Could we be seeing the making of a great new actress-director team at this year’s Toronto Film Festival? Could Keira Knightley and Joe Wright be the next Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz? The pair first met on 2005’s well-received Pride & Prejudice; it was Wright’s feature debut, and Knightley got a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet. Now they’ve both returned to Toronto — where Pride & Prejudice launched two years ago — with Atonement, an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2002 novel, about a 13-year-old girl’s lie and its consequences for two young lovers (Knightley and The Last King of Scotland‘s James McAvoy). The movie premiered to much praise at the festival on Monday night and is a possible Oscar contender this year.
EW.com talked to the 22-year-old Pirates of the Caribbean star about why she wanted to make Atonement, how the Oscar nomination for Pride & Prejudice helped her career, and why she loves doing films in Britain.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you want to make this movie?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: It was definitely Joe. I knew I wanted to work with him as soon as we were done with Pride & Prejudice. I think the bond between actor and director is very similar to the chemistry between actors. It’s rare, and when it happens, it’s very exciting. And I think it creates — oh, I sound like a wanker! [Laughs] But, creatively, I think we work very well together for some reason.
What was appealing about the story?
I like the fact that I read the script and it made me sob, really sob. I cry a lot, but that kind of emotional reaction was extreme. The story was very heartbreaking. But [my taking the part] has much more to do with me looking for a more mature role, I wasn’t really looking to play another girl on the cusp of womanhood. I felt that you couldn’t really do that better than with [Pride & Prejudice‘s] Elizabeth Bennet, and I don’t want to play the same thing again and again and again. So, you know, Atonement checked off a lot of boxes as far as roles go.
Are you grateful to be done with Pirates?
It was a huge commitment. It was amazing. It was an extraordinary group of people. And you don’t make films for an audience of one. You make them to be enjoyed by many. And I think entertainment for entertainment’s sake is fine, and escapism is fine. And Pirates is like a glass of champagne; it’s got a lot of bubbles and they make you very happy. And that’s great. But if I was doing only that, then I’d get incredibly bored. And two years is a long time to be doing that one thing. And I think I was really desperate to find something completely different.
Did you do Atonement after you were entirely done with those films?
Well, no. I did this one in the middle.
That’s a weird juxtaposition.
It was strange. I had five months off, because of various hurricanes that were happening at the time in the Caribbean. And I said, Okay, I could either take five months off completely, or I could try to do something that’s going to really challenge me.
NEXT PAGE: ”I think people were very much looking at me going, ‘Oh, she’s a pretty face, there isn’t much else to her.’ And I was incredibly aware of that.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Has getting nominated for an Oscar in 2006 changed things for you?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: No, not really — apart from the fact that it was a wonderful kind of pat on the back. I know that sounds like nothing, but it was actually really needed at that point. Before Pride & Prejudice, I’d done Bend it Like Beckham and Pirates, and they were incredibly successful films, but I think people were very much looking at me going, ”Oh, she’s a pretty face, there isn’t much else to her.” And I was incredibly aware of that. I think you’re aware of everything that’s written about you when you first start. And then you learn not to read all that. [Laughs] And I knew people had thought it was ridiculous that I was cast as Elizabeth Bennet. So when the reviews came out, it really helped.
I’ve got a film coming out next year, which my mom [playwright Sharman Macdonald] wrote. It’s The Edge of Love, which is about Dylan Thomas. I play his childhood sweetheart. It’s with Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller and Matthew Rhys. Hopefully, fingers crossed, that’ll be a good one. And next week, I start a film called The Duchess, which is about Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. It’s got Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling.
Is it important for you to keep doing British films? Do you want to keep shuffling between Hollywood and British film industries?
Of course. Of course!
Because other people would say, ”If you can make it in Hollywood …”
Why would you do British films as well? Well, I think if you can possibly do both, then that’s really amazing.
Hollywood isn’t distracting enough to keep you there forever?
No, it’s not. Obviously, I want to work there, it would be stupid for anyone not to. They make more films in Hollywood for English speaking actors than anywhere else in the world. Naturally, you’re going to get more work there than you are in England. And the history of Hollywood if you’re in movies is very, very exciting. But I’m British. That’s the culture I come from. It fascinates me. I think also, you know, the British film industry is tiny, but at the moment, there’s such a huge wealth of talent that it’s a really exciting time. I think obviously we have incredible crews that work in Britain, and if I can help bring work there in a small way to make sure that those people are working, then that’s great.
Are you more comfortable on a British set?
I don’t know. I like going home at night and sleeping in my own bed. I travel a lot. And for Pirates, we were all away for two years. Once I got to the end of that, I said, ”Whew, I really want to do some work in England.”