Keira Knightley Talks ‘A Dangerous Method’: “It’s a tricky one when you’re playing somebody who is mad”

After signing on to play psychoanalyst and former patient of psychiatrist Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein, (who had a rumored romance with Jung) in director David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, Keira Knightley had her work cut out for her. 

Talking with Interview Magazine, the always seemingly open and talented actress shared that she poured over books and data for four months, researching her role for the the period piece that is a featured title in a handful of film festivals this year.  For the unknown, the movie explores the relationship between Jung and Sigmund Freud, and how the psychological theory of psychoanalysis came out.

When asked if there was a difference for her when it comes to playing a fictitious character, or that of a real person, Knightley shared that she uses the same approach when acting. 

“No, not really. I mean, I think sometimes it’s sort of easier because there’s quite often a lot more information, you’re not making it up, it’s there in books, it’s there in research form. But really the questions you ask about the character, and why people behave, and where they come, and how they’ve ended up in the places they’ve ended up [are the same].”  A Dangerous Method was able to reconnect her with writer Christopher Hampton of Atonement, giving Knightley more to go off of when researching Spielrein, who according to many, was an individual that seems merely a “footnote in history”.

“I had about four months before I started shooting when I knew that I was going to play the role. So I basically spent that four months reading as much as I could. When I’d taken the part, and when we’d gotten a yes from everybody, the first thing I did was phone up Christopher Hampton, who wrote the script, and the play, and also wrote Atonement, which I was in,” she said. “I phoned him and just [said], “I’m playing it, but help!” I went to his house, and he just handed me an enormous pile of books, and said, “Start reading.” So I dutifully did. You know, it was wonderful, it was a load of books I probably wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t had a reason to read, and they were completely inspiring and enriching and very helpful for playing this part.”

Knightley, who never seems to shy away from complicated characters, always meeting the challenge, shared that there are times when she does not research her characters before starting on a project.  “It really does depend on the role. It’s what’s helpful, because some roles you get very quickly or you intrinsically know exactly what they are; sometimes research isn’t needed. And then there are others where you think, “Okay, I want to look into this as much as I possibly can.” With this one, because of the subject matter, and because of the nature of the character, it really was something that I didn’t understand at all. I think quite often when you play characters, there’s a thread that links you to the character emotionally, and you can go, “Yeah, I kind of understand that.” Whereas with this one, I didn’t really understand it. It was sort of based on that, and also, it’s just such a fascinating topic. It was a complete pleasure to do as much reading as possible about it.”

This time around Knightley’s challenge was how to play a believably troubled and hysterical creature such as Spielrein, who the Pirates of the Caribbean star actually admits was so far out there and eccentric that Cronenberg and herself had to dull down in order to make her believable to viewers.  “It’s a tricky one when you’re playing somebody who is mad. There’s often the big actor’s question, if you’re playing a part like that: do you take it to be an internalized thing, pull the audience in, or do you go full-out, and kind of present it as quite a shocking thing? I think in talking to David, that’s what he wanted. Also, the nature of hysteria, which is something that hasn’t—or at least I haven’t seen it—been portrayed on film. It’s a very high, energized thing, it’s not like depression, which is low-energy and very much internalized; it’s something that is exploding out in every direction. So we kind of thought that we had to be truthful to the actual condition that she’s suffering from, and therefore had to go quite far. Weirdly, in doing research, I don’t think we went as far as it actually went. I don’t think people would have bought it if we had actually went as far as some of things I read, you know? So it is slightly under perhaps what it would have been in reality.”

Watch Knightley in A Dangerous Method opposite Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen below.

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