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As the title indicates, the focus of History's Labor Day miniseries Houdini is legendary magician Harry Houdini, including revelations about the secrets behind some of his best-known performances. Oscar winner Adrien Brody, a lifelong Houdini fan, plays the escape artist, while House of Cards star Kristen Connolly is Bess Houdini, herself a performer who supported her husband as he rose from fledgling magician to world-famous entertainer.
Connolly talked to Yahoo TV about the Houdinis’ marriage, training with magicians, her future on House of Cards, where we'll see her next on TV (hint: it involves Steven Spielberg), and the glaring error on her Wikipedia page.
Did you jump into research on Bess Houdini when you signed on to the movie?
I did. I'm really, really lucky, because what I started doing was just ordering these biographies, and they're like 600 pages long each. I was sort of slogging through slowly. But I have a dear friend, Michael Mitnick, who is a writer and a huge Houdini fan. He knows an incredible amount about the Houdinis. I've learned that there are a lot of people who are sort of obsessed with the Houdinis and know a lot about them.
Michael put me in touch with a man named Tom Interval, who is a magician based in California, and he is a Houdini expert. He put together this packet of information: all the most important things that you could find, extracted from all of these different sources. I can't even tell you how helpful it was. It was like 30 or 40 pages of material about Bess as a person: how she grew up, anecdotes that people told about her, her relationship with Harry, all kinds of things that were just unbelievably useful to me. I certainly could not have done all of that work in the time that I had without him.
Get an exclusive sneak peek at History's Houdini right here:
How would you describe the Houdinis' relationship?
She was a performer, and I think it's important to remember that. She was in show business, and that’s how they met: at work, like so many couples do. I think she was happy to let him take center stage. In all the research that I did, there doesn't seem to be any sense of her being competitive with him at all. I think they had a really wonderful and supportive relationship, and I think that she was happy to let him be the star.
She had her fun in different ways as well. I read a cute story about her going dancing with her sister… they would go out and drink champagne and go dancing, and she wouldn’t tell Harry. But I think they were really, really close, and they were partners. They were truly partners in every way and just well-matched for each other. I think that's something rare and special, and I hope we were able to convey some of that in the movie. I think they got a kick out of each other.
What was Bess's life like after her husband died?
We see a little bit of her life after [Harry died] in the movie. Her life didn't end when Harry's did. She spent a lot of time doing these séances and attempting to contact him. She did that for a long time, and then at one point, I think it was around ten years, she just said, "That's long enough to wait for any man," and that was it. She didn't do the séances any more after that. Her life was very different without him, but she didn't just lock herself away someplace. She performed magic herself after his death, which is kind of amazing. She was very active. She was outspoken about what it meant to be the wife of a magician. I wish there were 14 hours instead of four to tell their whole story and get all of this stuff in, because she was amazing.
Did you dabble in any magic training during filming?
Not really. Adrien and I have one trick together in the movie. It's called the Metamorphosis, and Harry and Bess performed it together for a long time. You see it at the beginning. So we [learned] that, but both Adrien and I are much taller than Harry and Bess were, so pretending to be small, nimble, athletic… like, Bess was not even 5-foot tall, and I'm 5'8". When they first cast me, I was like, "Oh, sh--, I'm really a lot bigger than she was."
She was really very, very tiny, and he was not a big guy either. He was like 5'7" or 5'6". We weren't as naturally suited to hiding in small places as they were, plus they spent a ton of time practicing this thing. When you see it done by people who know what they're doing, it's incredibly fast, and they're incredibly nimble and athletic. It's just the kind of thing that you can't learn in a week of preproduction… we ended up doing our own kind of camera magic instead, but it's fun just to learn how they do these things. It's a cool world to be immersed in.
We had a guy on set, David Merlini, who is a magician, and he showed me a couple of tricks. He showed me one where he was bending spoons and forks, not touching them, just with his mind. I saw these things turn to like 90-degree angles. I was like, "You have to tell me how you did it!" But he never did.
On to your other TV work, House of Cards: Are you back for Season 3?
I'm not back for Season 3. I'm shooting another show, The Whispers, for ABC in Vancouver. It's a new job that I'm really excited about. I'll be here until, I guess, December. It's totally different from House of Cards, even though it is also set in D.C., but it's very spooky. I'm excited about that.
This is the Steven Spielberg-produced alien drama?
Yes. I play a young mom, and I've got some... I'm not sure how much of a death threat I'm under to not talk, but I think I can say that I have a family, and we're all sort of going through something. It’s about the challenges of working that out, even while some other forces are at work. How’s that for cryptic?
It's totally spooky. All of the scripts come in and I need all the lights on to read them. It's a lot of fun. There's some action, and a very eerie sort of presence as well.
According to your Wikipedia profile, you were a professional tennis player. True?
[Laughs.] Oh, I knew you were going to ask me that. No, it's not true, and I have no idea how it got on there or where it came from, but people ask me about it all the time. I'm not even a good tennis player, let alone a former professional one. And I don't know how to take it off, because it's very hard to change a Wikipedia entry… they won't let you change your own [page]. I just think it's kind of funny. It’s like a joke now in my family, because I'm so not athletic. I mean, I'll just walk into things. It's like I have a bad sense of space. So I think the lesson is, kids, don't write your school papers with Wikipedia information.
Houdini premieres Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. on History.