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Interview with Keira Knightley, star of Atonement

Keira Knightley stars in Atonement, a romantic drama directed by Joe Wright, about Cecilia (Keira Knightley), a young woman separated from her lover, Robbie (James McAvoy), when her younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan) accuses him of rape. Throughout her young adulthood, Briony (now played by Romola Gorai) gradually feels guilta about her wrongful accusation. Based on the novel by Ian McEwan. This is the second time Keira Knightley has worked with director Joe Wright after staring in his previous film, Pride and Prejudice. She has also stared in all three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Love Actually, King Arthur, and Bend it Like Beckham, which ignited her stardom. I had the privilege to interview her.

Focus Features releases Atonement on December 7th, 2007.

NYC Movie Guru: What was it like working with director Joe Wright again?

Keira Knightley: It was much easier. I mean, we've always had an incredible creative relationship. I've been very lucky. I think the chemistry between actor and director is as rare as on-screen chemistry between actors, and for some reason we've just always clicked. And actually it got to the point in Atonement where he didn't even need to say anything, I just kind of knew what he wanted, which is an amazing place to be. Hes a friend, and we really get on. So it's always a very happy working relationship. But he wants collaboration from everybody, and he wants discussion, and I find that very exciting.

NYC Movie Guru: Is it true Joe offered you a different role?

KK: Yeah, he did. He originally offered me Briony in the film, the middle Briony, and I read the script and it made me just sob and sob and sob, but for some reason I had totally fallen in love with Cecilia. So we went out for lunch and I pitched him Cecilia, and he pitched me Briony, and we were obviously both so good that we managed to convince each other, so by the end of the thing he wanted me to play Cecilia and I wanted to play Briony, which got very confusing. So it took another two lunches I think to actually sort out what I was going to play. I'm glad it was Cecilia though. [Laughs]

NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you like about your character?

KK: I saw her incredibly clearly from the first time that I read the script, and then even more so when I read the book. I think that she's a brilliantly drawn character. I think that she's quite a difficult woman. She's not particularly nice when you first meet her at the start of the film, but I thought that there was incredible humanity to her. And I love the different layers of her. And I love the fact that - I'm saying this and it sounds very snotty - but she is kind of redeemed by love and redeemed by sacrifice, by walking away from the family and the rest of it.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of research did you do for the role?

KK: I've always been fascinated by the period. I think that anybody who lives in London, and a lot of cities in Britain, you can't help but see the scars of the second World War all over the city. So it's difficult not to be interested by it. So, yes, I did. I really liked researching it. I loved researching the British films of that time period because although I knew a lot of the American ones, I didn't know the British ones as well. We had about three weeks' rehearsal before we started, and a lot of that time was actually spent watching mostly David Lean, Noel Coward collaborations like In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter on a loop really, which was completely fantastic.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How does the hype of Atonement affect you?

KK: I think it's always wonderful when you're involved with a film that people actually like, and what's fantastic about this is that the hype is based on the fact that we've got fantastic reviews that people have gone to see it in the countries that it's come out and so far they've really loved it. So that's positive. I think when you start talking about Oscars and you're mentioning that in the same sentence as the film, then that's always going to be good. It means something's gone right. I think often it can sometimes mean if you don't get the nominations then it's somehow seen as a failure, and I don't agree with that. I think that if we got nominations, then that would be completely fantastic, obviously it would be amazing. If not, this is a project we're all really, really proud of, and it won't de-value my estimation of the project if we don't get these nominations.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like working with Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer?

KK: I loved working with [her] on this film. I worked with her on Pride and Prejudice as well, and she's fantastic because she opens the discussion and realizes how important clothes are for the character that's being played, and therefore she always asks the actor their opinion, which a lot of costume designers don't do. I find it's very important to know why my character would have chosen certain clothes.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did the rehearsal period help you during the filming period? KK: Rehearsal is, if I say it's rare, that's an understatement in film. You never get any, and if you do, it may be like an afternoon of talking about vague ideas with the director, but really you don't get much more than that. It was amazing in this because it was a time where we could just try out our ideas, and where it didn't matter because it wasn't on film so you could make accidents, and you could make mistakes, and you could talk about everything. It was so that everybody would be on the same page, and for a film like Atonement which is quite a stylized piece, you know we're doing a 1940's-style of acting. It was very important that everybody was on the same page. It just meant that we'd done our homework, that we felt completely prepared by the time that we got to set so that there weren't any surprises about what would work and what wouldn't. So by the time we got to set instead of trying to go, "Oh, that line doesn't work" or "This doesn't work, so how are we going to fix it in about ten minutes," we were actually going, "Alright, we know how this works, so let's try and take it to the next level." So I thought it was a wonderful way of doing things.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How helpful for you was the novel Atonement by Ian McEwan?

KK: It's incredibly helpful, because it was like having the most fantastic imprint. And particularly Ian McEwan - he writes internal monologues, so you see completely what your character is thinking. If they're behaving badly, like Cecilia is at the beginning, you understand why. So as an actor that's fantastic because it's doing half your job for you, basically. I've done [an adaptation] of a biography recently, and that wasn't as helpful because the script had taken one view of her, and the biography had taken quite a different one, at which point you have to go, "Okay, well I'm making the film, and I've got to stick to this." But for Atonement, it was very helpful.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was your favorite book as a child?

KK: I think actually it was Pride and Prejudice. I was totally obsessed from about the age of eight onwards.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like kissing co-star James McAvoy?

KK: He's an amazing kisser. I actually said that because I'd been asked a million times who was better, between Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, and I stupidly thought I was being clever by going, "Ha, James McAvoy, so shut up," but now all that's going on is going "So, James McAvoy's a better kisser than Johnny Depp?" They're all wonderful kissers, they've got nothing to worry about.

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