and Matt “Chandler” Perry in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Then, in 2005, she featured in a triple whammy of Brit flicks — Mrs Henderson Presents, Pride & Prejudice and The Libertine. The attention, she admits, was discombobulating: “There were a lot of opportunities that I didn’t take. I didn’t go and do all the magazine covers, or be seen out at the parties, or take the roles that may not have been, for me, satisfying, but would have got me more exposure. I wasn’t ready for it, I wasn’t able to handle it.”
Unfortunately, Reilly couldn’t dodge the tabloid bullet. In 2008, to her dismay, she found herself cited as a romantic interloper, the reason behind Ritchie’s split from Madonna (a story for which she successfully secured retractions). “It was a complete fabrication. Honestly, I had never seen Guy Ritchie off set, and suddenly there were, I’m not joking, 100 press outside my mum and dad’s house. I was so affronted.”
She might want to assume the brace position with Flight, certainly now the American press has a new star to flog. That, she says, is where life experience comes in. “I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now, so that world doesn’t scare me as much as it did. All that circus, I can go in and out of it, and it doesn’t faze me as much.”
Reilly has several films circling, including John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, a dark comedy starring Brendan Gleeson — “one of the best filming experiences of my life”. Longtime fans will be pleased to hear of her reunion with Romain Duris in Chinese Puzzle, the third part of Cédric Klapisch’s cult series, which began with Pot Luck (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005).
After a three-year hiatus, she’s also thrilled about a return to the stage. Recent readings include a Broadway production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This. “I was thinking, ‘I forgot how much I love this.’ It was like pulling on a pair of old boots.”
Perhaps it will be a little more edifying than her last outing on the boards, turning up to accept a Hollywood Breakout Performance award. “I won it with three others — and they were all under 25. I was this old woman on the stage.” She laughs. “But I like it that something can be new and regarded as new. It’s new to me.”
Flight opens on Friday