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From her breakout roles in Bend It Like Beckham and The Pirates Of The Caribbean onward, Keira Knightley has exuded a no-muss, effortless charm that catapulted her to fame. Then in 2007, she scratched that surface to reveal a slightly darker layer of conflicted emotions in Atonement. In David Cronenberg’s latest film, A Dangerous Method (scripted by Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton), she plays Sabina Spielrein, a woman deeply uncomfortable in her own skin who becomes Carl Jung’s patient and lover. The eponymous “dangerous method” is the theory of psychoanalysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen), which his protégé, Jung (Michael Fassbender), uses for the first time to treat Spielrein, whose extreme fits of anxiety have proven impervious to previous treatments. Throughout their therapy sessions, Spielrein grows attached to Jung, and they become involved in a sadomasochistic relationship that drives the film. Knightley recently called The A.V. Club from a pub in London to talk about working with Cronenberg, the research she did for the role, and what she learned about sadomasochism along the way.
The A.V. Club: What drew you to the role of Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method?
Keira Knightley: Oh, I was just fascinated by her. I didn’t know anything about her. I’d obviously heard of Freud and Jung, but I didn’t know about Sabina. I was fascinated by their relationship and how Sabina came into it. I just wanted to explore that world.
AVC: And she’s been the hidden link between Freud and Jung all these years.
KK: It was a revolution, and changed the way we think about ourselves and the people around us. It even intercepted our language. It’s been a huge influence in our society. It’s an extraordinary thing, and given the nature of Sabina and the fact that she was this strange lynchpin in both the coming together of Jung and the breaking up of Freud and Jung—it’s very interesting.
AVC: Especially how she went from patient to being a psychiatrist herself.
KK: I found her personal story incredibly inspiring. You’ve got this woman who’s completely trapped within herself, and who’s given up on the idea of ever functioning in society. People around her have given up on her as well. The idea that she could go through this treatment that was revolutionary at the time, and not only become functional within society, but also create extraordinary ideas that influenced Freud and Jung, then become a doctor in her own right—it’s an incredibly inspiring story.
AVC: How did you prepare for those scenes in the beginning, when Sabina is so consumed by her anxiety?
KK: When I knew I was going to play the part, I phoned up Christopher Hampton, whom I worked with before because he did the adaptation of Atonement, and just said, “Help!” I went over to his house and was expecting for him to talk with me for a few hours. He did do that with me, but he also handed me an enormous pile of books and said “Start reading.” I sort of spent four months trying to read as much as I could. It’s difficult playing a part like this. To the outside world, her behavior is illogical, but there is complete logic to it. In playing her, it was a question of trying to find that logic within behavior that is perceived as being mad. It was quite a challenge, and did take quite a lot of reading, but it’s also why it was so fun and amazing.
AVC: What connection did you find between what she perceived as reality and what others saw as madness?
KK: I think she forced herself into a position where the way she felt about herself and perceived herself was how the outside perceived her. She was incredibly difficult. She got thrown out of at least two institutions before she ended up at the Burghölzli [the mental hospital where Jung first treated her]. She saw herself as like a demon, or doglike, or possessed by something, and that’s how she behaved. That’s also how people saw her before they tried to understand her behavior. I think it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. What was incredibly fortunate about it was that she managed to meet this man, and she got admitted to the Burghölzli hospital, and got treated in the method—having someone literally asking her what happened in her life and what was the matter. I think it’s something that actually had never been done before. She wasn’t demonic. She wasn’t disgusting. The idea of trying to face herself and what was going on within herself—trying not to see herself as disgusting—was the huge journey she was on.
AVC: And wasn’t the sadomasochistic relationship that developed between her and Jung an integral part of her journey?
KK: Yeah, certainly. It’s sort of the all-consuming relationship. There’s the therapist—the person who’s literally pulled her out of herself, and therefore the savior. There’s equally the transference and counter-transference that’s going on. She turns him into the father role, which is a very complex role in itself, because she both loves and hates the father. The father is a sadistic creature, and that turns her into the masochistic creature. She’s looking for a continuing cycle in that sadomasochistic thing. It’s an incredibly complex relationship, but one that is equally destructive and creative, because they are both fascinated with the same thing, and are feeding off each other. I think that’s what I found so interesting about all of it—the complexities within that relationship, and the positive and negative sides being completely alive. The opposites are at one with each other.
AVC: By choosing that masochistic role in her sexual relationship with Jung, though, doesn’t it have the opposite effect from the abuse she suffered at the hand of her father? Isn’t she empowered by it?
KK: Well, yeah. The masochism is so not my cup of tea, so I found it really difficult to get my head around it and be able to understand it. The most important thing in playing any character is not judging. I found a couple analysts who were really helpful in talking about masochistic behavior. I think equally, there is a sadistic side to her, because she will force people into being what she wants them to be, so she can fulfill that masochistic side of herself. She’s quite manipulative in forcing that side, and I thought “That’s an important part of her. There is strength because she knows what she wants, and she gets it.” It’s not just the simple idea of being a victim. It’s actually allowing the sadistic side to be alive with the masochistic side at the same time. Does that make sense?
AVC: Yes. How being submissive in a relationship like that might appear passive, but actually takes a lot of strength?
KK: Yeah, absolutely. It’s all about power, which is what’s so interesting about the topic. My perception of a masochist before certainly wouldn’t have been somebody who could have been in control of a situation. Sometimes, obviously they’re not—the idea of trying to understand that opposites are always alive. You can both love your father and hate him at exactly the same time, which was very interesting in playing this part, and I suppose, in life in general.
AVC: In your research, did you also talk with people in sadomasochistic relationships?
KK: More, I spoke to analysts about that one and read her diary, a biography on Jung, and his notes on her, and a little bit of Nietzsche as well, because it kept coming up, and I had never read him.
AVC: Which of Nietzsche’s did you read?
KK: I read The Birth Of Tragedy because it was the smallest one I could find, but then I Googled Zarathustra, because it kept coming up. There was such an idea that she wanted to be Jung’s Zarathustra, which I thought was quite an interesting concept.
AVC: Do you agree with that analysis?
KK: No, I’m sure not. [Laughs.] It was just helpful for me playing it. I don’t know if there was any sort of right or wrong, really. It was just sort of what made sense of some of it for me, because I didn’t understand any of it before I started.
AVC: What did you discuss with Christopher Hampton?
KK: Christopher gave me a two-hour talk. Literally, when I spoke to Christopher, it was right at the beginning, and I had just read the script. I really had no idea where to start. It was more of me saying, “Where did this story come from? What was your research and thinking behind it?” It was more those kinds of questions. He spoke about going over to the Burghölzli when he was originally researching it. He speaks German, and had read a lot of the stuff they had at the Burghölzli. Mostly, I would ask questions like, “What do you mean when you say ‘hysterical fits’?” That’s when he said, “You need to read all these books.”
AVC: What surprised you most about the research you did?
KK: I don’t know. I just found it all completely amazing. It’s such a fascinating subject. It’s completely inspiring and terrifying. I suppose the fact that everything has its reasons, and everything is both simple and complex. I absolutely loved reading about it, probably because they aren’t the sort of books I would have read otherwise.
AVC: Sabina influenced Jung and Freud pretty profoundly, it seems. Which one do you identify with more?
KK: I didn’t read much Freud, just a couple of papers. Most of the reading I did was of Jung, because she was the one he was so kept by. I think a lot of artists like that searching nature of Jung—that he allows all those other things, whether it’s alchemy, religion, the idea of symbols, and the rest of it. Then there’s Freud being the straight kind of scientist. I always like a straight talker, so I liked reading the couple of papers of his that I read. I don’t know whose side I’d go down, though. I think I’d have to read a hell of a lot more to really be able to answer that question. Viggo’s done a lot of research on Freud. Because I really only read the Jung/Sabina side of it, he’s given me a big list of all the books he read. Partly, the problem doing research like this is that you look into it, but you only really look into it for what will be helpful to play your character. All of the rest of it has completely gone out of my head. I’ll come back to it at some point, and it’ll be like I never read those books in the first place, which is quite sad. Or maybe it’s a good thing? I don’t know.
AVC: Did you go to Vienna, where the film takes place?
KK: No, but I did read The World Of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig’s book that Viggo was using as a kind of idea about Vienna and the changes with Freud. He and Zweig were friends. It’s less about psychoanalysis than a history of Vienna.
AVC: Did you have to psychologically prepare for the intense S&M scenes with Michael Fassbender, or were they like other sex scenes you’ve done in the past?
KK: There were scenes I was really quite concerned about. I spoke to David [Cronenberg] before, and thought I might have to turn down the role, because I thought, “Is this really something I want to put out there? Particularly in the age of the Internet. He said he wanted me to play the part, and he would take out those scenes if it made me uncomfortable. I thought, “Don’t do that,” because I felt it was important that they were there. Once we talked about it, I realized his fascination wasn’t about a titillating spanking scene, that it’s more clinical and brutal. And I was much more comfortable with that. They’re never the nicest scenes to shoot, but we had a couple of shots of vodka beforehand, and they were done very quickly.
AVC: What kind of input did Cronenberg have in crafting your performance?
KK: We had very few conversations beforehand, but what he did say was, he wanted to be faithful to the text, and that he wanted a mid-Atlantic accent with a blush of Russian. He wanted to make sure the tics weren’t funny, but shocking. Those were the instructions before I started reading into it and figuring out what that was. He said, “Go as far as you can go, and I can always pull you back, but go for it.” He creates the most amazing atmosphere. It’s so calm on his sets, and I think on a lot of sets, they sort of work on the edge of chaos at all times. Because he’s worked with the same people—some of them for 30 years—it’s like walking into a well-oiled machine. It’s just calm, supportive and brilliant.
AVC: Were you familiar with his films prior to shooting?
KK: I’d seen Crash, A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises, eXistenZ—quite a few but not all of them. History Of Violence, I thought was really absolutely amazing. He goes beyond what most filmmakers do in a violent nature, but equally, he knows exactly when to hold back. So you completely trust his taste, because he has the balls to go right out there. With a lesser filmmaker, I think I would have been more concerned with playing this character and going as far with it.
AVC: He has such a distinctive style, yet A Dangerous Method seems very different from his previous films. Did you have certain expectations going into the shoot?
KK: Yes, It seems very different, but it also makes complete sense. From what I’ve seen, they all have such a deeply psychological nature that it makes perfect sense he would make a film about psychoanalysis. I know what you mean, though. It does seem like a departure. But in a way, all his films seem like departures from each other. When you think about Spider compared to A History Of Violence, he goes off in totally different directions quite a lot, which I think is what’s so inspiring about him.