HOUDINI: Kristen Connolly on Playing Bess Houdini
August 29, 2014 by Marisa Roffman
HISTORY is debuting its latest miniseries, HOUDINI on Monday, September 1st at 9 PM (Part 2 airs the following night at 9 PM), and it follows the triumphs — and struggles — of Harry Houdini’s life. (Houdini is played by Oscar-winner Adrien Brody.)
One of the biggest constants in Harry’s life was Bess, his wife of 32 years (who also doubled as his stage assistant), and in the HISTORY miniseries, she’s played by HOUSE OF CARDS’ Kristen Connolly. To get a little more insight into the Bess Houdini, her relationship with Harry, and more, I spoke with Connolly about her work on the project…
What was the biggest draw for you about working on this miniseries?
Kristen Connolly: I think first and foremost, it was getting to work with Adrien. I knew that he was attached to it, and I had just been a fan of his for such a long time. He’s such a beautiful actor, and mainly, as soon I heard he was doing it, I was like, “Yep, sign me up. I’m in.”
The relationship between Harry and Bess is so important to the story — what kind of prep did you and Adrien do to make sure the dynamic was on-point?
KC: We did some pre-production stuff. There’s a lot — he put in a lot of [work] in terms of stunt work and magic stuff that I wasn’t really a part of as much. But we did a little bit of rehearsal, and mainly, we just got along as people, and we spent a lot of time talking about Harry and Bess, the real people, and their relationship. I think we both wanted to show how much they loved each other. You really find that in any research you do on the Houdinis — it’s one of the most important things in both of their lives, this relationship. And I think we both felt very protective over that love and that bond, and tried to get it across.
And this was your first time playing someone who actually existed, correct?
KC: Yeah, I think it is! It’s really cool — there’s always research to be done, but you do feel a responsibility when you’re playing a person who lived to get it right, and capture their spirit.
How familiar were you with Houdini before you took this role? I think a lot of people might have a general idea of who he is, but did you know a lot about his life, his biggest magical acts, or how he died?
KC: Not really, no. I knew a little bit: I knew the name, and I knew he was an escape magician. Luckily, I have friend, he’s a writer, Michael Mitnick, who is actually a Houdini expert, and I had no idea about this. But as soon as I got the part — and he’s really close with my brother, Will — and [both] my brother and my fiancé said, “You have to talk to Michael Mitnick, he’s a Houdini expert.” He put me in [contact] with some wonderful information, and then put me in touch with some wonderful people in Los Angeles — John Cox and Tom Interval.
John has a blog called “Wild About Harry,” and it’s awesome. It’s in-depth, and has endless information about the Houdinis, especially on Bess. And Tom put together this amazing report for me with all the information about her. It’s harder to find information on Bess; you have to dig through things. So he saved me endless hours of reading every biography out there by putting it all in one place. I was really lucky to have people helping me on getting a handle of who she was. And she’s such a fascinating person, so it was really exciting to do that research.
Since you had some really hard-core research at your disposal, were you able to watch the film Bess was in during the 1930s to see her mannerisms, etc.?
KC: That one I couldn’t find. There is a video of her from one of the seances, and that I was able to watch on YouTube. But I didn’t see her in the actual movie — that I couldn’t find. There’s so much out there; it’s hard to imagine a time where there wasn’t an internet and everyone didn’t have things [by pushing] a button.
There are wonderful photographs of them together that are really expressive, and you can see their playfulness with each other. It’s really, really sweet. There’s ton of it on Tom’s blog. You can really get lost looking at that stuff.
Was there a particular aspect of Bess you really wanted to make sure viewers were aware of?
KC: We kind of touched on it earlier, but I think in movies [there] is this feeling that you need to have conflict, and that can turn into arguments about silly things. And I think Adrien and I both wanted it [to be clear] that they were a married couple, they did have arguments, but I think we really wanted [it so you] felt their connection through all of that, and how much love was there. They were really partners in every sense of the word. It’s a beautiful thing to see a marriage like that. That was something I always wanted to take care to protect when we had scenes where they were arguing in frustration — to not lose that as well.
Was there ever a point where you decided you needed to stop doing research so it didn’t weigh you down, and keep you from adding your own imprint on this character?
KC: I wanted to find as much information as I could, but there are times when some of the things aren’t as useful, and there’s the trap of getting stuck in the minutiae of it. Sometimes changing a detail is not necessarily accurate, but it’s more truthful about who the person was, if that makes any sense. You want to capture the essence of the person, and tell a story that makes sense to a contemporary audience.
The hair and makeup team on this was just incredible, and they spent a lot of time getting the wigs right. They wanted me to have a short haircut, and I don’t know how accurate that was at that time, but the idea was to show that this is a person who was a little bit spunky, a little bit different, and a match for Harry. People might take issue with the historical accuracy of the hair, but when I had the wig on, I felt like a different person. So that’s one instance.
Did you have a favorite scene in the miniseries?
KC: A lot of it is blended together, because we shot in so many old theaters…I just loved the day [there was] the elephant [in a scene]. The funny thing is I never actually saw the elephant on-set. I saw the elephant off-set, but when we were doing my coverage, she gets tired and needed a break, so our first A.D. was marching around pretending to be the elephant, so I was laughing my head off. I don’t know if you can see it in the movie or not, but I was laughing my head off that day, because our first A.D. was marching around pretending to be an elephant. [Laughs]
The magic of television!
KC: Exactly! [Laughs] A lot of the times, chances are people aren’t looking at the thing you think they’re looking at.
Which is also appropriate for this magical miniseries! Would you be open to playing Bess again if the opportunity ever came up? Or do you feel like this was really the one crack you had at her?
KC: Oh gosh. It never occurred to me that there would be another way to play her. I don’t think it would feel right to play Bess without Adrien, because we really did feel like a team.
But I would love the chance to explore her again, and live in her shoes. She was so fun. That was one of the main things we wanted to get across — this was a fun person, who was a match for Harry Houdini, in every sense of the word. But whenever you make a movie — when you’re doing theater, you get the chance to do it again every night. With a movie, it’s hard to watch, because [you think], “I could have done that better.” You see all the things you wish you had done differently.
It struck me while I was watching the miniseries and then reading up on her — especially the fact that she held seances every year to try and contact Harry after he died — that she really was a fascinating woman, and I could imagine in the future someone might build a project around her and what it was like to be Harry’s wife, and then to have to live without him, etc.
KC: Oh, God, yeah. That was the stuff I missed the most, but I understand there’s only so much you can put into a few hours. But that aspect of her life was fascinating — she did these seances every year. She was a fascinating person. For me, I am so happy to even scratch the surface of who she was. But I would be so excited if there was a full movie about Bess.
In the meantime, your next project is the new ABC drama, THE WHISPERS. Since you came to the series a little bit later in the process [Connolly was added as a recast for Brianna Brown], how did you approach your prep for that? Did you choose to watch the original pilot?
KC: I did watch the pilot, and I read the script. I tried to not watch it too hard — I had it on as I was doing other things. You want to get a feeling of what the world is. Everybody’s interpretation of the role is different, and you don’t want to latch on too hard to what anyone else does. For me, that was how I approached it. They sent it to me, and it’s difficult in a pilot, because sometimes you’ll see a script and then what’s on-screen was so wildly different from what you read — in your imagination it’s one thing, [and then it turns out] like something else. But with this, the script was really strong, and the work that the actors did and the crew did was really wonderful, and was really close to what I imagined in the script.
So it’s been great. I’ve been in Vancouver shooting, and it’s been wonderful — the other actors are terrific, the crew is wonderful, and they’ve been super welcoming to me, which is nice. I’m really excited!
HOUDINI airs Monday, September 1st and Tuesday, September 2nd at 9 PM on HISTORY.