"Every role I take, I take because I'm not sure I can do it"

Ex-pirate lass and Austen heroine Keira Knightley talks about the Dylan Thomas three-way at the heart of her steamy new wartime drama, "The Edge of Love."

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 12, 2009 11:00AM (EDT)

Capitol Films

Listen to the interview with Keira Knightley

When I was talking to Keira Knightley, I asked her why she always ends up in period movies and costume dramas, and never plays, say, the chick from the mall. But that question doesn't really need asking or answering, does it? The very thing that has made Knightley loved (or hated, in certain quarters) and envied and emulated around the world is her quality of strangeness and displacement, the sense that she doesn't really belong in the here and now.

Knightley is a remarkable feat of human architecture -- supermodel-tall and supermodel-skinny, but also broad-shouldered -- with a diffident, English-rose style of beauty and an upper-class London accent to match. She pronounces the first name of Sienna Miller, her costar in an overheated but enjoyable new film called "The Edge of Love," as though it had an R at the end. Out of those ingredients and what seems to be ferocious willpower and drive, Knightley has crafted a career that is itself somewhat old-fashioned. She's a female movie star, in an era when that commodity seems in short supply.

Furthermore, Knightley is a movie star who galvanizes both male and female viewers. FHM, the British lad mag, deemed her the "sexiest woman in the world" in 2006, and then the next year patrons of the chain store Superdrug declared her Britain's "No. 1 beauty icon." So for all the wailing and moaning heard among the Jane Austen cult when Knightley was tapped to play Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice" -- right after playing another Elizabeth, in a film based on a Disney theme-park ride -- it seems that she's an object of widespread, gender-spanning fascination. One who reportedly earned $32 million in 2007. And who will celebrate her 24th birthday later this month.

Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet got a mixed critical reception, but it also got her an Oscar nomination and marked her clearly as possessing Actorly Ambition. Indeed, although her "Pirates of the Caribbean" megastardom led her down a couple of Hollywood dead ends (viz., "Domino" and "The Jacket"), Knightley's career seems to have taken a decisive turn over the last two years toward mid-budget productions with at least the penumbra of artistic integrity. She insists, for instance, that she won't be back for a fourth "Pirates" installment.

She could and perhaps should have gotten a second Academy nod for her strong 2007 performance in "Atonement," and last year critics generally loved her as "The Duchess." Roles that may lie ahead for Knightley include Zelda Fitzgerald in "The Beautiful and the Damned" (I don't know whether she can handle an Alabama society-girl drawl, but her look is perfect), Eliza Doolittle in a planned remake of "My Fair Lady," opposite Colin Farrell in a Brit-crime noir knockoff called "London Boulevard," and the lead in the Mark Romanek-Alex Garland film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's futuristic-nightmare novel "Never Let Me Go."

A lush, likable and highly artificial 1940s romantic quadrangle that's getting a modest United States release, "The Edge of Love" depicts the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (played by Matthew Rhys) as a sulking, selfish man-baby who's trying to urge his wife, Caitlin (Sienna Miller), into a bigamous relationship, if not a ménage à trois, with his childhood sweetheart. Said flame is Vera Phillips, played by Knightley, once a Welsh country girl and now a sultry chanteuse who performs in London tube stations in between German bombings. (I forgot to ask Knightley whether that's really her singing in the film. But I checked, and it is.  She sounds pretty darn good,  too.)

All of this, or at least the part about the would-be three-way and the Thomas family's domestic soap opera, may not be too far from the truth. But no one's likely to confuse director John Maybury's highly stylized and willfully arty depiction of the Blitz with a realistic biopic. As Knightley herself says, the true subject of "Edge of Love" is the knotty, intimate, competitive friendship that develops between Caitlin and Vera as they spar over their beloved poet. While the film's ostensible plot turns around a slippery army officer called Killick (Cillian Murphy), who becomes Vera's husband even though they barely know each other and then returns from the war damaged and shell-shocked, the two men are in some ways impotent spectators. They may think they control the sexual power dynamics within the foursome, but they don't.

One could observe, if one wanted to, that the real Caitlin MacNamara, Dylan Thomas' wife, looked nothing like Sienna Miller. While I can't find a photograph of the real Vera Phillips on the Internet, I'm going to crawl out on a limb and suggest she didn't bear a strong resemblance to Keira Knightley. In all fairness, though, that's missing the point of this film, which presents the famous poet and his paramours as overwrought bohemian archetypes, hopping into beds and bathtubs with each other while the world hovers on the abyss of destruction. It's a cheesy, gorgeous, often dreamlike picture, and Miller and Knightley are unquestionably its stars.

Despite being the object of microscopic scrutiny by the English tabloids, Knightley remains easygoing with the press. So it was that she agreed to give me a jingle from her London apartment to chat about "The Edge of Love" and her career so far. Knightley's eagerness to discuss this particular project may have a personal dimension, given that Sharman Macdonald, the Scottish-born playwright who wrote the film, is also the person who gave birth to her, not quite 24 years ago.

Hi, Keira. So tell us a little bit more about "The Edge of Love." What's this movie about, as you see it?

Oh, it's a film about a friendship group imploding. I think that is the best way I can put it. One of the people happens to be the poet Dylan Thomas, but I wouldn't say that it is a Dylan Thomas biopic. I think it is more about friendship.

Right. I mean, people who are interested in Thomas' poetry will be excited to see the film, and we do hear some snatches of it, here and there. But that's not really a prerequisite, is it?

No, it is not. Not at all. Hopefully it will be a fascination if you do love Thomas' work, but no. A lot of this film focuses on female friendship, around difficulties within love and friendship, you know. So, I think hopefully people that have no idea who Dylan Thomas is will still enjoy the film.

The character that you play is based upon, or similar to,  a historical person. You play Vera Phillips, who was, for a time, the lover of Dylan Thomas. The film is set during World War II, it's a romantic film, a sexy film. I think those are all words that we can use.

I don't know. I wouldn't necessarily call it a romance. As for sexy, yes, I suppose there are a couple of sex scenes and yes, I think that sex, as far as being a discussion point, is rather a big theme within the film. But I think as far as calling it a sexy film, that makes it sound like a porn movie!

Well, all right. It is not a porn movie. B ut if it's not a romance, it's still a very romantic story about two couples who have this intense, overheated relationship with each other. And it doesn't all go so terribly well, does it?

I've always been fascinated with World War II and with the '40s as a period because, you know, there is this idea that people are living their lives with death raining down around them. They really have to grip onto life as much as they possibly can because they don't know how much time they've got. Particularly in London, with the bombs falling from the sky, they lived each moment to its absolute max and I think that's what these characters are doing. That can be incredibly explosive and volatile, and this was a friendship that burned very bright for a certain amount of time until it burnt out. I suppose in that sense it is quite a tragic story, and quite a romantic story.

That period when England was facing the Nazis, pretty much alone, in 1940 and '41, that's intensely powerful. We're almost 70 years after the fact, and it still plays a big role in the British nation's sense of itself, don't you think?

Gosh, I think that is a very difficult thing to know. I think it plays a huge role, just as Pearl Harbor has enormous relevance for America. Yeah, I think there's the obvious fact that you still see the scars of the Blitz all over London and if you live here you can't help but notice that. You know, we have all these huge new buildings, most of them built where the old ones were blown to pieces. My grandparents lived through the Second World War so there were stories all the way through, and my parents' generation have grown up with a definite sense of coming through that. It's a big part of our history, definitely.

You said earlier that you were particularly interested in that period. Is there something about you that particularly draws you to period films in general? You never seem to wind up playing, you know, the girl at the mall.

I'm not quite sure why, but the strongest female characters I've found have predominantly been in period films, more than in modern-day films. At least with the stuff that's been sent to me. I love watching period movies because I think that watching films is about escapism and about fantasy and I find it easier to dive into a fantasy that I don't know anything about, you know, that I don't live day to day. I love that feeling of escapism that period films give me, and that books about different times give me, or paintings give me. But I wasn't setting out to go, "OK, I'm only going to do period films." I work in a very instinctual way and I respond to certain things and I have no idea why, but for some reason the last couple of films have all been period.

Did you consciously intend to do some smaller films at this point in your career, or to alternate smaller and larger films? I suppose it almost sounds insulting to call this a small film, because in some ways its ambition is pretty large. But it presumably doesn't have the budget of a Hollywood film.

Oh, you know, it's a very small film. I love working in Britain because it is my home and it means I can be with my friends and family and work at the same time. If you are working in Britain, a lot of the time you are doing much smaller budget. I like doing a mixture of both. Early on in my career I did some enormously huge-budget films, and to be able to switch it up a bit and do small-budget ones is great as well. I mean, whenever you do a period film it is always going to cost a lot more than the modern-day pieces, because you have to close off streets, you have to build huge sets, you have to do it up. But there was something about this film -- because we didn't have that much money, I don't know -- I thought everybody had to be incredibly creative and work very quickly. You didn't have the luxury of doing 15 takes to get something right.

You said one reason to work in Britain is to be near your family. Certainly you have a family connection to this film.

My mum wrote it, you mean?

Yes, that's what I mean.

Yeah, well, we've never meant to work together. Not that we meant not to work together, but it wasn't anything that had ever been discussed. It was simply that, you know, on a couple of things that she's done she has asked me for notes, and this was one of them. She was actually visiting me when I was filming "The Jacket" with John Maybury, who directed this as well. And she said, "You know, would you mind just giving me some notes on this?" And I read it, and went, "Oh, that's amazing!" It was always the relationship between the women that I thought was so beautifully drawn. In a lot of films, getting female friendship right is very difficult, and I haven't seen it in all its complexities very much. I just thought she caught something really fascinating between all four of them, but particularly the women.

So it sort of went from there and I took it to a producer and said, "Look, it's rather good, can you help?" And they said, "Oh, is this something you're interested in?" Actually I hadn't even thought about it, but I said yes because I thought that was the only way that he'd read it! Then I went back to her and said, "OK, he's reading it but I think I'm now involved. Is that OK?" And she went, "Oh, OK. Fine." It sort of went from there.

Now, the female friendship in the film is between your character, Vera, and Caitlin Thomas, who is played by Sienna Miller. How did you and Sienna work that out, in terms of preparing that relationship? Did you spend a lot of time together? Did you feel like you had to get to know each other?

I knew Sienna a little bit before we started but not very well. Actually it was amazing, because she literally said yes to it two weeks before we started, so there wasn't really much time to get to know each other. But we filmed quite a bit of it in Wales and we all lived together, and that was great. It was just one of those very fortunate things where all four of the cast members just clicked, you know? It doesn't always happen, but it's awfully nice when it does. It really helped the entire atmosphere that you actually had four actors that really enjoyed each other's company and really got on.

I always enjoy seeing the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who plays your husband in the film. Talk about that marriage, because it's kind of a strange situation.

I mean, it's a wartime marriage, so it is two people that don't necessarily know each other very well. But they know that he's going off to fight and might not come back, so they get married, and she gets ... I don't want to give too much away! They spend a lot of time apart and it's that thing where you change in time apart. I think they're apart about a year, and all of a sudden -- you didn't know each other that well and now you really don't know each other and it's quite a tricky balance, living with somebody who has changed so much that you don't recognize them. So it's a relationship based on that, on that unease of trying to figure things out and also living in violent times, very strange times.

Cillian, in a funny way, has the most difficult part because he's the outsider. When he goes away to war, my character gets very close with Caitlin and Dylan Thomas and they start living together, they're this very tight friendship group. When he comes back he feels very outside that. So it's an interesting sort of push and pull between somebody who is feeling very ostracized by his experience and the people that he finds himself in the middle of.

Now, your character, Vera -- and I think this is true to life -- was probably Dylan Thomas' first girlfriend or first lover, right?

Yeah. I think they were childhood sweethearts, I'd say, more than lovers. And it's sort of a running theme, the innocence of that -- they both look back at their relationship in a very nostalgic way and I think through rose-tinted glasses. It's a fantasy for both of them. That can be very powerful between two people and it's something you can never get in the way of. You can't try to eliminate somebody's past. It's a very strong connection with those two, particularly, as I said before, because they are living in such violent times. You know, this peaceful childhood which seemed very romantic. I think for the other two characters this is something that shuts them out.

So they have this very strong connection together, and then I think there was something sexual within the relationship at some point. Obviously, for everybody that always adds a very strange tension. There is a tension between everybody and then Vera and Caitlin become friends, and Caitlin knows that there has been this relationship with her husband, that adds another layer of tension. It's rather a tense piece.

Right, well, it's almost an archetypal thing, isn't it? These are meant to be specific characters in a specific setting, but many of us have gone through similar situations at some time in our lives. The presence of an old flame, or a pair of couples whose relationship is tense and unstable. These are patterns that occur a lot in human life.

Yeah, I'm sure they are. I think friendship in general is never a simple thing, or very seldom is it simple, particularly with very close friendships. I mean, even taking sex out of it, particularly between women it can be a very tense thing. So hopefully it will resonate with quite a few people, and you can recognize it and you can probably judge it quite harshly as well, but I think it is always something that you sort of understand on some level.

Your relationship with Sienna, or rather Vera's relationship with Caitlin, is very intimate and also very competitive. 

Incredibly close and there is incredible jealousy. Which is what makes it interesting and I think that is what you see a lot in relationships between women. Not always, that's an enormous generalization, but it is quite a common thing.

At the age of 23, you've already had this impressive career in film. Are there kinds of roles that you haven't been able to do yet that you would like to look for?

Um, yes. I think every role I take, I take because I'm not quite sure that I can do it. And there are certain roles that I've been offered where I've gone, "Oh no, I can definitely do that, that's easy," and I don't tend to think that's the point; I think that you have to continue to push. It is not as simple as saying, "Oh, well, I'm not very good at this genre, so therefore I should try that," or "This is what scares me." It's much smaller than that. It is reading a script and kind of going, "God, I don't know if I can be relaxed enough to portray that piece," or "I don't know if I can be energetic enough to do that," you know. But that's the challenge and that's what makes my job really interesting. I've been really fortunate. I have been in some films that I'm really proud of, and hopefully will continue to do so.

But I think the magic about this industry is that you always have to be ready to fall flat on your face in a very public way, and I have a couple of times. That's what makes it so exciting, because when it works there is nothing like it, it's amazing.

"The Edge of Love" opens March 13 in Los Angeles and March 20 in New York, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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