INVOKE the right of parley with Keira Knightley these days and you’ll find an actress who has changed her tune – to the accompaniment of a guitar
ACROSS the room from where Keira Knightley sits, a huge cardboard poster for her new film Begin Again is propped on a stand. There is another just outside the room, and while waiting there, I couldn’t help but notice that above each of the names of the cast – Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld – even James Corden – there was the title of a prestigious film award for which they had been nominated. For most it’s “Academy Award nominee” and for Corden it’s “Bafta nominee”.
I’m not being mean, it just struck me how awful it would be if one of them hadn’t been nominated for anything. Knightley bursts out laughing when I tell her. “I think what’s even better is that everyone is a nominee but no-one is a winner,” she says. “Always the bridesmaid. It’s a bunch of bridesmaids – it’s really sweet, I like it.”
I was thinking if one person hadn’t actually had anything they might have just made something up: you know, bread-making champion at the local fête or some such. “I might go round and start doing that, a bit of graffiti,” she says. “Thing is, I’ve never won anything in my life apart from that medal in the swimming competition when I was nine.”
Oh come on. Someone who was nominated for an Oscar before the age of 25 must have won something?
“No, I don’t think I have,” she says happily (actually, Knightley won the London Film Critics Circle Awards’ British Newcomer of the Year for her role in Bend It Like Beckham, but that was back in 2002 so I’m going to forgive her for forgetting).
I’ve interviewed Knightley before. The last time I sat with her in a swanky hotel suite – six years ago – she was in her early 20s and it was as clear as day that sitting talking to a journalist ranked as a little less pleasant than having her teeth pulled without anaesthetic. The film we were talking about then was The Edge Of Love, a Dylan Thomas biopic for which her mother, Sharman Macdonald, had written the script. At the press conference earlier in the day – my first sighting of Knightley in the flesh; spectacularly beautiful, very nervous, dressed to the nines – there had been an announcement that any personal questions to any of “the talent” would immediately bring an end to the proceedings. To say it put a bit of a damper on what followed is an understatement, given that 95 per cent of the journalists were not there to talk about a Welsh poet.
Later when I asked Knightley, perched in an armchair looking like she was in a serious debate over whether to opt for fight or flight, if she had any sympathy for the journalists sent to get stories, she did nothing to hide her derision. Of course she didn’t. “Why should they get to know about my life?” she spat.
To be honest, I quite admired it. At that time, paparazzi pictures of Knightley were a tabloid fixture. They camped outside her house, shouted abuse at her. It was a disgrace really. And the evidence of just how bruising it had been was clear to see.
How things change. Today’s hotel suite is just as swanky, filled with armchairs aplenty, but Knightley is sitting on a sofa. She looks relaxed, natural, untouched by a stylist’s hand. Her hair hangs loose, the shoes on her feet are flat and look worn in, comfortable like her demeanour. Knightley is 29. She’s still a major movie star, a bona fide A-lister, but she’s much less tabloid fodder than she once was. She’s no longer swashbuckling alongside Johnny Depp in the Pirates Of The Caribbean films. In a sense, both professionally and personally, she’s grown up. She is now married to musician James Righton of the Klaxons. The endless speculation about her weight and her talent, her clothes and her love life has abated (at least a bit) and the effect on Knightley seems palpable. “You seem different,” I tell her.
“Do I?” she says, only very slightly wary. “That’s good, I think.”
Knightley first appeared on the TV when she was six years old. Born in south-west London to an actor father, Will, and a playwright mother, Macdonald, Knightley made her film debut when she was ten. Her breakout role was in Bend It Like Beckham, but global stardom arrived with the role of Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise. But there has been a slew of films, from Richard Curtis’s Love Actually to David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, not to mention her triptych of films with director Joe Wright: Pride And Prejudice (for which she bagged that Oscar nomination), Atonement and Anna Karenina.
“There are chapters,” she says of how her career has panned out so far. “There are particular things I get interested in that one film won’t have entirely figured out, and that could be something technical, or it’s maybe just a theme that runs through it. Nobody would be able to see what that theme is – they’d say ‘period films’,” she rolls her eyes, “which would never have been the theme, but there would’ve been something in it that would’ve connected one to the other.”
In the past couple of years Knightley has rung the changes. As well as Begin Again, she has made US indie film Laggies and the Hollywood blockbuster Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, directed by Kenneth Branagh.
“It was a change of pace,” she says. “I’ve gone back to the dark side now.” She smiles. She is referring to the period in which Knightley ended up dead in every movie. Drowned in Atonement. Under a train in Anna Karenina. Harvested in Never Let Me Go. Living with these tormented and doomed characters for months takes a toll, so she wanted to lighten things up. Begin Again does include a bit of heartbreak but it’s much more about redemption, and it’s all done with the lightest of touches by writer/director John Carney, the man behind Once.
“I very much wanted to do something which had hope in it because there hadn’t been any,” she says. “I mean, not for me, for the characters. So it seemed like a good idea. It’s a totally different style of acting and style of filmmaking. And it was fun and challenging.”
In the film, Gretta arrives in New York with her boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). They are both songwriters. He is on his way to making it big, she is on her way to being dumped. And then she meets Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a pill-popping, beer-swilling A&R man who’s down on his luck. The story is about friendship and fun and second chances. Yes, Gretta gets her heart broken, but it’s the kind of break that exists so that she can feel better again. It’s a feel-good movie, romantic and funny.
“In a way Gretta has got this life where she’s with this guy and they’re moving to this place and everything’s set, her life is set in stone and then everything gets taken away from her,” Knightley says. “I think everybody’s been at that point in their life when the car comes out of the side street and knocks you over. You never see the car coming. But the process of standing up again is fascinating. And when you’re lying there, before you have managed to stand up, you can’t imagine what standing up could possibly be like or how the f*** you’d even start. I liked that. That’s what it’s about – someone learning that she has her own two feet and she can stand. It’s something that everybody goes through and it’s something that everybody forgets and has to learn again.”
It’s obvious that there is something of this lesson that resonates for Knightley. She might only be 29, but hers has already been a long career, so long she can talk about different “chapters”. And although – when you look at the Chanel ads and the wedding in the south of France and that bone structure – it looks like a charmed existence, things professionally at least have not been entirely straightforward.
Knightley has spoken about the shock she experienced, when she was still very young, at the sometimes vicious criticism she attracted. The issue wasn’t so much that she wasn’t prepared to be criticised at all, but that until that point she’d always been told that she was good at acting. Think about it: her dad was an actor, her mum a playwright. They didn’t push their daughter into acting, but allowed her to pursue it as a sop for sticking at school, which was hard because she is dyslexic. Then, when she emerged into the public consciousness, to get pelters from every which direction must have been pretty shocking.
“It was a weird thing,” she says instantly. “Definitely. From school onwards, you build your personality around the things that you’re told that you’re good at. It shapes the way that you are and the way that you think of yourself. So to suddenly put that in a very public sphere and have it turned 180 degrees was definitely a very strange experience.”
Head-spinning, one might say. And to stick with her analogy of being spun, one might imagine that it would be pretty difficult to swing back again, or to find that place in the middle where you really feel comfortable. That’s hard.
“Yeah, it is,” she says. “But I think that might be life.” She laughs. “Until death we’re trying to right ourselves. All the way. And back again. And back again. And back again.” She smiles. “There have been progressions,” she says. “You learn stuff, you unlearn it, you learn different things, you unlearn those. I still find that really interesting, so it doesn’t feel it’s at the end of something or that I’ve ticked everything off.”
The bracing aspect of this is that the learning and unlearning has been so public. Knightley didn’t have three years at Rada to do crazy things witnessed only by her peers. She’s done it all in front of an audience of millions. “The learning process has very much been out in public in every way that it could’ve been. That’s good and not good,” Knightley says, laughing sheepishly. “It gives you a thick skin.”
In terms of the roles, Knightley knows that she is trying to work certain things out – it might be something technical, or a certain kind of film-making. She said after The Edge Of Love that she would never want to sing in a movie again. But here she is in Begin Again, with a guitar slung round her neck picking her way through singer-songwriter fare. I wondered if it was nerve-wracking singing as Gretta does, because at times Knightley looks properly self-conscious when she’s singing.
“This was frightening because they hadn’t actually written the lyrics for the top lines of the songs until about two days before we went into the studio. It was like, ‘Oh God, there’s no time.’ So it really was just about going in there and doing it. It was what it was.” She shrugs. And that, one suspects, is true for the whole movie. It has a loose, improvised feel to it. It’s a bit rumpled, like Ruffalo’s slept-in suits.
“It was the complete opposite of what I’ve been doing for years,” she says, “because it’s been very stylised dialogue, so if there’s a comma there it’s about figuring out what that would be, and what it meant. I love doing that, but it’s a totally different style to this, where there was a lot of improvisation, which I’ve never done before.”
Things were made easier by the fact that her co-star Ruffalo is a lovely man as well as a sensational actor, she says. “Everyone was like that, and that’s always really helpful, particularly when you’re making a film about friendship. If everyone is easygoing and relaxed it’s lovely.”
Knightley is genuinely enthusiastic about acting. She wants to see the world from someone else’s point of view. “I’ve always wanted to be in different headspaces. I’ve also always been fascinated by people I don’t like. Or points of view I don’t like.”
Which character would that be?
“Ruth in Never Let Me Go, because she was someone consumed by jealousy. To try and understand that was fascinating. Also playing a character I wouldn’t like is enjoyable. Anna Karenina, I think if I met her, I wouldn’t… I mean she’s a f***ing neurotic mess, so again trying to not judge her and work out how she got there is what interests me. Everyone always sees themselves as the hero, they always see themselves as right even if they hate themselves. I think it’s interesting to think about it from that angle.”
In terms of what comes next for Knightley, she may have returned to the dark side, as she puts it, but she’s keeping things varied. There’s Everest, a blockbuster with Jake Gyllenhaal, and The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, in which he plays the Enigma codecracker Alan Turing and Knightley his Bletchley Park colleague Joan Clarke.
“The roles that you take, or acting in general, is completely influenced by the life that you lead and the perspective that you have on the world,” she says. “It’s about what you’re interested in and the experiences that you’ve had.” She smiles and puts her cup down on the table. “So it’s a constantly changing thing.”
As to whether dipping her toe into the world of songwriting whetted her appetite, it seems not.
“My mind just doesn’t work like that. I love that it does for some people, obviously I’m married to one. But I don’t really listen to that much music. I think it’s terribly romantic, but it’s not where I go.
“What really fascinates me is how music is related to memory. People are like ‘This is summer 2006’, and they remember everything with a soundtrack.” She looks totally bemused.
I can’t wait to hear your Desert Island Discs I tell her.
“I won’t have a f***ing clue,” she says. “But I’d make it up.” She laughs.
• Begin Again is in cinemas from 11 July