Before speaking with Keira Knightley about her new movie A Dangerous Method, I took another glance over her lengthy list of previous roles. She’s really done a little of everything—action (The Pirates Trilogy), comedy (Bend It Like Beckham), romance (Pride and Prejudice), sci-fi (Never Let Me Go) and a few projects that are nearly unclassifiable (The Jacket). Not surprising, considering she’s one of the most versatile, in-demand actresses working today. The real shocking part? She’s only twenty-six!
With so much of her career ahead of her, it’s no wonder why Knightley is branching out, starring in one of the truly daring films of 2011. In Method, the actress co-stars as Sabina Spielrein, a young girl stricken by dementia who finds a cure through her own budding interest in psychoanalytics. Her doctor and mentor is the famed Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who helps her overcome her physical and mental issues through correspondence with his own colleague, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Jung and Spielrein’s relationship complicates when their work evolves into a lustful romance.
Knightley spoke to me on her day off from a new movie to discuss A Dangerous Method, digging deep into the clouded mind of her character, working with legendary director David Cronenberg and why crafting intense drama doesn’t stop her from having a swell time:
I was trying to figure out where you would be exactly, since I believe you’re in the middle of filming?
Keira Knightley: I’m in the middle of filming Anna Karenina, but I’ve actually got the day off. So I’m sitting in Shoreditch House in London.
Well, extra thanks for talking to me! Your character, Sabina Spielrein, is a real person, ingrained in history. Where did your relationship with her life begin? How much research did you have to do to prepare to embody her?
KK: I’d never heard of her before, so when I read the script, that was the first time I knew anything about her. I thought she was fascinating. But the idea of playing her, I thought, ‘Wow this is daunting.’ Quite often when you play characters, you understand them on an emotional level. You go, ‘OK, she’s sad because of this, I get that.’ But with her there was really nothing. I had no idea why she would want to behave like that, or what would cause that kind of behavior. So I immediately phoned up Christopher Hampton who wrote the screenplay and the play it was based on. So I phoned him and said, ‘I’m going to play it…HELP.’
So I went to his house and he basically handed me an enormous pile of books and he said, ‘start reading.’ So I spent four months reading as much as I possibly could about the subject. There’s actually very little about her, except for the book that the screenplay is based on, by John Kerr (A Most Dangerous Method). And then there was…I was lucky enough to find a book called Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis, a collection of essays written about her, and also translations of some of her diary entries and Jung’s original notes. So I worked from that for quite a bit, and that was helpful. I also spoke with a couple of psychiatrists, including the one that compiled that book, a Jungian analyst. Just about the nature of what she was suffering from, sadomasochistic personalities, that kind of thing.
It was completely fascinating. But when you’re playing someone who’s mad—I don’t like that word—but as much as their behavior to the outside world seems illogical, it’s completely logical to them. So you try to answer the questions of why this is the way this person must behave. What has driven them to this particular way?
Considering the state Sabina is in at the beginning the film, was physicality a big part in realizing your character?
KK: No…I think the first part was the script. For her, she was ravaged by tics, hysterical fits. But what does that mean? What is a hysterical fit? So I went to Christopher and he said, ‘Well, anything you want, really.’ And then I spoke to the psychiatrist and asked her ‘what is a tic?’ And she said, ‘Well, it can be anything.’
KK: Yeah. So believe or not, there weren’t very specific descriptions of exactly what it was. So I did a lot of reading, and the physical side was based on a part of her diary where she describes herself as a dog or a demon. I thought it might be quite interesting to show that. So it was and Francis Bacon paintings, which were quite good for understanding internal struggle.
Really? Which paintings?
KK: Francis Bacon’s Study for a Crucifixion. There were three of them and they were all weirdly helpful. And then I got on Skype with David and started making faces and asked him which ones he liked.
So there was a video Skype call that was just you making weird faces at David Cronenberg.
KK: Yup, pretty much. And give him an idea of the accent. In a conversation before he said he wanted “mid-Atlantic with a blush of Russian” and wanted the tics to be not funny and ‘on your face.’ So I said, ‘OK,” went away for a few months then came back and did a little show and tell.
So how much time did you spend making faces at yourself in the mirror?
KK: Oh, a good couple of hours, really. Just making faces. It was like, ‘Oh, that one looks horrible, I think I’ll make that one!’
How did you and David work together to discover the right tone, to figure out what worked and what didn’t?
KK: Well, it’s kind of amazing. I don’t know how he does it, really. There weren’t many discussions. I didn’t meet him physically until the first day on set—or rather, the day before the first day when he saw what I planned to do. But before that, he’s like a horse whisperer. He creates this calm, creative atmosphere that makes everyone believe they’re exactly the right person to be there. It’s the most empowering, amazing thing ever.
It’s very tricky to make this film, especially with hysterics. This is a strange thing to say, but on film I think depression works really well because it’s a kind of low energy, internalized thing, which you can pull people into. Hysteria is very highly energized that pushes people away. In another director’s hands I would have been very concerned about playing this part, but because he’s so brilliant, his taste is so wonderful he knows when to go really far and then when to pull things back. He basically said, ‘go as far as you can and I’ll pull you back.’
So it sounds like you didn’t have too much time to prepare before showing up to set. Were you able to rehearse with Viggo and Michael? Or does it just happen on set?
KK: Exactly. That’s the weird thing about David, it just happened! I have no idea. We got to Cologne, which is where we were shooting and I said, ‘OK, should we rehearse?’ and he was like, ‘no.’ I think me and Michael went out for a night of of drinking quite a lot of martinis. ‘Hello! Nice to meet you!’ And then we were on set.
I’m beginning to think all great movies are born from long nights of drinking.
KK: Well, I think it was actually the day before the first day. I wouldn’t have been very with it if it was the day before. [Laughs] We did have one day before, where David took us on set, and we started with those kind of character scenes and he told us how he was thinking of shooting it and we went through it once. Literally we went, ‘Yup. Fine. Great.’
Did the intensity of the on-screen action bleed over into the behind-the-scenes atmosphere? Is it a worry that you’ll carry around emotional baggage while not on set?
KK: Oh, no, it was so fun, so happy. I was so grateful it was these people. It was the opposite of what you would think when you watch the film—we didn’t take it home. I spent four months on my own researching it and knew it quite well, so I knew what it was going to be and it was just a question of getting it out. Once it was out, it was out. That’s quite nice!
After this movie, I can’t imagine Viggo and Michael palling around and smiling.
KK: But they’re hilarious together! Absolutely hysterical, like a comedy duo. That’s what’s so weird about the whole thing.
Apparently they need to do a buddy comedy! After delving into the world of psychoanalytic, do you suddenly find yourself analyzing everyone?
KK: [Laughs] No, no, it’s really annoying! The research was so specifically into her, I haven’t retained any knowledge whatsoever. I read some amazing books, but I was only looking for things to use to play the character. So, no, as my study goes, it was a complete failure. But for studying for the part, it was very useful!