Keira Knightley has tackled some tough parts before, but nothing like her role in David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method."
The story goes something like this: In 1904, psychiatrist Carl Jung began treating 18-year-old Sabina Spielrein, who had been diagnosed with hysteria, using Sigmund Freud's controversial "talking cure." Sabina, played in the film by Knightley, eventually had an affair with Jung (Michael Fassbender), and she became acquainted with Freud (Viggo Mortensen) as well.
The 26-year-old actress tackles hysterical crying and even a couple of kinky sex scenes in the film -- experiences she admits were difficult for her to wrap her head around. Knightley spoke to The Huffington Post about "A Dangerous Method," her love of costume dramas and why a photographer once told her never to smile.
Did you do a lot of research for the role?
I did about four months of reading just about as much as I could. I worked with [screenwriter] Christopher Hampton before -- he wrote the screenplay for "Atonement" -- so as soon as I knew I was going to do the film, I phoned him up and said, "Help!"
He basically handed me a pile of books and said, "Start reading."
I'm sure you had heard of Jung and Freud before, but did you know much about them?
No, I vaguely knew it was about sex and blaming your parents; apart from that I had no idea. So I had to do quite a lot of research to understand what they were talking about and understand where [Sabina] was coming from and the nature of the illness that she had. She's a very tricky character and hysteria is something I certainly wasn't familiar with.
Hysteria was a common diagnosis for women in the early 20th century, but not for men.
I think it was based on sexuality. You read about the upbringing of women at that time and they had absolutely no idea about the facts of life and what the hell was going on with their bodies when they went through puberty -- let alone when they might start to have sexual feelings, what that could be. Given the extremely religious nature of a lot of European countries at that time, they were told whatever feelings they might be having was the devil inside them. Sabina didn't know about the facts of life when she first started seeing Jung. I think that's where a lot of the hysterical fits came from, and why the Freudian method was so good in treating patients with hysteria.
You have a couple of S&M sex scenes. Were you nervous to do them?
Yeah I was, definitely. Particularly in the Internet age, you suddenly have to think about this in a way that I don't think people had to do [before]. I did seriously question whether I should do it or not and I spoke to [director David Cronenberg] about that. Essentially, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't going to be sexy or kinky and he was totally from the outset like, "That's absolutely what I don't want to do. This is showing about what's going on in the inside of her." The fact that it was shot in a very clinical and kind of brutal way, there was no kind of voyeurism -- I thought it was incredibly important to the story.
You get overwrought with emotion as Sabina this role. Was that a hard mindset to get into?
It was hard to understand because it's not something you see on film. Film lends itself very happily to depression. This is a very high-energy kind of repellent thing. It took a lot of reading about it to find out exactly why that behavior happened, why that was the only logical thing for these women to do. Although Sabina's behavior to the outside world seemed illogical, to her it seemed completely logical.
You've been filming "Anna Karenina." Have you ever met a corset you didn't like?
(Laughs) Actually I'm not in a corset in that one, fortunately. I think Anna Karenina is one of the classic female roles; you can't exactly turn it down.
But you do tend to do a lot of costume dramas.
I think it's because I tend to like working in Europe and England, not for any other reason than it's close to my home ... The opportunity to play a character like Sabina Spielrein -- I'm not going to turn it down because it's a costume piece. I imagine it's a multitude of factors that have kept me in a corset.
One last thing: Could you have a more gorgeous smile?
Wow! Thanks, I've been told I have a horrible smile. I had a fashion photographer tell me once, "Remember never smile, it doesn't look good on you." It was when I was about 16. Every time I have my picture taken I think, "Oh God, I'm not going to smile. It looks horrendous." So thank you very much.