ABOVE: KEIRA KNIGHTLEY IN A DANGEROUS METHOD. IMAGE COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
A cursory glance at A Dangerous Method, a period piece set in Zurich and Vienna about the origins of psychoanalysis, reveals the familiar signs of the stuffy costume drama. But something is bubbling under the surface, and it comes raging to ground level from the most unlikely of places—Keira Knightley, the princess of period pieces, subverting her prim and proper image. From the moment she enters the frame, limbs flailing, jaw unhinged, it’s clear this is not your typical heroine from a classic novel. It’s an attention-grabbing introduction, sending a surge through the audience.
As Sabina Spielrein, the former patient of Carl Jung who becomes an influence not only on him, but also on his colleague Sigmund Freud and the development of “the talking cure,” Knightley’s performance will certainly be recognized among the best of the year. Interview spoke with Knightley about research, portraying hysteria on film, and her upcoming role in Anna Karenina.
CRAIG HUBERT: What interested you in the role of Sabina?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: Everything. I didn’t know anything about her. I got sent the script and I just thought the story was completely fascinating. Obviously, I had heard of Freud and Jung, but I had never read anything about them really, and again, I didn’t know anything about their relationship either. So the whole thing fascinated me.
HUBERT: When you’re playing a role based on a real person, do you approach it differently than you would a character more fictitious?
KNIGHTLEY: No, not really. I mean, I think sometimes it’s sort of easier because there’s quite often a lot more information, you’re not making it up, it’s there in books, it’s there in research form. But really the questions you ask about the character, and why people behave, and where they come, and how they’ve ended up in the places they’ve ended up [are the same].
HUBERT: You mentioned the research—how much research goes into a role like this?
KNIGHTLEY: As much as you want, really, but I had about four months before I started shooting when I knew that I was going to play the role. So I basically spent that four months reading as much as I could. When I’d taken the part, and when we’d gotten a yes from everybody, the first thing I did was phone up Christopher Hampton, who wrote the script, and the play, and also wrote Atonement, which I was in. I phoned him and just [said], “I’m playing it, but help!” I went to his house, and he just handed me an enormous pile of books, and said, “Start reading.” So I dutifully did. You know, it was wonderful, it was a load of books I probably wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t had a reason to read, and they were completely inspiring and enriching and very helpful for playing this part.
HUBERT: So it seems like you do a lot of research. Is that normal for you, or does it depend on the role?
KNIGHTLEY: I mean, it really does depend on the role. It’s what’s helpful, because some roles you get very quickly or you intrinsically know exactly what they are; sometimes research isn’t needed. And then there are others where you think, “Okay, I want to look into this as much as I possibly can.” With this one, because of the subject matter, and because of the nature of the character, it really was something that I didn’t understand at all. I think quite often when you play characters, there’s a thread that links you to the character emotionally, and you can go, “Yeah, I kind of understand that.” Whereas with this one, I didn’t really understand it. It was sort of based on that, and also, it’s just such a fascinating topic. It was a complete pleasure to do as much reading as possible about it.
HUBERT: Your introduction to the film is jarring, and you are quite hysterical in the scene. Were you ever nervous about playing some of those scenes, which can be quite brutal to watch?
KNIGHTLEY: It’s a tricky one when you’re playing somebody who is mad. There’s often the big actor’s question, if you’re playing a part like that: do you take it to be an internalized thing, pull the audience in, or do you go full-out, and kind of present it as quite a shocking thing? I think in talking to David, that’s what he wanted. Also, the nature of hysteria, which is something that hasn’t—or at least I haven’t seen it—been portrayed on film. It’s a very high, energized thing, it’s not like depression, which is low-energy and very much internalized; it’s something that is exploding out in every direction. So we kind of thought that we had to be truthful to the actual condition that she’s suffering from, and therefore had to go quite far. Weirdly, in doing research, I don’t think we went as far as it actually went. I don’t think people would have bought it if we had actually went as far as some of things I read, you know? So it is slightly under perhaps what it would have been in reality.HUBERT: You mentioned David Cronenberg. What was your working relationship like?
KNIGHTLEY: He’s just wonderful. He’s like a horse whisperer: you don’t quite know how he’s doing it, or what exactly he’s doing, but you know that it’s happening. You know, he just creates the most extraordinary atmosphere on set. I think, often, sets are very tense places. They’re sort of like start-up businesses all the time, and run on the edge of chaos, which sometimes can be really helpful. When you’re stepping on to Cronenberg’s set, partly I think because he’s worked with the same crew, some of them, I think, for nearly 30 years, it’s like a really well-oiled machine. It’s absolutely calm, and so it’s like a completely different vibe. It’s incredibly supportive, incredibly creative, and people get their work done. I think that goes into why people feel like they can go in any of these different directions and are quite brave with the choices that they make.
HUBERT: How familiar were you with his work?
KNIGHTLEY: I haven’t seen all his movies, but I’ve seen quite a lot of them, enough to know that I loved his work. I’d seen Crash, and A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, Dead Ringers, stuff like that. He’s completely brilliant. I think it’s his taste, because in some points he goes further than other filmmakers go, he can be really extreme; but he knows exactly when to go that far, and when to actually keep things held back. Which is why, I think, playing a character like this, I felt completely safe going, “Okay, I can go all out.” Because I know if he doesn’t want that he can pull it back.
HUBERT: I imagine, even though he is a wonderful director, when you get a script from David Cronenberg, there might be a bit of trepidation.
KNIGHTLEY: I was just excited, and felt incredibly privileged that he asked me to play in any of his films, let alone a role like this. I instantly felt like we were in safe hands. It was very difficult material, and in lesser hands if could have been quite tricky; but in his it seemed like such a perfect fit. All of his films I’ve seen—and what I hear, most of the films—have a deeply psychological thread within in. It seemed like a perfect fit that he would direct a film about Freud and Jung.
HUBERT: How did you handle the transformation of Sabina in the film? She enters hysterical, and comes out a rather calming presence.
KNIGHTLEY: The therapy scenes were shot pretty much first, which was really helpful, because then you knew how far we were going, and therefore how to moderate the rest of it. I always thought she became functional in society, which is a huge thing given that she had given up on herself and everybody else had given up around her, so the fact that she managed to do what she did was extraordinary. But I don’t necessarily know if she was ever well, or that she ever completely got over what had happened to her. I think that was one of the major decisions that we made, the idea that there wasn’t some miraculous cure, that suddenly everything was fine and none of that mattered. It was something she lived with and struggled with the whole time. The amazing thing was the side of her who was in control and could create these ideas that could inspire Freud and Jung took the place of the side that was the destructive, ill side of her. But I do think they were in constant battle. We had a lot of discussion about at what point things flare up, and at what point does she wrestle them down.
HUBERT: Many of your scenes are with Michael Fassbender, playing Jung. What was your working relationship like with him?
KNIGHTLEY: He’s just wicked. He’s hilarious. Michael and Viggo are brilliant. Like I said, it was very focused when we were on set, but when we were off set, it was the World Cup, so we were just kind of watching soccer in various German bars the whole time, which was just brilliant. They’re a wonderful group of people, and Michael is just fucking extraordinary.
HUBERT: Now that the film is coming out, and you have finished with the role on screen, is this a subject that stays with you? Do you continue to pursue subjects after you’ve finished with them, or do they finish when the film wraps?
KNIGHTLEY: No, I’ve forgotten most of it. It’s really awful. The other thing is, when you’re doing research for something specific, you’re only taking things that are specifically helpful for what you’re looking at, you know? So everything else around it I’ve pretty much forgotten. Which is a real shame, because it is fascinating. But no, I’ve forgotten everything. [laughs]
HUBERT: So it’s something you might pick up again?
KNIGHTLEY: You know, I only read about 1904 and 1913, so my knowledge of this subject stops at 1913. So I would actually at some point actually quite like to see what’s happened with the rest of the field. In the last hundred years or so. [laughs]
HUBERT: I wanted to ask you about two upcoming projects you have. The first, Anna Karenina, you’re shooting now. How is that going?
KNIGHTLEY: It’s going. [laughs] It’s very exciting. We’re right in the middle of it. It’s totally different than this; it’s a very, very stylized version of it, and she’s a tricky character. I remember reading it as a teenager and just seeing the romance of it. Then all of a sudden I read it over the summer, and thought, “Wow. Sometimes Tolstoy actually hates her quite a lot. Is she the heroine or the anti-heroine?” It’s an interesting thing, with all of us, we’re sort of grappling with those ideas. You don’t want to simplify anything, because it should be an exploration of somebody who breaks their own moral code, and what happens when you break your own moral code. It’s really interesting, and fingers crossed it will work.
HUBERT: I also wanted to ask about Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, where you worked with Steve Carell. How was that experience?
KNIGHTLEY: I love Steve Carell; he is one of the most loveliest men on earth. It was my attempt, given that my work seems to be going from dark, to dark, to darker, to do something a little bit light. And then my friend said, “What’s it about?” And I said, “The end of the world.” So I’ve managed to go a tiny bit lighter, but it is about the end of everything.
A DANGEROUS METHOD IS OUT WEDNESDAY IN NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES.