'Black Box' Star Kelly Reilly Previews Her New Medical Series About a Bipolar Doctor and the Brain Cases She Treats

Kelly Woo
Yahoo TV
April 24, 2014

The brain is the biggest mystery of all time — one that, despite modern medicine and technological advancements, humans have yet to solve.

The mysterious brain is at the heart of ABC's new medical drama, "Black Box." But it's not just patients who come in with neurological disorders — the brilliant doctor, Catherine Black, is bipolar herself.

As star Kelly Reilly told Yahoo TV, "There's nothing wrong with having bipolar [disorder], and there's nothing wrong with being a doctor while she's bipolar, as long as she's dedicated to her health and well-being." The interesting twist is that in the show, Catherine has decided to stop taking her medication.

Watch a sneak peek:

Learn more from Reilly about the fascinating cases in the show, Catherine's relationship to her psychiatrist (played by Vanessa Redgrave), and why the doctor can't stop dancing.

Catherine makes the crucial decision to go off her meds. Do you think it makes her a better doctor?
Absolutely not. I don't think going off her medication is a good thing. It's something that happens to people a lot, it's a very common, documented thing that happens to someone with bipolar disorder who hasn't come to terms with their illness. I'm not doing a documentary on bipolar disorder; I'm doing a very specific character. I've spoken to so many wonderful people who have bipolar who live incredibly balanced, happy, relatively normal lives — professionals, a lot of very capable, very interesting, and creative people. I'm not interested in the sob story. I'm interested in the truth of all those facets.

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It sounds as if you did a lot of research.
I immersed myself. As an actor, my job is to try to portray something truthfully. I felt a responsibility to a community of people who live with this. I want it to be right. I want it to be nuanced. That's what I had to learn about — the great things about this disorder and the ugly side of it, as well. I also spoke to a lot of neurologists for the other side of her. I didn't really know anything about neurological disorders, so I had to go and become a student and find out the kind of person who's drawn to the science of neurology. It's the most mysterious part of medicine. So much is unknown about the brain — that's why it's called the black box. As Catherine says, it's the ultimate mystery.

Neurologists have to think sideways. They have to think creatively. How can we help someone learn to live with this? That's what Catherine is really gifted at. She doesn't view her patients as abnormal; she actually thinks they're incredibly special. She has a really interesting way of thinking about things, so the last thing she wants to do is to medicate and numb. She doesn't want to numb herself. She wants to feel alive.

And she wants to dance. What's it like going from a scene where Catherine is a brilliant doctor to the next, where she's dancing?
From one moment to the next, things can change. In all the research I did and from Amy [Holden Jones] the creator, this is the existence — you can do one thing and in the next, be hanging off a building. Specifically, Catherine has hypermania. There's an energy with mania; you can't contain it. It's an energy in the body. She has a hypersexuality that's incredibly destructive and sabotaging. She's such an intelligent brainiac, but when she's off her medication, she's very much in her body. The dancing takes her out of her head and into feeling, and with that comes a sense of freedom and joy. If it was just dancing, there's nothing wrong with that. But it's not just dancing — she hallucinates and nearly throws herself off a building. And having casual sex with strangers is not a healthy thing. That's dangerous, and that needs to be treated. She needs to take medication.

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In the pilot we meet two men Catherine is involved with, Will Van Renseller (David Ajala) and Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey). Will we continue to see her torn between the two?
We really get to explore the complexities of her love life, her feelings about being in a relationship, and her feelings about men. This is a woman who, despite the fact that she's bipolar, could manage it and live a healthy life in a healthy relationship. She's not in a place to accept that yet. When Will asks her to marry him, it sends her off the deep end. She feels she cannot commit to somebody because they don't know who she really is. And if they knew who she really was, they'd be gone. They wouldn't love her. She thinks she's a flawed human being and isn't worth loving. Her mother killed herself when she was 7 years old, and she was bipolar. Catherine thinks if she's like her mother — she gets married and has children and has a normal, healthy life — she's going to mess it up.

Check out a scene from "Black Box":

One relationship that is steady for Catherine is with her psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave). It's almost motherly.
It is motherly. In Episode 1, you don't really get a chance to know the details of their backstory. It all starts to unravel as the season goes on. Helen Hartramph is a psychiatrist she met when she was 16, when she had her first manic episode. Hartramph is probably the person who saw her gift and her intelligence and steered her to medical school. She probably tried to channel her energies into positive things. Her brother [Joshua, played by David Chisum] is also a wonderful person she can lean on, but outside of her family, Hartramph is the only one she trusts. Without Hartramph, Catherine would be lost.

How would you describe the arc of this first season?
That's what's so great about first seasons — they're quite raw. We're not sure exactly where the show is going to settle, and right now, I don't want it to settle. I want it to be many different things and for the audience to tell us what they want it to be. This is not a show about mental illness, I'll definitely say that. There are episodes that are very focused on the medical cases, wonderful and fantastic and rare cases.

Watch a preview clip of Catherine and her psychiatrist:

What kind of cases will we see?
We have a young man who is misdiagnosed as having schizophrenia, and actually he has a brain tumor. It's the brain tumor that is pushing on the amygdala, and he becomes isolated and talks to himself and hears voices in his head. He also becomes a wonderful artist. It pushes on his creativity. His parents bring him in because he can't stop drawing. Another one is a man gets struck by lightning, and the next day he's a genius violin player. A man hallucinates and becomes convinced that he's dead. A woman hallucinates and sees visions of mermaids and beautiful things, even though she's blind. A man who's a soldier who comes back from Afghanistan, and his arm was blown off, but he feels phantom limb pain. There's a case with a young girl who has rabies, which is a disease of the nervous system, and Catherine has to help her with that. There are many different cases — some are lighthearted, and some are deeply emotional and compelling.

 "Black Box" premieres Thursday, April 24 at 10 p.m. on ABC.

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