BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Keira Knightley, at age 26, has proven herself much more than just a pretty face. Born March 26, 1985, she requested a showbiz agent at age 3 — not all that surprising, considering that her father, Will Knightley, is an actor and her mother is the acclaimed playwright Sharman Macdonald. After making herself internationally known with her soccer-playing role in the 2002 British movie “Bend It Like Beckham,” her model looks and English charm scored her roles in blockbusters such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and British classics from “Pride and Prejudice” to “Atonement.” She now appears in a film based on the dystopian novel “Never Let Me Go” by Nagasaki-born writer Kazuo Ishiguro.
It’s not her first connection with Japan, however; in 2003, Knightley narrated the voice of a British student in Japan for an animated short titled “Gaijin” (“Foreigner”), directed by Fumi Inoue. Her character programs an English robot to play Japanese music, in the hope that it will help her make friends — but the robot, it appears, has other ideas.
“I never believed that ‘never the twain shall meet,’ ” Knightley says. “Anybody can communicate, particularly nowadays. All it takes is some imagination and initiative.”
She was intrigued by the animation after Inoue contacted her, explaining, “In school, we had all met visiting foreign students. And some of us have imagined ourselves in such a situation, living in a far-off country.
“Personally, I think that’s what actors are good at. We picture ourselves in other situations. You look at, for example, a student in England from Japan, and then you think, ‘What if I were a student in Japan?’ I think that broadens your imagination, but also your empathy for the student . . . you know, putting yourself in their shoes.
“I think ‘Gaijin’ was entertaining and hopefully even a little thought-provoking. It’s imaginative. I like imaginative filmmakers. Like (Inoue).”
Knightley’s current movie, “Never Let me Go,” also revolves around school students and their personal relationships. However, though Ishiguro was born in Japan in 1954, he moved to Britain in 1960 and is best known for his quintessential British novel “Remains of the Day,” published in 1989. “Never Let Me Go” is again set in England and features characters at what appears to be an elite boarding school, with Knightley as Ruth alongside Andrew Garfield as Tommy and Carey Mulligan, another highly acclaimed actress, as Kathy.
Adapted from Ishiguro’s novel by Alex Garland, the movie is directed by Mark Romanek. Neither fast-paced nor action-packed, it’s unlikely to strike a chord with her fans of hits such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” (Knightley will appear in the next “Pirates” installment this summer). Instead, the film is melancholy and psychological, dealing with (spoiler alert!) the teenage angst of young students, who discover they have been genetically engineered and whose lives are ruled by strict diets, limited access to the outside world and a sinister future.
“I don’t mean it to sound like a film that’s very intellectual or . . . overly abstruse,” says Knightley. “But it is intriguing. It does make you think, and what’s wrong with that? I think, when you look back at them, most of the films that live on in our memories — and the ones we’d like to see again — are the ones that do raise some questions in your mind. If they’re too pat, too . . . explained for you, I think you merely see the movie, then you forget it. ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a good film. And I think you won’t forget it quickly.”
As for the novels of Ishiguro, she admits she’s “not an expert.”
“I’ve not read them all and analyzed them. For me, like for most people, the pleasure of reading a novel is just going through it. Living the adventure with the characters. Then, afterward, you might wonder . . . but he’s certainly very creative as well as talented,” she says.
Ishiguro’s binational identity, she says, may have influenced his ingenuity: “My thinking is that part of his being so imaginative is because he’s from one country and culture but grew up in another, quite different. That has to stretch your mind,” she explains. “And in our movie, there are all these emotions and twists in relationships. There’s love and jealousy, being betrayed or betraying, desire — as in to fit in, as in to be praised and wanted for yourself and not just to serve a function.
“And of course there is the subject of how moral is science when it uses or potentially harms human beings,” she continues, commenting on the film’s dark depiction of scientific progress. “I think Mr. Ishiguro wrote a wonderful novel. I think its themes are universal. I imagine the movie will be as relevant in Japan as in England. Or in America or . . . Brazil.
Ishiguro’s dystopian world, which in the movie is set in what seems like the 1970s or ’80s, is, she says, something that could become more relevant in perhaps 10 or 20 years. “Today, the novel reads like science fiction . . . but in the future? Some things that writers imagined 20 or 50 years ago were like science fiction then but are taken for granted today . . . I like doing a wide assortment of projects, and this one is really . . . intriguing.”
So far, Knightley has often portrayed characters younger than herself. How does she, as a performer, look toward the age of 30?
“That reminds me!” she says. “At a party, these two actresses — very loud and actress-y, trying to outdo each other — were talking about age. And one of them said, ‘I shudder just to think about 40,’ so the other one said, ‘Really, what happened then?’
“But for me, I’m just confidently going along, from stage to stage. As you move through time, you do get to viewing things a bit differently. You know, new perspectives.”
She gives the example of having been frequently compared with Natalie Portman, whose character’s decoy she played in “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” (1999) and whom many have said has similar features.
“When you’re compared to someone else, it tends to take away a little, at least in your own very young mind, from your individuality.” she says. “I’d sometimes sort of resent being compared, although I do admire Natalie, as an actor and an individual. But now — she’s risen so high, artistically, and won the Academy Award (as Best Actress, for “Black Swan,” in 2011) — now I’m flattered by the comparison. Because of what she’s achieved, but also because I’m more secure in myself.”
Knightley adds that “Never Let Me Go” contains a valuable life lesson she’s taken to heart. “You can’t for the most part change what other people think of you,” she explains. And like the characters in the film who realize that they can’t change their second-rate position or role in society, she says, “What you can change, and what matters much more anyhow, is what you think of yourself.”
She clarifies, “In other words, you don’t go outside yourself for change or for validation. You go within. You live — everyone does — inside yourself. So to change the world inside you or the world outside you, first you have to go inside. That’s where the change and the power lies . . . . Put it another way — the Force is within you,” she finishes, giggling at the “Star Wars” reference.
As the interview wraps up, Ishiguro and Inoue come up once more.
“I think Japanese thought and culture are under-represented in the Western world, and that should change. And I include Japanese living outside Japan, like Kazuo Ishiguro,” Knightley comments. “Japan has so much to contribute culturally, because it is part of the modern world yet part of a non-Western world. It’s so unique to the rest of us, yet so cutting-edge. And it has a long heritage of art and culture and philosophy.
“So what I’m also saying is I hope to do more things based on, or from, Japanese artists and thinkers.”
“Never Let Me Go” opens March 26 at cinemas nationwide.