Catching Up with Kelly Reilly of Calvary

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Calvary is certainly not the first film to take on hypocrisy in the Church, or sexual abuse suffered by children at the hands of Catholic priests. But John Michael McDonagh’s film is unique in the care with which the narrative is presented. Somehow, in the midst of such heavy subject matter, the film feels deeply intimate, even lighthearted at times. Much of this is due to fantastic performances from Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd and Kelly Reilly. As the daughter of the main character (played by Gleeson) Reilly brings a powerfully authentic air to Fiona. In his review of the film, our critic Brent McKnight describes Fiona as “her own brand of self-destructive,” and it’s to the actor’s credit that she comes off as regal as she is wounded. Reilly is a force, and her performance is key to driving home some of the strongest themes in Calvary—grace and forgiveness.

Paste caught up with Reilly to talk Calvary, her 2012 performance alongside Denzel Washington in Flight, and her love for theater and craft.

Paste Magazine: Can you talk a bit about some of your early experiences with theater?
Kelly Reilly: I did my first play when I was probably eighteen, and that’s basically where I got my training. It was where I cut my teeth on acting, and l was lucky to be a part of London theater. For ten years or so, I was literally just doing two or three plays a year, just immersing myself. More importantly, I was working with people who I admired and respected. I got to work on great classics—Shakespeare and other plays that really opened my mind. It was a great time in my life. The last one I did was Othello with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor.

Paste: Wow, that’s right!
Reilly: Yes, I played Desdemona, and it was an extraordinary production. At that point, I thought it couldn’t get any better than that. (laughs) And, well, my personal life was just a mess! I had devoted my life to theater. That was maybe five years ago—I think six.

Paste: Do you miss it right now?
Reilly: I do miss it. I go and see a lot of different shows in New York, and it starts to tug on you. Especially when I go to see a great play or I see great acting, I’m always jealous. And the smell of the theater just… But I just know that I’m going back.

Paste: Of course.
Reilly: It’s just a matter of when. And I’ll know when. But I am enjoying the film & TV work I’m doing right now and the characters I’m getting to play.

Paste: You’d talked about getting to work with some great actors over the years, and Calvary has such an amazing cast. What was it like working alongside folks like Brendan Gleeson and Chris O’Dowd?
Reilly: All my scenes are with Brendan, so I didn’t have much to do with anybody else. I don’t know how to describe it; it was just very natural. These were very tender and moving scenes. Some of them were quite sad and some of them were funny—the way they kind of make fun of each other and then there’s this cerebral wit. There are also the scenes where we have to talk about my [character’s] mother, and how she left. And they were just incredibly moving to film, so they were quite emotional for both of us.

Paste: When you first got the script, was there a particular scene that stood out to you?
Reilly: I loved all of the walking-and-talking scenes across the cliff. I think there are three of them, and they were so gently written. They weren’t too sentimental, and they weren’t too cold. I believed them—I believed that this was a father and daughter and that they loved one another, but for some reason their relationship had gotten a few cracks in it.

But they were also funny. There’s a little laugh in there, where you kind of feel wrong for laughing about it. (laughs) It’s something about the wit of the Irish; I think we enjoy darker humor a little bit more.

Paste: There’s so much we don’t know about your character, so a lot of your performance is about the vibe that you give off. Did you and the director [John Michael McDonagh] talk about her back story?
Reilly: We talked a little bit about what happened with the mother, and how she died maybe when I was around seventeen. We talked about what it was like living with dad after mum died, when he was an alcoholic, and how I probably took care of him for a while until he got his act together. He got sober and then he joined the priesthood. (laughs) So I think her heartbreak was for the man, not the priest. He’s helping all of these people, and she’s like, “Uh, hello! Remember me?”

And John’s very smart. So he takes you on this journey and ultimately it’s about grace and forgiveness. Some people think the story has this sort of dark heart to it, but I don’t think it does. I think the end couldn’t be more about love.

Paste: Yes, I think your character plays a big part in that message.
Reilly: I didn’t want to make her angry. I wanted her to be cut from the same cloth as him. I wanted her to have some generosity of spirit. When she says that line—“I know that you’re sincere and I know that you’re doing this with integrity, but the fact still remains that you left me when I was in need of you most”—it’s not that she’s holding it against him to make him feel guilty. It’s so these things will be out in the air, so they can let go. And she asks for his forgiveness, I think, because she tried to kill herself.

Paste: Yes, I remember that. And he says, “Always.” It’s another great, tender moment between the two of them.
Reilly: Yes! It just gives me goosebumps.

Paste: I can’t end this conversation without bringing up your role in Flight alongside Denzel Washington. Would you say that playing these heavier roles—these sort of darker characters—takes a toll on you? I know some actors who say that have to take time between certain kinds of roles.
Reilly: Oh, absolutely. You have to be ready for them, and you have to know what responsibility you’re taking on. When you talk about that with some people they think you’re just sort of being an “actor.” But the truth is you do connect to that character’s soul as a person. If I don’t do that I honestly don’t feel like I’m doing my job.

I have definitely turned down parts when I was not in the right place to do it. If I’ve just come from playing a particularly difficult character then the next one is going to have to be one with a different energy so I don’t get really depleted. So I’m really good at taking off time. (laughs) I need to take time! I work so intensely that when I have time off it’s very important to me that I just get time to be quiet and re-balance.

Paste: That’s a good thing!
Reilly: And it’s not that my characters deplete me. A lot of the time they give me incredible gifts. My character on Black Box [Dr. Catherine Black] was one of the most extraordinary characters to play. She had an energy and a drive and a brilliance, and it made my mind sharper. I realized how such an energy in a character can shift me and how it can enhance me.

If you think about Nicole [from Flight], she nearly died from a heroin overdose. But I don’t just pick out these wounded birds—maybe they pick me, or maybe it’s somewhere in the middle. But I love them. I love to see their strength and the delicacy about them that ultimately gets stronger.

It’s a conversation I really appreciate having with someone who wants to know, because these are the intricacies and the things that we like to talk about—especially English actors.

Paste: Absolutely. Do you have any upcoming projects that we should know about?
Reilly: We just had the finale of Black Box, and we’re waiting to hear if we’ll have a renewal on that. I also just played Caitlyn Thomas in a film about Dylan Thomas with Celyn Jones and Elijah Wood [Set Fire to the Stars]. It’s probably going to come out this winter, and I’m right in the middle of taking my time off right now before I delve back in. So I’m just enjoying the summer.

Paste: Well, enjoy the summer. I’m looking forward to more of your work.
Reilly: Thanks so much. This was lovely.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.