The actress explains her process in pyching herself up for her character's histrionics in ''A Dangerous Method''

By Sara Vilkomerson
Updated December 02, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

How do you prepare to play a deeply disturbed patient of Carl Jung’s? For Keira Knightley, the first step in portraying A Dangerous Method‘s Sabina Spielrein was to fully understand her character’s afflictions. ”Why does she have a hysterical fit there, or why does she want to be beaten? And why does she enjoy that?” Knightley says. ”Most of the time there are threads that link you to the character you’re playing. But this was totally outside my area of expertise. Nothing linked us. It really was starting from scratch, having to build somebody from the ground up.” The 26-year-old actress sought guidance from screenwriter Christopher Hampton. ”I thought we’d have a nice talk for a couple of hours and I’d take notes and have all the answers,” she laughs. ”Instead he just handed me a pile of books and sent me away to read.” Over the next four months Knightley threw herself into research. ”It felt a little like being a detective,” she says. (”She’d come to set with a big binder,” remembers director David Cronenberg.) One passage in Spielrein’s diary particularly struck Knightley: ”She described herself as being like a dog or a demon, and I thought it was such a devastating way of seeing yourself.” Knightley kept this idea in mind when it came time to express Spielrein’s severe facial tic. ”I wanted something totally distorting and demonic and sort of animalistic,” she says. ”So I went into the bathroom and pulled faces at myself in the mirror for days.”