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Black Box Star Addresses the Challenges of Portraying Bipolar

By Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Manager

Helmar Cooper, Kelly Reilly, Adraine Lenox and David Ajala in Black Box - © Giovanni Rufino / ABC

After the premiere episode of ABC’s Black Box in April, NAMI spoke with the show’s creator Amy Holden Jones to gain insight on the series’ development. Amy revealed that her father lived with bipolar disorder, and that growing up with that lived experience provided ideas and inspiration for the show, and instilled in her the responsibility of portraying mental illness to the public. Even so, some of our readers thought the show was exploitive and sensationalized.

NAMI wanted to explore the show’s portrayal of a lead character living with bipolar by talking to Kelly Reilly, who plays Dr. Catherine Black, about how she chose to play her role.

Reilly, who has appeared in films like Sherlock Holmes, Flight, Pride and Prejudice and Heaven is Real, admits playing a character with mental illness is challenging, but is extremely passionate about the show and its attempt to accurately represent the experience.

When you were first approached with the role of Catherine Black, a doctor living with bipolar disorder, what were your thoughts?

KR: I had very mixed thoughts. I was so intrigued by this character—I was intrigued by her strength and her weakness—the juxtaposition of the two. In one area of her life she is successful, able and driven, but in the other she can’t show any of that strength. That moved me. I thought, wow, that’s a heavy burden to carry, that’s a heavy, secret life to have and must make someone feel very alone in the world. I think there’s a bravery to living with mental illness; there’s a courage to just kind of move through life day-to-day.

In the months leading up to the filming, how did you prepare for the role?

Black Box became my life. Not just for the six months that we were shooting it, but for the six months before. Firstly, I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to begin, so I just went academic. I read books and got my mind churning—I just read for three straight months. I read Kay Redfield Jamison’s book An Unquiet Mind and it really threw me into the arms of where I wanted Catherine’s sensibilities to lie.

I spoke to so many wonderful and generous people who opened up to me. There was one therapist, who has bipolar disorder and whose mother also died by suicide, much like Catherine. I became incredibly excited; I began to understand why Catherine wouldn’t want to take her medication. The answer was because she didn’t want to numb her feelings. On some level I understood it.

I asked this therapist, “If this was a choice you wouldn’t have it, right?” She said, “Of course not.” Having the illness is not a choice, but it is a choice to stay on the medication and to try and live a more balanced life. And I just think that my character, at this point in season one of our show, is nowhere near that. And I love that because I know where I’ve got to go, where I want to take her.

Have you learned any more about bipolar disorder and the people who are personally affected as you’ve filmed the show?

That has been the thing I’ve learned so much about. That’s the thing that burst my heart and brain open. I have gone on such a personal journey with this character. I’ve found myself in conversations with a community of people who have taught me an incredible amount. By playing in this imaginary world of my show, trying to convey even just a fragment of what it might be like, my heart has opened to things I had no idea about; I realized that I fell into cliché thinking at times.

I think that mental illness is still the most taboo subject in America and there is so much ignorance around it. It became a passion for me. It just meant a great deal to me. I know people who suffer in my life, but I can see what amazing people they are.

Mental illness is definitely still a taboo subject. What role do you believe the entertainment industry plays in raising conversations about mental illness?

This is an industry where if it’s in the wrong hands, it can be put in a color that’s not truthful. Whether a project addresses mental illness, sexuality or violence, it can be misused for entertainment’s sake. I don’t enjoy that, I’ve never enjoyed that. If I think about a subject matter as sensitive and as important as bipolar disorder or mental illness, I want to make sure it’s represented truthfully. I’ve had many conversations with the writers and producers of Black Box about how we were going to deal with a woman who was hypersexual and not make that entertainment.

I had to answer those questions myself as well because if I think about her from the inside, Catherine is enjoying it; she’s addicted to the highs of her mania. But because of her approach and her own feelings of self-worth and feelings of shame, she cannot do that for herself.

When we talked to Amy, she mentioned the challenges of balancing entertainment with integrity—especially on big TV networks.  Can you say whether changes are made to how mental illness is depicted within television to make it more interesting for viewers?

Amy’s father had bipolar disorder and also happened to be a doctor, so she’s writing from the inside. Many of the people who are involved with the show either know people or have relatives and family in their lives that are affected by mental illness. This was not just a group of people who wanted to make a drama about mental illness.

There are arguments that have been made about whether we’ve glamorized her experience. Did we glamorize it? Do we glamorize it? It’s a question, and one that I’m open to, but my answer is God, I hope not. That was never the intention.

What I do know is that I wanted to portray my character truthfully. But it’s not a documentary; this is a character. I wanted to show truthfully how, in the midst of going off her meds, she was joyful. But as we can tell watching it, that’s not joyful, that’s dangerous. She’s running around the street with no shoes on, in a dangerous situation, being aggressive, having sex with a stranger. She doesn’t even know who she really is when she wakes up. In my mind, I don’t think that’s glamorous.

Did Catherine enjoy it? Yeah, but then you see her in the hospital the next day utterly ashamed of herself. But we live and we learn. There are some things that I would have changed about those earlier episodes.  But like any TV show, you’re learning and figuring it out.

What do you hope the audience learns from watching your character develop?

I hope that they feel connected to her. I hope there’s a sense of a journey and that people who have had no experience with bipolar disorder or don’t know what it is, that this could hopefully disturb some of those negative clichés. I want people to see that she is not defined by her illness even though every day is a struggle, but for that, she should be respected and shown compassion, not judgment.

We are only at the beginning of Catherine’s journey. By episode 13 she is in a very different place. You see a very different Catherine. You see her go up, you see her go down, you see her go up, you see her go even further down and then you see her go up again. This is television, so we are making it in 13 weeks. In real life, this could be 13 years.

What kind of feedback have you received by people who have been directly impacted by bipolar disorder?

I’m just really glad to have the opportunity to speak to you. I feel like I do the work, but I don’t get to speak to the community that’s impacted by the topics in this show. I am trying to learn about it and deal with it honestly and with integrity—and that’s something that’s very important to me. As Catherine descends in the later episodes, I hope we are able to do it with a lot more nuance and depth than we were in the earlier episodes. We’re not trying to take advantage of this issue.

I realize that what we are portraying is not everyone’s experience, but hopefully for some they find a connection. I’ve got hundreds of letters since the show started, and some are from people who have found similarities and have sent 12-page letters on their experiences. I’m just so moved by that. And I’m trying to respond to all of them.

What other show is really talking about mental illness in this way? I promise you, if I thought we were doing it wrong I wouldn’t want any part of it.

ABC’s Black Box airs tonight at a new time, 8 p.m., ET.