Say what you will about 2011, but there sure were a lot of great acting performances by women. So many that, according to the self-appointed prognosticators over at Gold Derby, Rooney Mara, Kirsten Dunst, Elizabeth Olsen, Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson and about 900 other female forces of nature are battling for that elusive fifth slot in Oscar's Best Actress competition. Right there with them is Keira Knightley, who redefines the term "bringing the crazy" in David Cronenberg's literally Freudian psychodrama, "A Dangerous Method."

In the film, Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a German "hysteric" who opens the movie as a snorting, shrieking, contorting mess; heals under the tutelage of Michael Fassbender's Carl Jung; and then repays him by sucking him into a sadomasochistic extramarital affair and selling him out to his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson, who talked to me about the film late last year). Elizabeth Swann she ain't!

I talked to Knightley on Tuesday about the role, the film's reception, and her upcoming movies "Anna Karenina" and "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World."

It's common to see a movie where someone goes mad, but in this role you're actually going in the reverse direction and going sane. What was that like? It was an interesting thing trying to figure out, not having seen where she comes from, exactly what level of madness it was going to be at the beginning. And it really came from David. He just said, "Go for it, give it as much as possible -- I can always bring you back."

My understanding was that you guys did a lot of research and based the performance on real medical studies. Is that right? Yeah, I did about four months reading before we started, not necessarily because I had to, but just because I wanted to for this one, because it's such a fascinating subject. But also because I didn't understand where the character was coming from. A lot of times you play people who are similar to you in some way -- not in every way, but there'll be something you can grab onto and go, "OK." But with this one there was actually nothing. When you're playing someone with a mental illness, I think it's wrong to think that there isn't a logic to the behavior. I really wanted to understand the logic behind the behavior in order to play it. It took a couple of months to get my head around it.

I'm curious to know where you came down on the character, because up through late in the film I was still sitting there thinking, This woman is trouble with a capital T. She's actually quite frightening to me, but what was your feeling about her in the end? One of the big decisions me and David made was the idea that I don't think there was a miracle cure with her. I don't think she was ever magically better. I think it was something that she struggled with her entire life. What the analysts gave her were the tools to control the ill side of her that was wanting to destroy everything. But I think the struggle continued throughout her life -- it never went away. We wanted to show that. The analysts I spoke to said she was probably a difficult woman, and if you read the accounts of her actual life, she was always known as being a very, very difficult, manipulative woman. People with masochistic behavioral traits can also go to the sadistic behavioral trait quite easily. I was interested in showing that as well.

How did you and David build up the level of trust that allowed you to really fling yourself into the character and have these wild erotic scenes? I think part of it is that he's such a phenomenal filmmaker. With some people, you play it safe so that you don't mess it up. With David Cronenberg, you know his taste is impeccable, you know that he's going to get what he wants, so you completely trust him. You're going to give it to him, and that's based on his CV more than anything. Saying that, he's also one of the most supportive, creative, intelligent men I've worked with. He's absolutely extraordinary. You can't help but be incredibly impressed and therefore trust his instincts on everything.

And what about working with Fassbender. It was kind of the year of the Fassbender. What was that like? He's a lot of fun. He and Viggo were an amazing double act -- terrible twins. You make a film like this and you think it's going to be very serious, because it's such a serious topic and so dark. But actually, it was one of the most fun experiences I've had. Maybe because it was so dark, we needed to have a nice time outside that. It was nice to work with someone who's so supportive when we had to do the things that we did.

When I spoke to Viggo, he drew a distinction between the way you and he prepare and the way Fassbender does. He said Fassbender really just sticks to the script. Did you find that to be the case? Certainly. He works in a very muscular way, he reads and reads and reads the scripts and only the scripts. Literally has it so that it's muscle memory, and can play with it. Which is a technique that a lot of actors use. There isn't a right or wrong about any of it. The most important thing is the work on screen. Me and Viggo work in a similar way, and Michael doesn't. But actually, when you're there on the day, it doesn't really matter, because it's all about working together and seeing what happens.

You and the director Joe Wright have worked on a couple of amazing literary adaptations ["Pride and Prejudice" and "Atonement"], but when he came to you and said, "Let's make 'Anna Karenina,'" did you think, "Now you're just getting hubristic"? It's a really hard one. We just finished it before Christmas and it was really, really hard, which is kind of great, 'cause that's what you want it to be. Just the fact of getting a book that's 820 pages down to a script that's 130 is a feat in itself. It's very difficult. He came in with an amazing concept that's totally out there and very risky and I thought, "Yeah, let's go for it." Why not? You might as well give it a go.

Can you tell us more about the concept? Nope. I'm not going to tell you anything. I think they'll be releasing things quite soon, but I'm pretty sure they don't want me saying anything. It's definitely a much more theatrical telling, it's not a straight telling, which I think really works well.

And then there's "Seeking a Friend at the End of the World." I don't know that much about the film, but I know it has something to do with an asteroid coming to Earth. What's with all the apocalyptic imagery in the movies these days? It's 2012, it's the Mayans' end of the world isn't it? A lot of people are using that. Obviously, it's going to be a big inspiration this year, but I think that was it. I think what's weird about "Seeking a Friend" -- I haven't seen it yet, I'm actually seeing it tomorrow -- even though it's about the end of the world, it's weirdly one of the most optimistic films I've ever been a part of. It's a life-affirming piece. That's the thing, you make films about the end, and what they become about is what's important in life, and therefore they become about life itself as opposed to death, which is quite interesting. Hopefully, it's an optimistic one.

Unless you're Lars Von Trier. I was just thinking that. Absolutely the entire time I was saying that I was thinking, That's what happens in "Melancholia." This is a very different telling of that.

When I talked to Viggo about your performance in "A Dangerous Method," he was very complimentary about it. He also said he feels like the British press won't ever give you a break. That, to them, you can ever do anything right. Do you have that sense? I think the British press is renowned for being what it is, which is rather [laughs] ... rather ... I can't come up with the right adjective here. Um, "severe," perhaps? You know, they love to build you up and knock you down. I'm not quite sure that when they knock you down, they like to build you back up again. But you can only make work that hopefully people will find interesting. Given the fact, that they're not always as supportive as they can be, the film has already gotten a lot of support behind it, which is exciting.
CATEGORIES Movies