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Keira Knightley on Understanding S&M, But Not Quite Understanding Zombies

When we first meet Keira Knightley as the hysterical patient Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg's new fact-based drama A Dangerous Method, she's all jutting jaw and verbal tics, a mental case who seems too far gone for young psychology pioneer Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) to treat. Before long, though, his talking cure helps Spielrein get a grip on her sanity, and she returns the favor by talking Jung into bed, where they embark on a spanking-filled S&M affair. Though it's another period drama for Knightley (she's currently shooting her latest, a remake of Anna Karenina), it's a daring performance unlike anything we've seen from her before, and she'll continue to challenge herself with her next movie, the bittersweet modern comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, where she stars opposite the "fucking awesome" Steve Carell. Does she enjoy trading her corsets for a pair of comfortable jeans? "I love doing modern-day movies," Knightley laughed to us. "It means that you get to get up a hell of a lot later in the morning."

Do you think A Dangerous Method is funny?
Yeah, totally!

Like all Cronenberg movies, I was surprised by what I found myself laughing at — all these very dry lines, or brutally clever cuts from scene to scene.
It's really interesting, because when we saw it in Venice, it was a predominantly Italian-speaking audience, so there weren't a lot of laughs, and I thought it was very funny. Then we saw it in Toronto and there were slightly more laughs, but still not a huge amount. Then I saw it in London and people were pissing themselves! I mean, it's quite interesting when people find it funny and when they don't — I suppose it says a lot about us, doesn't it? But I think the film kind of has to be funny, or else it's sort of quite relentless in its nature. I loved that there were those comic lines within it.

Was making the movie a serious endeavor, or were there pockets of humor there, too?
It's really bizarre, because the actual process of making the movie was the opposite of what you might think. David Cronenberg is one of the loveliest, most interesting, most supportive men ever — as are Viggo [Mortensen] and Michael — so I felt incredibly lucky to be with them, because it is quite harrowing subject matter. With other people, you could be in a nasty situation where it's quite grueling, whereas this honestly was one of the most fun experiences I've had making a film. Partly, that may be because the World Cup was going on while we were shooting it, so every single night we'd just be together in bars watching football at the end of the day, which was brilliant. Also, I'd done four months of research, so I kind of knew what my character was going to be, and she would just come out on set and that was it. It wasn't something I took home at the end of the night, which was very fortunate.

It's quite amazing how varied your character's arc is in this movie. You rarely find a female role in a movie that goes not just from Point A to Point B, but zigzags to all these other points as well. Which was your favorite moment in that very expansive arc to play?
I think I just loved all of it! Exactly like you said, there are very few female roles like that, so I just felt incredibly lucky to get one of them. Her arc was all completely fascinating. You know, quite often when you play roles, you have some sort of emotional connection with the character and you understand them at some level, but with this one, I really didn't. I had absolutely no idea, and I had to desperately try not to judge it, particularly her sexual, S&M side and why somebody would want that when it's not my cup of tea. I had to look into, "Okay, what is this, why would she want this, and what does this say about the rest of her behavior?" It took a hell of a lot of reading to find the logic in her behavior, but it was totally fascinating.

Did it freak you out to start the movie without that emotional connection to Sabina?
I spent about four months before we started trying to figure out who she was, and we shot the therapy scenes first off, so from there, we sort of knew how far we'd taken her and how far we'd need to bring her back. You know, one of the main decisions we made early on is that she didn't ever get "well." I mean, she became functional within society — and considering that she'd completely given up on that idea and everybody else around her had as well, that was an extraordinary thing — but it wasn't like there was suddenly a miracle cure and she was fine and lived happily ever after. It was something she constantly battled and constantly lived with, so with me and David, it was about trying to figure out when she was right on the edge of losing it and really desperate to hold it together and when she was much more in control, as well as what those triggers would be where she'd have to wrestle with herself to maintain that functionality.

You starred in Never Let Me Go with Carey Mulligan last year, and this year, you're both starring opposite Michael Fassbender in very sexually daring, somewhat perverse films. So my question to you is, when is it going to be Andrew Garfield's turn?
[Laughs.] To have a sexual moment with Michael Fassbender, you mean?

I think there's an audience for that!
I think that sounds like Oscars all around! I'll have a word with both of them and tell them to do it.

Tell me about the decision to use a Russian accent for Sabina, because so many films would simply have her speak in that catch-all British movie accent, despite where she's from.
That was completely David's decision, and he made it right at the beginning. I only spoke to him twice, I think, before we started shooting — there weren't any rehearsals or anything — and in the first conversation I had with him, he said to me, "Okay, I want mid-Atlantic with a blush of Russian." I said, "Okay," and he said, "Right. Go away and do it." So it was his idea, but I thought it was an important one as well, because the idea that she's in a foreign country and going through therapy in a language that isn't her mother tongue is a huge part of the character. It was good to mark her out in some way.

You're working on Anna Karenina now. Do you have a Russian accent in that as well?
No, they decided to go English. [Laughs.] It's always a big question when you're doing a part where you're meant to be speaking a different language in another country. Everybody has a different answer to whether you should do the accent or not, but the argument against that is if you're doing the accent, why wouldn't you simply be speaking the language? And in that case, this would be a Russian-language film. All the actors in this film are English, so we've gone for that. And actually, it works.

You were Oscar-nominated for Pride and Prejudice six years ago. What do you make of the recent attempts to get Pride and Prejudice and Zombies onto the big screen?
I didn't know about this! What is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?

It's a recent book that basically takes Jane Austen's original and inserts zombie attacks. Now they're trying to make it into a movie, but they've had some trouble retaining a director.
Is the book any good?

I haven't read it myself.
I've completely missed this!

Were you ever sitting on the set of Pride and Prejudice and thinking to yourself, This scene could use some more undead characters?
It never occurred to me. That obviously just goes to show that I don't have a good enough imagination. [Laughs.]

Photo: FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/AFP/Getty Images