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‘Special Ops: Lioness’ Star Michael Kelly on Not Going Toe to Toe with Morgan Freeman: ‘He’s God’

[This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike authorization.]

“When I read [the scripts], every single episode I was like, oh my god, just ripping through the pages, and I was so happy to see that translated to the screen as well, that you’re just like on the edge of your seat the whole time,” Michael Kelly told TV Insider of his new thriller Special Ops: Lioness (premiering on July 23 on Paramount+).

Kelly’s Donald Westfield, the deputy director of the CIA, oversees the Lioness Program with Nicole Kidman‘s Kaitlyn Meade; it’s Joe (Zoe Saldaña) who enlists Cruz (Laysla De Oliveira) to go undercover among the power brokers of State terrorism in the agency’s efforts to thwart the next 9/11.

Here, Kelly tells us as much as he can about his character and the show. Plus, watch an exclusive sneak peek from the premiere above.

What should we know about Westfield’s professional past and present?

Michael Kelly: His past is secretive. He is a by-the-book guy, I would say, for the most part. He does have higher ups to answer to obviously within the administration. But there is something about [Joe and Kaitlyn] that he knows if the two of them come to him and propose something, they have a past and they’ve been right — especially his relationship with [Kaitlyn], those two are thick as thieves and there’s a trust there. [Joe] a little less so, but at the same time, he knows she’s a badass as well. They’re going to get the job done.

So he’s more likely to be less by the book for them? Is there anyone else that he might bend the rules for then?

No. I think [with Kaitlyn and Westfield], you can almost see it in that first scene that I’m in that there is a past between these two, that they have each other’s backs. That’s where the lines for him are a little blurrier than they are with him being by the book with everything else.

Are Westfield and Kaitlyn on the same page more often than not? With this program, it seems like they really need to be.

Yeah. If you have a past with someone in the CIA and it’s long, you’re on the same page 99 percent of the time, and I hope that’s evident. Certainly as the story goes on, they have a couple differing opinions, but they know how to get to the end result working together.

Luke Varley/Paramount+

What does Westfield think of the Lioness Program? Due to the nature of it, things are pretty much always going to get complicated.

Right. And I think if he didn’t have the opinion that he has of it, it wouldn’t exist. I think as Deputy Director of the CIA, you have a certain amount of power and obviously he’s behind it and knows that it works. The unfortunate circumstances, the collateral damage that occurs at times is heartbreaking. But in the grand scheme of things, unfortunately, it’s necessary sometimes.

You mentioned that he has superiors he has to report to. How’s that dynamic?

That’s where, for me, it got really exciting because one of the people that I answer to within the administration is Morgan Freeman‘s character [Secretary of State Edwin Mullins]. So you can imagine as an actor how incredible that was, especially having the opportunity to go — I don’t want to say toe to toe with Morgan Freeman because I don’t think anybody can. He’s God. But having the opportunity to share the screen with him of differing opinions was one of the greatest honors of my career.

How much can we trust Westfield?

I trust him wholeheartedly.

How much should those around him trust him?

As far as they could throw him. No, you can’t because one of the things you have to do as an operative for the CIA is you have to lie to other people. You can’t go to the neighbor’s barbecue or your son’s baseball game and be like, ‘Yeah, I blew some s**t up today.’ You can’t go talking about it. So trust within the organization? 100 percent. Trust outside of the organization? You have to lie sometimes.

Are you being general with “your son” or does Westfield have a family?

No, I was speaking very generally. No, we don’t see his family. At least not this year.

Do we hear about a family?

No, we don’t really know a lot about him yet. Hopefully if we’re given the opportunity to do more of these. But no, I don’t have any information about that. I wish I did because I love doing it.

Nicole Kidman, Michael Kelly, and Zoe Saldana in 'Special Ops: Lioness'

Luke Varley/Paramount+

So the focus is really just on his professional life this season?

A hundred percent, for him. For the women, no. I think that’s one of the greatest assets of the show is that you get to see not just powerful women, but powerful women who are doing these jobs that of course it’s going to cost you on the home front. Of course your family is going to suffer. I’ve done that before in a military show, seen it before in military shows, and maybe it’s just I haven’t seen the shows, but I haven’t seen it happen in a CIA show where, how do you not take this kind of thing home with you, if that makes sense. It’s interesting, I think it’s one of the best things about the show is that you see them at home and at work.

Will anything from Westfield’s past come up in a significant way?

I don’t know. I think if you’re doing a good job as an actor, you’re carrying a lot of those answers with you on screen. Whether you physically hear about them or see them, you see this character carrying more than the weight of the situation at times.

What does Westfield see in Cruz?

It’s Joe that sees it in her, and before that it’s a Marine that sees it in her, but much of what you see of her in that first episode is everything that makes her. You see and hear about her entire past all in that first episode, and you see what it takes to make one of these operatives. You see what it takes to create the Lioness, what their background is or must have been to drive them to a place where they’re willing to do what they do, and I think the show explores it so brilliantly.

[De Oliveira does a] brilliant job as an actress to carry it. You see it in her throughout the show. She is a brilliant young actress and one that I think everybody’s going to know about after this show if they didn’t know about her before because she’s dynamite and it takes a lot to play this character. It gets insane. And she is one of the kindest, most lovely persons that I’ve ever met and happy as all get out. She’s just a lovely individual, and I’m so happy for her because she destroys it.

Will you get in on the action this season?

I don’t want to tell you that. No, I can’t tell you that. … That’s a tricky question. Yeah, you don’t want to know.

What’s the biggest challenge for Westfield this season?

I think the balancing act, right? We as an audience learn very quickly what the Lioness is and what the program is and what their operation is. And so it’s the balancing act, I think, of doing the right thing and being able to answer to the higher ups at the same time. Sometimes it takes making a decision that you have to believe in your heart is the right thing and know in your mind is the right thing to do even though it’s going to rattle some cages and shake some feathers. You don’t care. You have to just do what’s right.

What else should people know about this show and Westfield going in?

I think people should know or expect what they expect from Taylor Sheridan. It blows my mind what he’s able to do and how many shows he has and has created and just how he can constantly do all this. If you’re a fan of Yellowstone, if you’re a fan of 1883, 1923, whatever, you’re going to be a fan of this. It’s thrilling. It is a fricking thrill ride and I’m so happy for everyone to see it. I’m so excited for this to get out there. I watched the first episode, and I called my mom and dad. I was like, “Oh my God, it’s so good. You’re going to love it.” Being able to do that, being able to call your family and be like, “Oh my God, you guys are going to freak when you see this”? In my opinion, it really is that good, and I think people are going to freak out.

Special Ops: Lioness, Series Premiere, Sunday, July 23, Paramount+

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