It’s only been seven years since Keira Knightley‘s breakout role in Gurinder Chanda’s Bend It Like Beckham, but the actress, who turns 24 years old later this month, has become one of the most reliable and bankable female stars, especially when it comes to period dramas.
In her new movie The Edge of Love, released by Capitol Films in L.A. and New York over the next couple weeks, she plays Vera Phillips, the childhood sweetheart of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, played by Matthew Rhys, the two of them reunited in war-torn London causing acrimony with his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and her prospective suitor, soldier William Killick (Cillian Murphy). As the four of them move to the Welsh countryside to escape the war, the two women become entangled in an acrimonious friendship until Dylan tries to rekindle his earlier romance with Vera.
In recent years, ComingSoon.net has covered most of Ms. Knightley’s films, and as she’s built her star reputation from appearing in one of the top grossing trilogies of all time and being nominated for an Oscar for Pride & Prejudice, she has tended to gravitate towards larger press conferences. For this film, a smaller movie with more of a personal connection for the actress, ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to talk on the phone… which we had to do the morning of a crazy junket with lots of technicians yelling nearby. We pushed through and had a fun time talking to the generally affable actress.
ComingSoon.net: I remember hearing about this movie a year or two ago when you started filming and even when you talked about it at Toronto last year, I thought of it as “the Dylan Thomas movie” but I guess it’s a little more than that. Keira Knightley: Yeah, it’s a film about a friendship group and one of them happens to be Dylan Thomas, I’d say, as oppose to “a Dylan Thomas movie.”
CS: It’s also a very different movie than the last one you did with (director) John Maybury. Was he on board first or how did the two of you get involved with doing another movie together? Knightley: No, actually, it was my Mum who wrote it and she gave it to me when I was doing “The Jacket” actually just to give her some notes, which she does occasionally. I just read it and thought it was completely wonderful and fascinating and I said, “Look, there’s a producer here and I really like him. Why don’t I give it to him, ’cause maybe he can give me some notes and help with it as well?” I ended up handing it to this producer and he said, “Is this something you’re interested in?” and I sort of said “Yes,” more to get him to read it than anything else, and that was how I started to be a part of it. We’d always wanted John to do it, but at that point, I think we sent it to him I think with a bottle of champagne and a cake with a poem–I wish I could remember what the poem said–to try to get him to read it. John, being John, didn’t, so there was another director attached and then a couple of years down the road, after many different rewrites, he suddenly came back and said, “You know that script you wanted to try to get me to read? I didn’t, well can I read it ’cause I think I might be interested.” It was sort of a happy accident.
CS: Did you say your Mum wrote this? Knightley: Yes, yes.
CS: Oh, really? I read that one of the producers was related to your character as well. Knightley: Yeah, one of the producers, Rebekah Gilbertson, is the granddaughter of Vera and William Killick in real life, so it was her that originally went to my Mum when Rebekah was a student at film school. I think it was the National Film School here, and there’s a mentoring program and she had a student who went, “Look, I have this idea. Would you write me a treatment?” and Mum thought it was a great idea and did it for free and it sort of went from there. Nearly everybody they showed the treatment to went, “God, this is a really good idea” so it started like that and then they finally got it made about seven years later.
CS: Are Rebekah’s grandparents still alive? Knightley: No, they’re not. No. Her Mum and various of their children are still around and they were really fantastic and very supportive so that was good.
CS: When you played Georgiana in “The Duchess,” there probably weren’t any people alive who knew her and were there, but I was curious whether you were able to talk to anyone who knew the character you play in this. Knightley: No. To tell you the truth, I didn’t take it going… I didn’t really do a characterization of what I think she would have been like, for example. She probably wouldn’t have had a very Welsh accent, she’d probably have had more of an English accent, and it was one of the things my Mum said as soon as she started, she said, “I’ve got to make this into a fiction.” There was a shooting, there was a trial and all of that is true but a lot of things within it are fictitious and the relationships again… nobody was there, nobody really knows what they said, nobody really knows what went on, so that was all kind of fabricated. I took license to make her up myself more than really basing her on the actual woman.
CS: I was wondering about the accent, because I assumed Vera had been in London for a long time so it wouldn’t seem like she’d still have a very strong Welsh accent. Knightley: It was more of a class thing actually. It was more that at that point, she was very middle class and they really tried to eradicate the Welsh accent and the language. Dylan Thomas actually had this amazing, really “RP” (Received Pronunciation) speaking voice and a lot of the Welsh thought it was disgusting that he got rid of his own accent and was speaking in this English one. I just thought for the character, I wanted you to feel where she’d come from. I wanted there to be very much an essence of the place and it is an extraordinary country with an extraordinary heritage and half my family is Welsh. I took the decision that I wanted her to be possibly Welsh than she would have actually been in life, at least accent-wise.
CS: Would you have had the option or chance to play Dylan’s wife Caitlin if you had wanted to? Knightley: Yeah, my Mum actually wrote Caitlin for me.
CS: Was there a particular reason why you chose to play Vera instead? Knightley: No, no, there wasn’t a particular reason. I work very instinctively. I can’t really put it down like that. I just for some reason really responded to Vera, so then she said “Okay, if you’re playing Vera, then Vera’s going to sing” because being my mother, she’s always thought that I could sing and I’ve always said that I couldn’t so she said that was the only way, so she started writing more and more songs into the script as we went along. I was saying, “My God, I definitely can’t do this. This is ridiculous” but it was her payback for me not wanting to play Caitlin. (chuckles)
CS: I have to be honest that I was really surprised that was you singing. I don’t think we’ve really heard you do any singing, maybe at all. Knightley: No, no, I mean, no, I’ve never done it before, so it was completely terrifying. I mean really good fun, it was great. They got me a teacher and I got to go into a room with a piano and sing my heart out for a couple of hours each day and that was fantastic, but it was actually terrifying. Normally, you don’t do it live, you record it and then on the day of shooting you lipsync to your own voice, and I’d done that and I’d gone into a studio and I’d recorded it. About half an hour before I was meant to go on set, John the director came up to me and said, “Okay, I want you to do it live” and I went, “You’re kidding” so all of a sudden there’s a hundred extras and about fifty crew. I’ve sang in a choir when I was about five or six but in my adult life, I’ve never sung in front of people. I nearly died. It was absolutely terrifying. For the first take, I sound like a pubescent boy and I could feel these faces going “Oh My God, she’s terrible” and then I had a shot of vodka and it was alright after that.
CS: Even your voice sounds like the singers of the day which must be very hard to do. Even trained singers would have to work hard to get that style and sound. Knightley: Yeah, I don’t know. I love that era anyway, and John was fantastic and got me tons and tons of, lots of Al Bowlly and things like that, so I was listening to a lot of ’40s singers and again, I had a voice teacher so we would just try to find something that sounded very authentic to that time. Also, the songs I was singing were so specific to that time as well that it sort of all came together really, so that was lucky.
CS: You mentioned you’re a fan of the era, and I have to ask because people who see this might see it as an extension of “Atonement” since you basically start the movie where you ended there and there’s the war and things like that. Knightley: (laughs) You mean in the Underground? (spoiler for “Atonement” ahead!) Luckily I didn’t die in this one (laughs) but yes, I know what you mean. I don’t know if it’s an extension. I’d sign onto to do this film before “Atonement” came up, and this one, it was meant to go the summer that “Atonement” went and then all of a sudden, the money fell through and Joe offered me “Atonement” and I jumped. There’s something about this period and these young people that literally had bombs falling around them, death falling from the sky, and how they clung to life, sort of reading history. I think the preconception that we have about that time, based mostly on the ’40s movies you see, is one of incredible innocence and that’s partly because censorship was so high that you have this image, but when you read into it, you find there’s things like the STD rate went skyrocketing. Pregnancies out of marriage went skyrocketing. They were living because they never knew whether they were going to die tomorrow, and I think that’s kind of an amazing thing as far as looking at a character. This one more than “Atonement” but looking at these people that are trying to grab onto life with everything that they’ve got and making mistakes, obviously, because you do, but living very intensely in that moment. I thought that was fascinating.
CS: I get the impression that Dylan Thomas would have been like that in any era whatsoever. I just have this feeling. Knightley: Yeah, yeah.
CS: Was this generally a lower budget production than some of the other movies you’ve been making lately and a little smaller-scale? Knightley: Yeah, it was. It was about half the budget, less than half the budget of “Atonement” so it was small, particularly when you’re doing period pieces. They’re more expensive than doing modern day pieces so it’s difficult with smaller budgets, but I tend to think that’s also when you get creative or when everybody has to get creative so I find it quite exciting as well. It was quite a short shoot, we only had seven weeks, and if you compare that to something like “Atonement” which had I think about three months, it was definitely condensed. It felt good. John works in a very he literally gives you one take. You occasionally get two or three but he’s really rather pissed off if he has to give you two or three, so you move very quickly. Film sets can be very slow places, so it was actually very exciting to work with that speed, I really enjoyed it.
CS: About how much time did you end up spending in the Welsh cottage with Sienna and Matthew in that environment? Knightley: We were all living in a hotel. We were sort of there for must have been about four weeks, which was great. They were both amazing, so we had a bit of a riot, which was great, and then we went back to London for another three weeks.
CS: You’ve been keeping pretty busy. I think we’ve generally been seeing one movie a year from you, but you’ve been stepping that up a little bit? Knightley: Yeah, I only did one film last year so I’ll only have well, there’ll be two films coming out this year, but I definitely have not taken as many films as I had previously. I’ve had amazing opportunities and I took all of them (laughs) and I think I’ve gotten to the point now where I sort of went, “I just need not to move for a minute or two and actually just be in one place with friends and family” because you’re living on your own in strange places with people you don’t know an awful lot and I think I just needed to touch base again. It’s been really great not to work as much, but saying that, I’m starting something at the end of the month and I’m really raring to go. I’m a bit of a workaholic I think but it was great to take some time off.
CS: Is that the William Monaghan or the Mark Romanek movie? Knightley: It’s the Mark Romanek movie (“Never Let Me Down”) which is very exciting.
CS: That’s a sci-fi thriller? Knightley: Well, it’s not really. Have you read the book?
CS: No, I haven’t. Knightley: You should read the book. It’s fascinating. I haven’t quite figured out how to describe it yet. It’s not really sci-fi. It’s set in a parallel kind of present day, although it could be a couple of years earlier, but it’s a very quiet, very interesting piece, so it should be very exciting. I highly recommend the book. It’s very strange, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it sci-fi.
CS: Did you end up doing the Zelda Fitzgerald movie (“The Beautiful and the Damned”) yet? Knightley: That’s later on this year, probably at the end of the year.
CS: I have to ask you about this but a while ago, you were attached to a remake of “My Fair Lady,” which is fairly obvious casting. I’m not sure you heard recently that Danny Boyle might be interested in directing that, so is that something you’re still or wherever interested in doing? Knightley: Yeah, it’s just one of those things. I went up for it about two years ago, and it’s been a process of trying to get directors, trying to get other cast members and write to music and remake rights and all that, and I think it’s slowly but surely coming together, so fingers crossed, it should be great.
CS: So that’s something you might still do? Knightley: At this point, things go up and down and I don’t think anybody really knows for sure what anybody is doing but it’s definitely something I’d be interested in doing, and the people they’ve spoken to me about directing it are very exciting so I think it’s potentially a very exciting project.
CS: Have you been producing more or getting more into that avenue in recent years? Knightley: Yes, I think eventually I’d be very interested in doing that more. I think I’ve said an awful lot about there not being enough roles for women in film, and I tend to think that instead of just saying that, you should actually do something to create more, so yeah, maybe one day. Yes I helped with this simply because it came around in such a strange way, and obviously, having an higher profile as far as acting goes, my name helps to get some of the money, which is fantastic. So yeah, maybe in the future I’ll focus on that a bit more, that would be good. I’d feel like a grown-up if I did that, which is always good.
CS: You mentioned taking some time off and being closer to home. It’s been a couple years since you finished the “Pirates” in the Bahamas but Disney’s gearing up to try and revive the series. Do you think Elizabeth’s story is done at this point or do you think you might be back doing that someday? Knightley: No, I think Elizabeth’s story is over, I suspect. Who knows?