"I met him once," recalled Reilly, who has starred in the TV series "True Detective" and "Black Box" as well as the "Sherlock Holmes" films alongside Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. She first met Pinter when she starred in Blasted at the Royal Court Theatre. "I was probably 23, 25 at the time, and I was sitting in the bar at the Royal Court, having a glass of wine with this man who was very nice. It was only afterwards that someone came up to me and said, 'That was Harold Pinter.' I said, 'What?' I had no idea!"
Mysterious encounters with unknown people is not an unusual occurrence in works by Pinter, a Nobel Prize winner who has also penned The Caretaker, The Homecoming, The Birthday Party and No Man's Land, among many other works and who died in 2008. Throughout his 50 years of writing, his works often were categorized as "comedies of menace" and "memory plays."
In Old Times, Reilly plays Kate, wife to Deeley (Clive Owen) and former roommate of Anna (Eve Best). Kate and Deeley are paid a visit by Anna, and, as the three reminisce about their time together, it becomes clear that all is not as it first appeared.
Best's journey to starring in the play was also a personal one, the Tony-nominated actress revealed. She appeared in another Pinter play, The Homecoming, on Broadway as well as in London, after which she had lunch with the playwright. "The first thing he said to me was, 'Do you know my play Old Times? You have to play Anna,'" Best recalled. "It was very shortly before he died. So when I got the call saying, 'Would you like to play Anna in Old Times?' I said, 'Yes. Absolutely. Of course.' On a personal level, it's really important."
Old Times is an appropriate name for the play's director Douglas Hodge, whose history with the Pinter goes back for decades, and, he said, "almost to the detriment of my career... There were times that I should have done a movie or should have done a film and I just stayed there with him directing or acting."
Hodge and Pinter first met when acting together in No Man's Land, which led to years of collaboration and affection between the two men. Hodge went on to perform in many works by the playwright, including Moonlight, A Kind of Alaska, The Lover, The Collection and Betrayal, and his directorial debut featured two works by the playwright: The Dumb Waiter and Other Pieces.
Hodge, a Tony winner for his performance in the 2010 revival of La Cage aux Folles, is directing on Broadway for the first time, and, he said, still thinks warmly of Pinter.
"I can't find anyone like him anymore," Hodge said. "I miss him hugely. He had a certainty about him. He was unchangeable about certain things. He was a true man of the theatre. He loved the theatre, he loved actors, he was willing to risk all sorts of things. He didn't mind if he couldn't be understood at first. He wanted it to be more poetic, to be more complex. Those sort of things I don't see anywhere else."
Pinter's unique style is clearly portrayed in his plays, many of which are known for their challenging and ambiguous themes, and Old Times is no exception. It's a challenge that Owen, who has never performed in a Pinter play before, said he savors.
"In some ways that's the beauty of great writing," Owen said. "Your job as an actor is to try and live up to really great writing. It's much better to have something that's so beautifully written that you're given so many choices throughout the play on how to calibrate it. And it's much better to have that than a play that you're trying to cover up."
"It's intense. We don't know why it's intense," Best added. "It just is. There aren't any clear or easy answers, and that's part of his power. We can't pin it down and make it nice and tidy and neat and put it in a box with a ribbon and say, 'That's what it's about.'"
"There's something quite ominous happening in this, and he doesn't quite point it out," Reilly said. "We're trying to figure out what that thing happened and actually if it matters if we know or not. If you try to explain this play in just a cerebral way, you'll be lost. It is a play of just guts and instinct."
Another aspect of Pinter's writing that Reilly said she appreciates is the maturity required to play the roles. She has never appeared in one of his plays before, she said, because she didn't possess the life experience necessary to do him justice.
"What we're dealing with is really complicated," she said. "There's something really muscular about the play. I wouldn't have been able to have done it when I was 30. To bring that to the table feels incredibly exciting, and I'm ready to do that. It's equal parts terrifying and exciting... I wouldn't have gotten it when I was younger."
In order to brave the requirements of Old Times, Hodge knew he needed a trio of strong actors, and Best, Reilly and Owen were at the top of his list — "the perfect cast."
"I went to a meeting and said, 'I'd like Clive Owen, Kelly Reilly and Eve Best.' And they all said yes," he said. "Harold spoke to Eve Best just before he died and said, 'You must play this part.' I know she was his choice. I spoke to Antonia, his widow. And, they couldn't be sexier, either. The whole thing is about desire and need."
Hodge's history with Pinter, whom he described as a father figure, is an asset to the cast, Best said, describing rehearsals as like having a "hotline" to the playwright.
But despite Pinter having passed away, Hodge isn't done working with him. He said he'd like to direct all of the playwright's works, especially Betrayal and The Caretaker.
"I'd love to act in The Caretaker. I'd love to play that tramp. That might come at some point later in my life. I'm too young, hopefully!"