Believe it or not, director Joe Wright wanted Keira Knightley to play Briony Tallis, thinking his “Pride & Prejudice” actress might be perfect as the guilt-stricken central character in “Atonement.”
Knightley loved the script, but immediately hatched other plans.
“I just totally fell in love with Cecilia,” she explains, referring to the part of Briony’s older sister. “I wanted to play a role that was not a girl on the brink of womanhood, but was very much a woman in her own right.” Her protofeminist take on “Pride & Prejudice’s” Elizabeth Bennett had earned Knightley an Oscar nomination, but the actress felt Briony was too similar.
“We had this big lunch where Joe was pitching me Briony and I was pitching him Cecilia, and we both talked each other into it, so at the end of the lunch, I was completely convinced I should play Briony, and he was completely convinced I should play Cecilia,” she remembers. “It was a few more lunches before we actually figured it out.”
Knightley ultimately prevailed with her first intent. While three different actresses split the part of Briony, she earned the right to play Cecilia at two separate ages, first as a haughty young woman who masks a passionate crush on the family gardener by rebuffing him at every opportunity, and five years later, her spirit aged by the twin assaults of world war and a broken heart.
“Atonement” offered another major break from her experience on “Pride & Prejudice.” Whereas Wright brought a 21st-century sensibility to Jane Austen’s world, for “Atonement” the helmer envisioned a cutting-edge piece of literature with all the sweep of a classical Hollywood romance — with an even more modern-minded twist.
“You’ve got this piece that begins as this very classic 1930s story,” says Knightley, who revived an aristocratic British accent to convey her character’s stiff-upper-lip sensibility. “You’ve got the big house in the country and everybody’s got great clothes, and then the word ‘cunt’ comes into it and completely explodes your conception of what this film should be.”
Favorite film: “I was obsessed with ‘Brief Encounter’ for ages. I slightly based Cecilia on a version of Celia Johnson.”
Young actor you admire: Co-star James McAvoy. “I actually first met James at an audition for ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and I remember thinking then, when I was about 17, that this guy was absolutely amazing.”
What you want in a director: “I love working with Joe because he’s so passionate and so completely obsessed by what he does.”
Vice: “I probably drink too much red wine.”