A gifted, bipolar woman struggles to stay on her meds to function in her high-demand job and has a thing for jazz. If Black Box sounds like Homeland, Kelly Reilly doesn't know it.
"I've only seen a little bit of Homeland. I think I saw an episode of Season 2. I really can't compare them," Reilly tells TVGuide.com. "I know it's a great show, but I don't really know what they're doing there. I just don't want to do a generic bipolar person. Catherine is not [Carrie Mathison]."
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No one will ever confuse the two. As ABC's omnipresent ads have already burned into your, er brain, Reilly's Dr. Catherine Black is a famed neurologist — the "Marco Polo of the brain" — who's brilliant while on her drugs and even more brilliant and (gasp!) dangerous when she's off them. She tries to keep it on the down-low, but does confide in her shrink (Vanessa Redgrave). She's engaged to a bland chef (David Ajala), but sleeps around in her hypomanic, un-medicated phase. She also starts dancing — a lot — to soothing jazz saxophone melodies playing in her head. (Her dad was a jazz musician, you see.)
"The dancing for me was in the script. I remember thinking, 'That's very joyful to be able to move and be free,'" Reilly says. "I think people might be taken aback by it, but that's the wildness in bipolarity. ... Catherine is compelled to be intoxicated. She talks about her mind having wings. She's able to see things, hear things and feel things. She has musical hallucinations. She hears jazz and that's where she goes to her happy place to be free. That's the plus side of this disorder that she can go to these places and feel these things. The other side is it's incredibly self-destructive and sabotaging of everything in her life."
The dual Jekyll/Hyde roles intrigued Reilly when she received the script, but it was talking to creator Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza) that sold her completely. Jones' father is bipolar and was also a doctor. "Amy grew up with this disorder in every aspect. That just started a conversation with me," Reilly says. "She's coming from an informed place and I just thought, 'I really want to be part of this.' I'm in no position to take on Catherine lightly."
It's difficult to take Black Box seriously with its excess of TV tropes and silly, unhinged (no pun intended) elements, which Reilly acknowledges can come off as head-scratching. But the actress, who consulted neurologists, psychiatrists and bipolar patients to prepare for the role, believes the show is merely being truthful to the various manifestations of the disease. "I was worried there would be indulgence into this world rather [than] dealing with it with integrity and responsibility, but it's been the latter. It's honest," she says. "I didn't want to sensationalize bipolarity. This is what it's like for a lot of people. And this disease enables her to feel things. You go on a journey with her and her evolving and [you're] peeling away the layers to who she is and who she thinks she is."
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Reilly promises that the show will tone down the dancing and the will-she-won't-she-go-off-her-meds aspects after the pilot, as Catherine will stay medicated through the ninth episode, and viewers will see her symptoms and mania manifest in other "interesting" ways. Whatever those ways are, the zany, at times campy, extremes the show goes to could hurt rather than help understanding of mental illness. Reilly, though, feels the opposite.
"I think it will absolutely help," Reilly says. "I think it's a unique story to tell. We should be frustrated with her. You should be thinking, 'What is she doing?!' But as we go along, we start to understand who she really is. We portray the ugly and beautiful."
Black Box premieres Thursday at 10/9c on ABC. Watch interviews with Kelly Reilly here.