The Saturday Interview

Kelly Reilly: ‘I wasn’t a natural performer. I was very introverted, very shy’

Starring opposite Kevin Costner in the hit TV western ‘Yellowstone’ has made the admired British actor the most watched woman on American TV. She talks to Amanda Whiting about her journey to fame, and why Beth Dutton is one of ‘these enormous women like Medea or Lady Macbeth’

Saturday 27 August 2022 06:30 BST
‘Getting [“Yellowstone”] was just another’ job, says Reilly. ‘It just happens to be really successful’
‘Getting [“Yellowstone”] was just another’ job, says Reilly. ‘It just happens to be really successful’ (Supplied)

The first time we encounter Beth Dutton – the tough-as-nails, sharp-as-a-tack, mean-as-a-rattlesnake corporate raider played by Kelly Reilly on the colossally popular Paramount series Yellowstone – she’s going in for the kill.

“I will fire every f***ing employee,” she promises the suit she’s bullying, her voice rock steady. “Then I will sell your leases and your equipment to Chevron for 30 cents on the dollar, and you, buddy, you will have the unique distinction of being the only drilling company to go bankrupt in the largest oil boom of the last century.”

An oil exec doesn’t make the most sympathetic victim, sure, but “buddy” started this company in his garage. The guy has tears in his eyes when Beth forces him to say “thank you” for the privilege of her hostile takeover.

And yet there’s something undeniably tender about the cutthroat ranching heiress as played by Reilly, who imbues all Beth’s icy cruelty with a tinge of melancholy. Though we’ve rarely seen Beth melt across Yellowstone’s first four seasons, the British actor’s captivating, controlled performance always seems to suggest an emotional breakthrough is just around some bend that Beth can never reach. It’s as impossible to imagine someone else in the role as it is to imagine how a working-class kid from the sleepy London suburb of Chessington ended up the savage, beating heart of the most American show on television.

“I remember the desire to get the role was very strong,” Reilly, 45, confesses from Montana, where she and her family are staying as she films Yellowstone’s fifth season. She’d been a professional actor for more than two decades when the series debuted in 2018, but from the beginning of the audition process – no, from the moment she finished reading the script for the first episode – Beth was under Reilly’s skin. “It was pretty [instinctive] how much I wanted to play her.”

There have been other standout roles for Reilly, including the 2012 Robert Zemeckis film Flight opposite Denzel Washington – the first job she booked after moving to America in her early thirties. Before that, she played Caroline Bingley in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, and Mary Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films. She’s even done TV before, including an electric turn as Vince Vaughn’s hard-nosed moll on season two of True Detective in 2015. By her own account, she’s been a “proper working character actress” since the age of 16. “Getting this job was just another one,” says Reilly matter-of-factly, with the hard-earned practicality of a showbiz vet. “It just happens to be really successful.”

I never had an interest in celebrity, or anything like that. [I wanted] to disappear into the work and be a stage actress

Like really, really, really hugely successful. The series from Taylor Sheridan – the Oscar-nominated writer of contemporary westerns such as Hell or High Water and Wind River – is the number one series on American TV. Its season four finale pulled in more US viewers than the final ever episode of Game of Thrones. Reilly plays the only daughter of the show’s wealthy protagonist, cattleman John Dutton (Kevin Costner). He’s a taciturn cowboy always on the edge of losing the vast family ranch to some enterprising foe, from Native Americans who want to reclaim ancestral land to property developers who would like it for a run of luxury condos.

The show’s politics are as central to its storytelling as they are vague. On the range, the only right that seems to matter is the right to keep on doing what you’ve always been doing without anyone getting in your way. Costner’s character is an aggrieved white man, yes, but you won’t catch him in a cherry-red Maga hat. He’s just a guy in love with a dying way of life – and what’s more American than that?

Beth, with her background as a finance shark, is the show’s political realist. She knows the Wild West is finished as a business proposition. If it were up to her, she’d bulldoze the land for an airport tarmac. But she returns home to the family ranch in season one to eke out a little more solvency for all the doomed men in her life, which include her heedless brother Kayce (Luke Grimes), her salt of the earth partner – a cowboy called Rip (Cole Hauser), and her father, a man committed to going down in a blaze of machismo.

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“I certainly hadn’t seen this sort of character on TV. I find her more in plays, these enormous women like Medea or Lady Macbeth,” Reilly says, searching to explain the role she calls “one of the greatest” she’s ever had. She gossips about Beth with the same reticence you’d reserve for a close friend: she’s careful not to judge her, and quick to explain away her faults. “There was something huge about her and powerful and terrifying.”

As Beth Dutton in ‘Yellowstone’ (Paramount)

But maybe the most underrated job perk has been the excuse to spend five months a year in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, hiking and riding horses between the mighty Rockies and the wooded Sapphire Mountains. “Everything about this job was, ‘yes, please’.”

Despite a long career in film and television, Reilly’s first language is theatre. She was a 14-year-old student at a local comprehensive school when two drama teachers – Barbara and Phil Tong, who would go on to tutor actor Andrew Garfield, as well – introduced her to names like Chekhov and Stanislavski. The couple took Reilly to see plays in London, including both parts of Tony Kushner’s seven-hour Aids drama Angels in America at the National Theatre. “I remember my heart was in my mouth,” Reilly tells me, evoking what it felt like to be young and falling in love with something for the first time. She saw The Seagull with Judi Dench and Bill Nighy; she saw John Turturro in Brecht’s Nazi allegory The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. She can rattle off the names of plays and theatres and actors she saw nearly 30 years ago like she’s got the playbills laid out in front of her. “I just remember feeling so alive.”

Stage actors became her heroes – “and they still are”, she adds. But Reilly herself never made it to drama school, something she’d been pursuing until the Tongs generously paid for her to attend a university summer programme. “I didn’t love it,” remembers Reilly. “It was just full of very rich kids, and they decided they wanted to be actors overnight.” So instead of drama school, she set about finding work.

The “discovery” moment is something of a cliché when it comes to how we tell the stories of big stars, but Reilly’s is more revealing than most. Still 16, she wrote a letter to a woman who ran an actor’s showcase in a bar just off Tottenham Court Road, asking if she could please perform a monologue. The casting director for Prime Suspect was in the audience, and he offered her a small part opposite Helen Mirren. She’d never even been on camera before.

“I wasn’t a natural performer”, Reilly points out. “I was very introverted, very shy.” The confidence to send that letter didn’t come from precociousness, she wants me to understand, but desperation: “It came out of just an absolute need – I really wanted to be an actor. I really wanted that to be my life.”

Reilly alongside Richard Coyle in ‘After Miss Julie' (Alastair Muir/Shutterstock)

And it has been. By 18, she was doing play after play in London. At age 26, she was nominated for an Olivier Award for After Miss Julie, something that would happen again three years later when she did Othello. There were hard years, too, and bouts of unemployment, but by 30, Reilly says she was burnt out on tragic women like Desdemona, Miss Julie, and hapless Irina, the youngest Prozorov sibling, in Chekhov’s Three Sisters: “I really didn’t know how to separate myself at that point from the characters I was playing.”

So she stepped away from the stage. Reilly moved to New York to figure out how to be happy again, and within a year she’d booked a movie with Denzel Washington (in his prime) and met the man who’d eventually become her husband, Kyle Baugher, now a co-executive producer on the Yellowstone spin-off prequel series 1883.

The couple split their time between Southampton, New York on Long Island, where he grew up, a 300-year-old cottage beside the South Downs, and Big Sky Country, where Reilly spends her days sparring with Kevin Costner. “This has become a third home,” she says.

And Costner, a man whose films Reilly grew up watching – Dances with Wolves, The Bodyguard, Bull Durham – has become the defining screen partner of her career so far. “I said to Kevin the other day, ‘I’ve never worked with one actor as much as we have.’”

Nor has she ever had such a long relationship with a character of her own. The troubled and uncompromising Beth has experienced enough trauma to fuel the kind of Greek tragedy that Reilly would have been obsessed with as a teenage theatre kid. She witnessed the death of her mother in a horseback riding accident as a child. As a teen, she was sterilised at the local tribal doctor’s office she visited for an abortion – a practice known to happen to women who visited federally run clinics on Indian reservations. And in season two, she was the victim of an attempted rape and murder.

It’s emotionally brutal work, but Reilly isn’t in her twenties any more. “There are days where I play her, where I love her and I admire her, and I envy her. And there are other days where I feel sick to my stomach,” the actor says of Beth. “I just have to remember that this is pure fiction and it’s heightened. And I am not her, she is not me.”

Reilly and Denzel Washington in ‘Flight' (Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Plus Beth has given Reilly the chance to play a character we rarely see written for women: the loyal son and fearless soldier. Because John Dutton’s right-hand woman causes as much trauma as she endures. She has her father’s girlfriend arrested; she blackmails her own brother. Heck, she almost kills a man. “There’s something really refreshing about seeing a woman be so unapologetic about that,” Reilly says. “Men get to do it all the time in fiction. They’re the heroes. When a woman gets to do it, she’s just a bitch, or she’s a slut, or she’s whatever. And I don’t see her like that. I see her as nuanced as I see myself, and I see most of my female friends. And that, to me, is what’s interesting.”

It’s easy to believe Reilly, who rarely posts to social media and seldom discusses her private life, when she says she never wanted to be famous. “I never had an interest in celebrity, or anything like that,” she tells me. If anything, the appeal of acting was almost the opposite: “It was really to disappear into the work and to be a stage actress.”

So what to do with her current conundrum? The English actor with red hair like a sunset and grey-green eyes is literally the most watched woman on American television. This is her moment.

Curiously, though, when I ask her what comes next for her when Yellowstone one day ends, Reilly reveals that her mind is set on retreating to England, the last place she was before everyone knew who she was: “The first place I’m going to go is my garden for six months,” she says laughing. “And then I’d love to come back to London and do a play.”

‘Yellowstone’ seasons one to three can be streamed in the UK on Paramount+, with season four episodes currently dropping weekly on Wednesdays

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