Does Keira Knightley ever get to take a break? She’s without question one of the industry’s foremost young actresses, but since her 2002 breakthrough in “Bend It Like Beckham,” she’s also seemed hell-bent on proving herself the hardest working. In the past three years alone, she’s appeared in two blockbusting installments of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” snagged a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the lauded Ian McEwan adaptation “Atonement,” strapped on a corset for “The Duchess” and shrugged out of one for “Silk.” But she assures she’s had her fair share of time off: “I am sort of chomping at the bit to get going. I got tired, and I wanted to be hungry for it again. And I am very hungry for it now and I can’t wait to start.”
Knightley’s latest role is as Vera Phillips, the childhood flame that poet Dylan Thomas (played by Matthew Rhys) re-encounters in a war-torn London in “The Edge of Love.” The drama, based loosely on events from Thomas’ life, traces the triangle that forms between him, his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller) and his former sweetheart. When Vera marries William Killick (Cillian Murphy), an officer who’s called away to combat, the uneasy friendship the three have formed begins to fall apart. The film reunites Knightley with John Maybury, who directed her in “The Jacket,” and finds her for the first time working off a script written by her mother, playwright Sharman Macdonald. I got a chance to chat with Knightley about female friendships, period costumes and her singing voice.
I’d imagine playing a character who works as a nightclub singer, as Vera does, is many a girl’s dream role — it’s a very specific sort of glamorous.
I’ve always enjoyed watching Marlene Dietrich’s films. She always does that sort of thing very well, doesn’t she? But I don’t really have anything specific that I’m desperate to do on film. If I read it and for some reason the fancy takes me then I’ll go with it. It’s more instinct than anything else. But it was a lot of fun.
You’ve expressed reservations about the fact that you actually sing in the film in earlier interviews. Do you feel better about it now that it’s played and people seem quite positive?
It went down well, it sounded all right, and people haven’t been too horrendous about it, so yes, I suppose it’s okay. [laughs] It was completely terrifying at the time, and it didn’t stop being terrifying. It took about a day and a half to film, and I think I was terrified from morning, noon, til night. It seemed like a very long day and a half. I had a fantastic singing coach and did a couple of lessons before actually having to do it, and I really enjoyed that. It was the whole singing live in front of people that terrified me.
So we shouldn’t expect an indie rock album from you any time soon?
No, I don’t think so. [laugh]
You’ve played several characters based on real life figures. Is there a difference in how you prepare? Do you research, go back and look at photos…?
With “The Duchess,” I was much more specific. I read her book, and other books where she’s featured. With [“The Edge of Love”], I have to say I didn’t look into the actual woman that much, partly because there isn’t actually that much [out there]. Her granddaughter is one of the producers, which was very exciting, but I took a hell of a lot of artistic license with my portrayal of Vera. I didn’t try and go for something like how she actually was. I mean I sort of figured that my mom had done a lot of research as far as the script went and that I’d just take my own interpretation from the script.
Is it more challenging to play a role in which you’re dealing with someone who actually existed, or to play a character like “Pride & Prejudice”‘s Elizabeth Bennet, who never existed, but might as well have for all of the strong ideas people have about how she should sound and look?
Elizabeth Bennet is a very specific one because it’s such a well-loved book character, it comes with a lot of baggage. Most of the women who read that book see themselves as Elizabeth Bennet, so that’s quite a daunting thing, particularly for a 19-year-old, as I was. With [“The Edge of Love”], it’s based on reality. The friendship did occur, they did live in Wales together, there was a shooting, there was a trial. But as far as the stuff in between, it is a dramatization, so I think there’s been a lot of artistic license. There’s pressure on every single part you play. I don’t necessarily feel more for somebody that actually existed as opposed to somebody that didn’t.