The life of Reilly

SO,I ASK Kelly Reilly breathlessly, how was it for you? Did the earth move on its axis? Is Johnny Depp a good kisser? The actress’s eyes flash jade-green, and she blushes rosy-pink. "Well, he was lovely, of course, but a girl has to be professional about these things - even when playing Johnny Depp’s tart." She pauses and, with a wide smile, says, "Yes, he’s an exceptionally good kisser."

Then Reilly, whose previous co-stars have ranged from Matthew Perry to Matthew Rhys and Ioan Gruffudd, flings herself back in her chair and laughs, "Hey, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it."

She plays a 17th-century prostitute in The Libertine, a neo-Restoration romp of a movie based on Stephen Jeffreys’ play about the depraved life and times of John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester. Depp is the eponymous debauched dramatist, lyric poet, essayist, sodomite and man-about-town who drank himself to death, while Reilly is his confidante and whore. The film, directed by Laurence Dunmore and also featuring John Malkovich as King Charles II, as well as Samantha Morton, Johnny Vegas and Richard Coyle, was made in the Isle of Man and will be released later this year. But Reilly says, with certainty, that it’s "brilliant, very dark, very funny".

She recalls waking on the morning they were to shoot that kiss and feeling terrified. "I was so nervous, really scared, but Johnny was very well prepared and tremendous to work with - a consummate film actor, although he loves to have fun. He arrived on the first day knowing exactly what he was going to do with the role. I just kept telling myself, ‘This is a job and you have to do it really well.’ You have to be really professional, otherwise you wouldn’t stop laughing." Then, without missing a beat, she adds, saucily licking her lips, "But what a job. And what perks!"

So what is Depp like? "Oh, he’s lovely, a really lovely man. He’s a sensational actor - I’m desperate to see him do some stage work, but I think that he feels film is his true mtier. And, of course, he’s right. But he has this joy, this glint in his eye, and a mysterious edge."

Snogging Johnny Depp has been just one of many perks for this 27-year-old, who is the darling of both film and theatre critics alike, and who comes to Edinburgh to appear in a new Royal Lyceum Theatre production of Look Back in Anger, John Osborne’s 1956 kitchen-sink drama. Her Jimmy Porter, the original left-wing angry young man, is Bathgate-born David Tennant, fresh from a sensational performance in BBC1’s musical drama Blackpool, and soon to star in the new Harry Potter film and also as Casanova. Reilly plays Porter’s downtrodden, endlessly ironing wife Alison.

The production was Tennant’s idea. "David and I have always had a bit of a mutual-appreciation society going. I’d go to see him in plays and he’d come to see me. We were both going, ‘I think you’re great.’ So we’ve wanted to work together for ages. One day he rang me up out of the blue and said, ‘How about doing Look Back in Anger in Edinburgh?’ Well, I screamed, ‘Yesssss!’"

Another show, another divine leading man? David Tennant, the son of a former moderator of the Church of Scotland, is fast becoming Scotland’s hottest export. "Exactly," exclaims Reilly, entwining her long, slim legs around the uncomfortable little chair on which she’s perched. We meet behind the scenes in a west London theatre, where Richard Baron’s production has recently gone into rehearsals - and she promises it’s going to be electrifying. "I’m so lucky, so very lucky," she sighs happily, knocking on wood.

Luck has probably got a great deal less to do with it than talent, for the deceptively fragile-looking Surrey-born actress is every bit as hot as her Look Back in Anger co-star. But she’s adamant that she has no desire to be the Next Big Thing. "I’m not interested in Hollywood," she demurs. "It’s far too pressured. You have to fit into their mould. I have an agent there, and I went out to see him in 2003, but that world’s not for me. I just want to work hard and learn from all the incredible people that I’ve been privileged to work with so far," she says.

"Fame and celebrity don’t interest me at all. I’ve acted with a lot of very famous people, so I’ve seen their world and all the stuff that comes with it. I don’t want to be doing fashion shoots and being interviewed about where I shop. Who cares? I act because I have to, because I need to find out whether I can do it or not - that’s what drives me and excites me and lights me up."

Nonetheless, she was nominated for an Olivier award for her dazzling performance in After Miss Julie, Patrick Marber’s sharp update of Strindberg’s tragedy, at the Donmar Warehouse in the autumn of 2003. She’s the youngest actress ever to have been nominated. For her performance in the title role - opposite Helen Baxendale and Richard Coyle - she won glowing praise: "spellbinding, disdainful, alluring and vulnerable", as well as "utterly transfixing". She was nominated again in the recent Evening Standard theatre awards, which she didn’t win - the prize for best actress went to Victoria Hamilton. "But just being nominated was fabulous," says Reilly. The ceremony was hosted by Rory Bremner and attended by the likes of Christian Slater, Dame Judi Dench and Charles Dance.

"Everybody was there - we star-spotted all evening. Sir Richard Eyre, who used to run the National Theatre and who has just directed Mary Poppins in the West End, was sitting behind us. The Olivier is the theatre I first went to with my school when I was 14, sitting in the gods watching Anthony Sher in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It was the first straight play I ever saw, and it changed my life.

"I didn’t know any actors. I thought they were special people who lived in some magical, far-off land. The years passed and then here I was at a glamorous awards ceremony in that very theatre, with all these famous people I’d been admiring on stage for years," she says, pushing her brown bob back behind her ears.

"You know, I’m surprised I’ve any hair left," she explains in an aside. "It has been dyed so many different shades this year - I’m trying to get it back to my natural red, inherited from my Irish grandparents, after being a peroxide blonde for months."

Last year Reilly made four movies one after the other, hence the dye-jobs. As well as The Libertine, she plays catty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, alongside Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. It’s a tiny part, but one she loved doing. "Caroline’s such a bitch. It was delicious playing her, although when you go in and do these small roles you’ve no idea whether you’re any good or not. I still feel that film is something I’m only dabbling in."

In the romantic Les Poupes russes - The Russian Dolls - by avant-garde French director Cdric Klapisch, she has a major role alongside Audrey Tautou of Amlie fame.

Only days ago, she finished shooting yet another film. This time, she plays a 1930s showgirl alongside Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins in Stephen Frears’ Mrs Henderson Presents. It is a "warm-hearted and very moving" story of the woman who founded London’s Windmill Theatre and thus created the nude revue, giving the Soho venue its proud wartime boast "We never clothed". As bottle-blonde Maureen, the requisite tragic heroine, Reilly must appear naked in various tableaux vivants. "The lord chamberlain would not allow the girls to move when Mrs Henderson came up with the idea of them taking off their clothes to revive the Windmill’s flagging fortunes, so I had to stand there without moving a muscle - and I had to strip off in front of 600 extras. I had done love scenes before, where bits were revealed, but nothing like this.

"It was daunting, but it’s what the film’s about, so it was fine. I would go into wardrobe and say, ‘Right, what am I wearing today?’ I would be given a tiny piece of chiffon to hold while doing this," she says, striking a graceful pose like an art-deco figurine, all pale ivory angles and sleek sophistication.

Her roles in The Libertine and Pride and Prejudice are cameos, she modestly points out, but in Mrs Henderson Presents and The Russian Dolls the parts are BIG - she capitalises the word, her eyes round in disbelief.

"I still pinch myself every day," she says. "I’ve always been star-struck, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve stopped feeling that every job is my first, that maybe I’ve earned my place. When I got all these amazing parts I always used to think, ‘Why the hell have they cast me?’"

And yet, she continues, she still feels that everything she does is another beginning. "It’s like I’m always starting over again. Everything still surprises me. I mean, I’ve just made a film with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins - how amazing is that? It was so wonderful, so special, so perfect. And Judi, well, she’s another great giggler, so we had lots of laughs."

KELLY REILLY grew up in Chessington. Her older brother, Neil, is a professional golfer. "I hate to say that my mother was ‘just a housewife’, because in addition to that she has had lots of part-time secretarial jobs in factories and hospitals, always working really hard for our family." Her father, Jack, a policeman, was stationed at Brixton for more than 20 years, and recently retired from the force. She insists that she was a shy child. "I think I was just very private," she says.

Her parents are "feet-on-the-ground people". They instilled in her the notion that she must never talk herself up. "My family believe you should never be flash about anything. Maybe that handicapped me a little bit, that extreme humility. I think it has sort of crippled me somewhat, because as an actress you have to sell yourself and talk about yourself - something I still can’t get used to, because I’m only on the precipice of any kind of stardom. I was taught to be humble, not to make a noise about myself, so I still get embarrassed when someone pays me a compliment."

Educated at the local secondary school, she says she was not academically inclined. "I was useless," she declares. She hated exams and failed everything, and was told at an early age that she was not very bright. "These things stay with you, so I never shone at school."

But then she discovered drama. She started going to the theatre every week, and began reading plays obsessively. "A whole new world opened up for me. I discovered that theatre is about what it means to be human. It helps us to discover who we are and what we’re about, how we behave and why we feel intense emotions."

She never went to drama school. Instead, she found a regular performers’ showcase in London, The Casting Couch, and got herself a slot performing a monologue. She was snapped up by an agent, and two weeks later, at the age of just 16, she won a lead role in Prime Suspect IV, with Helen Mirren, playing a drug-taking middle-class schoolgirl whose own mother frames her for murder. On her first day she played a scene with Mirren, who treated her well and with good humour - despite the fact that the actress does not suffer fools gladly "And why should she?" shrugs Reilly. The whole experience was surreal. She had no technique, didn’t understand where the camera was, or any of the lingo the people around her were using. She was dragged here, there and everywhere on the set and told, "Just say your lines."

Despite her inexperience, her performance was extraordinary, and several television roles followed - in everything from The Biz to Rebecca and the remake of Poldark. In between, she went back to school to finish her A-levels, and because she now had some money of her own, she left home and rented a flat in London. "There was no big trauma at home or anything, although there was quite a battle about me leaving at just 17.

"I have a very close, very loving relationship with my parents, but I’ve always lived in my head a lot, creating my own world in my imagination, and I must have driven my parents mad. I wasn’t an easy teenager. I’m rather strong-minded, so I needed to go and to spread my wings. I think they would say that life’s a lot easier when I’m not living with them.

"I didn’t go wild or anything when I left home. I’m not a party girl; I don’t go clubbing and I’m not a big drinker," she says. "But I’ve had my moments, when I’ve been away on jobs, behaving badly and getting up to all sorts of mischief. If there is mischief on location, I’m usually in the middle of it. But I’m a home bird."

The director and playwright Terry Johnson admired Reilly’s performance in Prime Suspect, so he cast her in the play Elton John’s Glasses at Watford Palace Theatre; then in his National Theatre production of The London Cuckolds, starring Caroline Quentin. Later, he put her in his West End stage version of The Graduate, in which she was Elaine to Kathleen Turner’s Mrs Robinson, and which got mixed reviews. Reilly, though, was deemed "irresistible".

At the Royal Court in 2001, she appeared in the revival of the play Blasted, inspired by the atrocities of the Balkan conflict, and in which she was "delectably funny, dim and touchingly graceful", according to one critic. In 2002, she dazzled - "courageous and fiercely intelligent" - in David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago, with Minnie Driver and Matthew Perry. "Mind you," admits Reilly, "I’ve had my share of bad reviews too."

She worked with Mirren again, in the film Last Orders, which also stars Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone. Reilly played the young Mirren in flashbacks, while 23-year-old actor JJ Feild was the youthful Caine. When I tell Reilly that I thought she lit up the screen, she thanks me politely, and then whispers, "I was all lit up because of my lovely boy." She met Feild on the set in 2000, and they have been together ever since.

Was it love at first sight? "Oh, definitely," she says with a contented sigh. "We fell head over heels, although I have to say we were very professional about it. We only got together in the last week of filming. If there’s chemistry on screen, that’s fabulous, but it mustn’t become messy. The work comes first."

She lives alone in her Clapham flat, which she is currently "beautifying". "I’m really into making a home that’s so comfortable I can curl up in it and disappear. I value my independence and still need to be on my own. I have to have somewhere that I can potter about in - a sanctuary. JJ has just come back from working in South Africa, so we managed to get a week’s holiday together in a log cabin in the Lake District before I started rehearsing Look Back in Anger - it was bliss.

"I daydream about a simpler life and a home in the country." This year she says she must make time to "get on with living my life, doing some travelling with JJ, and perhaps trying to write something". There’s talk of another film, My Boy, with Holly Hunter and Michael Gambon, and she’s desperate to do some Shakespeare. She should play Juliet and Lady Macbeth - to Tennant’s Thane, perhaps? - and Rosalind and Viola, I tell her. "Oh, yes, yes," she says eagerly.

For the moment, her mind is focused on John Osborne’s post-war world and catching the complexities of Alison and her implacably passive aggression behind the ironing board, the whimsical tenderness and the gut-wrenching misery and need. "It’s a play about the waste of spirit, about people not being able to contain themselves. Yes, it’s brutal, but Alison’s passivity doesn’t make her a saint. She’s complicit in their war. Anybody who has ever been in a relationship that has gone wrong will identify with it - it’s about passion that has gone black."

"Mr Osborne’s picture of a certain kind of modern marriage is hilariously accurate," wrote Kenneth Tynan in 1956. "He shows us two attractive young animals engaged in competitive martyrdom, each with its teeth sunk deep in the other’s neck, and each reluctant to break the clinch for fear of bleeding to death."

As Reilly prepares to go back and sink her teeth deep into Tennant’s neck, she says, "I feel this is what success means. I don’t need to be on the cover of magazines. Everything that I’ve ever dreamt of, I’m doing - I’m working with Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, David Tennant. Sometimes it’s like I’m living somebody else’s life." n

• Look Back in Anger is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from January 14 to February 12