AS SHE makes her singing debut in the movie Begin Again, Cameron Sharp discovers Ms Knightley is feeling much more relaxed about her life and career
“I’d have preferred it if I’d opened my mouth and Adele’s voice had come out… or Shirley Bassey’s! If I suddenly found I had either of those voices I’d have been ****ing thrilled, but it definitely wasn’t one of those…” laughs the surprisingly sweary Keira Knightley of her role as singer songwriter Gretta in writer/director John Carney’s new film Begin Again.
Gretta has moved to New York along with her boyfriend and sometime songwriting partner Dave (played by Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who is also a judge on the US version of The Voice) who suddenly becomes successful, lets fame go to his head and dumps her.
She is helped through her post-split despair by friend Steve, played by James Corden, and alcoholic former record company executive Dan, played by Mark Ruffalo, who is bowled over by her talent.
It’s a contemporary role for Knightley, still best known for her costume dramas, while the singing proved to be another departure for her.
“The songs weren’t finished until two days before I had to record them in the studio,” she says. “I had singing lessons and sang lots of scales to figure out what my range was and to strengthen my voice.”
Unused to singing in public she found herself self-conscious on set when she had to strum her guitar and start crooning. “Gretta’s not meant to like performing so that was quite helpful, it was part of the character, which was good because, with nerves, you generally just have to get rid of them because that’s what your job is as an actor.”
Knightley was attracted to the script because, “I’d finished Anna Karenina and realised I’d done five years of work that was all very dark in which I usually died. I wanted to do something that was positive and had hope. This is hopeful without being too cheesy and has a slightly acerbic touch which I always like.”
It’s refreshing to see Knightley as Gretta in present day New York, having a laugh with Corden, feuding with Levine. Out of the usual corsets, wigs and stylised “olden days” dialogue audiences are so used to seeing her in it is almost surprising to be reminded how young she still is.
At 29 she’s had a phenomenal career, has made more than 20 films, been nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Elizabeth Bennet in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, and is the face of Chanel in its big budget, glossy, advertising campaigns.
However, it hasn’t come easily. In the past she’s said she didn’t feel she deserved her success and has had an uneasy relationship with fame – coming to sudden international stardom 11 years ago when her films Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates Of The Caribbean and Love Actually were all released within 12 months of each other.
At the height of the media attention that came with the Pirates movies she says she had 20 paparazzi outside her house every day who’d call her a “whore” whenever she left the building. She acquired a reputation for being aloof in interviews, so when I meet her I’m relieved to find her chatty, self-deprecating and rather sweary.
She puts the change down to “getting older” and “chilling out”. Perhaps her marriage to James Righton from indie group Klaxons last year has a part to play in her new perspective on life. The wedding, in France, has been described as a “low key” affair due to its small guest list, but not every bride has part of their ensemble personally designed for them by Karl Lagerfeld.
I’d have preferred it if I’d opened my mouth and Adele’s voice had come out… or Shirley Bassey’s!A big breakthrough seems to be that Knightley cares a lot less about what people think of her than she used to, which is just as well seeing as she’s doing a lot of promotion this year for blockbuster Jack Ryder: Shadow Recruit (which came out in January) Begin Again and the forthcoming indie offering Laggies (a slacker comedy with Sam Rockwell and Chloë Grace Moretz) and The Imitation Game, a biopic of Second World War code-breaking genius Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
“It’s not nice doing press if you’re worried about what people think of you or what they’re going to write about you,” she says. “You definitely don’t want to go there…”
Talking about her experience of doing press junkets a few years ago she says: “Journalists would ask things like: ‘How do you feel when people say you’re anorexic, you’re a **** actress or that people hate you?’
“If you’re not reading what’s written about you, you’re not aware of all of that until people tell you. To be asked those questions over and over again for a week in 14 million interviews… you get the message,” she laughs.
She’s similarly less concerned about reviews. In the past she used to read them all and dwell on the bad ones. Again, that’s changed. “There’s such a huge number of people involved in making a film. Even though you’re the one front and centre your control over whether a whole film works isn’t very great, so you can’t take the whole thing on your shoulders,” she says.
“You just have to judge things by the experience you have making them and not the end result, because sometimes the end result is great but if you’ve had a **** time making it that’s not good either.” She won’t give me any specific examples, unsurprisingly, so have a look through her filmography and guess for yourselves.
It is interesting to think films like this, the Jack Ryan action epic, and Everest, a climbing-disaster film with Jake Gyllenhaal which she recently completed filming, could be the start of an all-new, all-contemporary Knightley. She isn’t so sure.
“If a good corset one comes up I’m happy to get back in a corset,” she says. “I’m reading ****loads of scripts at the moment, all sorts of things, but haven’t found anything I want to do.
“Maybe after this I’ll be offered another musical!” After all, she’s may be no Adele, but then we’ve never seen Adele tackle Elizabeth Bennet.