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This week, I had the opportunity to speak — quite extensively — with the actress Keira Knightley, whom I have long admired as one of the top talents and beauties working today.
The 26-year-old was here in Toronto to promote David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method, in which she portrays Sabine Spielrein, a Russian woman with serious psychological issues who, in the late 1800s, came between the pioneering psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival two weeks ago, its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last week, is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival throughout this week, and could conceivably bring Knightley the second Oscar nomination of her career.
As I wrote after seeing Method in Telluride: “I was impressed by the fact that she was willing to be so vulnerable on camera… and I think that she could connect with enough people to score an Oscar nod… that is, if [Sony Pictures Classics] and she are willing to… push her in supporting (which looks wide-open this year) instead of lead (which is absolutely packed).”
Knightley is an interesting case study herself. She knew what she wanted to be doing at a very young age (“I asked for an agent when I was three, apparently”), worked throughout most of her childhood (“It was always, sort of, my escape — and, sort of, a secret, because I wasn’t allowed to talk about it at school”), and became a huge star — thanks to starring roles in Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), and Love Actually (2003), all of which were released within roughly one-year time period — in the thick of her teenage years, just as she was trying to find her own identity (“18, 19, 20, 21 is quite a tricky time, I think, in anybody’s life, whether you’re in the public eye or not, so the added thing of being followed around by groups of paparazzi, and being written about, and everything was very strange, particularly when you’re, kind of, going, ‘I don’t know who I am or what I want’ “).
When her work first began to earn her accolades — she became the third youngest woman to ever score a best actress Oscar nod, for Pride & Prejudice (2005) when she was just 20, and two years later starred in a film that scored a best picture Oscar nomination (back when there were only five), Atonement (2007) — she didn’t know what to make of it. “It didn’t make me feel validated at all,” she told me. “I had very low self-confidence… I always believed the negative stuff and I never believed the positive stuff.” Lately, though, she has gotten better about accepting praise and coping with celebrity. And, throughout everything, she has handled herself with nothing but class and grace.
At the moment, there’s really no one else like her. She is a huge international star, but has firmly resolved that she will only live and primarily work in England. Unlike many of her American contemporaries, her only appearances in tabloids can be attributed to the nosy speculation of others (“she’s awfully skinny, isn’t she?”), not any transgression of her own. And she is perhaps the only young actress who can seamlessly traverse between huge popcorn films, like the first three in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003, 2006, 2007), Love Actually, and King Arthur (2004), and pure art-house films like Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Duchess (2008), appearing perfectly at home in both.
It was announced this week that her next project will reunite her with Joe Wright, her director on Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, for another ambitious literary adaptation: Anna Karenina, who has previously been played on the big screen by the likes of Greta Garbo (1935) and Vivien Leigh (1948). Knightley told me, “I mean, it’s a monumental book, and it’s a very hard task. So it’s gonna be great.”
Over the course of our time together, we discussed all of the above, and much more. Here are excerpts of the portions that dealt with her performance in A Dangerous Method…
On preparing for the film: “I’d never heard of Sabine before; obviously I’d heard of Freud and Jung, but I didn’t really know anything about them — I vaguely knew it was about sex and that parents get blamed an awful lot, but apart from that I didn’t really know anything. So as soon as I knew that I was gonna do it I phoned Christopher [Hampton, the screenwriter of both Atonement and Method] and said, ‘Just help, please!'”
The scenes in which her character is hysterical: “I sat in my bathroom for a couple of hours and pulled faces at myself… I wanted it to be distorting; I think it’s important that it was shocking… Actually, reading about it, doing research into it, we took it down quite a few notches than what I think it would have been, because a lot of the stuff that you read — you just think, ‘Nobody would believe it!’ It’s really extreme.”
Almost turning down the film because of the spanking scenes: “When I first read the script, I thought, ‘The script was fascinating, and it’s David, and I really want to work with David, but I read those two scenes and just went, ‘I don’t think that I can do that,’ particularly because it’s the age of the Internet; it’s gonna be everywhere; I don’t want that out there’… I phoned him up to really turn it down… I said to him, ‘Look, I love you, I love the script, I love the character, but I really don’t know that I can play those scenes’… He said, ‘Look, if I’m gonna do them, then they’re gonna be clinical; they’re not gonna be sexy, they’re not gonna be voyeuristic in that way.’ And I thought, ‘Okay, well I can understand that. As long as it’s clinical and it’s not some, sort of, weird sexy spanking thing.'”
Executing the spanking scenes: “There was a box which he hit, so he was nowhere near me, thank God! I did actually say to Michael before one of the scenes — I was like, ‘I’ve got a security guard outside. You touch me and he’s gonna break your legs!’ And he was like, ‘Keira, you’re tied to a bed. You’re not really in a position to say that.’ I said, ‘I guess you’re right.’… [I did] a couple of shots of vodka — definitely — beforehand, and then a couple of glasses of champagne as a celebration of never having to do that again!”
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