Interview: Keira Knightley on her first animated feature and giving voice to a Jewish artist in ‘Charlotte’
Charlotte Salomon was an extraordinary painter who incorporated much of the world around her into her work during her short life. Born in Berlin in 1917, she was killed in Auschwitz at the age of twenty-six during the Holocaust. Her life and enduring artistic ability are celebrated in the new film Charlotte, which opens in theaters just ahead of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Two-time Oscar nominee Keira Knightley makes her animated feature debut as the voice of Charlotte (she previously appeared in a stop-motion animated TV movie in 2007). We had the chance to speak with Knightley about working with the medium, connecting with the story, and the enduring relevance of Charlotte’s life and work.
Abe Friedtanzer: Hi, how are you?
Keira Knightley: Hi, I’m good. How are you?
AF: Good. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
KK: No worries. Quite awkward over the phone, isn’t it?
AF: Yes, but it’s great to have this opportunity, and I’m glad to be able to revisit this film, which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival.
KK: Oh, great. Yeah.
AF: What did you know about Charlotte’s story before you heard about this project?
KK: Nothing. I never heard about, I didn’t know anything about her work or her story. So actually, the first thing was that I read the script and just thought it was an extraordinary story and wanted to know more. So then I looked at her work and thought, whoa, this is such an amazing achievement. And I thought it was extraordinary that I never heard of her. And then I think the third thing was just really loving the idea of taking this artist’s story, this incredibly tragic story, and telling it through this medium of animation. I’ve got two young kids, so I’m spending my life at the moment watching kids’ films, and reading a lot of books with illustrations and loving them. So it was really nice thinking, God, I want more of this, but for adults. So it was really nice that this suddenly came through my door at a point that I’d been really interested in those two things. And it was combining them with this very adult tragic story. I just found it a very exciting prospect.
AF: So, obviously, this film is for adults, but do you think that, despite its themes, it’s something that children could see also?
KK: Well, I don’t know. I think it probably depends on the child and depends on their age. I mean, mine are six and two, so definitely not. But I think that probably if you were older, maybe learning about the Second World War, and you’ve come to grips with some of that, then yeah, possibly. I think the main thing is her work is so beautiful, and so definitely more people knowing about her paintings and live theater is good. It’s such a beautiful book, it’s such an amazing sort of mixture of art and autobiography and story. I think some people call it the first graphic novel, or the first adult graphic novel, or something like that. And it definitely has that. So some would be really interested in her story and her work.
AF: How did you feel about your first experience with animation? Was it what you expected?
KK: I didn’t know what to expect, actually, So I don’t think I had an expectation. I mean, I’d done a couple of theater and radio plays before. So obviously, it’s similar to that. I was just really interested. The very obvious thing is that normally I can use my face or my body to convey emotion, and suddenly you can’t. You only have your voice. A lot of the ways I said lines, I wouldn’t necessarily have said them that way if it was a live-action film. So it was really interesting seeing and realizing those shifts to convey more emotions through the voice than the actual line. Also, breath becomes incredibly important when you’re doing animation. All of that, I found it technically very interesting. And just again, it’s a real collaboration because you are not in charge of what the face or the body does. So really, it was a lot of discussions with the director and the producer, and about exactly what the movement would be and everything, so you could convey that through the voice. I found all of this really fascinating.
AF: Have you had a chance to see the finished product, and did it surprise you the way that it came out with your voice?
KK: Yeah, I mean, it’s never nice listening to yourself. I think the finished product is extraordinary. Obviously, the animation is completely different than Charlotte’s work. And yet it sort of echoes it, that 2D quality of the animation, and the choice to make it 2D instead of 3D, I just thought was really clever. And the way that they’ve reflected her color palette, and certain aspects of her work within the animation. I think it’s really beautiful. And I think, again, you have a story of such tragedy. It’s a very clever way of telling it, so that you can still watch it. I think there’s something about this story that is so horrific. It would be difficult to watch in a live action version, and maybe the animation allows that balance of hope and despair to be there, perfectly. It’s a really interesting thing seeing a very adult film and a very adult subject matter in that medium.
AF: Yes, absolutely. I agree. I also think that it’s an important time for this kind of film, because we’re at a point where those who did survive the Holocaust are increasingly no longer alive, just because everyone’s getting so much older. But it’s also a point of newfound relevance for things like this happening around the world that people need to speak out about. Do you think that this film has that added relevance in recent times?
KK: Yeah, of course. Definitely. The Holocaust is the most extreme form of genocide. The attempt to wipe the Jewish people off the face of the earth, and to destroy their culture, their presence, their culture, their thoughts, their way of life. And what Charlotte did in that moment, although she lost her life, was to preserve, and to represent in the most beautiful way, a piece of Jewish culture, to make sure that genocide was impossible. Because her work lived on, and her humanity lived on through this extraordinary act of courage in the face of such devastation to make a piece of art of such beauty, I think really speaks to the best of the human spirit at a point in history, where the world was seeing the absolute worst. There are obviously echoes of the violence that we are seeing around the world today, particularly in Ukraine, but in other places as well, where we see the worst of humanity. There will be many people in those places in the world struggling to show the best, and there are so many of them, and they have a right to love, and they have a right to express themselves through their art. And so I think Charlotte’s story speaks to all of that incredible survival of the human spirit in the face of such devastation. And of course, we’re seeing that today. So I think it has particular relevance.
AF: Absolutely. And I think also there’s a really beautiful family story here that’s pretty universal. How did you relate to that?
KK: The complexities of the family life? Yeah, it’s a very human story. And I think that what’s lovely about it is that nobody’s perfect. Everybody has cracks, and everybody is struggling to be better. And I think her story is also one where she’s trying to find her voice. She’s trying to find her place in the world, and everything around her is trying to tell her that she doesn’t deserve one. And she’s trying to find that within her relationship, and within her family as well. And I think that’s something that a lot of people can kind of identify with. So it has this amazing ability to be incredibly personal, and to be incredibly universal. It’s both a very quiet story and a completely monumental one at the same time.
AF: I know that you’re sharing voice duties with Marion Cotillard, who did the French version of this. Is it nice to know that there’s another version of this story, which can expand to a whole other audience?
KK: Yeah. I love that. I absolutely love it. I actually want to see it, in French, with her voice. Because I think it would be amazing. I really want to see it with her doing it, because it’s such an amazing story. For it to be voiced by such brilliant actors in both languages is really special. Again, that speaks to how powerful I think everybody felt this story was. And I hope that lots of people get to see it in many different languages, because I feel it’s very difficult not to be moved by her journey.
AF: Yes, absolutely. And do you think you want to do more animation after this experience?
KK: Yeah, totally. I’d be really interested to do more. Definitely.
AF: That’s great. I just want to make brief mention of another film that I saw you in at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is totally different in so many different ways, but also talks a lot about the importance of family, and the fatality of existence in a lot of ways. That’s Silent Night. Do you think there’s any sort of connection between these two films, or it just happens that they premiered at the same time, and they couldn’t be more different?
KK: I mean, they couldn’t be more different, but yeah, they’re both incredibly dark, and sort of about a kind of apocalypse. I can only say that my taste goes incredibly dark when I’m pregnant, or just after I’ve had a baby. And I have no idea why that is, but these were the two choices of the two projects that I did when I was pregnant. So I think it speaks to the maternal psyche, quite definitely. And I’m not quite sure what it says about that, but I find it quite fascinating, that those were the two that I chose at that particular point in my life. Birth and death, they go hand in hand.
AF: That makes sense. Do you like playing real characters, or do you prefer the challenge of playing somebody who’s created for the purpose of a film?
KK: Oh, it’s a good question. I think the wonderful thing about playing real characters is that people are so complex. They are so contrary. They are so multifaceted. Often, when you’re playing a real character, they’re allowed to be much more complicated than when you are creating a character. I think when you create a piece of fiction, you almost give it more rules that it has to live by than when you are playing somebody real. You are allowed to kind of dwell in all of their messiness, and because their messiness is allowed to be simply because we all know that it was. As soon as you get into the rounds of fiction, everybody can argue what’s right and what’s wrong. And that’s quite interesting. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to play an array of both. With the real person, and particularly a story like Charlotte, it definitely feels like there’s a, burden is the wrong word, but you want to make sure that the person is honored. You feel a responsibility to the person, which is an interesting way to go about working, whereas, when it’s fictional, you can do whatever you want with the character. They can be as horrible as you like. They can be as lovely as you like, and it doesn’t matter. It feels like it matters more when it’s a real person.
AF: I think you do a wonderful job with that here. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes to speak with me today. And I wish you the best of luck with this film, and all your other projects.
KK: Thank you so much. Thanks a lot. Have a good day.
Charlotte opens in theaters in the U.S. and Canada on Friday, April 22.
Photo: Steve Vas/Featureflash