the thing about great fictional characters from literature is that they completely speak to what makes people human.Keira Knightley
Discreetly, quietly, and with the sort of delicate earnestness that she does most things, Keira Knightley has emerged as one of her generation’s preeminent period actresses. This, however, is less a comment on Knightley’s predilection for peddling in corsets in films such as Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007), for which she has earned both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations, and more one on her faithful, almost throwback, workaday sense of what her job is and how to go about it. Knightley’s film career nominally began a very long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—her first role in a major movie was a part as a handmaiden drafted into serving as an expendable double for Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). But in the intervening years, careening between smaller projects like John Maybury’s The Edge of Love (2008) and Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go (2010), and big-budget extravaganzas like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, she has managed to knit together a string of performances that are both emotionally complex and powerfully economical. “I first met Keira when she was 17,” says Wright. “She was a goofy kid then. But she’s always had a fiercely inquisitive nature. It’s been a privilege to bear witness to her development.”
Indeed, there is something distinctly “English” about Knightley’s restraint as an actress that allows her to move naturally between characters and eras and genres—and not just because she’s a born-and-bred Londoner who grew up steeped in the world of British drama folk. (Her mother, Sharman Macdonald, is a playwright and wrote the script for The Edge of Love; her father, Will Knightley, is a veteran stage actor.) If there is a thread that runs through her work, it’s that her characters are frequently tangles of raw nerves: romantics hitched to impossible love; damaged souls searching for liberation; ethereal maidens who don’t want to be saved; psychologically self-plumbing swirls of emotion masked by a kind of hesitant beauty. But Knightley has an ability to construct something solid and substantial out of those vulnerable fragments, whether she’s playing a stylish socialite struggling to come to grips with her own imperfections and her husband’s infidelities (as she did in 2008’s The Duchess) or a young Russian woman drawn into a quasi-sadomasochistic relationship with her psychoanalyst (as she did in last year’s A Dangerous Method). “Keira is a perfect paradox,” says Jude Law, who stars with Knightley in Wright’s new adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, due out this fall “On the one hand, she is a youthful, energized beauty, and on the other, an incredibly experienced, controlled professional.” Adds Steve Carell, who appears opposite Knightley in Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: “I think what sets Keira apart is her ability to convey great strength and great vulnerability at the same time.”
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which hits theaters in June, is about two neighbors (Carell and Knightley) who are drawn together as an asteroid hurtles toward the Earth. The film is a bit of a departure for Knightley—if only because it takes place in a contemporary setting and, as one can imagine, has some comic elements. “Keira has played some incredibly strong women over the years,” says Scafaria. “They’ve been very brave roles, particularly in dramatic pieces. But it was so exciting to see her show this other side of herself, the wild child. She’s fun—and funny.”
David Cronenberg, who directed Knightley in A Dangerous Method, recently caught up with the 27-year-old actress at home in London where she was enjoying some downtime after wrapping Anna Karenina in December.
DAVID CRONENBERG: How are you? Where are you?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: I’m good. I’m in London. I’ve just left somebody in the kitchen making a chicken curry, and I was meant to be helping him, but now I’m not. [laughs] Where are you?
CRONENBERG: I’m in my office in my house in Toronto. So you’re finished shooting Anna Karenina, have you not?
KNIGHTLEY: We finished just before Christmas.
CRONENBERG: Another Russian girl.
KNIGHTLEY: I know! I’m not quite sure what that’s about. I seem to be having a Russian moment. I’ve never even been to Russia.
CRONENBERG: Me neither. You didn’t do a Russian accent for Anna Karenina, did you?
KNIGHTLEY: No, I didn’t, even though you told me that I should. I think you’ll remember at one point in Venice you said, “Go back to Joe [Wright] and have a thick Russian accent.”
CRONENBERG: Yeah, I’m so glad you didn’t, though. I feel very possessive now of both Sabina [Spielrein, Knightley’s character in A Dangerous Method] and you. I can’t bear the idea of you working with other directors. I’m assuming that constantly on the set, secretly you were thinking, Oh, god . . . David wouldn’t have done it that way.
KNIGHTLEY: I was always pining for you. [laughs]
CRONENBERG: So was this version of Anna Karenina done in a big epic way?
KNIGHTLEY: It is sort of done in an epic way, but it was pretty much all done on one set, so it’s also a very stylized, deeply theatrical kind of piece. It was the opposite of A Dangerous Method in some ways, I think, with a million different shots and, you know, there’s just a completely different vibe. Sabina and Anna are not similar, but there is this similar idea of the mind turning against the person, which seems to be a theme in what I’m doing at the moment. But the actual way of making Anna Karenina was completely different from how we made A Dangerous Method.
CRONENBERG: Did you look at any of the other adaptations of Anna Karenina that have been done?
KNIGHTLEY: I saw a couple of versions ages ago. I’ve seen the one that was on TV in England with Helen McCrory playing Anna, and she’s wonderful. I also saw the Greta Garbo version, but years and years ago. I didn’t want to see it again just before I played the part because I thought if I did something similar that I would want it to be an accident, not because I’ve nicked it. But it’s a very strange book, that one . . . I don’t quite understand what Tolstoy’s actual personal view of Anna is—whether he likes her or hates her, whether she’s the heroine or the antiheroine. There are moments where he seems to despise her, and it’s actually a book about a woman who is in some ways despicable, so playing it without trying to make it too nice or without trying to simplify it is actually kind of tricky. I think if it just turns into a romance that it’s not as interesting as the actual story.
CRONENBERG: One could say, “Well, why does it matter what Tolstoy’s point of view was?” But in a way, Tolstoy is the director of the book and Anna is the actress. I’ve been writing a novel myself. I started off my young career thinking I would be a novelist.
KNIGHTLEY: I didn’t know that.
people liked the spanking an awful lot. in england, it was pretty much the only thing i got asked aboutKeira Knightley
CRONENBERG: Yeah. The weird thing is that I find it very much like directing. You’re casting it, you’re dressing everyone, you’re lighting it, you’re finding the locations, you’re figuring out what food they’re eating. So thinking of Tolstoy as the director of his novel and you, the actress, trying to figure out what his attitude is to you. Does Joe Wright then become Tolstoy to you?
KNIGHTLEY: [laughs] Yeah, of course. I think the main thing in trying to do an adaptation of a book this size is determining what point Tolstoy was trying to make with this character. What purpose does this character have? Is the character meant to be seen in a good light or in a bad light? Is there any way we can combine the good and the bad within this person, because that’s going to be more interesting? I think we were constantly questioning things in that way. So, yes, I suppose Joe did become a kind of a Tolstoy character.
CRONENBERG: So now you’ve played two tragic Russian heroines back-to-back-one fictional, one based on a real person. Does that make any difference for you in terms of performance, that one is a well-established fictional character and the other is a kind of ill-defined historical person?
KNIGHTLEY: Well, there’s always the moral question when you’re playing real people. Is there any reason to do this, or are you simply exploiting somebody? Is it like dancing over somebody’s grave? I suppose in a funny kind of way that it’s the same thing with a great fictional character. So many people identify with them. So many people love them in so many different ways. So you don’t want to exploit them either, or take the easy way out by judging them. Or, if you are judging them, then you’re judging them in a way that the person would judge themselves, and not in kind of an outside, moralistic way. What’s nice about playing somebody real is that generally there’s more information about them, so a lot of the questions that you’d otherwise have to make up the answers to are already there. Although, playing Sabina was quite tricky, because there wasn’t that much information about her.
CRONENBERG: Right, there’s a lot more about Anna Karenina available in a very large book, which, strangely enough, makes Anna Karenina seem like more of a real person to a lot of people than Sabina.
KNIGHTLEY: Well, the thing about great fictional characters from literature, and the reason that they’re constantly turned into characters in movies, is that they completely speak to what makes people human. They’re full of flaws as much as they are full of heroics. I think the reason that people love them and hate them so much is because, in some way, they always see a mirror of themselves in them, and you can always understand them on some level. Sometimes it’s a terrifyingly dark mirror that’s held up. I think, in a way, that’s what Anna is. I’m not sure that people would feel the same about Sabina.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, people who are fans of Sabina—and there are quite a few—are so grateful because they feel that she’s been brought back to life.
KNIGHTLEY: Absolutely. I’m probably going to completely misquote her, but she writes in her diary, “My name was Sabina Spielrein,” and “I too was once a human being.” That kept running through my head—that kind of burning for somebody to notice. That always made me feel much better about playing her—because more people will know the name and the story. I think that Sabina herself is quite a polarizing character, and I find it incredibly exciting when people react in that way.
CRONENBERG: You know, I had such a bizarre experience when my movie Crash  was released in England. The tabloid press just went insane for a year, attacking the movie for being perverse and disgusting and “beyond the bounds of depravity”–which kind of pleased me. But you are such a hot topic with the English press. Do you feel like people there view your performances clearly? Do you feel like people can let go of you as a celebrity personality and really experience your performances?
KNIGHTLEY: I don’t really know . . . I think I’d be quite surprised if they could let go of all of that. I don’t really think there’s a real want to . . . I know with A Dangerous Method people liked the spanking an awful lot. [laughs] But I’m not quite sure. It’s weird, though, with the spanking. When we were in Venice, I didn’t get asked about it once in however many days we were there.
CRONENBERG: Me neither.
KNIGHTLEY: And then in Toronto I got asked about it a little bit more. But in England, it was pretty much the only thing I got asked about. I’m not quite sure what that says about the English.
CRONENBERG: Well, I think they like spanking. It might have to do with schoolboy stuff. Having your bare bottom spanked is generally a sort of homoerotic thing in those kinds of schools . . . That’s my interpretation of why spanking is really huge in England.
KNIGHTLEY: Really huge in England. So I’ll shoot that back at whatever journalist asks me about it next.
there’s always the moral question when you’re playing real people. Is there any reason to do this, or are you simply exploiting somebody?Keira Knightley
CRONENBERG: I think you must. But back to you and the press. I remember early in my directorial career suggesting actors for certain roles and hearing from producers and various people, “Oh, no. That person brings too much baggage to that role.” I was quite shocked. This, of course, was before the huge celebrity-culture thing that we’re experiencing now. I found it incredibly disturbing because if the actor’s personal life is informing his or her performance that much, then how can they act? When everybody knows so much about every performer, it’s very hard.
KNIGHTLEY: I totally agree. I hate knowing too much when I’m going to the cinema and watching as a viewer. I don’t want to know that the actor has just gone through a divorce. I don’t want to know that the person is an alcoholic. It just gets in the way of my pleasure of watching the character on the screen. But right now I don’t think you can avoid it. You know, everybody knows absolutely everything, so I wonder whether it suddenly changes what we see—if all of a sudden the stories are suddenly seen in a different light because you have these two realities going on at the same time. I think it does change something—and not for the better. I like watching films when I don’t know anything about the people.
CRONENBERG: This is well-fought ignorance on your part then.
KNIGHTLEY: It is, yes. [laughs] Happily well-fought ignorance.
CRONENBERG: It’s interesting for me because, of course, the actors I work with have done many more movies than I have, so I’m always curious—
KNIGHTLEY: I don’t think so. I IMDb-ed you earlier and you’ve done millions of movies. I didn’t realize how many you’ve done.
CRONENBERG: Well, if I’ve done millions, then you’ve done zillions—and you’re much younger than I am, so you’re definitely going to do more.
KNIGHTLEY: Fair enough.
CRONENBERG: But you’ve also done huge things, like Pirates of the Caribbean . You know, I’ve never done a big Hollywood movie.
KNIGHTLEY: You’ve never done a studio movie?
CRONENBERG: I’ve never done an in-house studio movie. I mean, the closest I’ve come was with A History of Violence , which was actually a New Line project, but at the time I don’t know that people totally accepted New Line as a studio in the same way that Warner Bros. or Universal are studios. Do you think I could function on a big Hollywood movie?
KNIGHTLEY: I think you could function anywhere. But I think when you get to the big ones, it becomes much more difficult to make it such a personal experience. I enjoy making films like A Dangerous Method more because you get so close with the people you’re working with. You rely on everybody on a very personal level, as a team. Bigger films are more difficult because the number of people is so huge. But the thing about working with you is that there’s always a definitive answer—they’re very much your films and you make the decisions. I find it quite difficult on studio films because there are so many different executives and things like that that you have to go through, so very often getting that definitive opinion is actually quite difficult. I always find it much easier when there’s one person whose vision you’re following, as opposed to many people.
CRONENBERG: Well, a benign dictatorship, I think, is what it’s supposed to be on a film set. But Rob Pattinson, who stars in the film I just shot, Cosmopolis, was commenting on that, too. He was saying that because he’s done these Twilight movies, he was sort of astonished that I could just make a decision right there on the set and that was it. But for me, that’s business as usual, of course.
the movie itself has comic moments, but it’s about the end of the world, so obviously IT has an apocalyptic feel to it that’s not that comic, because everybody dies.Keira Knightley
KNIGHTLEY: I think quite often when you have a hell of a lot moremoney and time, as you very much do on a big studio film, you don’tnecessarily have to make the decisions right there. You can always goback and reshoot it.
CRONENBERG: I wonder sometimes where the collapse point is. Is there any pleasure for you in working on something like the Pirates movies, where you’ve got all of this big technology? You’re not exactly a tech geek . . . Or are you?
KNIGHTLEY:If I had to make a choice, it would be to do the performance-basedpieces, which, generally speaking, are the less technical pieces. Whenyou’re working in a space where it’s really about the technical side ofit, then it’s even harder to maintain a performance because you have todo things so many times from so many different angles. It’s actuallysomething that I would like to figure out. I’m quite interested to seewhether you could maintain a high-energy performance in that kind oftechnical arena.
CRONENBERG: Well, eventually you’ll just end up in a motion-capture suit and do the whole performance that way.
KNIGHTLEY: I’m up for that. Would you do that?
CRONENBERG: You bet I would. [Knightley laughs] But in addition to Anna Karenina, I know that you’ve got another film that you’ve done.
KNIGHTLEY: Yeah, I’ve got a film coming out in June called Seeking a Friend for the End of the World—which is about the end of the world, oddly enough. That’s the one I did just before Anna Karenina. That is with Steve Carell.
CRONENBERG: What was that like?
KNIGHTLEY: Well, Steve is absolutely wonderful. I loved his work on Little Miss Sunshine . He has this amazing ability to be incredibly funny but have that pathos at the same time—sort of that crying-clown thing. The movie itself has comic moments, but it’s about the end of the world, so obviously it has an apocalyptic feel to it that’s not that comic, because everybody dies . . . Other than that, though, it’s hilarious. [laughs]
CRONENBERG: So you crammed in yet another movie—with another director.
KNIGHTLEY: I did. I’m sorry. I’m cheating on you all over the place.
CRONENBERG: I know-that’s two. Well, it could add spice to the relationship. I’ve done another movie since A Dangerous Method as well, though, so I guess we’re both guilty.
KNIGHTLEY: I know. You’ve been cheating on me. It’s fine—it’s an open relationship. I think it’s all right.
CRONENBERG: Well, I’ve heard from Newt Gingrich that open marriages are the thing now.
KNIGHTLEY: That’s what Newt Gingrich is saying?
CRONENBERG:Well, apparently his ex-wife says that Newt came to her and said, “I’ve got this mistress, and I think we should all sort of just accept that this is an open marriage.” Of course, he probably wasn’t thinking of his wife taking advantage of the privileges of an open marriage, but he thought that it was quite all right for him to have a couple of ladies and that they should both accept it.
I hate knowing too much when I’m going to the cinema. I don’t want to know that the actor has just gone through a divorce. I don’t want to know that the person is an alcoholic.”Keira Knightley
KNIGHTLEY: Well, that is a problem. If you’re a Republican in America and then you’re also sort of shagging anything that moves—I think that’s always difficult, isn’t it?
CRONENBERG: Except he’s got the right-wing Christian out: “I asked god for forgiveness and he said okay.” [laughs] If you’re a Christian right-wing Republican, then that might make it okay. But the thing is, Newt was the guy who was attacking Bill Clinton for his Monica Lewinsky moment while he himself was having an extramarital affair. So the hypocrisy is rather thick at that point.
KNIGHTLEY: Absolutely extraordinary . . . If only I wasn’t an atheist, I could get away with anything. You’d just ask for forgiveness and then you’d be forgiven. It sounds much better than having to live with guilt.
CRONENBERG: Yeah, but you could always lie about being an atheist. I don’t think an atheist could get elected in America right now.
KNIGHTLEY: No, I don’t think they could either.
CRONENBERG: So you’re not going to be able to run for office.
David Cronenberg’s next film, Cosmopolis, is due out later this year.