At just 22 Keira Knightley has done more than most actresses have in a lifetime. She took the jump from indie thesp to worldwide star by landing the role of Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and spent much of the promotion for that film twiddling her thumbs as a bunch of hardened journalists stayed away, convinced it was going to come of nothing.
Such is the power of her celebrity that it can be easy to forget she acts too, but when an Oscar nomination beckoned for her role as another Elizabeth – Bennet – in Joe Wright‘s take on Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice she became the third youngest woman ever to get a Best Actress nod and those who’d sat on the fence in the past began to take her seriously as a true acting talent.
These days, sitting down with the young actress one-on-one is a rare occurrence restricted to journo heavyweights for high-profile magazines and newspapers – Knightley always rates the cover and no-doubt pushes circulations up – so when Rotten Tomatoes was offered the opportunity to do just that, we leapt at it, excited as we were to grille her on perhaps her finest performance to date, reteaming with Wright for his adaptation of Ian McEwan‘s wartime bestseller, Atonement.
Had you read Atonement before you took the film?
Keira Knightley: Not before I took the film, no, but before I started filming, yes. I actually read the script first and cried, and I think anything that makes you cry is definitely worth pursuing. So then I read the book and I think it’s a bit of a dream for any actress to be able to play those characters; I think Ian McEwan draws his characters so brilliantly. It’s like a blueprint and really all I had to do was follow it.
What was it about Cecilia that grabbed you?
KK: I don’t know, I just fell in love with her completely. I think very often in films you either get these very good or very bad characters and I was interested that she’s not particularly nice at the beginning of it. I don’t think that means she’s a nasty person, I think she’s probably a very good person, I think she’s just having one of those days where she’s being ratty with everyone and everything is annoying her.
I was sort-of interested in playing this person who is, I think, emotionally rather repressed. She’s got a lot of things bubbling around inside her and she’s sort-of like a pressure cooker, but she doesn’t really know why. She’s from this incredibly privileged background but she’s directionless. I just thought it was fascinating, completely fascinating.
It’s also a challenging role for any actress; when you take on a challenge like that does it help to have a history with your director, as you have with Joe?
KK: Yes, I think it does, I think he’s a brilliant director. I think the fact that he’s a mate of mine and that he creates a really lovely atmosphere on set is personally what I like; I like working like that, I like working in a relaxed atmosphere. For me personally it’s sort-of conducive to better work, or to feeling that you can explore more. Or to not feeling so self-conscious! So yeah, it did help, definitely.
Is there more room for creativity on a project of this scale by comparison to Pirates?
KK: Of course. Of course there is. I think Pirates of the Caribbean is wonderful, it’s pure entertainment, it’s like a glass of champagne. And it’s totally fabulous escapism and totally relevant for that fact. This is something that’s quite different. It’s really trying to provoke emotional responses from people. It is really trying to take out your heart and trample all over it, really.
And, you know, creatively, on something like Pirates, it’s about the spectacle of the entire thing; it’s about the explosions, it’s about the fight sequences. As it should be. But you’re not really having huge conversations about exactly what, emotionally, we’re going through here. It’s not the point of it. It is the point of this, and so it did mean that it was… I sound like such a wanker saying this, but it was creatively really, really wonderful and really exciting. And hugely rewarding, as well.
Are these the sorts of roles that are interesting you as your career develops?
KK: I think entertainment is important; everyone wants that glass of champagne occasionally, and that’s great in a movie and it shouldn’t be taken away. Escapism is wonderful. At that particularly point, yeah, maybe I wanted to do this as an antidote to Pirates – I’d been on it so long that I wanted to explore something else. But if you can possibly do both – if you’re lucky enough to be able to do both – then obviously that’s the best of both worlds.
The Edge of Love is shaping up to be an interesting film; how has it been to have had the opportunity to perform your mother’s screenplay?
KK: It’s absolutely amazing; completely amazing. Her work is something that I’ve grown up with; it’s always been a part of everything in my life. To be able to perform it was completely, completely extraordinary. And fingers crossed it’ll make a good film!
Do you feel a bit of added pressure when you’re dealing with her words?
KK: No, you know what, her script was completely wonderful. You never know what’s going to work; you can have the best script, the best director and the best cast and still, for some reason, it’s just not going to gel. Hopefully this one has, I think she’s done a tremendous job on the screenplay. And yes, I am biased, but really I wouldn’t have done it if I’d have thought it was crap and, really, we’ve got a fighting chance of making a really good film and that’s all anyone’s got. You can’t ask for more than that.
Can you tell us briefly what it’s about?
KK: It’s about a friendship group that implodes and a situation that leads to an act of violence…
KK: Yes, indeed! It’ll make sense when you’ve seen the film! [laughs]