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Kelly Reilly on Her Journey Since 'Flight,' Awards Season and Staying 'Slightly Oblivious' (Q&A)

Kelly Reilly Headshot - P 2012
Getty Images

The actress plays a heroin addict in Robert Zemeckis' contender drama.

Since filming Flight, Kelly Reilly has very much been on a journey of her own.

The British actress has worked on four films -- including two at the same time in different countries -- since wrapping up her starring role in Robert Zemeckis’ drama about an alcoholic pilot named Whip (Denzel Washington) who saves a plane full of people from a crash.

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In just the past two weeks, Reilly, who plays an addict named Nicole in the drama, has been on 20 international flights because of filming new projects and promotion for Flight, which Paramount is pushing with a big awards campaign.

It’s all been a new experience for Reilly, 35, who has starred onstage and in TV and film in the U.K. for nearly 20 years but is finding herself in a much brighter spotlight as the lead opposite Washington in a contender film. She recently won the Hollywood Spotlight Award at the Hollywood Film Awards.

Reilly first auditioned for the role by sending in a tape, an experience she’s never been fond of. She then met with Zemeckis and Washington, but was sure she wouldn’t get the part.

“I’d never really wanted a part so much,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But I still didn’t think I had a hope in hell. I still thought it would go to Angelina [Jolie] because I’m sure that is who Paramount wanted.”

It turns out the creative choice won out this time. Reilly spoke the THR about what life’s been like since the film hit theaters, her view on awards season and what working with Washington taught her about acting.

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The Hollywood Reporter: Is it strange to be called a breakout star even though you’ve been working for years?

Reilly: Not really because it is a breakout as far as not having appeared in an American film before. And suddenly I’ve got this big role. So it is almost like I’ve been plucked from outer space, in the audience’s eyes. It was funny because I won an award for breakout performance at the Hollywood Film Awards, and I was there with these actors and they were probably all under 25, and I felt like such an old vet. But it was charming to be there because we’re always starting again. Every job feels like my first.

THR: Have you been reading reviews or paying attention to reactions to your performance in Flight? How much is that on your radar?

Reilly: It’s a bit of a ghost role. Some people get it, some people don’t get it. That’s fine. All actors are critical, but when I saw this, I was really proud of the film. And that’s saying a lot for me. But do I read reviews? When it first came out, I read the New York Times, I read The Hollywood Reporter, and I was thrilled that people were responding to it. But do I go online and read all that? No. It’s self-inflicting pain. Because you’re always going to find somebody who thinks that you’re shit, or they don’t understand why you’re there. Of course, they’re the only ones that you’ll remember. So it’s kind of really healthy for an actor to stay slightly oblivious.

THR: Do you ever imagine what happens to Nicole after what we see in the film?

Reilly: In one draft, she died. She started using again, which is probably weirdly more truthful. There is a statistic that once women start taking heroine under the age of 30, they don’t make it back. But she manages to, with probably an immense amount of help and kindness given to her, Whip at the beginning and then AA. I like to think that she gets better. I like to think that [she and Whip] become friends, and she goes on to live a healthier life.

THR: Looking back on filming, how would you describe Denzel?

Reilly: I didn’t get to know Denzel at all. Whenever I was on set with him, he was Whip.

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THR: So he’s in character all day?

Reilly: Yes, but not in that way that he couldn’t come out of it. It’s not that. But does he carry around the energy? Yes. Is he absolutely focused and in that palette of colors that he’s working with all the time? Yes. For me, that provides a level of focus and concentration, which is lovely. You’re not trying to do a big scene and then in between takes talking about what you had for dinner. I’d never really come across it because Brits -- we think that’s all a bit of nonsense to stay in character. We all find that a little bit embarrassing to inhabit it so fully the way he does. He allowed me to think that that’s OK, and allowed me to do it. And I think that’s something that I can take on with me --  that there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s such a passionate commitment to the work.

THR: Flight is being considered a contender for awards season. What’s your take on that?

Reilly: This is my first time to get anywhere near it, or be involved with anything that people are talking about, so it’s very exciting for me. And at the same time, there’s a level of reality about it that I have. For me, I need nothing more than the fact that I’ve done it. I can honestly say that the reward in itself is the work. It’s not that I discount it, because I don’t. I think it’s very valid and very important, but I just find the circus-mania around it, it would be very dangerous to buy into. I really do hope Denzel gets nominated, and I hope even more that Robert Zemeckis and [screenwriter] John Gatins do because they put their heart and soul into it.

THR: Have you already noticed a change in the scripts that come your way or the projects that are offered to you?

Reilly: Am I reading a lot more? Yes. All I feel now is that I’m on a different list, but I’m on the bottom of the list. It’s really exciting time to be here and to be reading scripts that I would never have seen before, and that in itself is wonderful because I just want to be working on stuff that I believe in and love. After so long sort of scraping at it in England, it’s a nice place to be.

Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford