John Carney faces backlash for slamming Keira Knightley, but is honesty the best policy - even in Hollywood?
Criticising Keira Knightley has won director John Carney few friends. But, says Paul Whitington, honesty is the best policy - even in Hollywood
Published 03/06/2016 | 07:00
Irish director John Carney is currently on the road promoting his film, 'Sing Street'. And if he'd wanted to, he couldn't have come up with a better way of attracting attention to himself and it than by having a pop at Keira Knightley. It happened last weekend, during an interview with British broadsheet The Independent, when Mr. Carney was discussing his last film, 'Begin Again'.
Made back in 2012, it starred Ms. Knightley as a young singer/songwriter with a troubled personal life, was pretty well received and performed respectably at the box office. But it now emerges that all was not sweetness and light on the set.
While full of praise for her 'Begin Again' co-stars Mark Ruffalo and Adam Levine, John Carney was less impressed with Ms Knightley's performance. "As an actor," he said, "you need to not be afraid to find out who you really are when the camera's rolling. Keira's thing is to hide who you are and I don't think you can be an actor and do that.
"It's not like I hate the Hollywood thing," he explained, "but I like to work with curious, proper film actors as opposed to movie stars. I don't want to rubbish Keira, but you know it's hard being a film actor and it requires a certain level of honesty and self-analysis that I don't think she's ready for yet, and I certainly don't think she was ready for that on the film."
It got worse. "Keira has an entourage that follow her everywhere," he complained, "so it's very hard to get any real work done." And he added: "I learned that I'll never make a film with supermodels again". That last remark seemed particularly pointed: Ms. Knightley is beloved of clothing and perfume companies, and has appeared in ads for Chanel.
Colleagues and friends have rushed from the social media undergrowth to defend Ms Knightley. Mark Romanek, who directed her in his dystopian drama 'Never Let Me Go', tweeted that she was "utterly spectacular on every level", and wondered "what this guy is talking about". Lorene Scafaria, her director on 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World', said Knightley was "just lovely", and Lynn Shelton, who worked with her on Say 'When', chimed in with a simple '#Knightleylove'.
Which is all very well, but this kind of united front is pretty much all we get from entertainment industry types these days, and I'm sure John Carney's remarks were honest and genuine, whatever consequence they've had. And perhaps his disappointment with Keira and her performance is understandable.
Firstly, she was a late stand-in in for Scarlett Johansson, an accomplished singer who would surely have brought something very different to the role. A strong performance from her might have turned a good film into an exceptional, career-making one for its director. Instead, he has said that making 'Begin Again' was "hard", and admitted that "as much as I tried to make it work, I think that she didn't quite come out as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter".
But Carney's unease with Keira Knightley might go a little deeper than the fact that she may have been miscast. The pair hail from very different backgrounds, and have had sharply differing career paths within the film industry.
Knightley grew up in southwest London, asked her mother for an agent at three, had one by five and began working in TV and commercials soon after. She was acting in films by the time she was ten, landed a small role in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace' in 1999, and hit the big time after starring opposite Johnny Depp in 'Pirates of the Caribbean' (2003). World famous at just 19, she was the highest paid actress in Hollywood just a few years later, though some critics pinpointed a certain skittishness, an emotional stiffness, and suggested her success was due more to beauty than talent.
In recent years she's sought to establish herself as a serious actress by choosing smaller budget and indie films over blockbusters, and has also become a mother. But her complex attitude to celebrity has remained: she does the glamorous perfume ads but hates being recognized in the street, and uses disguises to avoid the paparazzi. Fame, she once said "broke something in me".
John Carney, on the other hand, has toiled long and hard to build his film career. After leaving The Frames in the early 1990s to concentrate on directing, he managed to cobble together enough finance to make ambitious and well-received films like 'November Afternoon' and 'On the Edge', as well as a hugely popular Irish TV drama, 'Bachelors Walk'. But each production was a struggle, and even the international success of 'Once' in 2006 wasn't the gamechanger one might have supposed.
Mr Carney's films are charming, witty and very accessible, tailor-made, in fact, for a larger international audience. 'Begin Again' and 'Sing Street' have come close to winning him the stage his talent deserves. They are labours of love - Carney writes as well as directs - often based on personal experience. Hardly the kinds of sets, then, on which entourages and thespian soul-searching are likely to be tolerated. But was it right for Carney to break ranks and vent his spleen in public?
Commentators on social media have accused him of disloyalty, and he may be quietly dropped from Ms Knightley's Christmas card list, if, that is, he was ever on it. John Carney may have said what he said knowing there'd be a backlash, but I don't think he'd have made the remarks if he didn't think they were fair, and true.
And his comments seem bracingly honest in an age when everyone loves working with everyone and turn up on Graham Norton to hold hands and prove the point. Sometimes, all that cloying chumminess seems like a Faustian pact. They can't all like each other, can they?