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As the daughter of playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Will Knightley, Keira Knightley grew up with theater in her blood. Knightley began acting professionally as a pre-teen, and broke through in the business at 17 in the back-to-back hits Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. She’s since become a staple of awards shows, thanks to memorable performances in the period dramas Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, and The Duchess. Knightley recently spoke with The A.V. Club about her upbringing, the rewards of reliving history on film, and the unique qualities of her new film The Edge Of Love, a romantic drama her mother wrote about the life of Dylan Thomas.
The A.V. Club: Given that your mother wrote The Edge Of Love, did that give you more or less leeway to tinker with the dialogue?
Keira Knightley: Possibly because my mum’s a writer, I’m from the school of thought that says my job is to make the words on the page sound as good as possible. So I tend to stick pretty closely to the script, whatever I’m given. Having said that, I did do quite a bit of improvisation on a film I just finished, but on this one, no. Partly also because the dialogue is so stylized, it’s very difficult to sway. It’s written in a style meant to evoke a memory of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, so it’s metered out. Trying to improvise off-page for that would’ve been rather difficult.
AVC: Were you well-versed in Dylan Thomas before you did the film?
KK: A little bit. I knew Under Milk Wood and a couple of his poems. I love… oh God, what is it, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” My favorite. What’s it called? [“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” —ed.] I only ever remember that. But it’s so beautiful. I’m a fan of a couple of his poems, I think they’re stunning. But no, I don’t know all of it. It was nice to get an opportunity to read some more.
AVC: Did your parents both being in theater encourage a well-rounded arts education?
KK: Yeah. I think my mum read Under Milk Wood to me when I was very young. And yes, I always went to see a lot of plays, and I read a lot of plays and stuff, and she always liked poetry, so there was always a lot of poetry in the house too. I guess they did that simply because that’s what they were interested in. There was a lot of that sort of thing around.
AVC: Did you pay a lot of attention to your mom and dad’s work when you were growing up?
KK: I went to see most of the things that they did. I remember my dad played Dracula once, and I got completely terrified and had to go out halfway through. But apart from that, I think I saw pretty much everything, unless it was incredibly adult, in which case I wasn’t allowed, obviously.
AVC: Was music a major part of your education? Did you enjoy getting the chance to sing in The Edge Of Love?
KK: No, not really, yeah. I mean, it was interesting. It was the first time I’d done it. I sang in a kind of school choir when I was like 6 or something, but it was the first time as an adult that I’ve had to sing live in front of people, which was completely terrifying. I think I needed a couple of shots of vodka to actually be able to do it. But it was quite exciting, I suppose.
AVC: You didn’t have any pop-star fantasies growing up? You never wanted to stand on a big stage and sing?
KK: No, no. God, never, no.
AVC: Not even like in front of your mirror with a hairbrush?
KK: No. I mean really no.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of historical dramas during your career, and The Edge Of Love is one as well. When you play a character from decades or centuries ago, do you try and research the era, or would you rather approach the role from a contemporary perspective?
KK: Yeah, no, definitely research. I think that’s partly why I love doing it. History was my favorite subject at school, so I’ve always loved reading up about different eras, and I do try and do as much as I possibly can before we start shooting, and even during. And actually the ’40s in particular was something I’ve always been completely fascinated by. Films from that age, histories—everything. And there were some great books which I actually got when I was doing Atonement that helped a lot for this film as well. So I find it a completely fascinating period. And I think it is part of the joy of doing historical films, is to find out about periods that you wouldn’t normally have time to find out about.
AVC: Did people behave differently in the past, do you think? Or are you studying more the manners and mores and those kind of things?
KK: I think that the social aspect has a lot more to do with how people behaved, but I think the emotions were fundamentally the same. I think that as far as society goes, yes, I’m sure there were different constraints on people. I suppose that’s why I found the ’40s so interesting, because I had a very preconceived notion of exactly what it would be like, probably based on, you know, ‘40s Hollywood movies or ’40s British movies. But because of censorship, obviously those movies were incredibly innocent—which doesn’t necessarily mean the people of the time were more innocent. And you suddenly read up on the era and find out that it was something completely other.
Reading books about London and what happened during blackouts in the Blitz, I discovered that sexually transmitted diseases went skyrocketing up, because people were desperately clinging on to life and clinging on to experience, because they had death raining down around them. So I found that fascinating, and particularly with this film, you know you’ve got people trying to live all they can while they’re still alive, because they don’t know how much time they’ve got. That’s a very specific thing in people’s heads, that idea that time is running out and therefore you have to live to the full. It’s kind of romantic and tragic at the same time.
AVC: The Duchess explored some of that same idea in reverse. There, your character was espousing libertine ideas, but suffering through a restrictive marriage behind closed doors.
KK: Yeah, that film, it’s all about the hypocrisy of the society at the time. I think even now, there’s a lot of hypocrisy going around, but that one in particular… you know, the fact that you can have a lover and everybody knows that you have a lover, but the moment it’s actually really spoken about publicly, you have to give him up, even though everybody knew about it anyway… There’s a craziness to it, because it’s putting barriers up. And as far as drama goes, when you find characters who are hitting their heads against these barriers, the fun is figuring out how they react to it, how they fight against it, or how they don’t fight against it. And finding out why. The 18th century—or the bit that we looked at—is pretty amazing.
AVC: At this point in your career, have you reached the stage where you have the leverage to seek out parts like that, and only accept the roles that you really want to play?
KK: I don’t know the answer to that. No, I don’t think anybody really does. I mean, yes, I’m in a very fortunate position where I get offered a variety of roles, and I do get to choose, and that’s completely and utterly amazing. But you know, I can’t simply pick up the phone and say, “I’d like to play Anna Karenina, so can you make an Anna Karenina film please?” [Laughs.] It doesn’t quite work like that. But yes, I have a lot more freedom than certainly I had a couple of years ago.
AVC: Let’s say for example that there was a movie you knew was in the casting phase, and it was from a book that you loved, or you’d read the script and were really into it. Could you make a phone call and get yourself on the top of the list?
KK: No, I don’t think I could force myself upon anybody if they didn’t actually want me. I could certainly express interest. But if I were to phone up and say “I’m doing this,” I think I’d be told “Fuck off.” [Laughs.] And quite rightly. It’s nice to be able to read a book and say “Oh well, if they ever make a film of this, please can you ask them to see me? Because I love it.” And to think that I might possibly get a meeting for it. That’s fantastic, and in that way, I’m very fortunate.
AVC: Do you think starting so young gave you a good head start?
KK: Yeah, I think it did. I think in a funny way, that’s what helped the most. By the time I got to be 16 or 17, I already had 10 years of TV behind me. What often happens, I think, with young actors is that people don’t want to take a chance on them, because they don’t have enough experience with the big roles. Whereas I got to 16 or 17 and I had a lot of experience, so they couldn’t use that excuse not to hire me. Yes, it worked in my favor, but there isn’t a right or wrong as far as an acting career goes. Different things can work for different people. And yes, it worked in my favor, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work in everybody’s favor.
AVC: Some actors who started as children have said they felt more natural when they were young, and that learning more about their craft, they’ve become more mannered. Have you experienced that at all, or do you feel you’ve gotten better as you’ve gotten older?
KK: I don’t think I was successful enough as a child actor to really know. I don’t think I’m able to make any generalizations like that. It’s not necessarily… it’s part-to-part, really, and I think as far as I go, I change with the people around me. It’s all about the team you have making the film, and how that team works together. I don’t think that I could be good if I was with people that didn’t click. I think it’s very difficult then to find the relaxation that you need. I don’t watch my own films—or I watch them once, but I don’t replay them a lot—so I don’t go, “Ooh, you look crap from that angle, I must make sure that I’m not going to do a scene from there.” I don’t do that, which I think would hugely affect future performances. I think the process evolves, and sometimes it’s going to get better, and sometimes it’s going to get worse, and just because you’ve been good in one film doesn’t mean you’re going to be good in the next. It’s about collaboration. It’s about the people you’re working with.