‘Special Ops: Lioness’: Michael Kelly Talks Taylor Sheridan Series and the “Toughest Part” of Working With Nicole Kidman & Zoe Saldaña

This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA Strike.

The Big Picture

  • Taylor Sheridan, known for neo-Western dramas, is expanding his storytelling into the world of espionage with his new Paramount+ series, Special Ops: Lioness.
  • The series follows a female-focused undercover CIA team tasked with infiltrating and influencing the loyalties of women connected to male terrorist leaders.
  • Michael Kelly, who plays Donald Westfield, praises the series for its captivating script and powerful female characters, particularly highlighting Laysla De Oliveira’s performance as Cruz.

Following a comprehensive and storied foray through neo-Western dramas and complex thrillers, Taylor Sheridan is opening up another realm of distinctive storytelling with his new Paramount+ series, Special Ops: Lioness. The filmmaker, best known for creating a signature cadence to his stories through Western elements and complex thrills, is delving into the world of espionage, exploring spies and secret agents. Featuring a star-studded cast led by Zoe Saldaña, Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Kelly, the eight-episode series is based on the real-life CIA program, Task Force Lioness created by the U.S. military to contend with women potentially used in terrorist attacks. In an interview with Collider last month ahead of the series premiere, Kelly reveals it’s one of the most “captivating” scripts he’s read in a long time thanks to its female-focused storyline.

Special Ops: Lioness follows Joe (Saldaña), the leader of a female-focused, undercover CIA team tasked with befriending and potentially flipping the loyalties of wives, mothers, girlfriends, and other women in close contact with male terrorist leaders. As Joe attempts to make things right in her unit, the Lioness Program, spearheaded by Kaitlyn Meade (Kidman) and Donald Westfield (Kelly) enlists the aggressive Marine Raider, Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira) to operate undercover alongside Joe. Though Cruz is rough around the edges and running from her own trauma, it’s this characterization that makes for a “powerhouse” performance from Oliveira that Kelly beams about in our interview.

The Emmy-nominated actor, who is a powerhouse himself, best known for House of Cards and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, is no stranger to playing government operatives in TV and film (like, most recently Transformers: Rise of the Beasts). But while his character Donald oversees the program in Special Ops: Lioness, he teases in an exclusive Q&A conducted on June 26 during the WGA strike but before the SAG-AFTRA strike, that there is a lot more to him than viewers will see in the first episode.

Michael Kelly commands a meeting in Special Ops: Lioness
Image via Paramount

COLLIDER: Michael, I’m so excited to talk with you again. I feel like it’s the summer of Michael between Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and Jack Ryan and now Special Ops: Lioness on Paramount+, so that’s got to be fun for you!

MICHAEL KELLY: (Laughs) Oh, I feel so grateful. I’m having a blast, and it’s kind of all perfect timing with us being on strike. I’m like, “Alright, cool. I get to go out and promote the wonderful projects that I was so fortunate enough to be a part of.”

Yeah, and one of the most wonderful projects now is the new one you’ve got coming out on Paramount+ in July. Let’s talk about Special Ops: Lioness, which is inspired by an actual US military program. After watching the premiere and personally reading more about it, it’s incredible how this was constructed and just what the outcomes were. So how much did you know about the real program before signing up for the series?

KELLY: I didn’t. Taylor (Sheridan) pitched it to me. We had a call, and me being the guy that I am who is totally into CIA and the government and politics and everything that I’m into personally in my real life, I was just like, “Oh my God, dude, this is so up my alley,” to show the theater of world politics and what’s really going on. It was just so up my alley. I was like, “I’m in, I’m in, I’m in, I’m in!” And Taylor, I think he’s just a genius. I was so excited.

It’s so funny, I was going to ask you about that because it’s funny that I see you in House of Cards, and then I see you in Jack Ryan and I see there always government operatives in something or the other. So you are a political junkie — you’re somebody who devours that news all the time.

KELLY: Oh, 100%. This is all just setting up my political career. That’s all I’m doing. (Laughs)

Right, of course. So, Taylor Sheridan is known to really create these worlds that are so dynamic, and they’re really involved. What was it about the script that just really drew you to the series besides the politics and these real characters? He really fleshed out these characters in this first episode I got to watch. Were you a fan of his work prior, too?

KELLY: Yes, I was a fan of his work. 100% a fan of his work. We had met before on a different project that I didn’t end up doing, but I think what really drew me to this, besides like we just talked about the CIA and the government and all that kind of stuff, was the fact that this was such a large female-driven, power-driven, female characters running shit. There was something so compelling to me about, not just that, but that you got to see how that sort of thing affects them at home as well as at work and how the two cross over. And I think it’s written so brilliantly where the two worlds are equally fascinating. And going back and forth, you’re just like, “Oh my God, what’s happening now?” But that these women are at the center of it and that they got such incredible actors, from obviously Zoe (Saldaña) and Nicole (Kidman), that everyone’s familiar with, but Laysla (De Oliveira), this girl is a powerhouse, and she shines in this show. I haven’t seen someone pop in a long time, and I just feel grateful to be a part of it in any way, shape, or form.

Nicole Kidman, Michael Kelly and Zoe Saldana in the war room in Special Ops: Lioness
Image via Paramount

It’s really rare, I feel like, to see on TV female-led shows where they’re in these roles that are traditionally male-led roles, like being in the Marines. We’re always thinking about guys, but then there are women who are actually Marines, and we get to see the lives that they led and the missions they were on. It obviously all takes a toll with PTSD and the trauma they’ve experienced.

KELLY: Yeah, you know, I always say the world would be a better place if we let women run a lot more shit. (Laughs)

That’s very true! (Laughs)

KELLY: The show does it, man! And it’s incredible that you have, what you would say is typically your male world, your male show, that is a bunch of women just kicking ass, and it’s so much fun. It’s so good. So good.

I’m excited! Your character Donald Westfield oversees the program with Nicole Kidman’s Kaitlyn Meade, and you made quite an impression in the first episode. So while we see a glimpse of you, what more can we expect, and what can you tell us about Donald and how he operates?

KELLY: You know, he is– Gosh, I don’t wanna say anything you can expect because I don’t wanna ruin anything, but he is a man who obviously cares so much about what he does and gives so much to the cause, so to speak. But he’s really good at what he does as well. So his relationship with Nicole’s character Kaitlyn is, when you see it for the first time, I hope at least, that it’s conveyed the history that the two characters have, that there’s a trust amongst the two of them, that they wholeheartedly trust one another. Because, unlike Kaitlyn, or to a further extent, Westfield has to answer to the higher-ups; you know, the administration, the President and his men, their staffs. That’s the difficult and tricky waters that Westfield has to tread, that she doesn’t have to as much. So it’s a fine balance that he’s having to ride. But ultimately, he does what he believes is the right thing no matter what the consequences are, and I like that about him.

I love seeing that there are all these strong female characters on the show, but you being in the mix with that, you’re sparring basically on screen with Nicole Kidman’s character and Zoe Saldaña’s. What’s it like working with those two and having those sometimes intense scenes?

KELLY: It was incredible. You know, my first day—I’ll tell you, this was really cool—I go in, and I pride myself on being someone who’s always ready. I don’t want to be the guy who ever holds up production because I don’t know the scene as well as I should or my lines as well as I should, or I haven’t thought about everything. So I went to work prepared. Especially as the new guy (laughs). Those girls are executive producing and shit, and I’m just showing up to do the work that I’m doing. And I always bring my sides for rehearsal, and I walk in and the two women, we kind of all come at the same time, and I noticed that neither of them are carrying sides. I sort of take mine and quietly slide them under one of the CIA folders, Top Secret. (Laughs) I was like, “Yeah, I’m gonna put that right here,” because I was ready, but I just always have them, you know? And I was like, “Wow, it’s that kind of set where rehearsal is not about getting to know the scene, rehearsal is about where are you gonna be, where are you gonna be sitting? This is where I’m gonna be sitting.” Just seeing the A game that these women brought to work, it was beautiful, man. I was so thrilled to get in and just play with those girls. They’re amazing.

Michael Kelly in a scene from Special Ops: Lioness
Image via Paramount

Well, you hold your own, I feel like, from what I’ve seen so far, and I know that you’re gonna be able to really develop this character in the next episodes. From the looks of the premiere, I don’t think you’ll be engaging in any other stunts but was there a challenging scene or maybe a moment you shot with your co-stars that ended up being kind of hard or just taking a toll? Because I know you’re very used to doing stunts.

KELLY: I am. I am, and I love it and I miss it. I think what took a toll– Look, I had it easy compared to everybody else. Those guys out there sweating it out in the sun, in the desert, wearing all that gear, I’ve done it. I know what it’s like. It is not easy. It’s fun, but it is not easy. For me, the most challenging part was just getting some of the scenes that I had down to memory because honestly, always the hardest part for me is just memorizing. You would think I’d be better at it doing what I do for a living, but I’m not. So, that was probably the toughest part was jumping in and trying to let go of whatever nerves I had. Being a part of something that I thought was really special and just trying to let it all go and just be, it was difficult but rewarding in the end.

If you could describe this show with a word, what would you say?

KELLY: Mhm. Just one word, I would say captivating or thrilling. One of those. I think the greatest thing about it was getting those scripts, and everyone that I got, ripping through them like it was– I just couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Then having seen the first episode, now I’m like, “Oh my God, it translated to the screen. Exactly that feeling that I had reading it.” And that’s all you can ask for in a show, as far as I’m concerned, is edge-of-your-seat, can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-the-next-minute. You know you’re a part of something special when that happens, and it’s not always.

I’m really excited for everyone to see it. Before I do let you go, I’m having so much fun chatting with you, and I want to keep it in the Paramount family. I want to ask you about Transformers: Rise of the Beasts. I was so excited to see you in those final moments. I was like, “Oh, of course, he would be in this scene. Of course!” So I’m wondering, being like the VIP bridging Transformers to G.I. Joe, what was your reaction when you got that? Especially since it was so top secret leading up to that day.

KELLY: It was so cool because I had met Steven (Caple Jr.), the director, many years ago and we had a coffee in Los Angeles. It was set up by our agents or whatever, you know, “Let’s have coffee with this guy. He’s a great up-and-coming director.” He had just finished doing (Creed II), and I was like, “Yeah, I wanna meet him!” We sat down, and the two of us hit it off, and we talked for like an hour or two. It was years ago, pre-pandemic, and nothing ever came of it. Never talked to him again. And then one day, I get this call out of the blue saying, “Hey, Steven wants to jump on the phone with you. They’re finished with principal photography on Transformers, but he wants to talk to you about an idea he had.” He called me, and he pitched to me what this was in this film, which originally was going to be a post-credits scene, and then they ended up making it the last scene of the film for whatever reason. When he pitched it to me, he was like, “And then there’s this whole G.I. Joe world that we’re not sure that we have the rights to yet, but we really want to tie in the two worlds, and I just think it would be this really cool idea.” When we shot it, we shot it with a couple different cards that I give him. The one that you see is not the only one we shot.

I was just so thrilled to be a part of it. I have an 11-year-old boy, and I was like, “This is gonna be cool when he sees it!” And I thought it would be fun to jump into one of those franchise worlds, especially one that I grew up on, Transformers, G.I. Joe. You know, I’m 54, I grew up with both of those. So for me to be a part of that, it was just, it was thrilling, man. It was really cool, and if nothing else comes of it, nothing else comes of it. But it might! Sounds like they might do something.

I feel like Agent Burke is going to be like the Nick Fury of this cinematic universe where we see a lot more with him.

KELLY: Your lips to God’s ears, your lips to God’s ears, Tania!

Special Ops: Lioness streams Sunday nights at 9 pm EST on Paramount+.

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