It’s a snowy December afternoon in New York, and Keira Knightley and James McAvoy are huddled over a plate of Chinese dumplings, still recovering from the previous night’s carousing at the West Village’s trendy Beatrice Inn. “I tried to get pissed so I could sleep in, but I still woke up at eight. I’m so hungover,” says Knightley, sighing. Her skin glowing, her hair shiny and her eyes without the slightest trace of red, she looks no worse for the wear.
“I didn’t get in till five,” counters McAvoy, his Scottish brogue making “till” sound like the shade of greenish blue. “There was really good dancing. We dominated the dance floor. And I lost my phone. Some woman named Stephanie picked it up in a car. I’ve been spending the whole morning on the phone going, ‘Stephanie? Stephanie? Can you hear me? It’s a bad connection but don’t hang up!’”
Knightley and McAvoy may sound like just another pair of underemployed, hard-partying twentysomethings, the type who can stay out until the wee hours and sleep all day without consequence. But in fact, the opposite is true. The two are in the States to promote Atonement, the Joe Wright–directed adaptation of Ian McEwan’s much loved novel, and because the film has garnered the sort of advance buzz that makes studio heads dream about statuettes, McAvoy and Knightley are being trotted around New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco like a pair of prize ponies. Last night’s dance floor domination, coming as it did after multiple photo shoots and interviews, was a much needed chance to blow off some steam.
McAvoy, who’s been at it for a week longer than Knightley because she was wrapping up her next film, The Duchess, seems particularly fed up. “I do find it strange, doing magazine shoots,” he says. “Photographers always go, ‘Why don’t you like to have your picture taken? That’s what you do for a living anyway. Just pretend you’re acting. It’s the same thing!’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s f---ing not! Give me a script then. Or tell you what, how about if I just stand here, and you pretend I’m acting? Would that make it easier for you?’”
Onscreen, as ill-fated lovers Robbie Turner and Cecilia Tallis, the two have a palpable sexual chemistry, with one scene involving them, both dressed in black-tie finery, furtively going at it while slammed up against a bookcase. In person, however, McAvoy and Knightley come off more like siblings, with the preternaturally poised actress seeming more like the elder sister, though she’s 22 to his 28. When asked what it was like working with Knightley, for example, McAvoy quips, “She has smelly feet!” before hastily adding, “I’m just kidding. Please don’t put that in.”