Michael Kelly is one of the finest character actors around, someone who can slip into a character and completely disappear. You remember every role he’s done, the sharpness of every performance (the slippery fixer on “House of Cards,” the determined agent on “The Sopranos,” the FBI director in “The Comey Rule”) and every time Kelly pops up, it’s a total delight — even when he’s beig scary on screen.
In his latest role, which involves both stern warnings and judicious exposition, Kelly plays a CIA director in Taylor Sheridan’s latest sensation “Special Ops: Lioness.” The show gives Kelly the chance to create another indelible character, while sharing scenes with Nicole Kidman and Zoe Saldaña.
TheWrap spoke to Kelly before the SAG-AFTRA strike about what it was like becoming a part of the Paramount+ series’ ensemble, how he researched for the role and his upcoming appearance in “The Penguin,” the spin-off of “The Batman.” We also get into how he wound up in the most recent “Transformers” movie, “Rise of the Beasts,” as the man who bridged the worlds of “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe.”
You’ve gotten very good at delivering pivotal pieces of information over the years. How do you do that so well? Is there a secret?
I think it’s a luck, to be honest with you. I’m just lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I think that going back to “House of Cards,” a lot of people were like, “Oh, that guy can deliver something in a very straightforward way and get the message across.” That’s sort of what’s become of my career since then.
Can you talk about what it’s like sharing a scene with Nicole Kidman and Zoe Saldaña?
Working with those gals was amazing. They came with their A-game. When we showed up to work, I came prepared. It’s something I pride myself on. I don’t ever want to be the guy that holds up the production. But I came to work that first day… And no matter what, if I know the words or not, I’m always holding my sides for rehearsal when you come in before they light it, before they do everything. I always just have them with me, in case I want to look at my notes on the pages that I write because I’m an anal freak and I write down all these notes everywhere. And [Kelly’s “Jack Ryan” co-star] Wendell Pierce makes so much fun of me because he is like, “How many different color pens are on your sides, dude? And what the hell is that all about?”
Maybe I over-prepare, but the first time that I walked on the set and the gals came in without their sides. And I very quickly took my sides and hid them in one of the CIA secretive folders and was like, “Oh. We’re not having sides on the table, no problem.”
But to see them come in and just be the incredible powerhouses that they are, and just to see it firsthand and to jump in when we just started filming. Man, I was blown away by their presence, their power, their A-game preparedness, all of it was just beautiful to watch. It was one of those moments where you’re sitting there working and just going, “Wow, I am really fortunate to be doing what I do with some of the people I do it with.”
Taylor Sheridan is known for not giving the actors a lot of direction. What was your experience with him and how did you find that way of working?
Taylor wasn’t on set, at least not when I was there. All of his team is there, but he wasn’t personally there when I was there. But we had a very in-depth conversation over the phone, one day leading up to when he offered me the job. We talked at length. I wrote three pages of notes down with everything that he said about this character, about this show. And it all made a lot of sense to me. No one ever can give you how you feel about every single character and every single person in the room in any given scene. You have to fill that in yourself. But he certainly was great with creating this man, who he is, what he stands for and what he believes. And then you just fill in the little blanks, the crazy ones.
What kind of research did you do? It’s not like you can talk to somebody from the CIA.
I mean, I did talk to the deputy director of the CIA.
We go every year and screen “Jack Ryan” for them. We get to go on campus, we go all around the CIA that day, the parts they let us see. And I said to him, I said, “I’m playing you right now.” And he’s like, “What?” And I was like, “There’s this new show called ‘Lioness’ I’m doing with Taylor Sheridan.” He is like, “Oh my God, I love Taylor Sheridan.” And I was like, “This is his new show and it’s CIA and it’s incredible.” I said, “Yeah, I’m playing you, not you specifically, but I’m playing the deputy director of the CIA.”
He did the Q&A for us that night after the screening. And it was really cool to sit down and just talk with him a little bit. And the really funny part was that I remember going to my fitting and was like, “I don’t know…” The clothes they were giving me, the ties they were giving me, I was like, “I feel like it’d be a little bit sharper than this in there.” And she was like, “No, the CIA, it is very this and this and this.” And I was like, “Okay.” I chose a recurring tie that kept a uniformity theme that I wanted to keep throughout. There are obviously different ties, but there’s a theme to his ties all throughout. That’s what I chose. Then I get there and I meet him and I was like, “Son of a bitch, I was right.”
Dude’s got an Hermes tie. I didn’t ask for the make. I knew the Hermes tie though. I recognized it right away. I didn’t ask the make of his suit, but I looked from the shoes to the suit, everything was to the nines, perfect. This dude is sharp as hell. But it was really cool to meet the guy. I’m going to get to go back and be like, “It’s coming out. You’re going to get to see it. Don’t judge me too hard.”
They haven’t said whether or not the show is coming back, but would you be on board to return for another season?
Oh my god, 100%. There goes my negotiating power. But yes, I would be honored and thrilled, as I was to do the first season. There’s a scene that I had with Jennifer Ehle, Bruce McGill, Morgan Freeman, Zoe Saldaña and Nicole Kidman, all of us at a table with the weight of the world on our shoulders on this long conference table, and we’re all just going at it back and forth. Are you kidding me? As an actor, I was just like, “You got to be kidding.” It’s one of those pinch me moments where you’re just like, “Wow!” And this is TV. It blows my mind, man. It blows my mind where we’ve come with television or quote unquote television.
Where were you in “The Penguin” before the WGA strike shut it down?
I have one day left. I got all my stuff done but one day, and we went to shoot it like three times and I went home. Because we as actors, you can’t not go. You have to go to work and then they picket and then you go home.
Did you see the teaser? It’s like, “Oh, s–t it looks so good.” And Colin is a force, man. I met him at the table read. It was the first time we’d ever met and just what a lovely, lovely person he is. And we talked a good bit that day. Then the first day on set that I came to set and he was The Penguin. And the first time that I saw him, I was just like, “Oh my God.” And I said, “Bro, excuse me, but can I get a better look?” And he is like, “Come up, get on in there.” And I got within inches of his face and I was like, “I don’t see it. I can’t find it. I can’t find where and how they did this.” It is mind-blowing to the naked eye, being that close to his face. You can’t see it. And he’s talking with his brogue and we’re just chatting it up. And then they’re like, “All right guys, we’re ready for you.” And he turns his back and he starts to limp and then he turns around and he’s The Penguin. And I’m just like, “Holy s—t.” He’s so good.
Who do you play?
He’s the underboss of the Falcone Crime family. Johnny Vitti is his name. He’s not a good guy. But it’s a fun character to play. It’s a lot of fun.
How did you wind up in “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts?”
I met Steven over coffee pre-pandemic years ago. My agent was like, ‘You got to meet this guy. He did ‘Creed II’ and I really think he’s an up-and-coming director. You got to meet him.’ We sat down, we had coffee and we hit it off. The two of us just had a great time, but that was it. We hung out for an hour plus, maybe close to two hours. And we just hit it off as people.
And he was like, “Man, I really like you. I want to work with you one day.” And I was like, “Dude, I feel the same way, man. This was a great conversation. It was really nice to meet you. Thanks so much.” Cut to two years later I get a call and my manager was like, “So they’re done filming ‘Transformers,’ but they’re in re-shoots right now and they want to add this scene and the director wants to talk to you about it and it’s going to be a post credits scene.”
And I was like, “Cool. And it’s Steven and I’d love to talk to him.” And they were like, “All right, great.” They set up the call and he pitched it to me and he was like, “And we don’t have it all set yet, but our goal is to hopefully tie this into the G.I. Joe world and then take it and just explode these universes and obviously you’d be a part of that.” And I was like, “Sweet, let’s do it. Sounds good.” So they worked out a deal and I went in for one day, shot the scene.
I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I hand them the card and we shot it with two different cards and we shot it with a blank card so they could put whatever they wanted on. Because they weren’t sure if they had G.I. Joe yet. They weren’t sure if that whole thing was going to happen or not. We did it with Sector Seven or whatever it was. And then G.I. Joe and I guess they got it. And so when I saw it I was like, “Oh cool man. That’s rad.” I guess if it goes further, great. I would love to be a part of those worlds. I grew up with both G.I. Joe and Transformers as a kid. I was the end of G.I. Joe and the beginning of Transformers. For me as an adult kid, I’m like, “That’s cool to be a part of that world.”
New episodes of “Special Ops: Lioness” stream Sundays on Paramount+.