Undergoing a tragic and heartbreaking crisis in life can bring about unexpected and diverse reactions amongst family members, as they strive to deal with their pain in their own ways. Contending with the distinct responses from a father and his daughter as they struggle with the death of his wife and her mother is the humanizing driving force in the new independent drama, ‘Calvary,’ from writer-director John Michael McDonagh. When the father underwent a spiritual change and decided to become a priest, his daughter felt emotionally abandoned as he devoted himself to the long-lost ideal of being forgiving to everyone around him. She only began to understand his notion to uphold goodness, and learned what forgiveness truly is, after her attempt to commit suicide failed and the two started to bond again.
‘Calvary’ follows Father James (Brendan Gleeson), a notoriously good-hearted priest at a small Irish Parish, who receives a death threat from one of his parishioners during confession. The church member warns the priest that he should settle all his affairs, as he plans to murder him the following Sunday on the beach. While Father James has an idea of the identity of the parishioner, who claims the physical abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of a priest is his motivating factor behind the threat, he’s reluctant to tell the police about the warning. Instead, the priest makes amends with various suspects in his doubt-ridden community. They include the agnostic, opinionated doctor, Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen); the guilt-ridden financial speculator, Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who has a business proposition for the church; and a jealous husband, Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd), his cheating wife, Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) and her boyfriend, Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), who doesn’t wish to be judged.
As Father James engages with the parishioners who each have their vendettas against, and reasons for wanting to kill, him, the priest also tries to mend his strained relationship with his daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). After attempting to commit suicide, Fiona visits her father at his church for a few days after he receives the death threat. The two became somewhat estranged after Fiona’s mother died years before her suicide attempt, at which time he decided to become a priest. The two reconnected during her visit, however, as the priest not only confronts the confounding limits of modern faith and his impending mortality, but also realizes his strength after his loss of grace, forgiveness and humility.
Reilly generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview and talk about portraying Fiona in ‘Calvary’ at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actress discussed how she was drawn to the role of Fiona because she admires how intelligent and honest McDonagh is as a writer and director, and that he infused the character with an integrity and strength, even though she’s emotionally fragile; how even though her and her co-stars only had a few days to rehearse together before they began filming, she immediately bonded with Gleeson because he’s such an open and relatable actor; and how she thinks the relationships in the film are inspired by humanity and compassion, no matter what people have done and who they are, and how humans treat each other in everyday situations.
SY: You play Fiona Lavelle in the new drama, ‘Calvary.’ What was it about the character and the script that convinced you to take on the role?
KR: You want to collaborate with people who you admire and respect, and who you think raise the bar more than yourself. I certainly thought John Michael McDonagh is that as a filmmaker and writer. I have wanted to work with someone like that. I love ho his mind works, and how intelligent and honest he is.
Then you have someone like Brendan in the film, and the idea of playing his (character’s) daughter is something I can’t imagine anyone turning down. In my mind, I wouldn’t understand why you would (turn the role down). But there may not have been enough lines, or Fiona may not have been a big enough role, for some actresses.
But I like parts where there’s mystery and characters who unravel quietly. Yes, Fiona is fragile when she arrives, but she has an integrity and strength to her that I liked. The way she dressed wasn’t in high fashion, as she’s almost cerebral. I imagined her as someone who did really well in school, and then traveled for a year. There isn’t a focus in her life yet.
SY: Right before the film begins, Fiona survived a suicide attempt, which came in part because of her troubled relationships with men. But when she went to visit her father after the failed attempt, it seemed as though it was more a plea for help than an actual effort to end her life. Did you feel as though Fiona was actually trying to reconnect with her father, as opposed to ending her life?
KR: Brendan and I briefly discussed the idea that he and I needed to talk about Fiona’s mother, who was his character’s wife, and the fact that she died. So there was a mother figure who was there, but isn’t anymore. So we figured that when Fiona was maybe 15 or 16, her mother died, which would be about 15 years prior to when the film takes place.
Then when Fiona was about to go to college, he goes into the priesthood. Fionna was probably strong and capable for him, so he probably didn’t realize she needed him.
The suicide attempt is 15 years after her mother’s death. I think Fionna is in this great depression, because I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have some kind of depression would attempt suicide. It must take an incredible amount of suffering to get to that point. So I think this is the last place on Earth she can go to. She tried cutting her wrists, but did it wrong-she made the classic mistake of cutting across, instead of down.
She’s like, yes, I know that I did it the wrong way now. So there’s the horror of someone wanting to take their own life, and then making a joke that she couldn’t even get that right. I think this is the beginning of her getting back to healing. You really see some of the pains and terrors in her life, and she’s starting to put them to peace. She’s not only going toward a healthier life, but also a life full of grace and full of her father’s work.
SY: Brendan Gleeson portrayed Father James, Fiona’s father, in ‘Calvary.’ What was your working relationship with him like on the set? How did you build your working relationship with him?
KR: Everyone in the cast met for about three days before we began filming, and we all sat around a table and went through the script. But we didn’t actually get up and do the scenes.
I’m quite shy, and Brendan’s quite in himself. So how do you suddenly bond with someone? You can’t force that stuff. You have to be open to loving someone you don’t know. (laughs) There’s something so open and loveable about Brendan. He’s such a great actor and a caring man that I immediately knew how to play this character. I think he felt the same way about me. So we were very lucky that it wasn’t something we had to work at. We immediately understood from the script what our job was. It made it easier that we really liked each other.
SY: ‘Calvary’ was filmed independently in the fishing village of Easkey in County Sligo, Ireland. How did shooting the drama independently in Easkey influence your portrayal of Fiona?
KR: I come from independent films and theater, and I love that scramble of making projects with little money. You have to really want to be there. We were on location in the west of Ireland in Sligo in October and November, so the weather was crazy. Then I flew back here from Ireland at the time of (Hurricane) Sandy.
But filming the movie in Sligo near the Easkey beach, where the film was set, was great. We didn’t have to use our imaginations, like when you’re on stage, and you have to imagine you’re somewhere. You’re there in the fresh air, near the sea, and you know how it makes you feel. It’s quite a magical place, but it’s also quite baron. The weather is quite unforgiving in Ireland, especially on that west coast at that time of year. But that really lent itself to the film.
SY: Speaking of theater, you have appeared in plays, films and on television throughout your career. Do you have a preference of one medium over the other?
KR: Usually when I finish working in one medium, I have an urge to move away from it, and move into one of the others. Each of them have great attributes. I love all three, so it would be hard to put them in order of preference. But I come from theater, so that’s the thing that’s really in my bones. That’s where I discovered acting.
When I went to the theater for the first time when I was 14, my mind was blown. I felt this change, because I thought plays were just musicals. But I saw a spoken word play that made me cry. I remember watching the actors, and they were so believable and truthful, and it just transformed me. So theater is probably the place that’s most dear to me.
I just finished working on a TV show (‘Black Box’), which lasted for six months. It was one of the most grueling schedules I’ve ever experienced. But it was also one of the most thrilling challenges. So there was something wonderful about taking that on, and staying with the same character for six months. I loved that I was able to spend 13 episodes with one character. I got to know that character better than any other character I’ve ever played.
But with ‘Calvary,’ we shot for three weeks. When you do a play, you do a five-month run of the same story. You’re not moving the character forward, but you’re finessing it all the time. So there are different skills you get to work with on the different mediums.
SY: The film premiered to excellent reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, in part of its bleak, witty and profound exploration of how people can live in a godless society. What was your your reaction when you found out the movie would be playing at Sundance? What does it mean to you that audiences are embracing the film’s story?
KR: I did attend Sundance this year with the film, and it was the first time I attended the festival. I saw it at the premiere, and watched it with my husband. Chris O’Dowd and John Michael McDonagh were also there with there wives. We all went up on stage to introduce the film before it played.
Then we sat down, and it was a huge cinema, so I had no idea what to expect. We had shot it a year-and-a-half prior to the screening, and at that point, I had done about three or four other jobs. So I wasn’t as fresh with the material, and I had forgotten a lot of it. In a way, we got to see it as an audience member. I got to see all the scenes I’m not in, which are a lot, for the first time. It honestly blew me away. I was so moved by the film, especially Brendan’s performance. It was a profound experience.
SY: What message do you hope audiences can take away from the film, not just about Fiona’s relationship with her father, but also his search into this faith and religion?
KR: For me, I’m not really interested in religion. I’m more interested in human nature. I think it’s easier to get into disillusionment and despair than staying in the light. I think this film is inspired by humanity and compassion, no matter what you’ve done and who you are. It’s about how human beings treat each other.
**SPOILER ALERT** That’s what I hope people take away from the film, especially that last scene where Fionna goes to meet and talk to (the person who killed her father). I think it’s the moment of grace in the film. She transcended the pain in her own life. She’s now almost taken on her father’s work. I don’t think she’s going to go into the priesthood, but he has certainly taught her about forgiveness. She knows that’s something to aspire to, and I hope that means something to people. **END SPOILER ALERT**
SY: Do you feel Fiona changed during the few days she spent with her father after her suicide attempt, and improved her relationship with him?
KR: I think it was important for her to say what she said to him. She also needed to hear some of the things he said to her. Once they got everything out, I’m sure they felt lighter, and perhaps weren’t bound by the chains of their grieve any longer. She may have a shot at having a happier life. I think when Fiona arrived, she was lost. When she left, she was hugging him and bouncing out of the car. She had a new energy, because it was like a burden had been lifted. So I do think she has changed, and has been able to heal that relationship, which hopefully means she’ll be able to have healthier relationships again.
SY: The film was written and directed by John, who you mentioned earlier. What was the process of working with John, as both the scribe and helmer on the movie? Do you prefer working with directors who also penned the script?
KR: I don’t think I have that often; he might be the only director I’ve worked with who also wrote the script. But a writer-director is very rare, and it can be difficult to be both for the same film. Writing and directing are two very specific jobs.
But John knows how to get into the writer’s mindset, and separate that from the director’s mindset. There are some things the director has to take out of the script and can’t be too precious about, and John knows how to do that. I think it’s a hard thing to do. I like that he had so much authority over the material, and he knew what his vision was. So it was imperative that he directed his script, so no one would come in and mess it up.
SY: Are you interested in continuing acting in character-driven films like ‘Calvary,’ or would you like to also star in bigger action driven, studio blockbusters, as well?
KR: It’s not like I’m closed to stuff like that, but (the bigger blockbusters) don’t necessarily do anything for me. I also don’t think I’m at the top of the list of actors the filmmakers making those types of films want to work with, as those movies aren’t like anything I’ve ever done.
But that doesn’t mean I would turn one of those films down if it was well written. I love great writing. I think that’s shaped me, particularly coming from the theater, where I’ve worked with such great writing and literature. So it’s hard for me to then go do something that hasn’t gotten much weight to it. So if there is an action film I think is super fun and intelligent, of course I would go after it.
There is a big commercial blockbuster that’s out now that I fought for a role in, but didn’t get. I loved the subject matter and everything about it. But I just want to do work I love.
Written by: Karen Benardello