BWW Interviews: Kelly Reilly Talks Responsibility of BLACK BOX, Working with Hero Vanessa Redgrave
In the ABC drama BLACK BOX, Kelly Reilly plays Dr. Catherine Black, a world famous neurologist at the top of her game. Catherine has an insight into her patients that no one else has, allowing her to communicate with them on a different level. However, she has a secret that is becoming more and more difficult to control, she's bi-polar. Though she knows she needs her medication, without it, she feels empowered and unstoppable.
Recently, Kelly, who has appeared in films like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, SHERLOCK HOLMES, FLIGHT, and HEAVEN IS REAL, spoke to BroadwayWorld about the challenges of playing such a complex character, and working alongside her hero, Vanessa Redgrave. With her soft-spoken British accent, it was clear that Kelly is very passionate about the story her show is telling.
BLACK BOX returns to ABC tonight in its new time on Thursdays at 8:00pm ET.
Mental illness is an often ignored issue in America, but BLACK BOX attempts to approach it from a very honest, nuanced place. How does the show as a whole, or you as an actress, feel about the responsibility of shining a light on the topic on such a major platform each week?
It's an absolutely huge responsibility. I knew when I was taking this on that I was stepping into deep water, but in a way, it took me over. I'm just an actor, right, don't get me wrong, but there is a responsibility when you are talking about something so sensitive and so complex and so uniquely different to everybody's who had this illness.
You want to toe the line where you are exposing something honestly, without condoning it, or saying, "This is wonderful," "This is awful." You don't want to judge it, you just want to tell the story, and that was the line I took.
If I'm honest, and I'm truthful, and I have integrity, and I am mustering up as much love and passion for this character as possible, that's my job. I'm not doing a documentary on what it is to be bi-polar, I'm playing a woman who, at this moment where we meet her in this first season, has a very unhealthy relationship with her disease. She's not just bi-polar, which is the most treatable form of mental illness, she's addicted to it, to the mania.
I think it is very interesting that you mention that the show isn't a documentary, but it is a form of entertainment, because one of the things that we are used to seeing in medical dramas is the blood and the guts and the tangible symptoms that lead to the great diagnose the doctor makes at the end. But one of the things that is interesting about BLACK BOX is that since you deal almost exclusively with mental illness, you use some really brilliant music and cinematography that theatrically communicate the effects of the illness. Can you talk about the crafting of those scenes and how those play into the mindset of, not only your character, but her patients as well?
Yea, the visual side of the show and the creative side of how we deal with some of these patients and some of these treatments are so creative, they really are. This is neurology, as I've learned from the neurologists I've worked with and speak to, these are the intrepid explorers of the medical profession. They're constantly curious and seeking. There is so much unknown, it's not like a heart surgeon where you know it's a pump; you know how to fix it. It's either working or it's not.
These are people who already have a curious mind, so there I think it lends itself to idiosyncrasies and interesting characters and problem solving. How do you help somebody live with something? How do you diagnose something? So, I think the colorful side of it, and the theatrical side of it, like you said, lends itself to the mind. It is sort of this wonderful place of the unknown and there's so much we could do with it, so many places we could go with it. I think we just wanted the mind and the brain to be the leading role.
You mentioned having to approach the character and illness as truthfully as possible, and obviously the show doesn't have a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" set up, but in a way, you do play two very different characters. How do you approach each one, and the transition and swing between the two sides of Catherine?
I think Catherine has split herself in two, I don't think one side accepts the other too well, and she holds extreme judgment over one side of herself that she doesn't have for any of her patients (giggles). Therefore, that tells you a lot about her, irregardless of her bi-polar.
You know, if we took out her bi-polar, she would still be somebody who would be a challenge, you know what I mean? She would still be a risk-taker, I think she would still be somebody who may not be satisfied with a normal life, and she carries her demons.
I believe that we all have many different sides to ourselves; me, Kelly, the actress at work; me, Kelly, the wife at home; or me, the daughter; not that you completely change, but there are different aspects to ourselves. Then you go further than that, I love studying mythology, and you talk about archetypes and that's all about different sides of ourselves... and how you kind of gotta marry them together in order to have a happy life.
So, you've got that going on in me already, so I'm drawn to a character who is bi-polar. What does that mean? Two completely different sides, and what if they're not married yet? What if they're at war? What if they're not happy with one another?
Catherine is addicted to her mania, but then, it nearly kills her, and it makes her not able to live a happy, peaceful life, or a healthy life. So, how does she begin to accept herself, as a healthy bi-polar person, as a functioning bi-polar person, who can have functional, caring, deep, meaningful relationships; not just with men, but with friends, with her daughter, with colleagues?
Nobody knows that she's bi-polar, so she's constantly living in secret, you know? So, there's always her in the shadow and her out in the light, and for me, Season 1 was all about those two different places being as far away as possible; she hasn't fit in herself. And by the end of the season we are in a very different place, and I hope, if we get to go to a Season 2, not that she will ever be a safe... she will never be a character that we know what she is going to do, but I hope that we can find a character that is not defined by her illness, and has a lot more self-worth.
What's been interesting as a viewer is that, you talk about her relationships in the show, at the beginning, her battle between Ian and Will seemed like a product of her mania and bi-polar disorder, but as the season progressed, it seems that it's become more about the two battling sides of her personality that she hasn't yet been able to rectify.
Yes, absolutely. There's one side of her that longs for this perfect guy, Will. He's kind, he loves her, he wants to take care of her. It's one of those romantic notions that girls get given about their knight in shining armor. There he is, he wants to do all that (laughs).
Then there's this other guy who lives such an arrogant life. He has no answer to anybody, he doesn't really care about anybody, and yet there's something that she's drawn to. I get both, I understand the draw to both, but then what we start to do in these last seven episodes, we got to muddy the waters a little bit, those lines of "Who are we?" get re-blurred. You start to see Catherine as a whole, rather than completely split.
You know, frankly, I don't think she should be in a relationship with either of them. I think she kind of needs to figure herself out, but she goes on quite a huge journey between her and these two guys.
I'd be remised if, before we go, I didn't ask what it was like working with Vanessa Redgrave?
Well, that, for me, was signing on the dotted line, as soon as I knew she was involved. I was like, "Alright, there's no way I'm going to refuse the opportunity to work with one of my heroes." I've seen her on stage so much in London since I was 15-years-old, so getting to work with her is like you're in a soccer match with the best player, you know what I mean (laughs)?
It's literally only going to make you better; it's going to make you up your game. And that's what Vanessa did to me. She really challenged me, and was really generous to me, actually. But I had to earn it (laughs), but it was a real pleasure.
Well, now that the show is coming back from being off for a few weeks for the NBA playoffs, what can fans expect moving forward; you said that we start to see Catherine become a full person.
Yes, so, here we go, it's like, I think the first six episodes were setting up a foundation, and I think these last seven is like a roller coaster ride. The adrenaline kicks in and the tension is much higher, and you really are seeing Catherine pushed into different directions, with different challenges, and you see how she has to deal with it. And there are some amazing, heavyweight cases that affect Catherine very deeply in her life. We end up in a place that is as far away from Episode 1 as you can imagine. So, for me, I'm really proud of these last seven episodes.
Well, Ms. Reilly, thank you again for taking the time to talk to me. Like you, I am hoping for a BLACK BOX second season pick-up.
Thanks very much, I do too; so we can get better. You know, "Now I know what the show is, now I know where we can go," that's how we all feel. And I think if you take a look back at any season of anything, it's like this learning curve. We get to pick out the things that work, and tighten up, and explode it, and that's what I'd like the opportunity to do.
BLACK BOX returns to ABC tonight in its new time on Thursdays at 8:00pm ET.