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Keira Knightley – The Actress (and Now Singer) Has a Grand Slam Year

Updated: May 7, 2023

Keira Knightley discussing "Begin Again" in New York. Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.

Keira Knightley discussing “Begin Again” in New York. Photo copyright 2014 Brad Balfour.

Keira Knightley

The Actress (and Now Singer) Has a Grand Slam Year

by Brad Balfour

The great thing about having a bunch of good-to-great films out in one year is that you land in front of audiences so often that they think of you during award season. Certainly, that’s been the case with the beautiful and blunt British actress Kiera Knightley, who has been in blockbusters from Star Wars to a dramedy like The Pirates of The Caribbean trilogy. Even better, this self-trained actress has done work that’s again been award worthy this year.

For Knightley, it’s been the best of times, beginning with the 29-year-old actress’ marriage to rock star James Righton of the Klaxons. She tied the knot with her 30 year-old beau May, 2013, in France. She admitted that she was spurred on to accept his proposal because she thought getting hitched sounded exciting. “When James proposed I just thought, ‘Well, I’ve never done that before.’ It seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Knightley, who currently shares a residence with him in Islington, London, insists she couldn’t be happier with how her career is progressing. However, Knightley admits she wouldn’t be afraid to quit movies if she decided she no longer enjoyed it.

“At the moment, I love what I do for a living,” Knightley said. “There are downsides to every job, but as long as I love making films then the drawbacks are worth it. If the time comes when I don’t love making films then the downsides won’t be worth it and I’ll stop and do something else.”

Maybe this recent marriage to a rock star helped Knightley with her role as smoldering singer/songwriter Gretta, the female lead in Begin Again, writer-director John Carney’s latest film.

Former college sweethearts and songwriting partners, Gretta and long-time boyfriend Dave (played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine) decamp in New York when he lands a deal with a major label. The trappings of his new-found fame tempt Dave to stray, and a reeling, lovelorn Gretta is left on her own. Her world takes a turn for the better when Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced record-label exec, stumbles upon her performing in an East Village club and he’s immediately captivated by her raw talent.

From this chance encounter, an enchanting portrait of a mutually transformative collaboration emerged, set to the soundtrack of a New York City summer. Of course, the Irish director is no stranger to films about music, having had a huge hit with his feature debut, Once. That film not only reignited the career of its inspiration, musician Glen Hansard, but also prompted a hit Broadway musical of the same name which recently closed in New York after a solid run. It’s now touring internationally.

Though there had been calls for award nods to the leads of this soul-stirring comedy, Begin Again hasn’t been Knightley’s biggest draw. Or for Ruffalo as well. He got Oscar’s Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Bennett Miller’s crime and sports drama Foxcatcher.

In turn, Knightley was nominated for her supporting role of Joan Clarke in the powerful film Imitation Game – a real attention grabber for its cast and director Morten Tyldum. Based on Graham Moore’s Oscar nominated screenplay, The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch (who has a Best Actor nom) and Knightley, with Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance and Mark Strong.

An intense and haunting portrayal of the brilliant and complicated Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), this British film follows his story who, under nail-biting pressure, cracked Germany’s World War II Enigma machine’s supposedly unbreakable codes which helped shorten the war and save thousands of lives. Nonetheless, in 1952, English authorities entered this mathematician/cryptanalyst/war hero’s home to investigate a burglary and arrested Turing on charges of “gross indecency” – an accusation that led to his devastating conviction for homosexuality, then a crime.

Little did these officials know they were actually incriminating a modern-day computing pioneer who led his motley crew of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers to surreptitious success. Having been released in late November, 2014, the film has been at the top of award and critics’ lists.

That’s not to say Begin Again was left behind. Levine’s song, “Lost Stars” sung by Knightley in the film, (music and lyrics by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois – yes the child actress who was in All In The Family and Knots Landing) is on the nomination list from the Academy Award for this year’s Best Song .

The following Q&A was based on a press conference and red carpet comments offered at the time of Begin Again‘s New York premiere.

What was the biggest challenge of playing a singer/songwriter?

I think that the biggest challenge was not so much how I express myself creatively or emotionally as it was that I don’t really know much about music. I don’t even listen to much music actually, so just getting into the head of somebody who does express themselves that way creatively and emotionally was a challenge. I don’t know how I did it. I just sort of did it really.

How was working with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine?

He’s a wonderful actor. This is his first film. He’s a lovely man. He’ s a natural performer. He’s very, very good, so that was just lucky.

Did you and Levine trade tips for acting and singing?

No we didn’t. He just said “Oh, you’ll be fine,” and I just said, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” That was it. We were both right. Adam’s totally lovely and he’s a completely natural performer, so that always helps. He was great fun to work with.

Have you watched Adam’s show The Voice?

No, but he did say that he would turn around if I went on it. I think he’s lying, but I appreciated it.

How does it feel to actually have an album out? The film’s soundtrack is on iTunes among other places…

I know! Isn’t that exciting?

What took you out of your comfort zone the most in making Begin Again?

Improvisation. John threw the script out five days before we started shooting and said we were going to improvise the whole thing. I’d never improvised before!

Is much of the film improvised?

It’s not actually. We then went back, we used the structure of the script … but a lot of is improvised.

What was it like filming in New York City?

I love New York. This film is very much a love song to New York. Just being in it, and amongst the bustle of the whole city – feeling the vibe of it – is always exciting.

You have a funny scene with Cee Lo Green in the film. How was it working with him?

He was lovely as well, a really lovely man and really up for being a part of this. Just very funny and great, so we were very lucky.

What do you appreciate about Begin Again director John Carney (who also made the hit Once) as a filmmaker?

He creates things that are actually “feel-good” without being sickly sweet. That’s an incredible achievement. There’s a very unique charm to his work.

Have you sung in public before?

I did a film years ago called The Edge of Love and sang a bit in that. [It was] a very 1940s kind of theatrical thing, so it was very different. Not really, no. Well, yes and no!  So yes, I have sung before! (laughs)

Did you take any kind of lessons?

They very kindly got me some lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love. We sat down and a lot of those songs, the lyrics weren’t written. A couple of days before we got into the studio, we didn’t have the songs to try to figure it out before we got there. So it was just about trying to figure out what my voice was, because I don’t know. He tried to figure that out. I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.

Did you have a musical character in mind that you thought about or read about or records you listened to?

I didn’t, no. It wasn’t based on anything for me. We just worked on it from the character’s point of view. Okay, this is somebody who doesn’t like fawning, so that instantly just has to have that sort of razzmatazz quality to it. Somebody who really liked being in the background. More thinking about that as a character and just finding what would work for me. It was very much from a character point of view, it wasn’t really based on anybody, for me.

You mentioned clothes. Was there anything about Anna Karenina or Sabina Spielrein (from David Cronenberg’s period piece, A Dangerous Method) that found its way into how your character of Gretta was dressed? 

We actually had discussions about the clothes with the costume designer Arjun Bhasin; I wanted her to dress for women and not for men. I wanted the clothes to be something that women would like and get – and men wouldn’t, necessarily. So we worked quite hard on that kind of idea. That slightly tomboy, slightly Annie Hall aspect, completely non-sexualized thing is what were going for. The men’s trouser thing was a big one.

If these other characters gave advice to Gretta, should she take it?

No [on the advice].

The attack on selling out is about being in the music industry, but you have to confront that daily, whether you’re in the film or music industry. You do small films but after a few small films, you have to make a big film. Do you say, “Well, I have to sell out a little today?”

I like differences. That’s what’s been really nice about being Gretta. I don’t dislike big blockbusters, in fact I like them very much. Sometimes that’s exactly what’s called for. On a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and I want to have popcorn and just kind of get lost in it. So I think about that as far as making them, as well. I did Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit [directed by Kenneth Branagh] because I wanted to do a pure piece of popcorn. And it exactly fit. I’d come from [making] Anna Karenina, this incredibly stylized, trying something [classic] in a new way. Very, very dark. What I really wanted after that was something absolutely different.

The same thing with this film. I wanted it to be really low-budget. Hit the ground running and keep going, working as fast as possible… All that. I wanted that kind of speed. I feel incredibly privileged that I get the opportunity to do both. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things [such as Lynn Shelton’s Laggies which also came out in 2014]. It’s about the opportunity to do all different styles, for me.

How did you relate to the romantic and the heartbreak aspect of Begin Again?

It’s what I liked about the film. You can take it out of the music industry, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up. Whether that’s romantically or whether that’s in a career or wherever – you can’t be adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way [it happens to you]. So obviously yeah, I completely understood where she was coming from. Not the actual scenario, but the feeling of thinking that you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going and suddenly finding that you have no idea who you are, where you’re going, or what’s going on. You can’t be an adult and not have experienced that.

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: January 9, 2015.

Photos 1-4 ©2014 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos 5-8 ©2014 Andrew Schwartz. Courtesy of The Weinstein Company. All rights reserved.

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