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James McAvoy and Keira Knightley – On the Day of Atonement

Updated: May 7, 2023

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley

On the Day of Atonement

by Jay S. Jacobs

Playing the star-crossed lovers whose entire futures are blown apart by a little girl’s unfair allegation in Atonement, British actors James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, The Chronicles of Narnia) and Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice, Pirates of the Caribbean) radiate a palpable sense of lust and loss.  Both are sure to be nominated for many awards as the young, aloof heiress and the shy servant’s son who find love and then have it ripped from them inexplicably – only to set them adrift in separate tragic directions.

Possibly even stronger than the performances by these two are the women who play the little sister whose false accusation destroys all three lives.  The character is played by three different actresses in a period covering decades – Saiorse Ronan plays Briony as a little girl, Romola Garai takes the role as a young woman and Vanessa Redgrave cameos as the character as an old woman.

Based on the beloved 2001 novel by Ian McEwan, the film of Atonement reunites Knightley with her Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright.  Sketching the life of three people over a decade – going from a glamorous British country estate to the ravaged battlefields of World War II – the film weaves an inspirational tapestry of beauty and sadness.  The movie floats effortlessly from the tranquil affluence of the early scenes to the hellish battle scenes – including arguably the most expertly filmed single scene in this year’s movies, a five minute-plus unbroken take essaying the battleground at Dunkirk.

A few days before the film was given a limited release – just in time to make it a potential contender for the 2008 Academy Awards – film stars James McAvoy and Keira Knightley sat down with us at the Regency Hotel in New York to discuss the movie and their careers.

James, what chemistry did you and Keira have?  Was it hard?

James McAvoy: People always go on about chemistry like it’s separate from acting and I don’t know that it is.  I don’t know that it is.  I’ve watched some people acting who don’t even like [each other] that have chemistry.  I’ve seen people very much in love with each other and it’s just fucking bad.  And they are good actors, as well.

Keira, could you talk about the chemistry between you and James?  He had his comments.  Let’s hear yours…

Keira Knightley: (laughs) Well I know what his comments are.  And I agree with it.  I should imagine that he said something along the lines of “it’s our job, acting.”  (laughs)

Sort of, yeah…  He did say more.

Keira Knightley: And it is.  I think it has a lot [to do with] it was a fantastic script, a great director.  We really got on.  I think he’s a sensational actor.  Working with him was really, really exciting.

James McAvoy: I don’t know.  We got on really well.  We both were very serious about this film.  We both loved these characters.  We quite quickly cottoned on in rehearsals that we were on similar pages.  We had similar views on what was going to work and what wouldn’t.  It felt like we both had an ally, really.  We both had someone backing each other up.  Not that we needed it.  It wasn’t like we were in the face of some tyrannical director who we didn’t believe in.  We felt backed up by him, too.  We just felt supported.  Also, when you can have a good laugh with somebody, you can communicate with somebody freely… when you can do that, you can start having that thing… chemistry, I suppose.

Keira Knightley: I think as far as chemistry goes, you can have the best actors together – and in fact they can be in love with each other – and for some reason you won’t have chemistry on the screen.  I don’t think anyone ever knows what makes that final bit of chemistry work.  If they did then you’d make sure you worked with people like that all the time.  I think that obviously it helped that we got on.  Obviously the script is fantastic.  So maybe that’s the answer, but actually I don’t know.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

Was there something about this role or book that really hit you or changed you?

James McAvoy: I don’t know if it’s changed me.  The thing that hit me was – it’s a very emotional piece, and yet it didn’t… I think… seek any sentiment.  It engages your intellect as much as it engages your heart.  I can’t lie and say it never totally blows your heart.  I think if you’re willing to go there, and you’re the kind of person who wants that, you can totally break down at any point in the film that you like – especially towards the end.  But I think the film is constantly asking the audience to come back from the brink.  Just at the moment when it could have remained on a close-up of us going (fakes sobbing), it cuts back to the stirring of the teaspoons, which makes your brain click in a wee bit more.  You go, “Oh, that’s clever.”  I think it could have become a big mush otherwise.

That appealed to me right from the beginning in the script.  The script itself treated actors like they had a modicum of intelligence.  It didn’t over-explain everything to us.  It didn’t over-explain everything to the audience either, in terms of dialogue.  To find a film that was so epic and sweeping and romantic and yet be intelligent was the best thing.  Also the fact that it’s a very classic story but it’s told in a very contemporary, modern way.  The techniques that the actors are imparting for the audience are thoroughly modern.  I liked that strange kind of setup.  The structure’s really fucked up.  The structure is like… it’s three parts, and it’s all different sections, and they’re very different visually.  It’s just obviously brilliant.  People are going to sit down and in the first five minutes they’re going to be thinking they’re watching a Merchant-Ivory film.  Then the word “cunt” is going to come in and get all the people like (imitates) “Whoa!  Where are we?  We’re not watching a Merchant Ivory film!  Oh, my God!”  I think that’s kind of brilliant.

Tell us about shooting the Dunkirk scene.

James McAvoy: It was, hmm… pressurized.  It was fraught.  It was a massive gamble.  Joe really went out on a limb and thought, “Well, I can’t do what I want to do with this scene, anyway,” he said.  It had something to do with 40 setups and he could only get fifteen, so he was like, “Let’s see.”  And that’s fair enough, actually.  That’s played right on.  So he said, “I can’t get what I want to get.  We can only have one day with these 1,000 extras and then we lose them.”  Because we had more money than most British films but we didn’t have much money.  So he had to go, “Fuck it, I’m going to be mad and really gamble big time.  You know, all in….”  He asked us what we all thought.  We all went, “Hmm, not going to be easy.”  But he had a crew and a cast who, with his helming and his rustling and corralling and his ability to galvanize people, he had a crew and a cast who made it happen.  The great thing is, I think, that filmmaking is a miracle of collaboration.  That one day was a microcosm of that experience.  There were 1,800 people involved.  Any one of them could have screwed it up at any one time.  We did three and a half takes, so two and a half times one of those people did screw up at any one time.  The fact that we got a take when nobody screwed it up is incredible.  It’s testament to his audacity and his genius.”

What was the hardest scene for you to shoot, Keira? 

Keira Knightley: I don’t know.  We’ve been asked that a lot and I don’t know if hard is the right word.  I think every film is always challenging, and should be.  But because of this three weeks’ rehearsal we had, we were all so prepared.  I wouldn’t say that anything that stuck out in my mind as being particularly difficult.  The one that I loved doing, found challenging and really exciting, was the Swallows teashop scene.  That was actually one of my favorites when I read the script.  It’s partly because what they both want to do is sort of pour out into this melodramatic… you know, they want to say everything, but they can’t.  So it was a really interesting process of trying to think about all the things that wanted to be bursting out and then repress that – which was actually what we were doing in the whole of the film, really.  Because it’s all about what’s not said as opposed to what is said.  But in that one it was fabulous to keep that balance between being too melodramatic and too overemotional and keeping it in check.

Keira Knightley and Saiorse  Ronan star in ATONEMENT.

Keira Knightley and Saiorse Ronan star in ATONEMENT.

Did you have rehearsal time?

James McAvoy: We had three weeks.  Usually, you only get, like even a week, in British films.  It’s not necessarily well executed at all.  I think film people don’t always know what to do with rehearsal time.  It’s just a time that they can scrabble about and get people into costumes and figure out what they’re going to do with their hair.  But Joe grew up in the theater – grew up in the public theater – so he knows.  He appreciates just how valuable that can be and what it can give you, if you’re willing to invest in it.  Also, he had three weeks, which we didn’t really need help.  So, yeah, it was great.  We had a great time.

Keira, can you tell us about this gorgeous, glamorous period?  I’d like to know about the research you went into to make Cecilia so elegant, glamorous, with the Bette Davis poses.  Did you look at those films going back? 

Keira Knightley: I did.  It wasn’t Bette Davis, though.  Well, it’s always a bit of Bette Davis.   It was Greta Garbo quite a lot – with the smoking thing.  Marlene Dietrich.  And Katherine Hepburn – because I always go back to Katherine Hepburn.  I love that quality that she’s got.  But the real main inspiration for this was Celia Johnson, from Brief Encounter.  I watched it just on a loop for about two months and actually would be very happy to watch it on a loop forever.  As a cast we all watched a lot of David Lean and Noel Coward and those collaborations, which we served.  And then Brief Encounter.  We watched a lot of news footage from that time as well.  The accent is such a specific thing and it’s completely lost to my generation – the British sort of 1940s stiff upper lip.  It was the height of the stiff upper lip, really.  We all wanted to watch it together so that everyone was on the same page.  I think it wouldn’t have worked if one person hadn’t done it.  We did a lot of research into the accent and finding exactly what we wanted and what part of it we didn’t.

Can you tell us about working with Saiorse Ronan?

James McAvoy: She’s brilliant in the film.  I’ll tell you what it is.  When you’re looking for a kid you just look for somebody that can act.  You just look for somebody who can be natural.  You go this is the script, and they’re going to do whatever the fuck they’re going to do.  But I don’t care as the filmmaker, because they’re incredible and they can be truthful, which is the hardest thing to find.  So let you what you need to do, and all the other actors fit in.  Make it work somehow.  What’s incredible about Saiorse is – she’s not like that.  She was twelve years old when she made this film.  I think.  She lambasted me in a Q&A for getting her age wrong.   She was a twelve year old when we made this film and she can imagine what it is.  It’s not life experience that she’s drawing upon, but she can imagine what it is to be someone else.  Not just being her being natural in front of a camera.  I think that’s what’s remarkable about her.  I’ve been really lucky – I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant kids in my career.  It’s something that I hope I get to do a lot, because it means I can have a lot of fun that I wouldn’t necessarily have.  It was a great privilege being with Saiorse.

Keira Knightley: She’s amazing.  She is twelve and she’s got this thick Irish accent.  [Then] she comes out and she’s got this pitch perfect 1940’s British accent.  I think what’s incredible with Saiorse [is] that’s not taught.  That’s not taught.  So where does that talent come from?  It’s just… it is extraordinary.  People keep on saying ‘What advice are you giving her?’  I would never dream of giving Saiorse Ronan advice.  I’ll take advice from her, but I certainly won’t give it.

The scene in the kitchen, where Briony comes to apologize to Cecilia and Robbie is there – it seems like your character is right on the verge of exploding with rage.

James McAvoy: Yeah.

Did you do the scene different ways?  Was there a scene where you exploded or one where you held back even more?

James McAvoy: No.  I think we always knew this step is so brilliant.  So brilliantly drawn.  From a great novel and Christopher Hampton did such a great job of throwing the characters in and out and about – that I think we always knew where we wanted to pitch it.  Yeah, maybe we tried to go a little bit more.  Then we tried to go a little bit less.  But, I mean, really, it’s like that (gestures with his hand to show close) because, we knew what we had to do.  We knew we wanted to do it.  That scene and the scene in the tearoom when they see each other for the first time in six years after he’s come back from prison, were the two scenes that really made me feel like I could do the script and made me want to do the script, to do the film.  He is ready to explode.  He is ready to kill her.  I wish he had killed her.  I find it really hard to forgive her.  (laughs)

James McAvoy stars in ATONEMENT.

James McAvoy stars in ATONEMENT.

Robbie isn’t bitter – which is rather remarkable.

James McAvoy: No, of course not.  Well, he’s kind of been patronized I suppose, his entire life.  But I think that’s what makes Robbie such an amazing person.  It’s what makes him worryingly inhuman – not necessarily representative of the human race.  There’s no darkness.  I think he has empathy for everyone.  I think he gets Mrs. Tallis.  He understands why she doesn’t like him.  Why he challenges her.  Why she challenges her entire system.  But, what is he going to do?  Why should he be angry that she’s upset?  She’s the one with the problem.  All he’s done is have an amazing fucking life.  (chuckles)  The thing that you don’t get in the film is the relationshio he has with their father.  He’s got a closer relationship with the father than any of them do.  He’s the son that the other son should have been.  I think he takes a lot of strength out of that relationship.  He’s not bitter, that’s the amazing thing.  He becomes somebody who gets bitter.  He becomes somebody who is tainted, and strangely becomes much more identifiably human.  When he becomes suicidal – being suicidal seems to be a more human trait than forgiveness and empathy and chilled-out-ness and openness.  You know what I mean?  It seems to be.

Was it kind of hard getting into Cecilia’s mindset?  Early on in the film she was kind of icy.

Keira Knightley: I never saw her like that.  I mean, yes – yes, she is.  But I never saw her like that.  I always completely understood it.  I think that’s why I fell in love with her from the moment I read the script.  It was because I saw her so clearly.  I think that very often in film you have characters that are black or white.  What’s fascinating about her is she’s probably a very good person, but she’s behaving like a bitch.  I think we all do.  I think you very rarely see that.  I just love the different layers of her.  I think the fact that in the book it completely describes how she’s feeling.  It describes that long, hot, sticky day that’s completely airless.  And that need for a cigarette that’s making her even more on edge.  I found her totally fascinating.

There’s a scene that’s pivotal for your character and it’s really quiet – the scene where James is talking to his mother – the scene with Brenda Blethyn before the dinner party.  Do you feel that scene was about class-consciousness?

James McAvoy: We spent a long time, Brenda and I.  Brenda is one of my favorite actresses.  She is just wonderful.  I was very honored just to spend time with her.  I think she’s a quite special lady as well as a good actor.  We spent quite a long time talking about our relationship, as characters sometimes talking to each other in rehearsals.  There was a whole beautiful story that we had that was created in the absence of dialogue.  There’s real love between those two.  I think they admire each other, and that admiration knows no bounds.  I think they’re kind of in love with each other.  They don’t just love each other; I think they’re in love with each other a little bit.  That’s not necessarily what that scene’s about or what it explores, but that’s why it so full I think.  There’s that thing – your mother can’t help but be proud, and yet be terrified as well.  Yeah.  I loved doing that scene.  I don’t know what it’s about, but it’s very full.  It felt full.

Did it help having worked with [director] Joe [Wright] before?

Keira Knightley: Yeah.  I love working with Joe.  I loved him the moment I met him.  For some reason – I think chemistry between actors is very rare, and I think chemistry between actor and director is even more rare.  We have really good creative chemistry for some reason.  I don’t know why.  We speak the same language.  I think very often… you know, acting is all about emotions.  Everybody intrinsically has the same emotions, but we describe them differently.  Sometimes on the set, that can feel literally like a language barrier.  With Joe… we describe emotions the same, so we kind of had our own language.  We just hoped we understood, that I understood what he wanted, which is always helpful.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star in ATONEMENT.

I read that Joe said that he wanted the acting in the film to be reminiscent of films from the 1930s and 40s.  As an actor trained in more modern techniques, was that a challenge? 

James McAvoy: It was a joy to do that.  I have a theater training and I’ve done a lot of work in theater.  I had a classic training in a conservatory in Glasgow.  Things that I’ve learned are probably about a thousand miles away from things that they’ve learned, you know?  During their film training and everything.  So, that was a bit of a joy.  Playing with styles is something that I try and do in every film.  I don’t think an actor should go into every film with one technique.  I think you should become the type of actor that’s required for the style of the film or the thing that you’re doing.  So that requires you to change.  This was just an extension of that.  It wasn’t the easiest thing that I’ve done, in saying that.   I think it was easier for some of the cast than others.  Some of the cast are quite [comfortable].  Some of us aren’t.  Saiorse, me and a few others… it just took a few weeks longer to get our heads in, you know?  That was just it.  Generally, what I loved was that we did it together.  We sat around a table with this many people at it (he gestures to the table with about a dozen writers around him) and we wouldn’t just go away home and do out work on our accent.  We would do it together, so that the style of acting had a cohesive bond that made us feel like the film had a style instead of each actor standing out with different things.

But it was an absolute joy.  It wouldn’t work with every script.  It was a particular script.  It can work with contemporary things as well.  The style – not just with the accent, not just the speech.  The things like talking on voice the entire time.  Like now, never whisper, unless you’re dying or you’re trying to be stealthy.  Never let your energy drop at the end of a line.  It’s very theatrical, you know, but only people would do that in film and then it would work.  It was an artistic trait at the time, but it was also a social trait at the time – this lack of ability to express.  Keep things bottled up and don’t let them out.  So when you come to drama and you have that social constraint, you have a great potential – because things always come out in drama, even in that period.  However, when they do come out, they fucking explode.  That’s dead exciting.  That defines everything.  I love that.  I really love that.  Quite often it’s hard too… in real life these days you go “I quite like her,” and in a couple of days you’re holding hands.  God knows what else you’re doing.  Then, it was just so different.  It’s just so wonderful, the things that can’t be said.

Keira, you seem to like things from historical periods and the chance to wear costumes.  Is there some fascination with history?

Keira Knightley: I’ve always liked history.  I’ve always been fascinated by it.  It’s not particularly that I’m going I want to do things that are historical.  It’s simply been the stories that have interested me.  You know if I find a contemporary story that interests me I’ll certainly do that as well.  For some reason or another, the female parts… there are always much fewer good roles for actresses than there are for actors.  Most of them that I’ve read indeed have simply been period pieces as opposed to contemporary pieces.  It goes in swings.  It will come; there will be a point when stuff that is interesting is contemporary, as well.  But, I haven’t so far.  (laughs)

You’ve had good luck with movies based on books.  Is there an advantage in reading the books?

James McAvoy: You do.  I mean; it depends.  If you’re making something that is incredibly faithful to the original, then yes, it is an advantage.  If you’re… like Last King of Scotland was faithful in its essence, but my character was such a departure from Nicholas Garrigan in Giles Foden’s book that it wasn’t helpful to read the book.  It got in the way.  I had to try and forget it, because it was so different.  But in this it was incredibly helpful.  It’s an amazing source.  I read from it nearly every day.

Do you like doing films based on books, or does it matter?

James McAvoy: You know; it doesn’t matter.  A good script is a good script.  But if it’s based on a book and it’s faithful to the book, then it would be ridiculous not to use the book.  But if it’s based on a book and it’s not faithful to the book, then you’ve got to make a decision whether you back off or have that conflict with the director and the filmmakers where you say “Well, in the book, you see, there’s this.”  They’re like “Well in the fucking script it doesn’t, so fucking shut up.”

Did you read the book of Atonement before you did the movie?

Keira Knightley: I read the book, yes.  I read the script first, but then I read the book as soon as had said yes to it.  It was a fantastic blueprint.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley star in ATONEMENT.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley star in ATONEMENT.

Did you talk to Ian [McEwan] about it?

Keira Knightley: Yeah.  Well, no – not before.  He actually came on set a couple of times.  He was very nice.  Then at the London premiere he came up to me and said ‘It’s interesting.  It works so well, but you played it so differently than I’d written it.’  And I thought, no I didn’t, I played it exactly…   It’s really funny.  I think that’s what’s wonderful about the characters, people have such different ways of seeing them.  I obviously saw it differently than Ian McEwan saw it.

Going back to the Dunkirk sequence, how do you stay an actor amongst all the choreography and other things going on around you in such a long take?

James McAvoy: In a weird way that is an actor.  I never let go of that really.  If you do, you mess up everybody’s day.  The question is – or the question for me was – how do I maintain connection with all the technical marks I need to hit.  Not just in terms of physically, but in terms of levels acting-wise, while still feeling the emotion of that moment.  You start to get overwhelmed with emotion.   It’s an incredibly moving day.  Recreating something like that is not something that happens a lot.  To do it so well, so effectively, so massively doesn’t happen a lot.  Also, you’ve got pressure riding on it, so it amplifies the emotion.  You start to get a bit overwhelmed.  Then you realize that’s you commenting on it.  It’s not you living it.  It’s not probably the way that every soldier felt.  And it’s not necessarily the way that this soldier should feel.  So you have to detach yourself quite a bit, otherwise the actor just goes “This is so big, and scary and horrible” – which of course it is, but that should be the reaction of the person watching it.  Indeed, I let myself feel like that when I watched it two days later and the rest of the crew did as well.  We were all together.  I suppose – not to say that this job is in anyway like soldiers’ jobs, because they’re not – but there’s a detachment that you have to try and achieve, I think.  Otherwise a logistical nightmare of a scene like that would fail because actors wanted to feel it too much.

What are some of your favorite films this year?

Keira Knightley: Of this year?  I just saw Michael Clayton, which I thought was wonderful.  Tilda Swinton in that was unbelievable.  All the performances were great.  I really loved Into the Wild.  I thought that was a very inspirational film.  Actually, the DOP [director of photography] for that one, who also did A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints, is one of my favorite.  I thought that film, as a first-time writer/director, I thought that was wonderful.  Chazz Palmenteri, the guy that plays the dad… oh my God, that scene with him and Shia LaBoeuf in the bath – just amazing.  Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose.  I think that is one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen.

And from the period of the film?

Keira Knightley: Casablanca.  That’s just one that’s got to be.  All About Eve.  (laughs)  Again, For Which We Serve and my favorite has to be Brief Encounter.  Is it Rachmaninoff that they play?  What is it they play?  It’s not Rachmaninoff, it’s something else.  There is a piece of music – the only piece of music that they play all the way through – and it’s just brilliant.  There are lots of films that I like.  (laughs)

You talk about female leads.  You have played some of the greatest female characters – you have power and you get to be a pirate – Elizabeth Bennett is an icon.  How do you get away with that?

Keira Knightley: I’ve been very lucky.  I was very lucky with a lot of them… that they just happened to be the ones that I got.  I was auditioning for lots of different roles and they were the ones that they offered me.  So, I have no answer for that.

Do you think it’s an important thing to do though; you can stick up for people?

Keira Knightley: I think as a woman what I’m interested in is seeing interesting female roles onscreen.  I’m not interested really in seeing women that are very much the secondary, token woman… which there always are, and that’s fair enough.  But as far as being a cinemagoer I’m excited when I see female roles that have a bit of different layers to them.  That can be something inspiring.  I think that’s important.

What other films are you working on or do you have coming?

Keira Knightley: I’ve just finished one called The Duchess, which is based on part of the life of the Duchess of Devonshire, who was a political hostess in the 1780s.  I’ve just done that with Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling.  Before that I was working on a film that my mum’s written about Dylan Thomas and a group of friends that surrounded him – and an act of violence that happened and the circumstances that led to the act of violence.  That was with Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys.

What about you, James?

James McAvoy: I’m not working on any at the moment.  I’ve got a thing coming out called Penelope in February, with Reese Witherspoon and Christina Ricci.  Then in March is a thing called Wanted, which is an action/adventure film, with Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie.  That’s March.  After that… I’ve got things that we’re about to sign off on, but should they not happen and fall apart in the last minute, I shouldn’t really talk about them.

Keira, part 3 of Pirates of the Caribbean comes out on DVD today.  I know that Pirates was planned out as a trilogy, but they left it open for the possibility of more.  Can you see going back to that?

Keira Knightley: I can’t imagine doing another one.  That was an amazing experience.  It really was.  Totally extraordinary.  But no, I think three for me is probably enough. (laughs)

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved. Posted: December 7, 2007.

Photos © 2007.  Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.

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