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Atonement - Keira Knightley interview

Keira Knightley in Atonement

Interview by Rob Carnevale

KEIRA Knightley talks about some of the challenges of bringing a popular literary character to the big screen in Atonement and the kind of research she carried out for the role.

She also discusses how she went about tackling the big sex scene in the film and why she also enjoyed keeping a stiff upper lip and returning to a different set of values…

Q. Were you aware of the novel before doing the film?
Keira Knightley: I hadn’t read the book. I read the book before I did the film, but not before I got the script.

Q. In terms of expectations, Cecilia is fixed in many people’s minds? Did that make her a daunting character to play?
Keira Knightley: I think it’s always quite daunting to try and do an adaptation of a book that people are so passionate about. Speaking to people, they really love this book. Of course, everyone’s imagination is going to go off in a different way. They’re all going to see these characters as different people. Hopefully, what you can do is present them with a totally new version of it and if you can do that well, that’s great – but yes, it is always quite daunting.

Q. What research did you do into the period? And what insight did that help to give into your character?
Keira Knightley: There’s a great book called Wartime Britain 1939-1945 which does exactly what it says on the tin, which I found quite helpful – not particularly obviously for the 1936 section [of the film]. We also had a historian come in and talk to us, to talk about where they were politically in 1936, because we were all saying: “It was all leading up to the war…” but they wouldn’t have known that for sure and that was a big thing to try and get into our heads.

Also a huge question was whether Cecilia would have been a virgin or not, and how likely it would have been for her to have had any other experience when she was at Cambridge. It was interesting to hear how you [Wright] wanted her to be a complete virgin, and the historian said she probably wouldn’t have been – she probably would have had, in her words, “a bit of a fiddle”! Joe got us to watch David Lean movies – In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter.

Q. Cecilia isn’t the most likeable of characters – was part of the challenge for you to make her more sympathetic?
Keira Knightley: I didn’t try to make her any more sympathetic than I thought she was. I don’t think that I thought she was a horrible person. I think what was interesting about her is that she’s probably a good person and she’s going through this particular period where she’s being horrible to people for no particular reason. You’re looking at this period where the stiff upper lip is at its peak, and she’s certainly somebody whose emotions are repressed and who doesn’t find it easy to tell everyone what’s going on. I think she’s bubbling with emotions and rage and she’s a bit like a pressure cooker about to explode. I didn’t try to make her any more sympathetic than I think she was. I think in the book it’s quite clear what’s going on, and for me, in that section, I used it as a bit of a blueprint really. I totally understood why she was behaving in the way she was.

Q. How did you feel about shooting the love scene?
Keira Knightley: It’s part of my job – I’m an actress. It’s very obvious in this film that that love scene is incredibly important. I think all you’ve got as an actress is your face, your body and what’s inside your head and your voice – those are my tools, and I have to use them. Obviously, it’s never going to be the most comfortable thing to do, especially when your mate’s directing you. You come to it and suddenly go, “oh s**t, I don’t really want to….”

But it then became a laugh and it’s fine. It was important that that scene was incredibly erotic and passionate – you have to believe as an audience that those characters based on that moment wait for each other for four or five years. Joe was brilliant, he totally storyboarded the whole thing, from the foot rising out of the shoe and biting the lip, so we knew exactly what we were going into, which makes it a lot easier. You have to deal with these things, particularly when it’s that important a scene. What’s wonderful, I think, and what I thought at the time was very clever, is not showing anything. You don’t see anything and yet I do believe that it’s 10 times more erotic than most love scenes where you see absolutely everything, they’re gratuitous and sort of pointless, and this one certainly wasn’t. So it was actually quite exciting to do.

Q. How hard was it to show the passion and maintain the stiff upper lip?
Keira Knightley: In a funny way that’s why I really enjoyed looking at particularly Celia Johnson because she has this incredible ability to perhaps not say what she’s feeling, but you know exactly what’s going on. I think it was a really exciting thing – it’s everything that’s not said, that’s important, and it really added to the entire tension, the fact that these people aren’t able to do what we do today, and say: “This is exactly what’s going on, this is what the problem is…” Socially they can’t do that and therefore it’s all about inner conflict and it’s all bubbling beneath the surface. In a funny way, I think I found it quite liberating. It was more enjoyable to keep it all in. It was an amazing experience.

b>Read our review of Atonement

b>Read our interview with James McAvoy