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NEW YORK - The last time I spoke with Keira Knightley we were sitting in an almost empty ballroom. Knightley had just come from the early afternoon Toronto premiere of "A Dangerous Method" and was in a gorgeous gown. I, on the other hand, had raced over in a t-shirt and jeans having no idea Knightley would be soon boarding a plane later that evening to cross the pond where production on Joe Wright's "Anna Karenina" awaited her. Nine months later, it's a different movie, country and city and yet, Knightley still looks fantastic. On this day I've got a much shorter amount of time to talk about a rare contemporary role for the "Atonement" star - just five minutes - in Lorene Scafaria's "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."
The dramedy finds Knightley playing Penny, a British expatriate trying to come to terms with a looming and very real apocalypse. Ever wonder what the weeks were like in a movie like "Deep Impact" after the crazy space shuttle mission fails and there's a countdown to a very large object slamming into the Earth? That's the conceit of Scafaria's feature debut. Obviously, there would be many different reactions to such a scenario, but Penny's initial problem is just dealing with her mismatched boyfriend (a funny Adam Brody) and trying to get from LA to the UK to spend the rest of her days, er, hours with her family. She gets a boost from Dodge (Steve Carell), her quiet upstairs neighbor whose wife deserted him the moment doomsday was officially on the way. With nothing else to do, Dodge and Penny start a trek across the country to find a friend who might be able to Fly Penny to the UK (the airlines have been deserted). You can pretty much figure out the rest of the plot on your own, but what makes "Seeking" intriguing are the moments of dark comedy Scafaria throws in there. That's one of the many reasons Knightley decided to be part of the decidedly independent thinking production.
'I just never read anything like it. It's such an unusual piece and, actually, it's really rare to get things that are quiet unique and to read things you've never read anything like," Knightley says. "And I just also thought, 'It's about the end of the world, but it's really positive.' And actually when I got to the end of the script I found it quite life affirming as opposed to really sad or tragic or anything like that."
There was also the appeal of Penny, a character unlike any Knightley had really portrayed on screen before. Penny's life is all screwed up and as Knightley notes, "it just coincided with the world ending. And I think you can't get out of that point even if the world is ending. You're still going, 'Omigod, this hasn't worked and where am I going to be? But am I gonna be here? Am I going to be somewhere else?' I think that's very truthful about people in their mid-late 20's. Everyone trying to figure out,'Am I doing the right thing? Am I meant to be doing this? Or, am I doing the wrong thing?' I thought it completely spoke to that."
Scafaria, who also wrote the screenplay, recognizes that with the world on a deadline, people would throw their inhibitions out the window. I mean, what's the worst that could happen? You die? That's scheduled for next week anyway. This leads to some of the funniest moments in the film (assuming you enjoy dark comedy). I asked Knightley if she'd consider partaking in any of the scandalous activities.
"There were a couple [I'd consider]," Knightley says. "Not the orgies. I wouldn't be into that. I think a lot of it made sense. I don't know if I'd like to be entirely sober at the end of the world, but having a party might be nice though."
I also took a few minutes to ask Knightley about "Anna Karenina," her third film with Wright after "Pride and Prejudice" (for which she received her first and only Oscar nod to date) and "Atonement" (a best picture nominee). The intriguing cast includes Aaron Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Emily Watson, Olivia Williams, Holliday Grainger ("The Borgias") and Ruth Wilson ("Luther"). The film is on everyone's awards season radar because of it's prime early Nov. release date and the prestige reputation of the cast and filmmaker. Of course, adapting Tolstoy to the big screen is hardly easy, but it was still a surprise when Knightley told me playing the title character was the hardest part she'd ever had.
"It was amazing. It was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done. In a brilliant way, in a brilliant way," Knightley says. "Obviously, Tolstoy was a genius and I think the reason that his books last so well -- is because the yard so complex and it's really looking at the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, often in one character. And trying to balance all those things in the one person was really hard. And, hopefully it's worked."
Check out our interview regarding "For a Friend" embedded in the post above. For Knightley's comments on "Anna Karenina," see below.
"Seeking a Friend for the End of the World" opens Friday nationwide.