Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
What a remarkable career choice for 23 year old Kiera Knightley, playing the ethereal, sexy upper-crust ingenue Cecilia Tallis who is in love with the working class lawyer-to-be Robbie Turner (James McAvoy). As they start an affair with a hot tryst against a bookcase in her parents' country house, it becomes doomed, both by her jealous younger sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan) and the advent of World War II.
Though the film seems like a great romantic tragedy, it's about much more and director Joe Wright does his best to make Ian McEwan's book work on screen.
Knightley—daughter of actor Will Knightley and playwright Sharman Macdonald—got her first role at nine in Moira Armstrong's lesbian tale, "A Village Affair." Since then she has made some pretty uncanny moves for someone so young starting in 1999 with being Queen Amidala's (Natalie Portman) decoy in "Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace." Then she played the tomboy footballer Jules Paxton in "Bend It Like Beckham" which really put her in the public eye (with a few spicy roles in films like "Silk" and "Domino" along the way). But it's been her roles in such forceful blockbusters as the "Pirates of the Carribean" trilogy and "Pride and Prejudice" that have led to "Atonement" and its Oscar nominations for everything from Best Picture to Best Adapted Screenplay.
Q; What do you say about the chemistry between you and James? He has spoken about it...
KK: [Laughs] Well I know what his comments are, and I agree with it. I should imagine that he said something along the lines of "it’s our job, acting" [laughs].
Q: Sort of, yeah… but he did say more.
KK: And it is. I think it was a fantastic script, a great director. We really got on. I think he’s a sensational actor. Working with him was really, really exciting. I think as far as chemistry goes, you can have the best actors together—and in fact, they can be in love with each other—and for some reason you won’t have chemistry on the screen.
I don’t think anyone ever knows what makes that final bit of chemistry work. If they did, then you’d make sure you worked with people like that all the time. I think that obviously it helped that we got on. Obviously, the script is fantastic. So maybe that’s the answer, but actually I don’t know.
Q: Did it help having worked with director Joe Wright before on "Pride and Prejudice?" You got an Oscar nom for that.
KK: Yeah. I love working with Joe. I loved him the moment I met him. I think chemistry between actors is very rare, and I think chemistry between actor and director is even more rare. We have really good creative chemistry for some reason. I don’t know why. We speak the same language.
You know, acting is all about emotions. Everybody intrinsically has the same emotions, but we describe them differently. Sometimes on the set, that can feel literally like a language barrier. With Joe… we describe emotions the same, so we kind of had our own language. We just hoped we understood, that I understood, what he wanted, which is always helpful.
Q: Early in the film Cecilia was kind of icy; was it hard getting into her mindset?
KK: I never saw her like that. I mean, yes, yes, she is. But I never saw her like that. I always completely understood it. I think that’s why I fell in love with her from the moment I read the script. It was because I saw her so clearly. I think that very often in film you have characters that are black or white. What’s fascinating about her is she’s probably a very good person, but she’s behaving like a bitch. I think we all do. I think you very rarely see that. I just love the different layers of her. I think the fact that in the book it completely describes how she’s feeling. It describes that long, hot, sticky day that’s completely airless. And that need for a cigarette that’s making her even more on edge. I found her totally fascinating.
Q: What was the hardest scene to shoot?
KK: I don’t know. We’ve been asked that a lot and I don’t know if "hard" is the right word. I think every film is always challenging, and should be. But because of this three weeks’ rehearsal we had, we were all so prepared. I wouldn’t say that anything that stuck out in my mind as being particularly difficult.
The one that I loved doing, found challenging and really exciting, was the Swallows teashop scene. That was actually one of my favorites when I read the script. It’s partly because what they both want to do is sort of pour out into this melodramatic… you know, they want to say everything, but they can’t.
So it was a really interesting process of trying to think about all the things that wanted to be bursting out and then repress that—which was actually what we were doing in the whole of the film, really. Because it’s all about what’s not said as opposed to what is said. But in that one, it was fabulous to keep that balance between being too melodramatic and too overemotional and keeping it in check.
Q: What was it like working with the precocious Saiorse Ronan?
KK: Yeah, she’s amazing. She is 12 and got this thick Irish accent. [Then] she comes out and she’s got this pitch perfect 1940’s British accent. I think what’s incredible with Saiorse [is] that’s not taught. That’s not taught. So where does that talent come from? It’s just… it is extraordinary. People keep on saying ‘What advice are you giving her?" I would never dream of giving Saiorse Ronan advice. I’ll take advice from her, but I certainly won’t give it.
Q: Did you read the book "Atonement" before you did the movie?
KK: I read the book, yes. I read the script first, but then I read the book as soon as had said yes to it. It was a fantastic blueprint.
Q: Did you talk to author Ian McEwan about it?
KK: Well, no, not before. He actually came on set a couple of times. He was very nice. Then at the London premiere he came up to me and said ‘It’s interesting. It works so well, but you played it so differently than I’d written it.’ And I thought, no I didn’t, I played it exactly… It’s really funny. I think that’s what’s wonderful about the characters, people have such different ways of seeing them. I obviously saw it differently than Ian McEwan saw it.
Q: What research went into make Cecilia so elegant, so gorgeous, with all those Bette Davis poses? Did you look at films from that glamorous period?
KK: I did. It wasn’t Bette Davis, though. Well, it was always a bit of Bette Davis, but it was Greta Garbo quite a lot—with the smoking thing—and Marlene Dietrich. And Katherine Hepburn, because I always go back to Katherine Hepburn. I love that quality that she’s got. But the real main inspiration for this was Celia Johnson, from "Brief Encounter." I watched it just on a loop for about two months and actually would be very happy to watch it on a loop forever.
As a cast, we all watched a lot of David Lean and Noel Coward and those collaborations, which we served, and then "Brief Encounter." We watched a lot of news footage from that time as well. The accent is such a specific thing and it’s completely lost to my generation – the British sort of 1940s stiff upper lip. It was the height of the stiff upper lip, really. We all wanted to watch it together so that everyone was on the same page. I think it wouldn’t have worked if one person hadn’t done it. We did a lot of research into the accent and finding exactly what we wanted and what part of it we didn’t.
Q: What movies did you watch to prepare for the film?
KK: Those ones, actually.
Q: What are some of your favorites from this year?
KK: Of this year? I just saw "Michael Clayton," which I thought was wonderful. Tilda Swinton was unbelievable in that; all the performances were great. I really loved "Into the Wild." I thought that was a very inspirational film. Actually, the DOP [director of photography] for that one, who also did "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints," is one of my favorite. I thought, [for] a first-time writer/director, I thought that was wonderful. Chazz Palmenteri, the guy that plays the dad… oh my God, that scene with him and Shia LaBoeuf in the bath—just amazing. Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose"—I think that is one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen.
Q: And what about those from the period of this film?
KK: "Casablanca"—that’s just one that’s got to be. "All About Eve" [laughs]. Again, "For Which We Serve," and my favorite has to be "Brief Encounter." Is it Rachmaninoff that they play? What is it they play? It’s not Rachmaninoff, it’s something else. There is a piece of music – the only piece of music that they play all the way through – and it’s just brilliant. There are lots of films that I like. (laughs)
Q: You seem to like do projects based on historical periods, and the chance to wear costumes. Do you have a fascination with history?
KK: I’ve always liked history. I’ve always been fascinated by it. It’s not particularly that I’m going I want to do things that are historical. It’s simply been the stories that have interested me. You know, if I find a contemporary story that interests me I’ll certainly do that as well. For some reason or another, the female parts… There are always much fewer good roles for actresses than there are for actors.
Most of them that I’ve read indeed have simply been period pieces as opposed to contemporary pieces. It goes in swings. It will come; there will be a point when stuff that is interesting is contemporary, as well. But, I haven’t so far [laughs].
Q: You have played some of the greatest female characters—and you get to be a pirate. Elizabeth Bennett is an icon. How do you get away with that?
KK: I was auditioning for lots of different roles and they were the ones that they offered me. So, I have no answer for that. I’ve [just] been very lucky. I was very lucky with a lot of them, that they just happened to be the ones that I got.
Q: Is it an important thing to do though, that you can stick up for people?
KK: I think as a woman what I’m interested in is seeing interesting female roles onscreen. I’m not interested really in seeing women that are very much the secondary, token woman… which there always are, and that’s fair enough. But as far as being a cinema-goer, I’m excited when I see female roles that have a bit of different layers to them. That can be something inspiring. I think that’s important.
Q: The third part of "Pirates of the Caribbean" has come out on DVD. The series was planned as a trilogy, but they left it open for the possibility of more. Can you see doing that?
KK: I can’t imagine doing another one. That was an amazing experience. It really was, totally extraordinary. But no, I think three for me is probably enough [laughs].
Q: What other films are you working on or have coming up?
KK: I’ve just finished one called "The Duchess," which is based on part of the life of the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a political hostess in the 1780s. I’ve just done that with Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling.
Before that I was working on a film that my mum’s written about Dylan Thomas and a group of friends that surrounded him—and an act of violence that happened and the circumstances that led to the act of violence. That was with Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys.