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.”
Still, despite his borderline brattiness, there is something undeniably charming about McAvoy. Maybe it’s the accent, or the fact that he’s a tough guy with an unabashed feminine side. (He keeps a stash of his favorite Swirling Mist white tea in his backpack and excuses himself midconversation to apply Dr. Hauschka lip balm, which he swears was a freebie from the hotel when Knightley ribs him about it.) Director Kevin Macdonald says that when he cast the actor as Idi Amin’s personal physician in 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, he was taken off guard a bit at his wife’s gushy reaction. “She was like, ‘Oooh, I just love him! He’s so cute!’” the director recalls. “It’s strange because from my point of view he’s not exactly eye candy. But he has this quality that women really respond to.”
Raised largely by his grandparents in a bleak Glasgow housing project, McAvoy had his first exposure to show business when he was 16, after Glaswegian actor and director David Hayman came to speak at his school. “He’d done loads of movies and worked with f---ing Schwarzenegger, and as a young kid I was like, ‘Oooh, that’s interesting,’” McAvoy remembers. After class, he asked Hayman if he could make the tea or run errands on his next film, but when Hayman called six months later, it was to offer McAvoy the chance to audition for The Near Room, a movie he was directing. McAvoy landed the part, and though it wasn’t exactly instant stardom—“I had no agent, so I had no way of getting other work,” he explains—the experience was enough to pique his interest. Two years later he enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. “I wanted to leave the life that I knew,” he says. “I wanted an adventure.”
And so it has been. McAvoy first began attracting major attention in the UK in 2004, with a well-reviewed small film about two wheelchair-bound young men called Inside I’m Dancing (released in the States as Rory O’Shea Was Here), and the television series Shameless, where he met his wife of one year, actress Anne-Marie Duff. His powerful performance in The Last King of Scotland earned him a BAFTA nomination and an international reputation. Says Macdonald, “He’s the best actor under 30 in Britain, and maybe beyond that. I’ve seen many of the young American actors as well, and I can’t think of anyone who even compares.”
Tim Bevan, who produced Atonement and Inside I’m Dancing, agrees that McAvoy’s acting chops were never in doubt. The real question was whether the five-foot-seven, slightly built, ghostly pale Scotsman had what it takes to be a true screen idol. “He’s one of those guys who was always going to be a fantastic actor but the worry was, is he going to crack it to become a movie star?” says Bevan. “Atonement has proven that he has that quality. He can get away with crying onscreen, and it’s very moving. He plays like a man, not like a wuss.”
Strangely, until quite recently, Knightley was in almost the opposite position—that of a sexy, beautiful movie star who, despite having worked steadily since she was seven, was widely underestimated as an actress. Just a few years ago, for instance, even with the success of 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham and 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean behind her, she had trouble convincing director John Maybury to let her audition for the lead in the 2005 thriller The Jacket. “He said to me very plainly, ‘I don’t think you can act. I don’t want you in this film,’” remembers Knightley. (She eventually got the role and held her own against costars Adrien Brody and Jennifer Jason Leigh.)
The actress found herself in the same situation the following year, when director Joe Wright got it in his head that she was too pretty to play Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. “Funnily enough, he had the same reservations about her that I had initially,” says Maybury, who has since wrapped a second film with Knightley, The Edge of Love, written by her mother, Sharman Macdonald, and due out later this year. “I told him, director to director, that he’d be insane not to have her.” Knightley, of course, received a best actress Oscar nomination for the role, and Wright went on to cast her in his next film, Atonement.
Knightley insists that she never took the directors’ doubts about her personally. “I was already so aware that that was how everybody felt,” she says. “I think if you’re actually honest about it, then we can have a discussion, and I can actually do something. But if nothing is said, you’re going to go away with the same opinion, and I’m going to go away feeling s--- about myself.”
It’s a remarkably evolved attitude for someone so young, but having worked as an actress for a decade and a half, Knightley has developed showbiz survival tactics well beyond her years. Those who know her remark that she somehow skipped over the entitled-starlet phase entirely, to the point that even the most devoted tabloid reader would have a hard time coming up with a single diva moment or drunken scene reported in the gossip rags. “Her parents [Sharman Macdonald, an actress-turned-playwright, and Will Knightley, an actor] raised her with her roots in the earth,” says Gore Verbinksi, who directed her in all three Pirates films. “She doesn’t get caught up in all the hype. Even at 17 she was remarkably stable and confident.”
“From a very young age I realized that you didn’t get parts if you acted like a child,” says Knightley. “So even at seven I remember picking a way to behave, a way that worked. Though in my personal life I don’t think I’m particularly mature. I don’t particularly want to be mature!” Until recently, for example, her London apartment looked more like a college dorm than a movie star’s abode. “It always looked very transient,” she says. “We were sitting on folding chairs.”
But that changed at the beginning of last year, when Knightley took six months off between projects—the first proper break she’d had in five years. “It got to the point where you just get tired, and then you start to forget what you love about what you do,” she says. “I wanted to be able to say to my friends, ‘Yes, I will be there for your birthday.’ I was having that discombobulated feeling of being homesick but not knowing what I was homesick for.”
What she did during that half year off, she says, was “all the normal stuff: going to farmers’ markets, cooking, reading books.” And her most gratifying accomplishment was purchasing a sofa—“a big, huge, f----off thing that you sink into and never want to get out of. I never realized what a difference a couch could make!”
As stable as she might be, growing up in the spotlight has not been without its moments. The reed-thin Knightley has been widely criticized for her weight, with one British newspaper going so far as to run a photo of the actress in a bikini alongside an article about a teenager who’d died of anorexia. The headline was a quote from the girl’s mother: “If pictures like this one of Keira carried a health warning, my darling daughter might have lived.” Knightley, who has widely denied having an eating disorder and who, in person, looks the picture of health, sued the paper for libel and won.
“It’s like having piles of s--- put on your head,” Knightley says of the things written about her in years past, which, in addition to accusations of anorexia, included stories about her breaking the heart of her ex-boyfriend, model Jamie Dornan. “As a teenager you put enough on yourself. You’re a spotty emotional wreck whose body is changing, and you’re just not equipped to deal with that sort of thing.” The experience has left her cautious, to the point where she won’t even admit to her current relationship with Pride & Prejudice costar Rupert Friend—with whom she is often spotted around London—saying things to reporters like “I have no idea who that person is” when his name is brought up.
But these days the public seems less interested in her weight and her relationships than in her Oscar chances—though that kind of attention can also be tricky. When a movie has been hyped as aggressively as Atonement, with full-page “For Your Consideration” ads in Variety day after day, there is an enormous amount of expectation involved. (A week after this interview, the film was nominated for seven Golden Globes, with both Knightley and McAvoy singled out for acting.) When the topic of Oscar expectations arises, Knightley offers the usual demurrals. “If the film gets awards or anything, great, but if it doesn’t, it certainly doesn’t devalue the project,” she says. But she does admit that part of what made her last go-round on the award-show circuit so enjoyable was the fact that people had low expectations for Pride & Prejudice. “It was great fun, and it was partly great fun because I was absolutely certain that I wasn’t going to win, so it was just sort of going along for a jolly.”
McAvoy, who recently wrapped the action flick Wanted with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, admits to feeling a bit more pressure. “I won’t lie and say that I’m completely unfazed by it all. I am fazed by it all. I want the movie to do really well, and I want it to win lots of Oscars and BAFTAs, and I want it to win the adulation of every single member of the human race,” he says, only half kidding. “But at the same time I would hate to think that any of us should feel any less proud simply because it didn’t garner lots of awards. So it’s a strange conflict. There’s a part of me that wants to forget all of these things, and there’s a part of me that can’t.” It doesn’t help, he says, that he’s spent the past two and a half weeks being asked about how it feels to be an Oscar hopeful. “Journalists keep telling you, ‘Sooo, I hear Oscar!’ And you’re like, ‘Oh really? Great.’”
He finds sitting for interviews, it seems, just as tiresome as having his picture taken. “I had one guy, and I’m not going to tell you who it was because he’s quite well known, say, in a TV segment, ‘So, Atonement, it’s about as hot as a bucket of chicken with biscuits on the side!’ I don’t even know what that means,” McAvoy rants. “But I’m not going to moan on about journalists anymore. Sorry about that.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” Knightley scolds. “You’ve talked your ass off quite enough already.”
Keira Knightley wears Chanel’s cotton and linen top with gold chain detailing, at select Chanel stores, 800.550.0005; tutu.com’s nylon tutu, 877.888.8266, tutu.com. David Yurman’s 18k yellow gold chain, price available upon request, at David Yurman, New York, davidyurman.com. James McAvoy wears Gucci’s leather jacket, at Gucci, 800.456.7663, gucci.com; Calvin Klein Underwear’s cotton tank top, at Macy’s; Bloomingdale’s; cku.com; Prps’s organic cotton denim jeans, at select Bloomingdale’s stores; select Neiman Marcus stores; Atrium, New York. David Yurman 22k yellow gold, sterling silver and agate ring.
Hair by Garren of Garren New York; makeup by Charlotte Tilbury at Untitled; manicure by Yuna Park at Streeters.
Set design by Kyre Shenven for Mary Howard Studio. Digital imaging by Dan King. Gaffer: Chris Bisani. Photography assistants: Sharif Hamza, Sebastian Mader and Matt Hawk. Fashion assistants: Kathryn Typaldos, Martha Violante and Sarah Stevenson. Special thanks to Brent Langton at Briese USA.