The two-night scripted mini-series Houdini (airing on History) is more than just the story of the world-renowned superstar who could defy death. Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody) also engaged in espionage, battled spiritualists, encountered the greatest names of the era, performed some of the greatest feats ever seen, and was a loving husband to Bess (Kristen Connolly), his wife and right hand.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Kristen Connolly (who gives a terrific and emotionally layered performance, alongside powerhouse actor Adrien Brody) talked about how she came to be apart of Houdini, how she approached researching their relationship, finding her performance, how much the hair and make-up contributed, wearing such uncomfortable corsets, if she feels that Harry really valued Bess, and what it was like to work with Adrien Brody. She also talked about signing on to do the upcoming ABC drama series The Whispers, about an unseen force that is manipulating children to act in favor of its cause. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
KRISTEN CONNOLLY: I didn’t. I got a phone call from my agent when I was sitting at the DMV in New Jersey. I had to get my driver’s license renewed, so I was sitting and waiting in line. So, I got a call from them and they said, “We’re pretty close to making a deal on this Houdini thing.” And I was like, “What Houdini thing?” And they said, “We didn’t want to say anything until we knew that the offer was going to come in, but we think this is going to happen.” And sure enough, it did. It all happened without my knowledge, and it was just super exciting. They said, “So, it’s this Houdini story with Adrien Brody.” And I was like, “Okay, yes, done! You don’t have to tell me any more.” From there, it happened pretty quickly. I didn’t know months and months in advance. It was really about a month later that I went to Budapest and did some pre-production. And then, I went home for a week or two, and I was back and shooting in the fall.
That’s awesome that you have people who are working on your behalf, in that way, and then can present you with the role, after everything is all set.
CONNOLLY: Oh, absolutely! It certainly beats hustling, especially in the summer in New York City, going from audition to audition. But that comes from having done quite a bit of that, in the years leading up to this.
What were you most drawn to, with this story and character?
CONNOLLY: I didn’t really know much about the Houdinis when I started. As soon as they sent me the script, I wanted to find out everything I could about Bess. Luckily, I have a really wonderful friend named Michael Mitnick, who’s a writer. He was a magician as a child, and that led him to the theater, which led to drama school, and he writes films now. Magic was really his thing, growing up, so he put me in touch with his magic teacher who is a real Houdini expert. So, I emailed him and said hi, and he put together this amazing packet of information for me, drawing on all of these sources. One of the sources was John Cox, who has a blog called “Wild About Harry” that I hope people will go to and check out, after they see the movie. If anyone is interested in learning anything about Houdini, it’s a wealth of information that you won’t find in a book. So, the two of them were really incredibly generous with their time and they helped me learn a bit about Bess. She’s a fascinating person, but it’s harder to find information on her. I didn’t know anything about her, before starting this project.
Were there things that you learned about her that most informed the way that you wanted to play her?
CONNOLLY: Yeah. I didn’t realize that they had performed together. I thought that was really interesting. I thought some of the anecdotes about her having to be removed from the theater because she was so upset were really interesting because it made me think, when was it real and when was it part of the performance to amp up the sense of danger in the room. Before he died, Harry said that his wife knew everything about every trick that he did, and that she knew how they all worked. It was interesting to play with that idea, and to find the places where she really was afraid for his safety and where she was playing along. I had to find that line between what’s a performance and what’s real, and that’s so much of what magic is, as well. It was really, really fun. They were really partners, in every sense of the word.
Did you feel like you had a little less pressure on you because people don’t know who Bess is, as much as they know who Harry Houdini is?
CONNOLLY: Yeah, sure. Most of the pressure was on Adrien, for the whole movie. He had to learn all of the magic. I didn’t really have to do so much of it. You still feel a responsibility because you don’t want to get it wrong. I cared a lot about that. It’s a real person, and there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with that. Whether or not every single thing you see on the screen actually happened or is perfectly accurate – and it’s not – I hope that what we got was a sense of truthfulness about the characters and about the time and about who they were and with what they were about.
History has a great track record for making sure their movies and mini-series have a realism to them. Did shooting in these costumes, surrounded by such detail, really help you get into the mind-set of this era?
CONNOLLY: Yes, absolutely! We had rehearsals where I was just in my regular clothes with my regular hair and I was like, “Fucking hell! I’m never going to be able to do this. I can’t play this part. I’m not up for it. I don’t know what I’m doing.” There was a lot of that. And then, they put that wig on and I was like, “Oh, okay!” Hair and make-up people don’t get enough credit for what they do. It’s not just making people look good. It’s really creating the character. When you look in the mirror and you see a different person, it makes you feel like a different person and it really frees you to become another person. It really is truly a collaboration, in that way. They created Bess, as much as I did.
Did you have a favorite costume that you got to wear?
CONNOLLY: Mostly anything that was not with a corset. But, they do look so pretty. Once I watched it, I was like, “Well, they do look nicer than the way I do normally,” but they’re really uncomfortable. You start to realize why women would pass out. We had the real ones, and they were just awful. At one point, I was like, “I think that’s my spleen that this is digging into.” So, if I had a nightgown, that was always really comfy. I had a few coats that I thought were pretty cool. There are a few scenes where Bess has these little shorts on over tights, and I thought those were cute.
Obviously, it has to take a toll on a relationship with Harry Houdini always thinking about the show and the tricks. How challenging do you think it was for her to maintain a relationship with someone like him?
CONNOLLY: I think it’s incredibly challenging, and I think it’s one of the things about their relationship that’s very relatable. Everyone has dated or been with a person who is obsessed with their work, and it’s immensely frustrating. You’re like, “I’m right here! I’m a person! I’m interesting, too!” For them, it was just on a much larger scale. What he was doing hadn’t really been done before. And she came up in show business, and she loved it, too. It was just a matter of degrees of how far you’re willing to go. I think that’s what makes them different from other relationships, but it’s also what makes them the same. I think people will find it relatable. I certainly did.
Do you think he truly valued and appreciated her, or did he get to a point where he was too obsessed with being the best?
CONNOLLY: I think he valued her. I do. There’s a lot of stuff that you can read about that’s not in the movie. I wish we had eight or 12 hours to tell this story. There is fascinating stuff that you can read about their relationship. He would call her “the boss,” all the time. There are letters when he’s calling her “the boss.” There are things that you can read about him being a sloppy dresser, and that she would make sure that he was wearing clean clothes and that he was dressed appropriately. Their relationship was very much a partnership. I think he relied on her, an enormous amount.
How was the experience of working with Adrien Brody?
CONNOLLY: He’s wonderful. I love Adrien. He’s such a thoughtful and generous actor. He’s also an incredibly kind and lovely person to be around. He worked so incredibly hard on this. He brought so much to it, and gave so much to it. The performance that he gave really is a reflection of how much he cared about doing this and about doing it right. He wasn’t afraid to stand up and say, “You know what? I don’t think this line works.” It’s a collaboration, in that way. There’s always that kind of thing, but he was really so thoughtful about every detail. It was great fun working with him, and I learned a tremendous amount from him.
What made you decide to sign on for the ABC series The Whispers?
CONNOLLY: I was doing a play down in San Diego, and I got the call saying, “Do you want to start in two weeks?” I was like, “Yeah, okay.” I read the script and saw the pilot. First of all, I like working, and it’s nice to work on good things with interesting stories and interesting roles. There’s not a lot of planning of, “Well, I just did this, so I don’t want to do that.” I don’t see it as a grand plan. It’s more just, “I’m interested in this, and it’s here in front of me.” I either want to do it, or I don’t want to do it. And I think The Whispers is a spooky, interesting world. It’s fun, and it’s something I’ve never done before. The cast is excellent. The producers, the writers, and everybody involved is terrific. I’m having a great time. As busy as I am, I feel very lucky to be working with this caliber of people. I learn something new, every day.
Houdini airs on History on September 1st and 2nd.