History's 'Houdini' Captures the Power of Illusions—and Love (INTERVIEW)

Abracadabra! Bio talks with actress Kristen Connolly, who plays Houdini's wife Bess, in the History mini-series 'Houdini,' which airs Sept. 1st and 2nd.
Publish date:
Houdini History Channel Photo

Unchained Melody: Kristen Connolly plays Houdini's wife Bess, opposite of Adrien Brody who plays the starring role. (Photo: Egon Endreyi)

Magic is like Fight Club. One of the first rules is a magician never reveals how he achieves his sleight of hand. But in the new History Channel's two-night, mini-series, Houdini, the curtain is pulled back on both the tempestuous lives of Harry Houdini (Adrien Brody) and his wife Bess (Kristen Connolly), and the secrets behind some of Houdini's most successful illusions.

"There are quotes from Houdini where he said if anyone knew how simple most of this stuff is that people would be furious," Connolly told Bio in an exclusive interview to promote the premiere of the mini-series. "So much of it is distraction and getting people to look at something else while something incredibly simple is happening just immediately to the side."

Harry Houdini is best known for being an unparalleled escape artist from death-defying stunts. He repeatedly put his life in jeopardy — chaining himself in a tank of water, or hanging from a building wearing a straight jacket — and then managing to get free in the nick of time. But there was much more to the man than his daring do, such as the fact that he worked for the U.S. government as a spy during his travels to Europe; his close relationship with his mother, which led him to spiritualists after her death; and his love for Bess, who was also his first assistant.

Kristen Connolly Houdini Photo

Kristen Connolly as Bess. (Photo: Egon Endreyi)

"He's a fascinating guy. Bess is a fascinating woman, and their relationship is so interesting. There was so much that surprised me and fascinated me about their relationship and about their careers," Connolly says.

Because the Houdinis’ love connection was so strong, both Brody and Connolly were meticulous when it came to their scenes. They spent a great deal of time rehearsing their characters' interactions in order to capture the true nature of their passionate marriage.

"If they were arguing, we wanted to make sure that you still felt that they loved each other," Connolly says. "These two people really were a team and had an enormous amount of love and respect for each other. I think that in making a movie sometimes it can feel exciting to have a fight be a lot of fireworks and a lot of nastiness, but we always wanted to protect the love of their relationship and to make sure that that story was still being told."

Adrien Brody Houdini Photo

Brody with fellow actor Evan Jones, who plays Jim Collins, Houdini's assistant. (Photo: ColinHutton)

There is, obviously, no shortage of materials written about a talent as legendary as Houdini's, but there was also a surprising number of resources available for Connolly to research Bess, including interviews with family members, letters, and more. In fact, the New Jersey-born actress felt she got to know the character so well that she would often talk to the director or Brody when there was something in the script that she felt wasn't in keeping with the woman she had come to know.

"[When you make a film about the story of someone's life], you don't necessarily get every single little fact right, because that's not the point of making one of these movies," Connolly says. "Sometimes with storytelling, the truth is in the bigger picture and not in every single little detail. But I did feel a responsibility to be true to her spirit and what I understood of her as a person."

As previously mentioned, when Houdini's mother -- who was his biggest supporter -- died, he turned to mysticism to try to reach her on the other side. He soon learned that the majority of spiritualists were charlatans and from then on, Houdini made it his life's mission to uncover the frauds, even outing the wife of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a medium, and testifying, along with Bess, before Congress

Houdini History Channel Photo

The cast of Houdini. (Photo: Nels Israelson)

And even though Houdini was never able to find a spiritualist who could get a message through his mother, Bess continued to attend séances for a long time after Houdini died.

"He passed away on Halloween, and Bess would do them every year on Halloween," says Connolly. "Eventually, I don't know how many years later it was, but she finally said, 'It's long enough to wait for any man,' and she didn't do séances anymore."

So, was it possible for Connolly to be in the presence of so much magic and not pick up a trick or two?

"I learned how to do something cool with cards," she says. "[San Diego magician] Tom Interval gave me all the information on that. He taught me one cool way to shuffle cards that looks fancy on film. I don't even know if it made it into the movie… Adrien really carried the bulk of the magic."

See "vintage" Houdini posters of Adrien Brody and Kristen Connolly:

Houdini airs on Monday, September 1st and Tuesday, September 2nd at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HISTORY.