‘Yellowstone’s’ Kelly Reilly: ‘Beth Is the Most Challenging Role I’ve Ever Had to Play’

TheWrap Emmy Magazine: As the Western series surges, scene-stealer Reilly says she approaches her character like a Lady Macbeth on the range

Kelly Reilly in "Yellowstone" (Paramount Network)
Kelly Reilly in "Yellowstone" (Paramount Network)

This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

It’s hard to think of another TV show in recent memory that has taken the bull by its horns in viewership in quite the way Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” has. It is the most-watched cable series currently on the tube and has nearly doubled its audience every single season since its second. And after four tremendously successful seasons that finally led to its first-ever Emmy nomination last year (for production design), it appears the beloved oater might be a force to be reckoned with in its first major awards-season rodeo.

The fair-haired, classically trained British actress Kelly Reilly has made the down-home, suffer-no-fools, equity-firm honcho Beth Dutton a fan favorite (there are countless web pages devoted to her cutting witticisms) — first through the character’s bouts with addiction and now as an unlikely, tough-love maternal figure to an orphaned young boy (Finn Little). Reilly thinks the drama has a similar trajectory to another semi-recent sensation about a tight-knit family with secrets that butts heads with baddies.

“I always remember my friends talking about ‘Breaking Bad,’ and it was this kind of kooky, small show that I was like, ‘I’ve got to catch up with it.’ And then all of a sudden I remember Season 5 was about to air and it just became an event. I was at home in England when our [latest season] was airing and got the call about what the numbers were and I thought they were joking!”

Above, Kelly Reilly in Season 4 of Yellowstone with, right to left, Cole Hauser, Kevin Costner and Finn Little

But the ratings surge was not a joke: Some 9.3 million American viewers tuned into Season 4’s denouement. And Reilly’s fiery, nuanced work has put a bug in the ear of Emmy prognosticators all over, with many predicting that she is a frontrunner for her first-ever nod. (Ironically enough, “Yellowstone” routinely gets more viewers than the Emmys.) And all for a role she wasn’t even completely sure she’d get when she was under consideration.

“I didn’t think that it was in the bag,” she said. “I figured every actor would want this part. I had such an intense reaction to the role. And [co-creator] Taylor Sheridan’s writing I just find so exciting and dangerous, and I responded to it emotionally.”

Speaking with the jaunty, easy-with-a laugh Reilly, it’s easy to understand why she wouldn’t initially be seen as a natural fit for a rabble-rouser with a penchant for scaring off corporate cobras (like guest star Jacki Weaver this season), plotting the deaths of enemies and swearing like a salty sailor — even on her rushed wedding day when she finally ties the knot with Rip, the supportive onscreen beau played by Cole Hauser. When the priest asks, “Do you take this man…?” Beth responds with a rip-snorting “F–k yeah, I do!”

“I kept to myself the first couple of years, just sort of hid in the role, mostly just to convince myself that I could pull it off,” Reilly said. “I approached her like Lady Macbeth, but the amount of color I get to play with her is, as an actor, a real gift. Beth is the most challenging role I’ve ever had to play.”

Which is quite a statement given this particular actress is famous for holding her own against powerhouse actors like Dame Judi Dench (“Mrs. Henderson Presents”), Denzel Washington (“Flight”), Ciarán Hinds (“Above Suspicion”) and now series star Kevin Costner, with whom she shares many of her most powerful tête-à-têtes.

“You’re only as good as the other actors that you’re in a scene with, and Kevin is just so charismatic, and he can just break your heart with his stillness,” she said. “He’s got such a weight to him now as he’s older, I love just seeing the lines on his face.”

Like many series during the past few years, “Yellowstone” had its production complicated by the pandemic — and that production was already difficult, given the Montana weather patterns that proved as unpredictable as Beth Dutton’s wordplay.

“Usually it’s a slow burn for us, but that all went out the window with COVID,” she said. “But because the crew was so amazing and we all really knew our characters, by the grace of God and some real sweat, we managed to do it. I think there’s an intensity and a bit of madness to Season 4, which works for the show.”

And the Duttons have no designs on slowing down, with the new, supersized Season 5 consisting of 14 episodes that will air in two seven-episode installments. Reilly knows those ever-increasing eyes on the series are expecting big things.

“Who knows where we’re going this season, but I know it will be exciting,” she said. “The fact that we’re working for an audience of this many people gives us a lot to live up to.”

Read more from The Race Begins issue here.