SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers for “Yellowstone” Season 5.
One of the biggest surprises on this season of “Yellowstone” is the introduction of Clara, played by Lilli Kay. The trusted assistant to now-Governor John Dutton (Kevin Costner), who fired everyone but her once he took control, has a firm push and pull with her boss, giving him pro tips about government even when he doesn’t want to hear them. Kay, who also appeared in series such as “Your Honor” and “Chambers,” has fit in quickly on the show, as comfortable in the halls of the state capitol as she is on horseback.
In the wake of the show’s mid-season finale, Variety spoke with Kay about the joys of working alongside a Hollywood legend, how “Yellowstone” is a unique family affair and how she ended up in the series’ first LGBTQ kissing scene.
Was it daunting coming into a show that has such an established cast and having your scene partner most of the time be Kevin Costner?
It was absolutely terrifying. I was shaking on my first day with him, because I also had no idea what he would be like. You have these people who are so massive in the history of cinema, and you’re going, “OK, I have no idea what kind of human being this person is and how they work, what they’re like in a work environment.” He was just the kindest, most generous scene partner I could have asked for. So I got very lucky and my fear and starstruck-ness gradually melted away.
Given that he’s such a legend, did you talk with Kevin at all about process or did he offer any advice?
He loved talking about really getting into the scenes before we would shoot them, which was wonderful. You don’t necessarily expect someone who is so established to be so collaborative, but he really was and he really wanted to get into everything. To me, that’s just a huge thing to learn from and to take away: Not to be afraid to have those conversations, because they make the work better and not to be intimidated by someone who’s been working longer than you have.
Why do you think that John trusted Clara when he cleaned house in the government?
I was wondering that at first, because I thought, “How did she manage to sneak by this complete decapitation of the entire group?” I honestly think it comes down to the fact that she has shown that she can hang, she can roll with him and that she’s not entirely put off by his unconventional approach to things. She’s willing to be flexible and I think she gets more and more flexible as the season progresses. But she’s shown that she can be leaned on and that she’s not going to try to get him to yield completely or change his approach; that appeals to him, for sure.
Conversely, what about John appealed to Clara?
He has a really firm set of values that he adheres to. He’s very unyielding and will work towards it no matter what. Not a lot of politicians come into it not wanting to play a game, but wanting to fight for something they believe is right. I think a lot of people pretend to do that, but she sees in him a person who’s actually willing to do that and who is unapologetically and authentically himself, which again, not a lot of politicians tend to be. She begins to aspire to that and to look up to that. They sort of end up meeting in the middle. She’ll drag him to a meeting and, in the meantime, we’ll also learn from him that you don’t have to play the game as prescribed; rather, you can take a departure.
There’s a great moment in the mid-season finale where John says he’s going to teach Clara how to fight with “menace.” Do you think we’ll get to see their partnership grow more in that direction in the back half of this season?
I hope so. I don’t know anything yet, but I’m excited. I think she’s already grown so much and I would love her to get her hands a little dirty.
Your father (director Stephen Kay) and stepmother (Piper Perabo, who portrays Summer) both work on “Yellowstone.” What’s the best part of that dynamic and are there any unique challenges?
As nervous as I was on the first day to act with Kevin, I was equally nervous to act in front of my father. We’ve never worked together really. I hold him in such high esteem and think he’s so wonderful at his job that I was absolutely terrified. But ultimately he’s so wonderful at what he does, it was just really a gift to get to do that together. There were so many days that I just couldn’t believe that I got to do this with someone who I admire and love so much. So it was definitely nerve-wracking just because I want him to be proud of me. But other than that, it was just a total treat.
You’re so natural riding on the show. How much experience on horses do you have?
I started riding when I was about six years old. I was nonstop until I went to college; since then, I’ve unfortunately had very little opportunity to ride. But I take every chance I can get. And this role was such a cool way to merge those two big loves in my life. It’s such a great thing because being on a horse is one of the places I feel the most comfortable, so I think it puts me at ease. It was such a cool experience to be around so many people who had that love and also the love for movies and storytelling.
You were a part of the first LGBTQ kiss on “Yellowstone,” which seemed like an especially big milestone given that the show attracts a lot of different audiences that might not see moments like that regularly. How did that come about and were there any discussions about how it might be received?
It came about kind of accidentally. I was in Montana with my partner and we were trying to figure out… It was just written [in the script] that I was making out with someone. We were going, “Well, who can you bring in for one day who’s comfortable to make out with, who’s in the [COVID] testing cycle?” We thought about it and I said to my partner, “Is that something you’d be comfortable with?” Because the idea had been thrown out there. And they said, “Yeah, for sure,” and so it worked out that way.
I’m really grateful that nobody was going, “Oh well, how is this going to be? We’ve got to tiptoe… How is this going to be received?” Everybody was very loving and supportive and didn’t make a fuss about it, which I think is hopefully the direction that we’re headed in.
I remember seeing something about it where somebody wrote that, “A lesbian kiss just came out of nowhere.” What do you mean? It doesn’t have to come out of anywhere! Queer people exist. We’re in the world and to just treat it like she’s just in the background and making out… I think that’s something good. To me, it felt nice not to have a lot of fanfare around how it was going to be received.
After the episode aired, what were the reactions from fans and the LGBTQ community, from your vantage?
The fans of the show have been really lovely and it’s fun to hear what they think and how they respond to things because they’re so passionate. It’s been really fun. I’ve gotten a lot of friends texting with their friends or texting with their partners going like, “Oh my God… lesbians made it onto the ranch!” There are so many queer women who are cowgirls. And you know what? Let them out. Let’s enjoy. I was excited and I think people shared that excitement.
This interview has been edited and condensed.