On September 1 and 2, History will broadcast the miniseries “Houdini,” a biography of the famous magician and escape artist played by Adrien Brody. What viewers may not know about Harry Houdini is that his wife Bess struggled with his fame for death defying tricks.
Kristen Connolly plays Bess Houdini in the miniseries. She gets to do stage tricks, emotional scenes (spoiler alert for the end of Harry’s life) and pleads with Harry to stop wrapping himself in chains and diving into water. We got to speak with Connolly in anticipation of Houdini and also got the scoop on her “House of Cards” character, and the upcoming ABC series “The Whispers.” Houdini will be available on digital download Sept. 3 and DVD and Blu-ray October 7.
CraveOnline: It seems like Bess never really liked the escape acts, did she?
Kristen Connolly: You know, I think she performed with him for a while and I think the escapes, when they were something that was controlled and a trick, she was fine with. But once they became a little bit dangerous, they were not maybe her favorite thing.
Was it true that there was real conflict in their marriage over that?
It’s difficult to know. A lot of the things that people know about them, there’s all sorts of documentation of her fainting, of her having to be escorted out of his performances. We had some fun during the shooting with deciding where that was a performance and were it was real. Where she was really afraid for his safety and where her having to leave was part of the performance and a way of making the audience believe he was in more danger than he actually was. I can’t speak to what her experience as an actual person was all the time, but we played with it certainly in our take on the character.
Maybe this is me as a critic thinking, but I would imagine it’s all a performance on her part because if she really had a problem with it, she wouldn’t attend the show at all.
Right, and we did do that. There are points where it seems that it was too much for her to actually even be at the performance. It’s a really interesting couple and an interesting relationship.
Bess has a bit of a potty mouth, doesn’t she?
Yes, a little bit. I don’t know, to be honest, how much of that [is true]. With real people that are only documented in writing, it’s sort of hard to know exactly how much is true and how much is the essence of a person or an idea of the character, but I think we wanted her to be fun and a bit of a rebel. We had a good time collaborating and trying to come up with ways that that would speak to a contemporary audience.
I wonder how uncommon that was in her era when women were supposed to be more proper.
I don’t know, to be honest. She certainly came from a fairly religious family. I did read that she dressed in a certain way to protect her modesty. When she was married and when they were performing on stage, she always wore stockings. She was in show business and she was married to a guy her family disapproved of and she went for it anyway. I think there are a lot of interesting pieces of information that we try to tie together and make into a person that is playable on film. It’s one thing to read a biography. It’s another thing to live with them for a few hours in your living room.
Did you have to learn how to do the tricks live, even if there would eventually be cuts in the editing?
We did. We spent a lot of time doing magic stuff. Adrien particularly spent a ton of time training for the magic tricks. Bess and Harry really only have one trick that we did together. We were so much slower. Harry and Bess were incredible to be able to do this trick as quickly as they did. It’s really, really, really hard to do magic and to do it really well. In the amount of time we had to learn this stuff, we were not able to get even close to what would have been what they were doing, but we learned the mechanics of how it worked.
We spent some time going through it together. I think Adrien and I were really interested in understanding how they would’ve done this trick. We tried to but eventually it’s mostly a camera giving us a break. We moved really slow.
When he makes the origami float out of your hand, was that practical?
Yes, some of it was, a lot of it actually. That was entirely practical, all of it. I’m trying to remember because it was three o’clock in the morning. We had to stop and replace it with a real bird but Adrien was amazing. He really took so much time to learn how to do things the right way and he actually came in with a lot of knowledge. He had done a lot of magic as a young guy so he knew how to do a lot of things already and was just improving on what he already knew which was very cool to see.
How did you approach the seance scene, performing that?
It was one of these things where we’re in this beautiful old house and the set was really amazing and we’re in all these really old buildings in Budapest which is really neat. We just had a bunch of candles and there were a bunch of extras performing as well. We just tried to make it all feel authentic and to feel like it would’ve happened when it actually happened. There wasn’t really any different approach to filming any other scene in a historical film.
Even Harry’s deathbed scene? Was that a special scene to do?
Absolutely, yeah. I think the Houdinis had a really amazing marriage. Doing any sort of research on them, I think a lot of us got really invested in doing that research because they’re really interesting people. It’s not really a chore to do research on them. But, they had a really amazing marriage and amazing relationship and I think they were truly partners in every sense. Luckily Adrien and I got to be close during the shoot so it really felt like we looked out for each other and took care of each other. I think to lose your partner at any time in your life is a really difficult thing but I think that they had a particularly close and equal relationship so it was an emotional scene.
Is this the first role you’ve had with age makeup to play a long lifespan?
Yeah, the first time I’ve had this kind of age makeup. I mean, I’ve played older people in graduate school in plays and stuff, but it’s certainly not the same kind of age makeup you get on a film. This is hours of prosthetics. The hair and makeup team is amazing. They really are very detailed. They took a lot of care to make it look realistic and not over the top or cartoonish or silly.
Was the actual performance of playing Bess later in life the same as when you were doing grad school theater?
Yeah, it’s the same approach. You do the same homework. You try and find a character and find what makes people do what they do and what they care about and what’s important to them. That process is all the same, just on a much different scale certainly. Yeah, it was a really thrilling job to have and actually a friend of mine from graduate school who was in a class with my mother is sort of a Houdini expert. He’s a writer named Michael Mitnick and he knows tons about Houdini and actually put me in touch with some guys in Los Angeles who are also Houdini experts. So I got some insights thanks to grad school so it kind of came full circle.
How did you like the stage costumes?
They were really fun. I thought they were great. I loved how theatrical they were. I have to say they were a little bit itchy and not the most comfortable, but I was so pleased when I saw the footage. It felt like the right feeling. These people were showbiz people. They were celebrities so I’m really happy the way they captured that.
Does “House of Cards” feel like a different sort of job because it’s that unique format where it’s all available at once?
It’s a very different job but not because of the format. It’s a different thing. You’re shooting 13 hours of television instead of four. It’s very, very different. It’s contemporary. It’s in the United States. There are 1000 different reasons that it’s different but the way people watch things doesn’t really impact the shooting of them at all, at least on my end. It might for the writers.
Are you allowed to do both “House of Cards” and “The Whispers” at the same time?
I wouldn’t be able to. I’m only doing “The Whispers” right now. That’s my full time gig at the moment.
Did the role on “House of Cards” grow bigger than it was originally supposed to be, or was it always meant to continue?
You know, I’m not sure. I don’t really have an idea of what their idea was for it in the second season. I knew a lot about the first season, where the arc of the character was going. A lot of that was a conversation between me and Corey Stoll and David Fincher and Beau Willimon. Corey and I were very much aware of where the story was going and paced ourselves in a way knowing that. I really had no idea what was happening for the second season. I have never actually had a conversation with any of the writers really about what they were thinking or how the part really grew. I’d be interested to know what their thoughts were.
Did it become a lot more secretive once “House of Cards” was a hit?
Oh yeah, definitely. In the first season, we all knew a lot of things that were going to happen. We all knew what was going to happen to Zoe and all of that fairly early on. I didn’t tell anybody but people became much more interested later on. Especially during the second season I think people really were dying to know stuff. It was really only in the second season that they were like, “Don’t talk about anything.” And so I was like that’s it, I’m not telling anybody anything. I can’t say anything. People would ask me questions about the show. They’re like, “Do you like it?” And I was like, “I can’t say anything.” It was top secret after the first season.
Who are you going to play in “The Whispers?”
I’m playing a character named Lena. It’s again set in Washington, D.C. which is kind of fun, but I play the wife of someone who works with the Department of Defense. I have a young daughter and we’re having some problems in our marriage that are related to odd happenings with our daughter. I think the scripts are really good, the people involved are really good and it’s been fun to shoot so far.