Flight Star Kelly Reilly Talks Addiction And The Fear Of Acting With Denzel

The two names you heard over and over prior to the release of Flight were Denzel Washington and Robert Zemeckis. Understandably. Washington’s a two-time Oscar winner who delivers yet another powerhouse performance in a controversial drama structured around his immense talents. And Zemeckis, a technical wizard, returns to live-action storytelling for the first time in years for a searing drama that belongs in the same conversation of such films as Cast Away and Forrest Gump.

Yet now that the Oscar contender is out, a name people hear repeatedly is Kelly Reilly, who holds her own alongside Washington in a remarkably complicated role and – in some ways – steals a spotlight away from her pedigreed co-star. Critics couldn’t really talk about Reilly’s contributions to Flight without spoiling part of the story. She plays a drug addict whose path crosses with that of Washington’s fallen hero, pilot Whip Whitaker (who’s fighting his own personal demons). Now that crowds are checking Flight out, we’ve got a little more freedom to weigh in on the film, the performances, and the impact it’s likely to have on the still-developing awards race.

Reilly sat down for a conversation recently during a stop in New York City. We talked about addiction, film rehearsals, and the fear of acting alongside Denzel Washington. Here’s Kelly Reilly:

I’m guessing this was a difficult film to promote ahead of people actually seeing it and understanding where you fit in.

Oh, absolutely. And to be honest, I didn’t do a lot of press prior to the movie opening. We did a press junket, and by then, people had begun to see it. But it is so difficult to talk about my character. It doesn’t talk about that side of the movie in any of the trailers, so people didn’t get it. You have to see the movie to see where she fits in.

That relationship between Nicole, your character, and Whip is the film, though, essentially.

They are trying to overcome addiction. And there are the people around him who are enabling him to keep selling his soul to the devil by lying. And then there are people like Nicole … I think she might be the only character in the film who actually cares about him, oddly. Maybe John Goodman’s character, as well. [Laughs] But the most sort of fucked up ones are the ones that want to help him. Isn’t that always the way?

Somewhere, subconsciously, these characters understand Whip. They get him. But this is not a romance. It’s not a love affair between Nicole and Whip. These are two people who meet at a certain point in their lives, and somewhere deep inside, they realize that this is a person who can help them.

Screenwriter John Gatins told me he had years to tinker with this script before it actually began shooting. Were you blessed with that luxury? How much time were you given to prepare before you had to shoot, and what changes occurred to the character after you were cast?

By the time I was cast in the role, I’d done a lot of work in my head just to get the part. And the script was pretty much locked down. We went to Atlanta, where we were filming, and we had a two-day rehearsal, drinking a lot of coffee and talking about the script. It’s really funny that you mention John because he was there, and if there was ever any question about a scene or a line of dialogue, he would be like, “Let me just refer to my older draft” … of which he probably has hundreds! Every which way we could have possibly gone, he’d already written it and decided against it or decided for it. Talk about a script that, almost like poetry, had been pared down to the basic elements.

But as an actress, do you prefer that level of examination? Or would you rather figure out a scene as you are playing it?

The rehearsal is important. Look, I’m a theater actress. I love rehearsal. I could have six weeks of rehearsal and think it’s not enough. But on film, you don’t get that luxury. When we say “rehearsal” in the film world, we basically mean sitting around and talking, because nobody wants to get up and actually try something. It can be too scary to just put yourself out there! It’s a very different meaning in film.

But you do have to stay very open in film, because if you make up your mind prior to the scene, then you are not open to the various surprises that might come from your co-stars when you are playing a scene. Usually anything that I have in my mind has gone out the window by the time I get on set. All of the stuff that’s really important goes into the unconscious, and is just there, anyway.

We’re making a big deal about Zemeckis and his return to live-action. He gets a lot of credit for being a technical director, but I feel he deserves even more credit for the performances he routinely gets out of his stars.

Yeah! I think that often gets overlooked. People talk about his eye for action, but they forget that the way he deals with characters … he’s so layered, and so compassionate toward all of his characters. Even the ones that we’re supposed to hate, he makes us find ways to love them. And that’s not just the actors he gets to play them. That’s Zemeckis’ view on them.

As a non-actor, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to overcome the butterflies knowing I had to perform opposite Denzel Washington. Was that an issue, or am I making a big deal out of nothing?

Well, I had to get over that during my screen test. On day one of filming, it was almost like I’d already gone through training, and it was time to step into the ring, you know? You’d already gotten yourself into the mindset. It’s not longer about Denzel Washington. You forget that. But mostly, I was just doing my side of things and working with this man. It can’t be, “Oh my God, this is Denzel Washington!” Otherwise I’m not doing what I need to be doing.

But on my screen test, it really was like, “Holy shit, this is terrifying! I really don’t want to mess this one up.” The way I feel about it, though, is that I’m not 21 anymore. I’ve worked a lot. I’ve got a lot of experience. I’ve worked with some wonderful people. And I just reminded myself of that as I walked into the room. I can be in that room -- you know what I mean? I can hold my own in that room.

Sean O'Connell
Managing Editor

Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.