A voice like candy…
Every actor has a way “in” to their character, whether it’s a particular way of speaking, a distinct physicality, or the added effect of their costume. For Keira Knightley, who stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, the key was in her voice.
Knightley, who says she loves to do research for her roles, explains that she found herself revisiting “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, which partly inspired the film. “I watched hundreds of ‘Dances of the Sugar Plum [Fairy]’ and I thought, ‘They’re all amazing and I can’t do any of that,'” she opines.
But one thing from the dance stuck with her: the song’s tune, a tinkling melody that is as evocative of Christmas as chestnuts roasting on an open fire. “The tune is arguably one of the most famous musical motifs,” she notes. “I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can use that [melody] in my bit and maybe I can laugh that.'” The song opens with a string vamp before breaking into a distinctive series of notes, which Knightley distorted into her character’s laugh.
From that musically devised laugh, her high-pitched voice flowed naturally. “The only thing I’ve got to go on is the Sugar Plum Fairy which is sugary and sweet, so maybe the voice needs to go up there and meet that musical motif,” she explains of her process, immediately jumping into Sugar Plum’s dulcet, high-pitched tones. “She’s got this higher voice, so she’s very sugary and very sweet. That all came from watching the ballet.”
Like many, Knightley has early childhood memories of The Nutcracker ballet and of her mother taking her to see it on two separate occasions. “I have that visceral childhood memory,” she says. “[It’s] mostly the idea of that sense of magic. Of all of these sweets and these toys coming to life, which is what every kid wants when you’re playing with toys. You want it to be real.”
It was that sense of magic that attracted Knightley to the project and what was initially the inscrutable Sugar Plum Fairy. “The idea of bringing that magical quality to a film is exciting,” she explains. “The opportunity to do something that was so fantastical was something I was very much looking forward to.”
Knightley adds that the opportunity to do something so over-the-top and sickeningly sweet was also a major reason for signing on to the project and how she interpreted the role. “I’d just come off Broadway playing Thérèse Raquin, which was murderous and psychotic and horrific,” she notes. “I wanted the opportunity to play a sweet, sugary, pink fairy that was really, really silly.”
The part, which sees her cavorting in a luscious pink and purple gown with a cotton candy wig, was a departure for the Oscar nominee, who often spends her time doing period pieces where she’s grappling with characters who defy the bounds of conventional femininity. Knightley describes this project as a “respite” from her tendency to engage with larger questions about gender and societal expectations.
“Honestly, my whole vibe with it was to be as unsubtle and as silly as possible,” she says. “And as pink and as sugary as possible. When you’ve been thinking about those [gender] things and you’ve been pushing against it, sometimes it’s really good just to be frothy and pink and sugary. Just go for all of them.”
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms opens Friday, Nov. 2.