TORONTO - In the midst of a busy Toronto Film Festival, I found myself racing to the Fairmont Royal Oak Hotel.  One particular actress was in town for only a few more hours and this was a rare opportunity for a sit down one on one with her.  The star in question was none other than Keira Knightley, the former "Pirates of the Caribbean" star who has spent the last four years running from blockbusters and, instead, gaining respect with stellar performances in films such as "Atonement," the underrated "The Edge of Love," "Never Let Me Go," the also underrated "Last Night" and "The Duchess."  This fall she's delivered a career best turn in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method."

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a former patient and lover of Dr. Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), who became one of the first female psychoanalysts. "A Dangerous Method" centers on Spielrein's professional and then personal relationship with Jung and how Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) became entangled in their melodramatic affair.  A passion project for screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the film is somewhat tame by Cronenberg's standards, but allows Knightley to transform herself into an at times desperate and emotionally unstable intellectual - not your typical Hollywood leading role.  And it's easy to understand why the character was likely the most difficult role of her career so far.

Awards Campaign: I was lucky to see this at Telluride where Mr. Hampton was there.  During the introduction before the screening he was talking about how he'd spent forever trying to make it.  Because he’d done so much research, writing both a play and a screenplay, did you feel you even had to go and like do your own research to play Sabina or did you feel like it was all there on the page?  

Knightley: No, I did feel like I had to do my own research.  I mean, you know, I’ve worked with Christopher before he did the adaptation of "Atonement" a couple of years ago, and I love him and I love his work.  So, as soon as I knew that I was playing the role, I phoned him up and went, "Help!  What is this?" I went to his house and I was sort of expecting like an hour, you know, he’s give me a talk for an hour or two and I’d come away and I’d understand everything and he literally just gave me a pile of books like that and said, “Well, I’ve read all that, so read all those.”  And I went, "Oh, okay." He said, "it’s somewhere in there." Okay, cool.  Right.  So, I went away and just started reading really.  I mean, partly because there is a lot of it.  But [also] the language is very specific and very psychoanalytical and I didn’t understand it either.  I had no reference.  Just literally understanding what the hell they were talking about was -- which you have to do if you’re going to play it and make it clear for an audience -- that took quite a bit of reading to do that.  

As far as the kind of physical side of it, [the script] said, "Her face was ravaged by ticks.  She has a hysterical fit."  You kind of go, "O.K., well what’s that?  What is a tick?  What do you mean?  And what is a 'hysterical fit' and why did she have it at that moment?" And so, literally it just a fucking lot of reading and trying to figure it out from that point.

Awards Campaign: Where did you go to see people have those sort of reactions?  Did you watch videos?


Knightley: I didn’t see those kinds of reactions.  I mean, I watched a documentary about Tourette’s, which was really interesting and awful, but I didn’t actually use anything from it.  There's a description in her diary -- which I had gotten a translation of -- which said that she saw herself as a demon or a dog.  And I thought, you know, it wasn’t in the script, but it’s such a huge thing if that’s how you see yourself.  

Awards Campaign: Very true.

Knightley: It’s so horrific.  I thought, "Well, O.K., it would be really interesting to try sort of demonstrate that in some way…physically.  I spoke to a couple of psychoanalysts as well about it and they described this kind of hysterical or tick or compulsive sexuality or masturbation or [something]like that.  And they described it as a kind of a way to try to release some of this pent up emotion that has no escape.  And you know, I thought again, "You know, physically that was an interesting idea of sort of release." I also wanted it to be shocking.  I wanted it to be as difficult to watch as possible because I thought it was quite important to reflect that total internal turmoil and internal violence.  I sat in front of the mirror for a few days, not a few days, a few hours, really, pulling faces at myself trying to figure out what looked as demonic, animalistic and shocking as possible.  I think I came up with I think three options.  And then Skyped David went, "All right, what do you think about these?"  And he said, "Oh, I want that one."  O.K.  

Awards Campaign: A lot of actors don’t like to watch the playback.  


Knightley: Yeah, I don’t watch playback.    

Awards Campaign: So you didn’t watch at all, you just went with what David was comfortable with in terms of like those scenes?

Knightley: Yeah.  I never watched playback.   

Awards Campaign: Does that mean you're not a fan of watching yourself on screen either?

Knightley: I don’t like to.  

Awards Campaign: Do you ever go to the premiere and sit through your films then?

Knightley: Yeah, I do.  Like, I didn’t sit through it [in Toronto], but I’ve seen it.  I’ve worked with a couple [actors] who are brilliant and watch playback and get ten times better afterwards.  I’ve also seen actors who watch themselves and get a million times worse afterwards.  It’s very difficult not to let vanity, which everybody has, kind of come into it.  And it’s very important that your own personal vanity [doesn't].  So if it feels right on the inside and the director, who has to be your external eye, is reading it in the right way, then you kind of go, "O.K., this is working." Whereas, me watching it doesn’t work.  

Awards Campaign:  At the beginning of the picture there is a scene with Fassbender analyzing you where Cronenberg holds the camera on you for at least four or five minutes. Where you aware that's how he was going to shoot and cut it?  

Knightley:  You know, you read a scene, and I don’t know how many pages it was.  I think it was maybe four or five pages.  And I always thought that it was going to be played all the way through.  I mean, actually, he did it cut up a bit.  He didn’t cut up the first one.  The first one was pretty much done in one take.  I think there were two shots, one take each and that was it.  And there was nothing else. With a lot of directors, you’ll get a scene that is sort of about four or five pages long and you’ll be there for days.  We actually had three days scheduled to shoot that one.  And we did it in half a day.  

Awards Campaign:  Whoa. Does that make you feel more confident or does that make you just…

Knightley: I don’t know.  You know, it’s just the way [Cronenberg] works.  And I felt completely confident and I totally respect his taste.  So, I think it would have been more difficult with a director whose work you are unsure of or you don’t necessarily… you’d kind of, I think I would have asked for more takes.  I would have kind of, you know, I would have been less sure.  When you’re working with somebody like David Cronenberg, and he says, "He’s got it." You go, "O.K., you’ve got it, fine.  I trust you.  Cool."

"A Dangerous Method" opens in New York and Los Angeles today.


For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.