Keira Knightley Interview – ATONEMENT

     December 12, 2007


Already playing in limited release, but expanding to more theaters this weekend, is director Joe Wright’s follow up to “Pride and Prejudice.” His new movie is called “Atonement” and he’s once again paired up with Keira Knightley.



For those who don’t know about the movie, “Atonement” is based on Ian McEwan’s best selling novel of the same name and the story starts in the summer of 1935. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching Cecilia is their housekeeper’s son Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), a childhood friend. By the end of that day the lives of all three have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had never before dared to approach and will have become victims of the younger girl’s scheming imagination, and Briony will have committed a dreadful crime, and she’ll have to deal with it for the rest of her life.



To help promote the film, about a week ago I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Keira Knightley. While I didn’t know what to expect as I’d never interviewed her before, I can report that she came across as extremely friendly and willing to talk about anything. Trust me… it’s not always like that.



During our twenty or so minutes we talked about everything you’d expect – “Atonement,” working with Joe Wright again, her co-stars, and all the various projects she has coming up. If you are a fan of Keira, I think you’ll enjoy the interview. As always, you can either read the transcript below or listen to the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.



And one last thing before the interview. I thought “Atonement” was fantastic and I definitely recommend checking it out. But… I’d avoid the reviews because it’s one of those movies that can be ruined. I so want to say why you should see this film… but I’d ruin the best part. All I can say is… even with all the great movies about to open, this is a special film. Now…here’s the interview with Keira.





Question: What was it like working with Joe Wright again?



Keira Knightley: Fantastic. No, it was really good. I find him a very exciting filmmaker. He’s completely passionate and totally obsessed by what he does. I think that what he really invites is creative collaboration, and he creates a company to work in, so he empowers every single person on the set. I think that that’s conducive to good filmmaking and a very exciting experience.



Q: A lot of the film is very silent, and is conveyed through looks. What do you do, in your mind, when you film those type of scenes? Does anything go through your mind?



Keira: Does anything go through my mind? Yes, stuff goes through my mind. It would be pretty fucking worrying if it didn’t. [Laughs]



Q: What goes through your mind, when you’re acting in those scenes?



Keira: I can’t remember. I don’t know. The book was incredibly helpful, in making this film. What Ian McEwan does brilliantly are these incredible internal monologues for each of the characters, which I think might have had something to do with why people always said this is an unfilmable novel. But, as far as playing it, it was incredibly helpful because it constantly meant that you knew exactly where your character was coming from. If they were behaving badly, as mine sort of is, at the beginning of the film, you understand why. You understand why they’re slightly on edge and why they make decisions that, perhaps, aren’t the right decisions. So, a lot of it came from the book.



Q: What are the challenges of filming on location when you’re a big movie star? Does it interfere with the work?



Keira: No. That’s my job. We were on a private estate, so we didn’t have any problems with paparazzi at all, when we were shooting at the house, which was good. And then, we did have it in London, but we had security guards. As long as it’s relatively out of my eye line, [it’s fine]. When you’re on set, everybody’s so involved with what they’re doing that any amount of bullshit could be going on around you and you wouldn’t particularly notice it, as long as you’re working hard enough, so it’s not really a problem. I like location work a lot. There’s a sense about the space, particularly working in houses like that. You just get an idea of exactly what those rooms are like, exactly how hot or cold it is, on a normal day, and where certain rooms relate to others, that’s actually incredibly helpful to hold in your head. The space of the grounds around you, and knowing exactly how the grounds connect to the house, and all the rest of it, I found incredibly helpful.



Q: Do you have to adjust your process on a smaller, intimate movie like this, as opposed to a big-budget studio blockbuster, like ‘Pirates’?



Keira: You adjust your speed. You have less time to do things, which I like, actually. You do something like ‘Pirates,’ which is obviously technical — it’s about explosions, it’s about action — and that, as everybody will tell you, takes a long time to get right. When you’re doing something like ‘Atonement,’ you have less time to do it. You have less money, so you have to do it quicker. But, it’s a much more intense working experience, which I think, for any actor, is what you’re looking for because you want to be living in that moment. It’s the excitement of finding those emotions. On your big, explosive films, the film set is quite a technical space, as it should be. But, on a film like ‘Atonement,’ the space was very much the actors’, which was enjoyable, absolutely.



Q: How was it to grow up in a show business family, and how did that affect your decision to become an actress?



Keira: Show business is not particularly a word that I like. I lived with a playwright and an actor. I think it was amazing. I very definitely grew up around stories, art and people that really believed that they could make a difference through their art form, which is a very exciting thing to see, as a child. I’ve never grown up with anything else, so I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with other parents. I’m very close to mine.



Q: This is such an iconic performance, when you look at the history of cinema. Did you know it would be like that, when you read the script?



Keira: Fuck, wow, thanks! That’s very nice, I think. No, that’s not why you make a film. You don’t go, “Ooh, I’m doing an iconic film.” But, I think it was an incredibly well written script and incredibly well written characters, both from the script and, obviously, from the book. It’s very difficult to find good characters in films, particularly female characters. There aren’t that many. And, a lot of the time, actresses get critiqued on the fact that the roles just aren’t there. So, what you often try to do is really take something out of the page that certainly isn’t written on it. With this, it was there. It was very much there, in the book and in the script. And so, I was incredibly lucky to get the part. What was fascinating about it, to me, is that you’ve got this character . . . Quite often, we have characters that are very black or white. They’re good or they’re bad. And, these ones aren’t. They’ve got layers to them. I think that she is a good person, but she’s just behaving badly. She’s got very obvious flaws in her personality that are not particularly nice traits, but that still doesn’t mean that she’s a bad person. I think it’s always interesting to look at the flaws because that’s what makes characters, and people, interesting. You want to have negative aspects, so that you can look at the positive as well. I think that she’s a fascinating character.



Q: You’ve played so many strong women. How much of yourself do you draw upon for those roles?



Keira: I never draw from personal experience. I draw from imagination. We all have the same core emotions, and what interests me is trying to get into the heads of these characters. We all have the same emotions, but they use them in slightly different ways, [so I wonder] why this person would react to this situation, in this way. So, I don’t draw from myself. It is purely imagination, really.



Q: Can you talk a little bit about your upcoming projects?



Keira: I have a film coming out next year, called ‘The Edge of Love,’ which is again set in the second World War, but is in a very different social stratosphere. It’s based around a friendship group that surrounded Dylan Thomas, and an act of violence that happens, and the events that lead up to that act of violence. It’s kind of a four-hander, really, with Cillian Murphy, Matthew Rhys and Sienna Miller, and me, which should be good. It was written by my mom (Sharman Macdonald), so that was very exciting. It’s a very, very small budget piece, so it was a very intense shoot. I think we had seven weeks to do it, which in film terms is definitely not a lot of time. So, it was a very exciting project to work on. And then, last week, I finished a film called ‘The Duchess,’ which is about the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a political hostess for the Wig party in the 1780’s. And, that’s with Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling. It’s about a marriage that goes wrong, really. It’s about the workings of a marriage, and society at that time.



Q: When a script is written by your mom, how careful do you have to be with the words?



Keira: What she does is dialogue, and it’s very stylized dialogue, and it’s rhythmic. Very often, on film, you can change the words and play around with it. She’s predominantly a playwright. You don’t do the same things with playwrights. So, unless you could find a word that fit into the rhythmic form that she writes in, you can’t change it because otherwise it messes up all of the beats. So, no, there were no dialogue changes, basically.



Q: Are you especially drawn to period pieces?



Keira: At the moment, it simply has been that the stories that have interested me most have been set in the past. I’m not going to read an amazing piece, set 200 years ago, and go, “Ooh, I can’t do that because I’ll be in a period piece.” I’m very selfish about my choices. I’m in an incredibly lucky position, where I can actually choose what I do, and it has to be something that interests me. If it doesn’t interest me, then I’m not going to be interesting in it, and it won’t be interesting to watch, so there’s absolutely no point. So, it just has happened that the stories have been set in the past. There’s been no plan. I don’t have a plan. So, hopefully, there will be a contemporary piece, in a minute or two. I just need to find the right script.



Q: Has the Writer’s Strike affected you? Is there another project you’re going to start shooting, or are you taking a break?



Keira: I’m on hiatus, but not because of the strike. I just haven’t found anything I wanted to do. So, no, it hasn’t affected me. What it’s affecting is, if you were going into production right now, then you’d be going in without a script. Joe Wright’s going into production, but his script was completely locked a couple of months ago, before the strike. Normally, it’s not locked that early, but he actually likes to lock his scripts beforehand. But, no, it’s not affecting me.



Q: What have you done to overcome your dyslexia?



Keira: I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was six, but I was never statemented. Statementing happens when you’re 11, and when I was 11, they decided that I was fine. I think that had a lot to do with acting. My headmaster, at the time, said to my parents, “You need to find a carrot to dangle in front of her to make her work harder,” and the carrot they found was an agent and the promise that I could go for auditions if I kept my grades up. And, that seemed to work a treat. So, I’m all right.



Q: What the holidays coming up, what Christmas traditions are you looking forward to celebrating?



Keira: I don’t think I do Christmas traditions. I’m going to sleep, eat and drink, and that’s about it.



Q: Any gift or gadget you’re hoping for?



Keira: No. Fuck no, no gadgets.



Q: How was it to work with John Maybury (on ‘The Edge of Love’)? His work is appreciated, but he’s not mainstream.



Keira: I don’t think he ever will be particularly mainstream. He’s an artist, very definitely. ‘Love is the Devil’ is one of my favorite films. I think it’s extraordinary. I worked with him on ‘The Jacket,’ and then again on ‘The Edge of Love,’ and I love working with him. I love his mind. It’s a weird place, but it’s a wonderful place. You don’t work with John to make a film like ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ you work for something very different, but it’s equally as exciting.



Q: What was the most difficult scene for you to shoot on this film? And, what was your most favorite scene?



Keira: There isn’t one scene that springs to mind, when I think of difficult. I think the whole thing was challenging, but then that’s what I want to get from work. I want to be challenged. I think it’s probably the same scene. The one that I found, perhaps, most challenging was the scene in the Swallows Tea Shop, when they haven’t seen each other for five years, and they see each other again, but it’s also my favorite. If you did that in a modern day piece, they’d be able to say exactly what they wanted to say to each other. It would all come out, and it would be rather melodramatic. And, the fact that they can’t find the words, and they can’t speak to each other, suddenly this time that they’ve been separate, even though they’ve been writing all the time and they’ve been waiting, and she’s sacrificed so much, and he’s been in jail, it suddenly becomes a physical thing between them, and they suddenly realize that they don’t know each other anymore. It was always my favorite scene, between Robbie and Cecilia, when I read the script, but it was difficult because you have to know, I suppose, the emotions that they would be going through, but you can’t play them. It was a really interesting exercise in keeping the lid on everything, which I have to say the whole film was. It’s all about what isn’t said. But, that was a particularly interesting scene about really underplaying everything and not letting it [come out].



Q: You mentioned that Joe is doing another film. Is it weird for you not to be in it?



Keira: No. I think he was always going to make films without me in them. I think that’s very important. I hope that we’ll work together again, when the project is right. I think that he’s an incredible filmmaker. I’m actually really looking forward to seeing a film of his that I have nothing to do with, just so that I can completely enjoy it and not be looking at me going, “Oh, God!” I can’t wait to see it.



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Q: Did you get to talk to Vanessa Redgrave, when she was filming?


Keira: We originally shot a different ending, where she goes back to the Tallis house and sees a vision of Robbie and Cecilia in the back of a library. It was just one shot that didn’t end up getting used, anyway, but she did this monologue that was incredible. I spoke to her a bit before we started and, obviously, subsequently. (highlight to read next part -spoilers)I think she’s absolutely extraordinary. That last shot, which I think they did in three takes — it’s two different shots — which is the twist, if you like, when it explains about herself, is one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen. I think it’s absolutely stunning. I find her so exciting. And, the fact that she’s still excited about what she does, and believes in what she does, is very inspirational.



Q: You’ve been lauded for your fashion sense. How does fashion affect your life?



Keira: Have I? It doesn’t. Not really. It must be a fluke.



Q: Were there a lot of other scenes that were cut out of the film? Was there a lot of deleted stuff?



Keira: Was there one with me that was cut out? I think there might have been. I can’t remember what it would have been. I think there may have been one with me that’s gone. I can’t remember what it was, though, and I don’t know what’s making me say that, but I just seem to have a memory of something. I think that quite a lot was taken out of the Dunkirk sequence, but I wasn’t there. But, just from having listened to them doing various interviews, apparently some stuff was taken out of the Dunkirk to tighten that up. There was certainly quite a big difference in the film, between the first cut that I saw and the final cut. It was really good when I first saw it. It had bits of music, but it wasn’t fully scored and we hadn’t done the sound for it, but it was still a good film. But, nobody cried. You came out and you felt like you had been fucking punched in the stomach, but you didn’t cry. And then, I went back to see the final thing and people were crying, pretty much from that moment in the Swallows Tea Shop until the end. It’s incredible how one cut can make the difference between a good film and something that really is tight and really works. It was just Joe going, “Wait a minute, I think there’s something else.” And, a lot of it had to do with the ending. Originally, it did have that ending that we first shot, and we actually went back and did a re-shoot, and shot the ending that’s on it now. So, I think that that helped a lot, to bring the full tragedy. And, the fact that you only see Vanessa once, for that last scene, I think that’s very powerful. So, yes, there were bits and pieces that were altered, but not hugely. We’re talking very minor things, taken out and put back in. But, it made a hell of a difference.



Q: Do you know why the post-production for the film lasted nine months?



Keira: That’s not a particularly long time. We didn’t start with a release date. You do a big film, like ‘Pirates,’ and you start with a release date, which means that [Gore] only had two months to cut it, or something crazy like that. But, with this, it was very much, “Okay, cut it. See what you’ve got. Let’s see how we release this.” The thing about having a smaller film, where it’s not all about tying it in with this, that and the other, it’s very different. For this kind of a film, as far as I know, nine months isn’t that excessive. I think it should take as long as it takes. You make it until it’s right, in the best possible world. And, I think that’s what Joe did with this.



Q: How was it to work with James McAvoy?



Keira: I think he’s extraordinary. He came in to audition for the part, along with some really, really great British actors, who were really top notch. And, everybody read it wonderfully. And then, James came in. Joe was very specific about the physical type that he wanted for the role. And, we’d talked about James before. I knew his work. I thought he was sensational. But, physically, it wasn’t what Joe had described to me. So, he came in and I’ve never seen a screen test like it. He grew to 6’6″. He just morphed. And, he left the room and we were completely silent for about 10 minutes afterwards, and just went, “Right, well, that’s him.”



Q: What scene was the screen test?



Keira: We did the fountain scene and we did the Swallows Tea Shop. We did those two scenes. I just think he has the rare ability to completely morph into whatever character he’s playing. I think he’s one of the most talented actors around, at the moment. And, he really respects what he does, sees it as a craft and hones it. When you watch him, you watch somebody really working at constantly making it truthful and constantly making it better, and finding it really important to be in film, and respecting what he does. There’s an incredible integrity to him. And, he’s also incredibly giving, as a partner. It’s very much a collaboration. It’s very much about the company and the team, and about getting the best out of everyone, like Joe Wright is. I think he’s completely phenomenal, and it will be very exciting to see what he does.



Q: You’ve had a bit of a hiatus from the big-budget Hollywood studio machine. Can you see yourself going back into that?



Keira: Yeah, of course. I hope so, if there’s something that interests me. Possibly, I should think, because it would be very savvy, business wise, of me to go, “Yes, I’m going to do this, and then I’m going to do a big one.” But, I can’t think like that. It has to be what interests me, at the time. I think there is a brilliant place for entertainment for entertainment’s sake. I think it’s completely wonderful to go to the cinema and see a complete ride and enjoy your popcorn and have a great time. And, sometime, when I’m in the mood, I will find a script and that’s exactly what I’ll do. I think it is partly because ‘Pirates’ did take such a long time, and I was within that for such a long time, that I’ve just craved something that’s different. For me, the point of acting has been to change, as much as possible, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to do that. So, hopefully, I’ll find something fun and ridiculous and explosive, and I’ll enjoy doing it. But, I just haven’t found it yet.



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