Once and Begin Again Director Thoroughly Apologizes for Insulting Keira Knightley

In an interview with The Independent Saturday, director John Carney, known for his films Once, Begin Again, and Sing Street, had a surprising amount to say about his Begin Again star Keira Knightley—none of it flattering. What was particularly odd was that Carney seemed more preoccupied with insulting Knightley than promoting his latest film, Sing Street. For example, here’s an excerpt from the interview:

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Sing Street has had rave reviews. How do you feel about the reaction?

Well, it’s fantastic. I’m very surprised; it’s a small personal movie with no Keira Knightleys in it. It’s really rewarding.

Or this:

How significant was it to make the film [Sing Street] in Ireland?

I had just come back from making this far bigger movie in America and I was a bit disenchanted with working with certain movie stars in that movie and I wanted a break.

I didn’t enjoy that experience of paparazzi and fabulous openings. The movie star world is not something that ever appealed to me. I like working with actors and I wanted to come back to what I knew and enjoy film-making again – not that I didn’t enjoy Begin Again but Keira has an entourage that follow her everywhere so it’s very hard to get any real work done, and so I was very ready to come back to Ireland and make films that nobody cared about who was in it or any of that crap.

I think the real problem was that Keira wasn’t a singer and wasn’t a guitar player and it’s very hard to make music seem real if it’s not with musicians. And I think the audience struggled a little bit with that in Begin Again. And as much as I tried to make it work I think that she didn’t quite come out as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter. So I really wanted to work with musicians and actors that could play their instruments properly and sing and stuff like that.

Carney went on to say that working with Keira taught him to “never make a film with supermodels again.” (It may be worth pointing out that Sing Street, his first film after Begin Again, has a bit of a Smurfette situation going on; the film’s only female main character is the protagonist’s love interest.)

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Screenshot via Sing Street trailer

In the interview, Carney did praise Begin Again‘s male stars, saying “Mark Ruffalo is a fantastic actor and Adam Levine is a joy to work with and actually quite unpretentious.” Not Keira, however: “Keira’s thing is to hide who you are and I don’t think you can be an actor and do that.” Although Carney claimed didn’t want to “rubbish Keira,” he then said in the same sentence that she didn’t possess the necessary honesty or ability for self-analysis to be considered an actor. Ouch.

His comments garnered a lot of negative attention, and, in the context of the complete Independent interview, it’s easy to see why. Obviously there’s no way to tell if The Independent cut some questions or published the conversation with Carney in its entirety, but as is, it looks as if the interviewer was trying to focus the discussion away from Knightley, or at least frame Begin Again in a somewhat positive light, and Carney kept drawing it back. Interviews are strange things, and it can be hard to tell in reading them what the dynamic between the interviewer and interviewee was like and what might have been left out from the final product. As it stands, though, Carney seemed to demonstrate an unusual and gendered dislike for Knightley.

In most instances I think it would be unprofessional for a director to criticize an actor of any gender so intensely in the media. But referring to Knightley as a “supermodel,” when she’s an Oscar-nominated professional actor who’s made her career performing for over a decade, is insulting and sexist. There’s nothing wrong with making your career modeling, of course, but that’s not Knightley’s main gig, and referring to her as such makes it seem as if Carney couldn’t see past her looks. Obviously Knightley has modeled extensively, but so have Levine and Ruffalo, and the Begin Again director had nothing but compliments for their acting abilities.

Given that one of Carney’s complaints referred to Knightley having an ‘entourage,’ I think the supermodel comment was probably inspired somewhat by his perception of her as high-maintenance, another descriptor that’s applied to women more frequently than it is to men. Oh, and she’s also apparently incapable of self-analysis and honesty, which honestly also seems gendered to meI’m not sure Carney would have dared imply that a male actor of Knightley’s status was too shallow to really act. But Knightley’s a woman, and a traditionally gorgeous one at that, so I think her career and intelligence are perceived as somewhat easier targets than, say, Ruffalo’s.

In the days following the interview, some of Knightley’s former directors came forward in her defense.

Of course, it’s natural for different directors to have different perceptions of an actor. But Carney’s comments were remarkable to me because I can’t think of a recent interview in which people in film who are notoriously difficult to work withlike David O. Russell, for instance—were told off so personally and vindictively by someone else in the industry.

Then, yesterday, Carney apologized:

That’s a damn fine apology.

One of the things this whole fiasco has made me consider is the way the internet peanut gallery can still impact positive change. There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the occasional horrors of online discourse and the disadvantages of platforms like Twitter givings fans and creators direct access to each other, but I feel like Carney might not have really examined his comments, or the biases evident in them, if it weren’t for the thorough calling-out the internet gave him.

It really seems from his statement that Carney has internalized this lesson, and that makes me more excited to see what’s to come from him as a director. It’s worth noting that not everyone responds even to measured online criticism with such self-awareness and humility, and I really respect Carney for not answering the backlash with defensiveness.

(via Jezebel and The Hollywood Reporter)

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