NEW YORK — Given her preferences, British actress Keira Knightley says she's most comfortable performing in heavy dramatic roles, generally those that require corsets, ornate gowns and other period accoutrements.
In films ranging from “Pride & Prejudice” (for which she won an Oscar nomination) to the swashbuckling “Pirates of the Caribbean” to the extravagance of “The Duchess” to the just completed “Anna Karenina,” Knightley, daughter of an actor father and playwright mother, has shown a great facility for historical decorum and regal bearing.
So her role as the free-spirited waif Penny in the apocalyptic love story “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” comes as a welcome departure for this classically beautiful actress. Playing Penny, the slightly daffy optimist who forms an unlikely bond with dull insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell) as a giant, doom-dealing asteroid bears down on Earth, Knightley said she really appreciated her character's bohemian sense of fashion, which generally consisted of a ragamuffin sweater, shapeless housedress and low-top sneakers.
“I love that about Penny,” Knightley said during press interviews hosted by Focus Features at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “You do ‘Anna Karenina' and it's a good two-and-a-half hours getting ready every single morning. You do this, and you come in half an hour early, they cover your zits, and that's it really. It's great.”
Change of pace
Knightley said she was also intrigued by playing a character so far removed from her previous roles.
“I've been doing a lot of very dramatic, tragic kinds of things, and I really fancied doing something that was positive,” she said. “I did say to a friend, ‘I'm doing a positive part,' and they asked what it was about. And I said, ‘the end of the world.'
“But I thought that (Penny) was very positive. She's just one of those people who is able to go, ‘This moment is fabulous.' I love that about her. The film is about something horrendous, about death, doom and destruction. But the fact is, I came out of reading the script and found it incredibly uplifting and incredibly positive. What it really says is, what becomes important? And what becomes important is love and friendship and companionship and the wonderful moments in life.”
So, how much like Penny is Keira Knightley?
“I'm not as positive as she is, but I'd love to be,” the actress said. “It really is the thing I loved about the character. You know, (writer-director Lorene Scafaria) has that in herself, this ability to go, ‘This moment is fantastic,' and actually say it. We'll be in a room drinking a milkshake or something, and she'll go, ‘You know, I'm really happy right now.' It's a quality I don't have. You know, you notice when you're sad, but I don't think you always notice when you're happy. And I love that about Lorene, and I love that about Penny as well.”
Inevitably, Knightley is asked how she would react if she knew the world was ending in three weeks.
“I'd hide in a corner and cry, I think,” she said. “We sort of went through bucket lists and asked: Would you jump out of a plane, would you go to an orgy, would take lots of drugs? Honestly, if someone told me we only had 20 days left to live and then a meteorite is going to destroy the Earth, I think I'd be so preoccupied with whether it was going to hurt or not that I'd just be terrified. You'd hope that we'd all be vaporized very quickly, but you don't know, do you?”
Laughing at life
The petite actress said in some ways she shares Scafaria's dark sense of humor about the end of the world.
“That's what I thought was so brilliant about the script. That this situation is so horrific that it is actually funny,” Knightley said. “It sort of comes out the other side and becomes funny. And strangely, in playing it, instead of going, ‘We'll play it as a comedy,' we figured that this set of circumstances is so bizarre that just playing the reality of that scenario is already full of humor. I think a lot of time you find yourself in the horrendous, traumatic moments in your life and being able to laugh. That's the wonderful thing about human beings, and I thought the script captured that really well.”
Although she's most associated with drama, Knightley asserts she's no stranger to comedies.
“I do get offered comedies, actually. It's not generally something I go for,” she said. “Because generally I don't watch them. My personal preference of what I love is more of the drama, tragedy and the costume pieces. It's what my imagination has always gone to from when I was a kid. So that's what I really like. But if you talk about the comedies I love, it's the ‘Little Miss Sunshines,' the ones that are slightly off-the-wall and kind of odd and based in reality, because I think reality is such a strange and funny place.”
So, how does she think this anti-action movie will play with summer audiences?
“Hopefully they'll understand that this isn't ‘Armageddon 2,'” she said. “I love a good popcorn movie, but doesn't it get quite annoying in summer when that's all that's playing? I mean, we all like other things as well, so I think it's quite nice when you can offer something that's out of the ordinary for the season.”