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Michael Kelly Discusses His Role as CIA Deputy Director Byron Westfield on ‘Special Ops: Lioness’

Actor and Emmy Award nominee Michael Kelly joins us to discuss his role in the hit Paramount+ espionage series ‘Special Ops: Lioness.’



“Special Ops: Lioness” poster

From Academy Award nominee Taylor Sheridan, the espionage thriller Special Ops: Lioness features a star-studded cast, including series lead and executive producer Zoe Saldaña, Laysla De Oliveira (whom we interview here), Emmy Award nominee Michael Kelly, with Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, and Academy Award winner and executive producer Nicole Kidman. Special Ops: Lioness, a series produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and 101 Studios, debuted on Paramount+ last summer. It was the streamer’s #1 most-watched global series premiere on launch day. Special Ops: Lioness is now available on Blu-ray™ and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment as a 3-disc set that includes all eight episodes and over 90 minutes of bonus content, including two new featurettes and behind-the-scenes of every episode!

Lioness is a show based on a real-life CIA program. It follows Cruz Manuelos (De Oliveira), a rough-around-the-edges but passionate young Marine recruited to join the CIA’s Lioness Engagement Team to help bring down a terrorist organization from within. Zoe Saldaña plays Joe, the station chief of the Lioness program tasked with training, managing, and leading her female undercover operatives. The series is astounding and ranks amongst the best of the year. Lioness also features series regulars Dave Annable, Jill Wagner, LaMonica Garrett, James Jordan, Austin Hébert, Jonah Wharton, Stephanie Nur, and Hannah Love Lanier.

Answering to U.S. Secretary of State Edwin Mullins (played by Morgan Freeman), Michael Kelly’s CIA Deputy Director Byron Westfield manages Kaitlyn Meade (Nicole Kidman), and her team of Lioness special operatives. The series starts with a bang and never lets up. Special Ops: Lioness is the newest addition to Taylor Sheridan’s growing oeuvre of captivating television. Sheridan’s work includes Yellowstone, 1923, 1883, Mayor Of Kingstown, Tulsa King, and the upcoming series Lawman: Bass Reeves and Land Man.

Special Ops: Season 1 Special Features:

Go undercover with the stars of Special Ops: Lioness with a behind-the-scenes look into the heart of The Lioness program, inspired by an actual U.S. Military program. Special Ops: Lioness includes behind-the-scenes episodes and two brand-new featurettes. Dive into interviews with the star-studded cast, get an immersive glimpse into the intricate world of the Lioness program, and explore the rigorous training required to make the series as authentic as possible.

  • Embedded With Special Ops: Lioness
  • Battle Forged Calm: Tactics & Training

We thank Michael Kelly for taking the time last week to field a few questions for V13 Media. The audio is available via SoundCloud, and the video via YouTube if you’d prefer to hear Kelly’s answers in real time.

Is Special Ops Lioness the first Taylor Sheridan property you’ve been involved with?

Michael Kelly: “Yeah. A few years back I had auditioned for the movie with Angelina Jolie about the forest fires (Those Who Wish Me Dead). And they said, well, Taylor’s having callbacks and they want you to come to L.A., but they’re not flying anyone. And I was like, I don’t do that. If they want to see me, they can fly me out. That’s always been my thing. I just was like, I’m not going to do that. It’s a studio, it’s not the person’s money.

“And anyway, a long story short, I flew myself out. I was like, I wanted to meet him. I wanted to meet him really badly. I’m such a fan of his and I met him, and I didn’t end up getting the role. But then when this came up, my name came up in front of him for Lioness; he told me he was just like, ‘Yeah, that’s my guy.’ And so it’s kind of cool to see three years later or whatever it was, three or four years after it just came back full circle. And I was really grateful. I love the guy. I think he’s incredible.”

Were you cast early in the process of putting the show together?

“I don’t know who got cast when. I know when I jumped on that Nicole and Zoe were definitely on. I didn’t know Morgan or Bruce McGill or Jennifer Ehle were until I got to Mallorca, and I was like, ‘Wait, what, are you shitting me?’ Like I thought I was going to be acting with, you know, we were shooting some of it in Baltimore, and I thought they were going to do local hires for those roles. And when I got to my Mallorca, I was just like, oh my God, Morgan Freeman, you know, just blew me away.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

When you first read a script, what are the types of things that you’re looking for when you’re just looking at a PDF or the printed page?

“When a project comes to me, when my manager or agent calls, he’s like, ‘Here’s the deal. They’re thinking about you for this role, and what do you think?’ And I’m very grateful for this; my manager and I decided early in my career that we would not make decisions based on money. We would make decisions based on people we wanted to work with, from directors or writers or actors or whatever it might be. Something about the project was appealing; let’s work with good people and do good work. So when this one came, it was: you had everything; you had the director, you had the writers, and you had the best actors. This one was a really easy decision.”

What most appealed to you about the role of playing a CIA deputy director?

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve been in the CIA world with Jack Ryan. I find all that stuff fascinating. I find politics, in general, fascinating. I find Washington, D.C., fascinating. So, for me, it was Taylor. When it came to me, I was just like, this is a Taylor Sheridan project, and I’ve yet to see Taylor Sheridan make a bad project. So this is going to be really cool. You know, it’s shows that I like. If I’m surfing through the streamers, I’m looking for a cool CIA thing. I just love it, you know? Or a political thriller or what have you. I’m really into that. There’s just something, I don’t know, it’s that little kid in you that goes back to Tom Clancy and stuff like that. Maybe it’s a part of the kid in me. I don’t know.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

What comes to mind when you think of your first day on set?

“Absolute A-game. I was blown away. Like, I always carry my sides to set. And this was one of those, you know, set up around a long table with Zoe, Nicole, and Tyler, the four of us. The scene was pages long. And you’d usually just carry your sides to rehearsal. And I get in there, and I’m there early. I’m sitting at the table waiting for everybody else, and I’m just flipping through my sides. I knew it; like, I worked my ass off on it. And I knew, you know, your first day, you’ve got to go in really prepared. And I see Nicole and Zoe both walking in without sides. And I take my sides, and I quickly stick them under my CIA folder. I was like, I’m not going to be the only guy here with them.

“It was just how absolutely A-game it was. Everyone was prepared; it was so nice to see. From the cinematographer to the A camera operator and the B camera operator, everybody came ready to play. And it was really cool. It’s a fun way to work, man. But it really struck me as, like, wow, nobody’s messing around here. This is really cool.”

Your character Byron doesn’t smile much in the show. It mustn’t have been like that off-screen when the camera wasn’t rolling, right?

“No, I try to be myself as much as possible when they say cut, you know? And Nicole’s actually funny and Zoe’s funny and, you know, we had a good time. We had a really good time. But I would say overall, especially once Morgan got there, it was a pretty serious set. Not to say Morgan can’t be funny because he is. Still, it was a pretty serious set because it’s pretty serious material, and everybody had a lot to say in those scenes. They were very long scenes, so everybody was pretty serious. But I can’t not be me, man. I always play these guys who never smile. And I never stop smiling myself. So it’s kind of funny. For me, it’s a change.”

Your roles in shows like Lioness, Jack Ryan, and House of Cards are so natural. One could almost believe that you work a government job when you’re not acting, you know?

“I joke that this is all in preparation for my political career. But no, you know, I love it. I love these characters, I love that world, and I love going to D.C. I lobby on the hill for seniors and the military, I engage with Republicans and Democrats alike on these issues, and I get a real kick out of it, man. And I get a real kick out of seeing how our government works. It’s just something that’s always been engaging to me.”

Do you have a process that you adhere to when you’re playing a person of authority?

“No. I mean, I think for me, it’s weird. I don’t want to say, ‘Oh, it just comes to me.’ I don’t mean it like that. I mean, like, through the work and through reading this script. For me, it takes forever to memorize. So I’ve got to read that script so many times for all of it to sink in. It just takes me a long time. And so I think through that everything just falls into place. The more you read it, the more you ask questions, the more your questions are answered, and you’ve figured out what’s really being said and all the layers underneath. And how you feel about each person in the room.

“It comes to me just by doing a lot of work, you know, a lot of work. I’ve got friends who can literally pick up a script and be like, ‘Alright, I’m good, let’s go.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it takes me months of prep work.’”

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

“Special Ops: Lioness” still

Is there any indication that there are going to be more episodes of Lioness? Are they talking about a second season?

“I haven’t heard. I know just from the people I was around while I was doing it that everybody would love to do more because it’s so much fun, and you get to speak this incredible dialogue that’s so well written that it’s just a treat as an actor. So I think everybody was like, ‘God, I hope we do more of these,’ you know? I think the (writers) strike sort of derailed everything. And, you know, my guess is in the next month or two, we’re going to find out a lot about a lot, you know?

“A lot of projects that were going, and then maybe going to go, or not going to go. I think studios are back on it. You know, the strike ended, and then the holidays happened. And now I think people are returning to things and just being like, ‘Alright, what are we doing?’ So, I hope for some clarity in the next month or two. We’ll see.”

You walked away from a career in law to pursue acting. How tough was that decision?

“Well, I never quite got my career in law, but I walked away from the study of it because I was so in love with what I was learning as an actor. And I thought, ‘Shit, if I could make a living doing this, this would be really cool.’ It took a long time, but I was able to. And who knows, maybe with all these government jobs, I’m going to end up going back to law one day. Right now, though, I’m having a pretty good time. I think I’ll stay with this.”

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

“Special Ops: Lioness” poster artwork

Do you have any aspirations to work behind the scenes in Hollywood? Like producing, writing, directing, or playing music?

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve done music in my career. I was a musician. I played in several bands in the city. But I don’t want to follow that avenue anymore. Directing, maybe. I was hired to direct during the final season of House of Cards, one of the episodes there. And I haven’t pursued it since. I didn’t end up doing it because when the whole thing happened… When the shit hit the fan there, we went from 13 episodes down to 8. And so I didn’t end up directing. I was one of the ones who did not direct that season. I got paid for it but didn’t get to do it.

“So, I do have aspirations, but I wouldn’t want to do it unless it was a show I was on for more than one season because you get that understanding. My dear friend may rest in peace, the A-camera operator on House of Cards, Gary Jay. He was very encouraging to me. And he said, early in season 3, he said, you need to direct, buddy. Because I was always asking questions. I was like, what are we doing? What’s this shot? Why are you doing it like that? What’s this? And he was just like, ‘Now you know what you’re doing.’ We were in season 5 or whatever and he’s like, ‘Throw your hat in the ring, man. I want you; I’ll go to bat for you.’

“And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I can’t say, you know, throw a 24 (mm) on here.’ And he was like, ‘First of all, yes, you can. But second of all, that’s why you have me. You don’t have to say anything; you don’t have to know what lens it is. Just say, I want it to look like this because you know what you want.’

“And I said, ‘I think I know what I want because it’s House of Cards, and I’ve been there for so long, and I know it so well.’ So I wouldn’t feel comfortable if someone approached me and said, ‘Can you come direct season 1 of a show that you’re not in?’ I don’t have any desire to do that.

“It would be something that I’m involved in. Or a project that I was so passionate about that I wrote maybe that I was like I have to direct this because I see every frame of it already, you know?”