Having foregone drama school, it was a small part in a television serial that launched actress Kelly Reilly’s stage career.
Writer and director Terry Johnson noticed Reilly in an episode of Prime Suspect and cast her, aged just 19, in his production of Elton John’s Glasses, which opened at Watford before transferring to the West End.
Reilly went on to appear in Johnson’s productions of The London Cuckolds at the National and, in the West End, the stage adaptation of The Graduate.
Reilly’s other London stage credits include Blasted at the Royal Court, A Prayer for Owen Meany at the National, and in the West End, Three Sisters and, nominated for Whatsonstage.com’s 2003 Planet Hollywood Theatre Event of the Year, the revival of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, in which she starred opposite Hollywood’s Matthew Perry, Minnie Driver and Hank Azaria.
On television and film, Reilly has appeared in, amongst others, The Biz, Poldark, Bramwell, Rebecca, Pie in the Sky, Tom Jones, Wonderful You, The Safe House, Maybe Baby, Peaches, Last Orders and Dead Bodies.
She’s now back on stage, taking the title role in After Miss Julie at the Donmar Warehouse. In the three-hander, which also stars Richard Coyle and Helen Baxendale, Patrick Marber has updated Strindberg’s original to 1945 on the night of the General Election.
Date & place of birth
Born 18 July 1977 in Epsom, Surrey.
Lives now in...
Clapham, south London.
I decided not to go to drama school. I went for a couple of auditions for schools, but I just knew it wasn't me. At that point, I couldn't articulate what I loved about acting, and I wasn't old enough or secure enough to be pulled apart. I preferred to dive in at the deep end and figure it out for myself.
First big break
I don't really know what 'big break' means, I imagine it would be my first job which, since I hadn't gone to drama school, was what gained me entry into this industry. It was an episode of Prime Suspect. It must have been late one night, Terry Johnson was watching it on cable and saw me, which led him to cast me in Elton John's Glasses. I was 19.
Career highlights to date
The highlights have been about the people I've worked with - so many wonderful directors and actors over the years - and the lessons they've taught me about what sort of actor I should be.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
The two I hold dearest are Sarah Kane's Blasted (at the Royal Court) and The Yalta Game (at the Gate, Dublin). Some jobs are fun, some present great challenges and some really change you.
I wouldn't like to pick out individuals. I've been fortunate enough to work with some of the best stage actors around as well as some very high-profile celebrities, like Matthew Perry and Minnie Driver in Sexual Perversity in Chicago. That was a mad experience. There I was doing what I'm always doing - working on stage in London - then suddenly everything is thrown into this intense spotlight. There was a real heightened mania around that production. I enjoyed doing the play, though not so much all the fuss. My co-stars were great. They were much more used to working on screen, so they brought an amazing freshness and wide-eyed enthusiasm to the stage. It was brilliant.
Terry Johnson - who I've now worked with three times, on Elton's John's Glasses, The London Cuckolds and The Graduate - James MacDonald (Blasted) and the late Karel Reisz, who I did The Yalta Game with. Karel was such a wonderful director. It's hard for me to talk about him without sounding stupid. Before I worked with him, I always felt I somehow or other managed to pull things off in a certain way. He demanded absolutely something else. It was very scary, but he made me jump to the next level as an actor, the real deal.
I adore Chekhov. The first play I ever read was The Cherry Orchard. I was 14 and doing it for my drama GCSE. I still love that play. Nothing much happens, but the characters come so alive.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Too many to name! I can say that, whatever happens, I'll always return regularly to the stage. Theatre has been very good to me. It's given me the opportunity to play brilliant roles in great plays directed by great directors - and it's what I love doing most of all. There's nothing else like it. Yes, it's scary, but so challenging and so fulfilling.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
Another big passion of mine is horses so maybe I would have been a trainer. Living in the city, I don't get to ride as much as I'd like to. And I don't own a horse - though I plan to one day.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I'd really like to go to the theatre more often. When you've finished a lengthy run yourself, it can be heaven to go see someone else do their thing. The acting in The Hotel in Amsterdam at the Donmar was wonderful, and I thought James Macdonald's production of Blood at the Royal Court was mesmerising. Before rehearsals for After Miss Julie, I spent some time in New York. I saw lots of plays off-Broadway, lots of new writing being put on in these wonderful spaces that were packed out every night. That was exciting.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
The schools are important. That's where I first came in contact with theatre. I was lucky to have two drama teachers who fought their corners passionately. I'd like to see drama encouraged more in education. You're taking a real risk if you want to become an actor. The perception is that it's not a 'proper' job. I think if you've got the talent and the drive, you should be able to go for it. Grants for drama school would help a lot.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I'd love to go back to 1945, when After Miss Julie is set, and walk around one of the country estates, get a close-up look at the upstairs versus downstairs. I'm fascinated by the differences. That life seems so far removed from where we are now. Class divides still exist, but they aren't so visible.
I don't read novels much because I'm always reading scripts.
Favourite holiday destinations
I went to Tuscany this summer. That was gorgeous. I'd like to take some time out next year and travel.
Favourite after-show haunts
I love Sheekey's, especially their Dover sole and mashed potatoes. I'm not a member of any of those private places.
Why did you want to accept your role in After Miss Julie?
Well, who wouldn't? Julie is one of the best roles for any young actress. As soon as I heard about the part and that I'd be meeting to discuss it with Michael Grandage, who I respect greatly, my stomach turned. Then when I heard Patrick Marber was relocating it to 1945, I was even more intrigued. Also, it's the Donmar. I hadn't worked here before but I love the space, and I think it produces some of the best acting in London. It feels like a great honour to be a part of it all.
What do you think Marber's version adds to Strindberg's original?
For me, it gives the story a real immediacy. It's 1945, the war has just ended a few months before, it's the night of the General Election. It's a time when it feels like the whole world is changing - though it's now doubtful how much some of those changes, like the welfare state, have lasted. Strindberg is much more removed. With Patrick's version, this is my grandmother's generation we're talking about and, what happened then, has had a big impact on the modern British psyche.
What's your favourite line from After Miss Julie?
It's not my line. It's something John says to Julie, which kind of sums up the play and the characters. He's talking to her about the things you inherit, in terms of both social and emotional breeding, and he says: "You can't help it, it's in your blood."
What's the funniest thing that happened during rehearsals of After Miss Julie?
I can't think of one anecdote, but Michael was always really funny in the rehearsal room. We had a laugh every day. He created a very warm atmosphere.
What are your plans for the future?
Getting past the press night on any show is always a big milestone. I like openings as a celebration of a production, but I don't like all the added pressure that comes with having the critics in. Whatever they write, you should be proud of the work you've done and have the courage of your convictions to open it up to the wider world outside the rehearsal room. Once you get into a run, the rest takes care of itself. I don't plan too far ahead, though I would like a holiday when After Miss Julie finishes.
- Kelly Reilly was speaking to Terri Paddock
After Miss Julie continues at London's Donmar Warehouse up 7 February 2004.