One of the hardest things an actor can do is to play a mentally ill person, but Keira Knightley took on the challenge for the movie “A Dangerous Method,” which is based on a true story and which takes a look at the early days of psychoanalysis. Set in the early 1900s, “A Dangerous Method” explores the complicated relationships between pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (played by Viggo Mortensen); Carl Jung, Freud’s onetime protégé (played by Michael Fassbender); and Sabina Spielrein (played by Knightley), who starts out as a patient of Jung’s and then becomes his apprentice and his masochistic lover.
Freud greatly disapproves of the affair between Jung and Spielrein not only because she is Jung’s patient but also because Jung is married. The friendship between Freud and Jung becomes strained, which alters the dynamics between Jung and Spielrein, as well as Spielrein and Freud. The day after “A Dangerous Method” had its North American premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Knightley for this interesting chat about what she did to get into character. She also talked about what she really thinks of “A Dangerous Method” director David Cronenberg and her co-stars Mortensen and Fassbender.
Did you have to read a lot of psychoanalysis in preparation for your role in “A Dangerous Method”?
Yes, and I did, and it wasn’t a mind f**k because that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I read a biography of [Carl] Jung. I read “Memories, Dreams, Reflections.” I read a couple of papers that both [Sigmund] Freud and Jung had written. I read a book of Nietzche.
I read [Sabina’s] dissertation and several other things that she wrote. There was a book that was obviously really helpful, because it was called “Sabina Spielrein: Forgotten Pioneer of Psychoanalysis,” which was great. The book that the film is based on, “A Most Dangerous Method,” I read.
When did you read those books?
This was when I got the role. I knew I was going to do it about four months before we actually started shooting, so it took about four months to read.
How challenging was it for you to do research for the role?
It was challenging because I’m not very academic, and it’s a whole other language which is one I’d never really looked at before. It took a long time to key in to that and understand what it was. And plus the fact that it’s psychoanalytical academia, which is a whole other language as well. It took quite a while. I don’t pretend to understand everything that I read, but it was a way in to understand it.
What surprised you the most Sabina — something that we may not have seen in “A Dangerous Method”?
I don’t know. It’s pretty tragic, when you actually look at the case notes and the background, the family history. It’s pretty dark stuff. For me, I found her incredibly inspiring, because the idea that you’ve got somebody who so is so sick in the beginning. I don’t know if “sick” is the [right word], but “ill” — completely trapped within herself.
She’d been shut out of tons of asylums beforehand. People had completely given up hope on her. And she’d given up hope on herself. She literally thought that she was possessed, that she was demonic.
The idea that you have that person, and through analysis, she can pulled out of herself — and not only that her intellect can be stimulated, she can be functional in society and become a psychoanalyst in her own right, and come up with the ideas that inspire both Freud and Jung, it’s an extraordinarily inspiring story, I found. There are some devastating parts of her actual story — not least the fact that she was killed by the Nazis in [the early 1940s] in Rostov. It’s a very tragic tale, but a very interesting one.
How did you come up with the extreme physical mannerisms that Sabina has in the beginning of “A Dangerous Method”?
That was one of the most challenging parts of it because in the script, she has a hysterical fit, and she’s ravaged by tics. And you go, “Well, what is a physical fit? And what tics?” There was no description anywhere of what the actual tics were.
And I looked at Jung’s original case notes: “Her face was ravaged by tics,” but not specifically what they were. I spoke to two psychoanalysts. And it says, “Well, tics, what does that mean?” And they said, “It could be anything, because it could be completely different for different people.”
There were a couple of words in her diary entries that caught my attention, because she described herself like a “demon” or a “dog,” which wasn’t in the script. I thought that was pretty huge, if that’s the way you see yourself. And I thought it was quite important somewhere to reflect that. And then I thought, “Maybe we can do that with the tic, if we can start from that point.”
Also, in speaking to analysts and talking to them about what tics were and what a hysterical outburst was and what compulsive sexuality or masturbation is about. And they were talking about how it’s all trying desperately to get pent-up emotion out; there’s a release of that emotion. So I also thought physically that was quite an interesting thing to look at.
So I literally went into my bathroom and pulled faces at myself and came up with that one. I wanted it to be as shocking as possible. I wanted it to be f**ked up and to ravage this [she points to her face]. So I came up with a couple of options and went and Skyped with David [Cronenberg, the director of “A Dangerous Method”], and went, “Right. What do you fancy?” And he went, “That one.”
I thought, “You’re doing a Cronenberg film.” And in some ways, it’s not a typical Cronenberg film, but I think the fact that the tics were there, you kind of go, “Well, a might as well.” There was also a bit of Francis Bacon portrait: “Three Studies of a Crucifixion.” There were a couple of things in that.
Weirdly, I went to an exhibition in London a couple of days ago about Jane Avril and Toulouse Lautrec. And Jane Avril was an actress who was also a famous hysteric. There are pictures in this exhibition of a doctor in Paris who did drawings of a hysterical patient, which randomly were very, very similar to what I ended up doing in the film, although I only saw [those drawings] two days ago. So I don’t know. It’s a strange coincidence.
Did you have any pre-conceived notions about what David Cronenberg might be like, based on his earlier films?
No. I met him about six years ago, just for a general meeting in L.A. And it was really nice. We had a cup of tea. And he was lovely and kind and calm. We had a really interesting chat. I cannot remember what we talked about.
“A History of Violence” had just come out, so [we probably talked about] “A History of Violence.” And then I didn’t hear anything, and I didn’t think any more about it until last year when my agent said, “OK, David Cronenberg is offering you a part in this film.” So it is extraordinary.
I think he’s phenomenally intelligent. And he’s interested and interesting. He’s also so calm and so kind to work with. He’s gentle. And the team around him are just lovely people. It’s amazing when you look at the work and it’s so dark, so psychologically dark in every way. It’s fascinating.
But also, as far as an actor goes, I think the reason so many actors want to work with him is that they’re just amazing characters.
How early on did you feel comfortable going to him with your ideas on how to portray Sabina Spielrein?
I said, “What do you want”? And he said, “I’d like the tics to be facial.” And I said “Well, it could be anywhere. If you don’t want to see it all the time on the face, it could be on the body. We could have it more on the body.”
And he said, “No, I want to shoot it close-up, so I want it to be on the face.” And he said, “I want a mid-Atlantic accent with a blush of Russian.” And I went, “OK. I don’t know what that is, but I’ll find it. Fine.” And that was literally it. And then other than that, he said, “I’ve hired you. Do your job.”
So how did you develop the accent that you have in “A Dangerous Method”?
I got a dialogue coach and we sat there and went, “What does that mean?” Lots of tennis players I listened to on YouTube. But actually, a mid-Atlantic accent is like a posh Connecticut kind of accent … So that’s what I always take mid-Atlantic to mean anyway.
And then just the idea that a Russian person has learned to speak English with that accent. It was quite interesting because it was layering two accents on top of each other, which was great. I love that process anyway. It was fun.
What was your reaction when David Cronenberg offered you a role in one of is movies?
I was thrilled. He asked to have the general meeting in the first place anyway years ago. I’ve had amazing supporters within the industry, actually pretty much since I started [acting], in very strange directions. Very early on, John Maybury and Joe Wright were there very soon after “Pirates [of the Caribbean],” and then people in different directions, both theatrically and in films. So I’ve been incredibly lucky, as far as that goes.
I think it’s one of the wonderful things about David. It’s what makes a great film director. It’s the imagination to go, “That’s that actress, and she’s been in that, but I can see from that that she can also go there in this thing, and I’ll trust that she’ll be able to do that.” That’s what people in this creative industry are about. Actors can change. That’s the point.
Very often, I’ve think people go, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen her do that before, so therefore we’re going to ask her to do that again,” which is also fair enough, because you know it works and all the rest of it. It’s wonderful when you get people who go, “OK, she can do that, so I think she can probably do that as well.” And through that, when you’ve got somebody like David Cronenberg who thinks that you can, you bloody well make sure that you can bring it to the table. It’s exciting.
In real life, Sabina Spielrein was obsessed with masturbation and feces. Did you have any concerns that some of that subject matter may be too much for a mainstream movie?
I got the script before I read about her. I knew nothing about her whatsoever. I’d never heard of her. I took the script and then found out the specifics of exactly what was going on. Some of it is very tricky, but there was never, “We need to tone that down.” If anything, I was quite surprised in all of it that [David Cronenberg] depict more of that side [of Sabina].
But I think equally, if you’re going to depict it, you’re going to have to explore it. And it’s a very tight film. It’s only 90 minutes. It would’ve taken a hell of a lot longer. And I’m not quite sure it would’ve aided the story, as far as that goes. But it’s always difficult, fascinating reading …
It is slightly reflected in there, which was actually me again going, “Well, what about doing that?” So I think in a funny kind of way, he’s incredibly respectful. He always says, “I never want anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with,” which is amazing, because you feel equally supported.
Nobody is being used. Everybody knows exactly what’s going on. It’s a very creative, collaborative vibe that he creates, which is possibly, equally why his films can go so far, and people do go so far when they’re working with him, because you feel so much part of the creative process. And you also completely understand what the point of everything is, whereas some other directors are much more dictatorial, which can be very difficult. He’s dictatorial in his own way, and he gets exactly what he wants, but it’s through collaboration and creative understanding.
What do you think was Sabina’s motivation for seeking out Sigmund Freud to collaborate with after she was rejected as a lover by Carl Jung?
I don’t think it was primarily motivated by revenge. I think it was Freud’s method. It was Jung who decided to use it on her, but it was Freud’s method. And it absolutely saved her. And in her understanding of it, she absolutely agreed that it all went back to childhood sexuality. And she was fascinated with that and later became a child psychoanalyst or psychologist. I can never know the f**king difference.
Do I think there was a color of revenge in it? Yes, certainly, I chose to play that, to put that in there, because I thought that was interesting. Whether it was actually there or not, I think this is an incredibly intelligent but manipulative person.
So do I personally think there was a color of that [revenge]? Yes. Do I also think that she was intelligent enough to know the best and to know what she needed to be interested n her own right? Yes. So I don’t think it was primarily revenge.
Why did you decide to read Nietzche as part of your research for “A Dangerous Method”?
It kept coming up in her writing and Jung’s writing and I think in something I read about Freud as well. And I never read any Nietzche. Zarathustra came up. I literally went though Nietzche, and I picked the smallest one. It was “The Birth of Tragedy” I went for And then I Googled the whole Zarathustra thing.
But I thought Zarathustra, as far as her relationship with Jung, that was really helpful — the idea of trying to be everything for him: trying to be the perfect mate, the perfect friend, the perfect stimuli, which again, leads it down a very, very strange path. I sort of used that idea quite a lot, so that was kind of interesting. But it was just because Nietzche’s name came up, and I didn’t know his work.
Did you think that Sabina’s life as wife and mother should have been in “A Dangerous Method”?
No. The story centers around Jung, and it centers around that relationship [between Jung and Freud]. Yes, it’s fascinating that she comes into the center of it, but it’s not entirely a biopic about her. I think originally [“A Dangerous Method” writer] Christopher Hampton was thinking about writing just a biopic about her, but then he couldn’t figure out how to get all three of them into it. So he had to take Jung as the center.
And with Jung as the center, the story finishes n 1913 between them. So there is no point in seeing the rest of [their lives in the movie’s story]. It is a fascinating, if you look into it. The rest of her life is fascinating.
Can you compare and contrast Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen? They seem to have very different personalities and acting styles.
They are very different. I’ve come to work in a similar way to Viggo, which is research. So when we were doing our scenes together, it was like books piled up to here, and notes coming out of everywhere. We work in a very similar way. He’s wonderful.
Michael is equally wonderful, but he doesn’t work in that way at all. He’s repetitive — so repetition on the script and only the script. But it’s really funny because they’re both f**king hysterical. They’re both jokers, so it’s lovely seeing them together. They’re like twins in some weird way. As much as they’re completely different, they’re incredibly similar. They’re both great guys.
For more info: “A Dangerous Method” website
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