The casting of Kelly Reilly as Beth Dutton on Yellowstone would seem incredibly unlikely to anyone familiar with Reilly’s previous work on film. Not only that, but her ever so British accent certainly might throw off a show’s creator when looking for someone to play a woman living in fly-over country USA, drinking men under the table, cursing like a sailor, and ferociously defending her father’s ranch. Thankfully, Taylor Sheridan somehow saw that in Reilly, and she found what she needed from within to play Beth Dutton.
It’s a strange thought to consider that Reilly has never been nominated for an Emmy for playing such a singular character, but her and the show have been largely overlooked during awards season. This year brought the first signs of change in that regard, as the show was nominated by both the Producers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild.
In our conversation, Reilly and I discuss how critics have followed the enormous audience the show pulls in with each airing, as well as her creating a foundation for playing the “storm.”
Awards Daily: I’ve recently spoken to both Luke Grimes and Cole Hauser, and one of the things they said about you is that you are absolutely nothing like Beth. How hard was it to get people to see you as Beth in this role when you were going in for casting?
Kelly Reilly: It was my biggest challenge. Every actor regardless of your own insecurity or whether you believe you can do it or not, feels that challenge. I responded so primally, so viscerally to the scripts. I really entered this character. I had a reaction, it wasn’t an intellectual one, it was in my body. I loved how Taylor wrote her. I knew immediately this was a storm of a woman who wasn’t just one thing. That resonated with me. I’m in my forties, I understand the complexities of myself, and to see that being enjoyed and leaned into, even though she’s so different from me in so many ways resonated with me. I also had to find the things that were similar. I knew she was going to be a challenge. I knew my energy as Kelly is so different to Beth. And her sense, and her power, and her self-belief, and her confidence, and her fierceness, I had to really work on finding and inhabiting her. That’s not how I move in my life. I don’t want to give my secrets away, but I’m very introverted, and I’m a homebird, I live very quietly, and I’m not interested in celebrity or being famous. I love acting. I love storytelling. I love great writing. To find a character that I could just transform into, because it does feel like a transformation for me, I had to do a lot of groundwork.
That involved sitting with Taylor Sheridan for days, weeks, just listening to him talk about the character. And then having to sort of hide away. I hid away for a couple of weeks by myself with the scripts. I knew that I had to take ownership of her. I couldn’t skirt the edges of that. To do that you have to be willing to fail, and that’s what I was afraid of. I think I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. In order to pull it off I had to not care if I pulled it off. As an actor, that’s a great fear– that you’re going to fail royally in front of an audience. I didn’t want to let Taylor down, because he’s written this beast of a character. It was almost like having to step into something and own it and as an actor just trust that I had what it took. Instinctively I knew I did, but intellectually I wasn’t sure.
I hid away for the whole first season, maybe even the second season. I didn’t really come to set as myself. I never really hung out with any of the other cast or crew. I didn’t want them to listen to me speak in my accent. I didn’t want them to get to know me because it would be such a big jump for them to believe me as this character. It was really important that I could convince the people around me. Now they all know who I am, all the crew, all the cast. And in America, because I’m not a well known actor, they just know Beth; which I think is actually a gift to the character. If there was a bigger name or an actress who was more famous, I feel like you would know that that person isn’t that character. Whereas I really had something free already that they didn’t know who I was, they didn’t know what I sound like, what I look like. I could convince them that this woman was me. It all fell into place for me once I found her.
It took me a little while, I wobbled a bit at the beginning. Then once I found her it was like stepping into a Ferrari. She made me a braver actress–this character Taylor created. The backbone of Beth is something that has lent itself to me in my own life now. I think it’s lent itself to a lot of women who have responded to her. I’m not talking about her violence or her love of vulgarity, I just mean her propensity to believe in herself. I think a lot of women have thought, “Oh my god, I want to have a bit of that in me.” I didn’t see that coming, I have to say. But that’s what women rush up to tell me, that they love her so much. I’m always a little bit surprised, because on the inside I know there’s a wild woman, which probably other women want to tap into. There’s no good girl there. There’s an unapologetic wild storm, and it’s fabulous to play and fabulous to put that woman in the living rooms of America.
Awards Daily: There’s always the risk when you’re doing a performance of this size. What I always think when I’m watching you, is what holds it together is that even when Beth is at the height of her bravado, I can still see the broken pieces underneath.
Kelly Reilly: Yes, that makes me really happy to hear that. Because without that, I think you’re absolutely right–I think you’re really smart, in the wrong hands or in my wrong interpretation, she could become a cartoon or a caricature. For me, it was good to hear that because without seeing that shattered heart…what’s that wonderful saying “The crack is where the light gets in”? To see the cracks in her, I feel is so important to ground her, to understand that this is a woman who has suffered so much trauma, so much sadness, so much loss, and yet she can walk into a bar and own it in a way that you would never connect with that level of suffering. Then there’s this savage lion who will destroy you.
My nieces who are nine and seven, I was facetiming them this morning, they’re back in England. Ella, who’s nine, said to me “I hear you play a bad guy” and I said “Well, kind of, but she’s really only a bad guy to bad guys. Do you understand what I’m saying?” and she said “I get it!” That’s what I feel about her. If she loves you, she’s going to protect you and be devoted. If you threaten her or anyone she loves, then you are an enemy. It’s pretty black or white in those terms. There’s a dignity in that, weirdly. That’s what I’ve also tried to find in her. It’s not just reckless. She is who she is and there’s an animal primal quality to her that I find really lovely. This character reveals herself to me as I play her. It feels like a living breathing thing.
Awards Daily: One of the most astonishing things that I’ve seen an actor do was at the end of season three, during the assassination attempt scene when you were being attacked, and you were defending your life, and you have a man who is attempting to rape you, before he kills you because he just wants to have power over you. There’s a toxic masculinity aspect that’s going on, but no matter what, as vulnerable as you are physically and even emotionally, you’re not going to give him what he wants. I don’t know how you did that.
Kelly Reilly: Well, thank you. I’ve only watched that scene once and I sort of watched it with one eye closed. It’s not really something you can watch yourself do. I just knew she was someone who wasn’t going to die willingly at that moment. She thinks she’s about to die, but she’s not going to give him the power. I mean, who does that? Who has that level of inner strength and inner power? It was such a wonderful thing to excavate, and it’s a wonderful thing that Taylor gave the character, because season one I think she was easily seen as just a bitch, right? I always knew who she was and her backstory, and Taylor had told me how primal she is and what she believes. There’s that line “My father’s dream is the Alamo that I will die defending it.” That makes her really dangerous because she will die for it. She’s absolutely sacrificed her life for her father. I think she’s done it because she feels indebted forever for the taking away of his wife, his happiness, her mother. She feels totally responsible for her mother’s death when she was thirteen/fourteen years old, and I think she feels that she has to be in servitude to him forever. It’s the guilt she feels, the self loathing she feels about that.
Awards Daily: That’s a great segue to your work with Kevin Costner who is quite the icon of course. The scenes between you and him are frequently hilarious. It has a lot to do with his quality as sort of a straight man, and your ability to say whatever you want to say. Do you guys have a lot of fun doing those?
Kelly Reilly: You know what, we do. He’s so restrained as an actor and I’m always trying to find a balance so to go back to what you said before, you’ve got to sit on it. You can’t enjoy it too much because then it just becomes cutesy and irritating. The pair of us are really keen on always making those scenes work. We never sit back on our laurels. He’s one of the hardest working actors I’ve seen or worked with. I adore working with him. I think my goal in all those scenes is to try and make Kevin smile, or make him laugh. If I know I’ve done that, I know I’ve done something right. I think that’s the thing, the aspect of him shaking his head as John Dutton and also loving her. It’s the same with the relationship with Beth and Rip. These people love her so much, but she’s a wildfire. They can’t control her, nor would they want to. It’s just sometimes she pushes it too far. Sometimes it’s just fun. It’s straddling that balance.
Awards Daily: I have a belief that Costner’s one of the all time great cranky actors. He does cranky really well.
Kelly Reilly: I’ll tell him. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: I have this belief that Rip and Beth are probably the only two people for each other. True soulmates, to use an overused expression.
Kelly Reilly: Oh, I couldn’t agree more. I feel like when they met when they were kids, both broken, and it was done. I think that they fell in love that young and they have just been each others’ world ever since. It took her a while to allow herself to be in love with him that way. His devotion to her, the way he lets her be who she is but adores her, I think that gives her every safety. There’s something about that. I think you’re right, I think soulmates is a great way to describe them.
Awards Daily: The show started off with strong ratings and now it’s into phenomenon level, but critics didn’t warm to it initially. The critics followed the ratings, I think the audience was ahead of the game on Yellowstone. The critics seem to be catching up now. I imagine that’s gratifying.
Kelly Reilly: The audience means the most for me as an actor. The critics, everyone is allowed an opinion, right? And that’s fine. I think we need to be able to disagree with each other. I feel like the audience have always loved the show, and I think that’s been very satisfying. The people have loved it. The people watching have been so invested in it and are so passionate about it. It was such a strange thing that the critics initially disregarded it. So whether they catch up to it or feel differently about it now, great. But it doesn’t really make any difference to the work that we do every day. We really work our tails off, we really care about it.
Awards Daily: I told Luke that it’s kind of like Succession with cowboy hats. It’s a pretty deep show actually.
Kelly Reilly: On Succession all they’re fighting about is money and power. Whereas here we’re actually fighting for each other and the land. I would actually love to see that. Wouldn’t you love to see a special where the Succession lot get off their private planes in Montana and they want to build a city and they come and meet the Duttons? (Laughs). I think we should pitch it! I would love to go head to head with Sarah Snook. I love her so much.
Awards Daily: Can you imagine Kevin Costner and Brian Cox?
Kelly Reilly: Right? It’s a good idea. I’m not crazy. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: I have believed that the show has been, at least at its inception, a bit misunderstood. That it was something created for a certain political persuasion, shall we say. Which I think if you understand Taylor Sheridan’s work and are familiar with it, even before Yellowstone, is just a complete misnomer. He’s not simple about things. He doesn’t spoon feed. He doesn’t give you answers.
Kelly Reilly: He doesn’t defend himself, he’s not someone who has any interest in describing his art–he’s like you either get it and you see it or you don’t. It’s up to interpretation. Like you said, if it’s misunderstood that is what it is, but other people got it. I totally understand why people think that, but it’s pretty reductive. Whether or not you’re making a show for one group of people or another group of people, it’s like “We only want to watch shows that we can morally get behind.” Are you kidding? We’re artists. We’re storytellers.
Awards Daily: I’ve always said if the only kind of art that you ever want to watch is the kind that absolutely reflects your opinions and your thoughts on things, then you’re really not learning anything.
Kelly Reilly: I couldn’t agree more. That’s our job. I think it’s a bigger conversation for another time–whether you’re a comedian or an actor. It’s like some people ask “Do you think Beth’s a good role model?” No, I don’t. But that’s not why I’m drawn to playing roles, whether or not they’re good role models for women or young women. There’s aspects of her that are admirable and there’s aspects of her that are massively fucked up. I feel like that’s the beauty of the character, as an actor. If we’re trying to make the show political, or we’re trying to make them likable, I feel like we’re misunderstanding what art is. Don’t get me wrong. I feel like representation is hugely important, and I welcome those shifts in Hollywood massively.
I think there’s a whole group of Americans that has felt that Hollywood doesn’t really represent them. And they’ve taken Yellowstone and said, “This is our show.” What about people who work the land and live off the land and they’re in middle America and they’re not under Washington or California or New York and no one knows who we are, and Taylor Sheridan is like, well, I’m going to put a story here.
Awards Daily: And that’s what you do. You learn who people are. I’ve always said movies are like traveling without moving. Shows are the same way. You get to go places through other people.
Kelly Reilly: I love that. I couldn’t agree more. I feel the same way. I feel that with books as well and paintings. That’s what art is. I don’t want to see a show about someone from England where I grew up. I want to learn about things I don’t know about, and people I don’t know about, and how similar we all are weirdly. We’re all human.
Awards Daily: Do you feel like when playing Beth that you’re spending a lot of time plumbing the depths of your soul playing, or are you having a great time, or is it both?
Kelly Reilly: That’s a good question. I certainly couldn’t play her if I didn’t pull from my soul. What’s required of me to play her truthfully and with care and consideration is to bring every ounce of me to her, and more than I thought was possible. I remember reading a quote from Dan Day-Lewis about acting–he’s someone I greatly admire–and he said once he became an actor he realized that all the possibilities for our lives and or who we think we are are endless. The reason I understood what he meant was when you step into a character that you think is so different, so removed from yourself, and you step into a power or energy that the character has that you didn’t think you had, and all of a sudden you realize you sort of limited yourself. You have it, you have the ability and the possibility to be anything you wanted.
I feel like as an actor I get to explore that. I really have the luxury that I get to go deep-sea diving into things that I would never get to learn about myself. So, I’m having a great time. It’s really hard work, I take it very seriously. I work hard, I care, but at the same time I know who she is now. I trust myself. For the first two seasons I was riddled with that insecurity of, have I got this? Am I able to pull it off? All of that nonsense. I think now I’m going into that fifth gear of feeling good about who she is and my knowledge of her. And the writing just keeps getting better and better. I’m understanding who she is and what people are responding to in her. It’s an enormous gift of a character. I love playing her and I know it’s not going to last forever, so I just want to pour myself into it as much as I can and then go find something so completely different, and start swimming in different waters. But this has been such an adventure and I don’t feel like it’s peaked yet. I feel like we’ve still got a lot more to do and offer and I’m aware. I think that’s what happens when you get older. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I wasn’t really aware of the chances I had, or the moments in my life I wasn’t particularly present in. Now I think being a little bit older, and with the world we’re living in currently, the amount of gratitude I have for being able to go to work and love what I do…it’s really special.