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15 minutes with Keira Knightley

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
updated 9:43 AM EST, Wed November 23, 2011
Keira Knightley attended the U.K. premiere of
Keira Knightley attended the U.K. premiere of "A Dangerous Method" in October.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Keira Knightley is about to start a version of Anna Karenina with director Joe Wright
  • Wright directed Knightley in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement"
  • "I don't watch that many comedies. ... I naturally always gravitate towards drama"

(CNN) -- Keira Knightley was at the Toronto International Film Festival in September to help promote the North American premiere of David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method." I was one of those lucky enough to nab 15 minutes with the actress to discuss her role in the film, working with Cronenberg and a few other things.

According to the film's website, "A Dangerous Method" looks at "the turbulent relationships between fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them."

Knightley, who plays Spielrein, has had her appearance occasionally maligned in the media and by the public, but I will say that in person, yes she is slender and no, she is not "too skinny." She doesn't look at all unhealthy or awkward or any other of the pejoratives thrown her way. I was however, struck by her age. She's very famous and has been in about 20 films in the past nine years, so one can easily forget that she's only 26.

She was charming, engaging and a pleasure, which I suppose is her job but considering how frequently interviews with actors don't go that route, it's nice when it does.

The following is an edited version of the conversation:

CNN: You're known for really preparing for your roles. What kind of preparation did you do for this?

Keira Knightley: When I first read this one, I thought 'Wow this is amazing and I don't know anything about this and I never heard of this women and I have no idea what hysteria is or anything!' So I sort of really had to start from the ground up.

I phoned Christopher Hampton who wrote it, who also wrote the adaptation of "Atonement" that I did, and I said "OK, help!" and he went "Right. Come 'round" and handed me the biggest pile of books you've ever seen and said, "Well this is what I read, so it's somewhere in there. Good luck." And I was like "OK, good!" and so I went away and read as much as I could in the four months that I had before we started shooting.

CNN: It's a tale that hasn't been told, and it's sort of is amazing why people keep remaking things when there's still so much out there that we haven't seen.

Knightley: Yeah absolutely I think it's extraordinary. ... I didn't realize what a revolution it was and it's changed the way we think about the world, we think about each other, we think about ourselves and the way we relate to each other and ourselves. Its influence is so massive from our culture. And I didn't really know that, I didn't know when all of that started or anything like that. So yeah, it's fascinating!

CNN: Nobody thinks twice about that, nowadays. It's like: "What are you doing tomorrow?" "Oh, I've got therapy and then I'm going to dinner." Whereas then, it was like "Ooooh! Oooga booga!"

Knightley: Yeah, no it was completely ... it was revolutionary. In the beginning when Freud started talking, even in communities where people were dealing with mentally ill people when he started talking about sexuality, it was totally taboo. Let alone child sexuality, which still is (a taboo.) I think it's been quite interesting doing interviews about this film because a lot of people have found it very difficult to talk about, and that's completely understandable. It isn't an easy subject even now, let alone when they were first coming up with it.

CNN: Well basically I would assume that prior to the talking cure, prior to that concept, they would just lock people away.

Knightley: You know I think there were various different forms of attempted stimuli whether it was cold baths or hot baths or...

CNN: Opium.

Knightley: Opium, you know, I think there were various different things but yeah, pretty much they were locked away, and certainly for her, she had been thrown out of places for at least a year before she got admitted into the Burgholzli (a psychiatric hospital in Switzerland). She was thrown out of several asylums because they couldn't handle her. "There's no hope there's nothing we can do about her she's mad."

CNN: What kind of director is David (Cronenberg)? Is he collaborative or is he ...

Knightley: He's wonderful. I can't even describe ... it's the hardest thing to describe. He's like a magician. I don't know how he does it. He's completely collaborative. He manages to absolutely empower both his crew and all of his cast with the thought that you were the perfect person for the job so of course you can do it. It's an incredible thing. I've worked with very few people that can instill that kind of confidence in absolutely everybody. His actual set is very focused, very supportive, very collaborative, very respectful. So he is like a magician.

He doesn't necessarily say that much. We had no rehearsal whatsoever for this. We had very few discussions about it, but he sort of has this vibe of going: "Well, I've hired you so you do that bit and you're going to be perfect at that bit and I'm going to tell you when it's too much or too little or anything."

I think with some directors, and in particular with directors whose work you don't necessarily trust completely, that would be a near impossible thing. Whereas if you're working with somebody like Cronenberg, I'm a huge fan of his work, so you go, "OK, well, I totally trust your taste, so cool, we'll try this and if I go to far, then I know you're going to pull me back, and if I don't, then I know you're going to say do more. So you feel like you're in very safe hands.

CNN: And I guess your research for the role was your rehearsal. You can't rehearse being dragged kicking and screaming out of a carriage too often.

Knightley: No absolutely. And I think that was also it, when you're working with somebody like him who has such a breadth of knowledge on the subject anyway. You kind of want to make sure you're bringing stuff to the table that's relevant. That's good because he knows so much about it. He does have that ability, particularly within me, to make me go "OK step up to the plate here" because this guy knows what he's talking about.

CNN: It's interesting to hear a Brit use a baseball reference.

Knightley: Really weird, yeah! I've obviously spent too long in America.

CNN: Was there any discussion beforehand about the accents?

Knightley: Yeah, that was one of the first things he said. He said two things to me. Sort of when I accepted the role, and we were going to do it, he said, "One: whatever the tick is I want it on the face because I'm going to shoot a lot in close up and two: I want mid-Atlantic with a blush of Russian."

And I went, "OK I have no idea what that is, but OK." And we discussed it, he said "You know, how did you feel about the Russian accent, do you want to do it, do you not want to do it?" And we discussed how the fact that she was going through this incredibly progressive treatment in a language that was not her mother tongue says an awful lot about the intellect of the woman.The fact that she could express herself so completely in German as opposed to Russian. The fact that she was in another country .... it is a huge thing character-wise. So we did discuss maybe not doing that. Maybe doing just the same thing as the other guys, but the fact that she wasn't speaking her native language we both thought was very important for the character.

CNN: Do you feel more at home doing comedy or doing drama. Do you care, or is it just about the material?

Knightley: It is just about the material. I don't watch that many comedies. I do watch some of them, but I naturally always gravitate towards drama. Tragedy more than comedy. I don't know why that is. I think it could be its cathartic quality I suppose, in watching it and in playing it.

I've just done a comedy, it is a very black comedy, but it's a comedy and it was fascinating. I've just worked with Steve Carell and I mean, Jesus! He's amazing! He's also one of the loveliest men in the entire world. He's just extraordinary to watch. He's so talented, and it's something I don't know at all. So it was a really interesting thing just watching him, he's kind of a master at that and trying to figure out how it worked, it was really interesting. But I do think that my natural taste goes more towards drama than comedy.

CNN: What's next for you?

Knightley: Next is, I'm about to start a version of Anna Karenina, which we start shooting in a week and a half, with Joe Wright, who directed me in "Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement," so it'll be our third kind of collaboration, which is very exciting! Very daunting but very exciting.

CNN: Have you seen "Hanna?" (Also directed by Wright.)

Knightley: I haven't seen "Hanna." No it's really annoying me. I think I was in America when it was in England and then when I was in England it was in America, so I completely missed it. So I'll get it on DVD.

CNN: It's pretty brilliant.

Knightley: I feel incredibly fortunate to have the relationship that I do with (Wright). He sort of phoned up and said: "Alright I'm not doing this unless you say yes, so say yes." It's an amazing thing when you've got a filmmaker like that, who is such a collaborator and I feel very lucky to have the relationship that I do with him. And it's been equally amazing with David and there are a few other directors who I think have been incredibly supportive who I'm incredibly grateful to.

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