In Oscar front-runner Atonement, Keira Knightley and James McAvoy star as Cecilia and Robbie, class-challenged lovers in pre-World War II England whose lives are destroyed when Cecilia’s younger sister, Briony, accuses Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit. Robbie is sent to prison, and then to the battlefields of France.
Director Joe Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel asks the question, Can one ever truly atone for such a devastating act? Whatever the answer, the critics are satisfied. In fact, the Golden Globes awarded seven nominations to Atonement. including nods for Knightley and McAvoy. The Current sat down with the two actors — pre-Golden Globe announcements — to discuss their careers and the movie.
James, with The Last King of Scotland `in 2006` and Becoming Jane and now Atonement — not to mention Wanted next year with Angelina Jolie — you’ve quickly become a hot commodity. How are you handling it?
James McAvoy: I’ve been doing this for 10 years, man. I’ve had a very slow ascent, if you like. This is all surprisingly strange, but I just try to focus on the work. I try not to read articles on me. You just try to say, I’m going to stay away from it, I’m not going to read it, even if it is a nice piece about you. I think it’s an unhealthy thing to have in a home too many mirrors. It’s an unhealthy thing to look at ourselves too often. When you think about it, the only naturally reflective surface is water. So it helps to keep perspective about yourself.
You’ve had your star turns already, Keira. Is Atonement it for James?
Keira Knightley: He completely morphs into whatever character you give him. He’s not like Robbie; he doesn’t even look like Robbie. When he came in to do his audition, I’d read with four really good actors. James was certainly not physically what Joe had described he wanted in Robbie, and yet he walked into that room and it was the most extraordinary screen test I’d ever been part of. He transformed. It was to the point that, after he left the room, for 10 minutes we were all just sitting around like, “Fuck.”
James, have you figured out what sort of movie star you want to be yet?
JM: I’ve never really tried to figure out who I want to be, ever. I just go along with the situation. I think if I tried to be a particular person too hard, even a good person, I’d probably fuck it up.
Keira, is it true an alternative ending to Atonement was shot?
KK: Vanessa Redgrave’s Briony goes back to `our characters’ childhood` house, back to the library `where she misinterpreted a moment between Cecilia and Robbie`, and she sees a vision of `them`. `James and I` were meant to give her this forgiving look, and I couldn’t do it. Cecilia does not forgive her. She will never forgive her. It was a big thing because Joe thought she absolutely atoned, and I think it wasn’t good enough. I think that’s what’s beautiful about `the ending`. There aren’t any answers. It’s whatever you want it to be.
James, Atonement features a 5-plus-minute steadicam shot of the evacuation of Dunkirk, with your Robbie wandering through it. It might be the most remarkable — not to mention beautiful — single shot ever put on film. How difficult was it to stage?
JM: We could’ve lost everything. We were either going to get an amazing shot, or no shot. We wouldn’t be able to go back, either, ’cause we wouldn’t have any money for bringing back that kind of epic scenery and that amount of extras. Joe was quite adamant, he didn’t want any CGI-laden shots. So we did something different than what others would’ve done, which would’ve been to just shoot, shoot, shoot, but it won’t work the way we want it to. It’ll work because it’ll be what it is. Joe said, we’ll rehearse all day and then shoot for an hour, when the light is just right. We did three-plus takes, and two-plus were just rubbish. Awful. One worked. Filmmaking is a miracle of collaboration … Any single element could’ve screwed up royally, but we had five-plus minutes where nobody screwed up. •