A Risk Worth Taking: Kiera Knightley Talks About P & P

A Risk Worth Taking:
Keira Knightly Talks About Pride and Prejudice
By Cole Smithey

Keira Knightly is a vixen. Her spunky facial expressions flash with an unsentimental flair that leaves a lasting impression. She's effervescent to a fault. More significantly, Keira Knightly is an adept actress whose film roles, up until Pride and Prejudice, have only hinted at her range. In taking on the mantle of Elizabeth Bennet, one of English literature's most popular heroines, Keira Knightly captures the role as if it were a feral cat barely contained in a narrative cage that only she holds the key to. There's a visceral surprise in everything she does as Elizabeth. She harbors a sensual lyricism that plays on the big screen like something from French actresses Isabelle Adjani or Juliette Binoche.

Director Joe Wright has built his career on British television such miniseries as Bodily Harm and Charles II: The Power & The Passion. So, when wooing Donald Sutherland to play the role of the patriarch of the Bennet household, Wright was well prepared to answer Mr. Sutherland's exacting questions to test the director's knowledge of late 18th century England. The resulting film is a sumptuous, but never fussy, rendition of Jane Austen's classic novel.

A_P: Is it true that the minute Matthew Macfadyen walked in and started doing the audition with you that you knew he was the one?

KK: It was amazing. He's absolutely a sensational actor. I saw him on stage, and he was mind-blowing. Then he did this TV show called Spooks, and I was such a fan of it, but I couldn't imagine him as Mr. Darcy. I was a huge fan of the BBC version so I had Colin Firth imprinted in my head, but Joe [Wright] said, "No, I'm really sure about this and you've got to come in and meet him." So I met him and he was lovely, and I still couldn't imagine it, and we read the famous proposal scene in the rain and it just worked.

We did a lot of auditions with different Darcys, and they were all fantastic, but there was that one thing or another that hadn't quite clicked. With Matthew, the first time we read it, we really clicked. It wasn't in the script or anything like that. It's just what naturally happened when we were playing the scene in the room.

A_P: Have you been waiting to show off classical chops on film?

KK: Only because I like Jane Austen and I love a good costume drama. There's nothing I love more. They're a way into complete fantasies and so romantic, so I love that kind of stuff. I do like classical things.

A_P: Was it important to do a change up after "Pirates of the Caribbean"?

KK: It is important to change. It wasn't specifically like, "Oooh, I've got to change right now." It's just the way I think I try and run my career. I'd get terribly bored if I was doing the same thing all the time. In life, I play everything very safe; I'm not a risk-taker at all, but in a professional sense I think you have to take risks and keep taking risks. Sometimes you're going to make huge mistakes but that's fine because if you're not taking risks then audiences will get bored. If I'm doing the same stuff all over again, I'm going to get so bored it's unbelievable so there's no point in doing that.

A_P: Is there a role that you wish that you hadn't taken?

KK: No, whether a film has worked or not, it's out of my hands. The only experience that I have is the actual making of it. After that, it's not mine. It's the director's, it's the editor's and then it's whether it captures the audience's imagination or not. I did a great film that came out earlier this year called The Jacket. For one reason or another it didn't capture the audience's imagination. One thing I think is cool about DVD is that you get a chance later on alone where people can realize, "that is really amazing." You've got to do the things that interest you.

Even when it wasn't my decision what I did, I've always been so grateful that somebody was offering me a part that I was excited by it. If you don't have a level of excitement about it, you can't do it.

A_P: Does the cautious part of you ever wish your career moved a bit slower?

KK: Yeah, in an ideal world I really would have like to have finished University and sort of quietly managed to make my mistakes and learn. That would have been nice. My dad always says, "I wish this had happened in five years time, because I wish you could have been 20 and got really pissed and slept with loads of people and made mistakes and nobody would have known about it."

I agree with that, but this is not a job that you can choose. You can't say, 'OK because it's here, it's going to be here tomorrow,' because it isn't. It doesn't work like that. You've got to say, 'OK, do I want to act? OK, it's here now so either I do it or I don't do it.' And I went, "OK, well I'm going to do it." And it will be gone in a minute. It's only a moment. That's what's beautiful about acting, is it's a flash in the pan so you may as well enjoy it and see how far you can go.

A_P: Was it disturbing to think that you would play one of literature's most beloved heroines?

KK: I was terrified to the point where I begged my agents not to put me up for it because I've been so obsessed by the book. When I was seven, I had all of the Austen novels on book tape and I'd listen to them and weep. Then I saw the BBC version and I was obsessed with that. She [Elizabeth Bennet] is one of my favorite characters in English literature. I absolutely adore her.

When one of my agents went, "Alright, you're going to read for Elizabeth Bennet." I said, "No don't, I'm going to fuck it up. Please don't do it. I couldn't bear it if I ruined her."

I was so terrified that I learned the entire script - my character and everybody else's by heart before I started.

A_P: Did Joe [Wright] say anything to you that gave you more confidence?

KK: He just kept saying that he believed in me, which is amazing because all actresses are, by nature, completely insecure beings. If they say that they're not, they're lying. It's a profession made out of insecurities. You've got to use them all.

So, to have somebody say, "I believe in you, you can do this" is absolutely extraordinary. He [Joe Wright] was so sweet and he kept saying, "I'm going to keep you safe darling, don't worry about it."

A_P: What's something you learned about yourself by playing Elizabeth?

KK: I'm not as clever as she is. I think Elizabeth Bennet is one of those characters that is everything that you want to be and everything that you are at the same time. She's so funny and witty and intelligent. She's the kind of person who says all of those put-downs that you walk away from situations wishing that you had said. But she's also really annoying and you want to kick her up the ass and shake her and say, "Oh, come on." That's what makes her really human.

New York-based film critic Cole Smithey has reviewed over one thousand films and interviewed such important directors as John Singleton, Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg, and such notable actors as Robert Downey Jr., Adrien Brody, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.