[Editor’s Note: This interview with Keira Knightley originally ran during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where both “Laggies” and “The Imitation Game” screened. “Laggies” opens October 24 in select theaters.]
Keira Knightley has come a long way since the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. While her costars from those films have either faded from memory (Orlando Bloom), or disappointed in their selection of roles (Johnny Depp), Knightley has continued to challenge herself and her audience with roles and projects that consistently surprise. The actress is currently in Toronto promoting two projects that couldn’t be more dissimilar: Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies” and the Alan Turing biopic (and possible awards contender) “The Imitation Game.” In “Laggies,” Knightley nails an American accent to play Megan, an aimless young woman who decides to lay low for a week after agreeing to marry her longtime boyfriend. “The Imitation Game” finds Knightley back in familiar period mode, playing Joan Clarke, one of the mathematicians who helped Turing break the Enigma code during World War II. Indiewire sat down with the actress in Toronto to discuss the two projects.
You’re not even 30 and you’re already a Toronto vet. You’ve been here at the festival with films countless times now.
I feel like I’ve nearly been here every year for the last 10. I was trying to think about it the other night and I’ve definitely been here a lot.
Has it gotten old at this point?
Well, I’ve still never seen the city! I’ve still never actually seen it. I only ever actually seen different hotel rooms and out the window and it looks great! But yeah I don’t get to see anything.
That’s so sad.
There’s one really good dim sun place that my agent always tries to sneak me out to, but apart from that —
I’m surprised you’ve never shot a film here.
I know! And David Cronenberg does a lot, I mean he does most of his stuff here, doesn’t he?
Yeah but no, I haven’t.
Is there anything especially different about this year’s festival for you? You’re here with two films that couldn’t be more different.
I don’t think I’ve had two films here at the same time before. Or if I have, I haven’t been promoting them. So no, I think that’s quite unique.
Are you looking for variety in your work now more than ever?
Yeah, I mean I think I always have. I go through periods or almost chapters where I’ll just be interested in a certain thing and one film won’t have scratched that itch. “Laggies” is kind of very much coupled with “Begin Again,” in that vibe of looking for something that felt for me like a breath of fresh air and being very positive and optimistic as opposed to being the very neurotic, very dark pieces that had been previously very interesting to me. And also the style of work in both of these films has been very different because I’ve gone from very stylized dialogue where you literally have to — if it’s a comma, you have to work out why it’s a comma — which is really fun, but to go into something where there’s quite a bit of improvisation, where you can be quite loose and playful, that’s been the learning curve and really interesting. And then obviously going back to something that was very period and sort of a costume drama and again slightly stylized was sort of, it was —
Did you go right into “The Imitation Game” after making “Laggies”?
Yeah, I think so.
What was that transition like? That must have been a little jarring, I imagine.
I think what’s nice about doing very low budget films is that you really just have to hit the ground running and go-go-go, so you’re so exhausted by the end of it that you just kind of sleep for a week, and then wake up and go, “Right, don’t even remember what happened there but, on to the next,” you know? So yeah, you exercise it, which is nice.
When I first read the synopsis for “Laggies” I remember going — Keira Knightley. “Laggies.” What?
Yeah, it doesn’t make sense [laughs].
I mean, no — it doesn’t! And not just the American accent, but I’ve never seen you play a character just so…
I mean I think it’s always amazing when you get a director who’s willing to go there. And you know originally –and everyone knows this –it was meant to be Anne Hathaway, who you can completely see doing this — it’s much more what she does. When she couldn’t do it, they offered it to me I think a month before we started shooting, and I was like, “Yeah sure,” because if was so different and because I don’t get offered very often stuff like this. I was just like, “Ooo, yep, definitely jump at that chance to try something totally new.”
Did the challenge scare you?
Yeah! Totally. But that’s the point. I think that’s why they’re good to do. And they’re just lovely when you get someone like Lynn [Shelton, director of “Laggies”) who’s willing to go, “Yeah I can see that.” We did we had a lovely conversation on Skype or on the phone where we talked for about an hour and a half and it was at the end of that conversation that I think we both went, “Well yeah, this could work, this could be alright.”
But I think with this character in general, I think anybody can identify with her, particularly our generation. And that question of, “Am I doing the right thing? Am I with the right person? Am I in the right place?” All of that stuff I think everybody feels in a different way.
You’ve been acting for the better part of your life and you’re obviously very passionate about what you do. Your character in “Laggies” is a drifter, unsure of what she wants to do with her life. How did you get inside her head?
I suppose I’ve got a few friends who are like that. And they’re brilliant, like it’s almost like they’re brilliant at so many things that they’ve never had one thing, and it actually makes me go, “God I’m really lucky that I had one thing,” because that kind of flow, of like, “What the fuck is it meant to be?” particularly now when you’re at a point where your job is meant to be vocational, you’re no longer allowed to just to have a job to bring the rent in — you’re meant to go, “Yes, I’ve got to be the best, and I love it and I want to do it all the time.” I think that puts even more pressure on people to try and find the thing that it is. But equally saying that and as much as I love my job and as much as I’ve always wanted to do it — I do want to do it — it’s really the only thing that interests me. I think you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have a moment of going, “But am I going to be doing this? Am I not going to be doing something else?” Or even within that, “But what kind of film should I be doing?Am I doing the right kind of film? Am I doing the wrong kind of film?” You can kind of move it all sideways and identify with all of that.
You also seem looser in this performance than I’ve ever seen you. “Laggies” was scripted, but Lynn comes from an improv background. Did that have to do with it?
Yeah. Also it was very much how we saw the character. And I’ve just never had a character like this. My characters are normally on the neurotic, taught side, which I totally love as well, but I love the fact that she was sort of floppy. It was what I really liked about her and I think you’re right, I think it does help. Lynn is so chilled out. I think we had 25 days to shoot this, which is a lot in a short amount of time. She makes you feel like you’ve got all the time in the world, there is absolutely no stress on her set whatsoever, which is miraculous really, so it helps with being more relaxed.
Have you ever wanted to take a break from your life like your character does in the film, to just focus on you?
[Whispers] I think I do, all the time.
In between projects — right.
[Laughs] Yeah, well do you because it’s not like you do a 9-5 every week, you know? You get periods where when you work and it’s really intense, but then you go from that to nothing, so it’s a very different lifestyle for that and great because it’s equally extreme.
Do you just recharge in your off-time?
[Laughs] Yeah I just switch off totally, I don’t have a problem with doing that. The problem is bringing it back on again.
So what do you typically do when you shut down?
Staring out the window for days. Reading, cooking, walking, just sort of hanging out really.
That sounds nice.
Yeah. Not having people all around me. Just kind of going, “Okay, close the door, I’m on my own.”
Both “Laggies” and “Begin Again” are both very contemporary films that find you playing very contemporary women. Was making these projects a conscious decision on your part to break free from the costume dramas you’ve built your career on?
It’s funny. Over the last 10 years, every single time that I come out with a different film, even if its been a period film, people have always gone, “Oh my god, this it totally different and I’ll see you in a completely new light.” And I think people are either interested in bits of work or they’re not. Sometimes you can do a different genre and different people who aren’t normally interested suddenly go, “Oh, okay!” Or maybe they don’t. It wasn’t a conscious decision to do that, it was just for me and where I was and what I was interested in doing. I’d done a lot of neurotic, taught women, and these weren’t in that head space. These two women were something else, which doesn’t mean that I’m not going to go back to that kind of neurosis. But I was interested in doing something that was positive. You do sort of question what you put out in the world. I’ve done like five years of it being very dark and I loved it all, but you suddenly go, “A little bit of positivity is not that bad!” And then you can go back to the darkness again [laughs].
There’s only so many “Dangerous Method”s you can make.
[Laughs] Yeah. Just the one really.
Was that the film that took the biggest toll on you?
No it wasn’t, it was “Anna Karenina.”
Yeah, definitely. Because of the technical side of it, because it was so technically made, that it just meant that it was keeping that level of angst right up there for 12, 14, 16 hours a day, and repeating it and repeating it and repeating it. And it was great, I loved it but you go “I don’t want to do that, I’d quite like to do something that’s just a bit more free and airy.”
In “The Imitation Game” you play such a brainiac. As an actress, how much do you feel like you need to know in order to play someone like Joan Clarke?
I did about three weeks of reading and two weeks were spent trying to understand what any of the theories were. I got other books and I didn’t understand a fucking word. I don’t think I’m the most intelligent person, but I’m not thick as shit. Still, I could not make head or tail of it. They even really sweetly got some lovely people in to give us talks and all of us sat there being actors going, “Yeah, yeah,” making notes, like, “Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.” And they’d leave and we’d be like [whispers], “Did you understand any of that?” “Not a word!” “Okay fine, we’ll fake it!” So we faked it.
I’ve always just assumed that Benedict [Cumberbatch, who stars as Alan Turing in the film] is a genius, thanks to “Sherlock.”
He is incredibly bright, but no none of us could get it. I’ve got some mates who are mathematicians and love it, and that’s how they see the world and it’s wonderful. But that’s not how my brain works. And it’s definitely not how his brain works either. I think he maybe got a little more than I did, but I’m not convinced. We were very thorough at pretending that we did.