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Keira Knightley, Adam Levine and 'Begin Again' team on stardom and selling out

Keira Knightley and Adam Levine
Keira Knightley and Adam Levine
The Weinstein Company

In the dramedy “Begin Again” (written and directed by John Carney”), aspiring songwriter Gretta (played by Keira Knightley) and her singer/musician boyfriend Dave (played by Adam Levine) are college sweethearts and songwriting partners who decamp for New York City when he lands a deal with a major label. But the trappings of his new-found fame soon tempt Dave to stray, and a reeling, lovelorn Gretta is left on her own when Dave leaves her for another woman. Gretta’s world takes a turn for the better when Dan (played by Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced record-label executive, stumbles upon her performing in a small bar. Dan is immediately captivated by Gretta raw talent, and he helps her record an independent album in different locations around New York City, even though Gretta is wary of any mainstream fame that might result from the album. Knightley and Levine (who is best known as the lead singer of Maroon 5, as well as a coach on “The Voice”) do their own singing in “Begin Again” and are on most of the soundtrack’s songs.

James Corden, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Keira Knightley and John Carney at the New York City press conference for "Begin Again"
Carla Hay

One can’t help but notice that “Begin Again” (whose original title was “Can a Song Save Your Life?”) has some things in common with Carney’s previous film “Once,” in that both movies are about a man and a woman who find each other by chance and become close because of their passion for music. “Begin Again” also stars Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife, Miriam; Hailee Steinfeld as Dan and Miriam’s rebellious daughter, Violet; Yasiin Bey (also known as rapper Mos Def) as Dan’s former business partner Saul; CeeLo Green as music star Troublegum, one of Dan’s former protégés; and James Corden as Gretta’s close friend Steve. Here is what Knightley, Ruffalo, Levine, Corden and Carney said when they gathered for a “Begin Again” press conference in New York City. After the press conference, Ruffalo and Carney were nice enough to stay a little longer to answer more questions.

John, is it true you had the idea for “Begin Again” when you were filming “Once,” but you wanted to wait until “Once” was finished?

Carney: Yeah, I did. I wanted to wait so that the two things weren’t following each other directly, for fear that I’d become “the music guy,” which was going to happen anyway. I wanted until the story was ready. It’s interesting that the music industry has changed so much since then, which helped the story. The print [media] industry is the only other industry that’s changed to the same degree, and the Internet has changed.

Did anyone in real life inspire the characters in “Begin Again”?

Carney: I was in a band after high school. I met a bunch of A&R men who were over in Ireland looking for the next U2. We weren’t, unfortunately. I guess they came to London, as well. It was very showy.

It was these A&R men, who were basically kids, trying to outdo the guys, with coke habits and unlimited credit card facilities. And they were sort of swanning around, bringing these kids out to clubs and wining and dining them and trying to find them.

And I was sort of thinking back over my life and wondering, “I wonder where those guys are now. I wonder how they’ve adapted to the massive changes in the music industry. Do they still have the coke habit? Did they get married?”

I remember them telling me stories of the girl they were with, and I wondered if they got married. Are they still trying to discover music in the same way? Even though the Internet has changed, are they still music-loving A&R men on the hunt for a new sound? Is that magical thing still there or not? That was the question I was asking myself.

And the first person you cast for “Begin Again” was Mark Ruffalo?

Carney: Yeah, Mark was the dream guy for this role.

Mark, are you musically inclined? Do you sing at all?

Ruffalo: No. I did, but it was cut out of the movie?

What did you sing?

Ruffalo: I was singing in the bathroom. I was supposed to do a Leonard Cohen song in the bathroom, but we couldn’t get the rights.

Carney: That’s what I said to Mark: “We couldn’t get the rights.”

Ruffalo: Thanks, man,

Keira, what is your singing background?

Knightley: I did a film years ago called “The Edge of Love,” where I sung a bit in that, but it was a very 1940s theatrical thing. It was so very different. Yes, I have sung before.

Did you take singing lessons?

Knightley: For this [“Begin Again” movie], they very kindly got me lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love, who we sat down with and did lots of scales. A lot of the lyrics weren’t written until a couple of days before we actually got into the studio, so we had the songs to figure out until we really got there. It was just about figuring out what my voice was, because I don’t know. He tried to figure it out.

Carney: None of us knew how it was going to work. And she went in and sang a few lines, and we all had a sigh of relief, like, “We can make this work.” But in between, the mic was still on and [Keira Knightley] was going, “I f*cking hate this!”

Knightley: I was rather tense. I wasn’t exactly relaxed when I was doing it.

Adam, you were cast in “Begin Again” before you guest starred on “American Horror Story.” Did you take any acting classes?

Levine: No. I tried to take one, and it didn’t go well.

What happened?

Levine: It was bizarre. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I was being told because it wasn’t making me happy, but that’s a whole other conversation I don’t want to have. So I just thought I would pretend that I knew what I was doing, and hope and pray that it worked because these people are all very talented … [Keira Knightley] made me look good.

James, you are also starring in the movie musical “Into the Woods.” What’s your singing background?

Corden: I’m a professional singer. I’m joking. I have a theory that all actors want to be rock stars, and all rock stars want to be actors. I spent my whole school life forming boy bands.

I was in a boy band called Insatiable. We were quite big in the High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire area. We had a song that I wrote called “Girl, You Really,” which we thought was amazing, but in hindsight, sounds a bit rape-y. And so, it didn’t work.

But I think Adam has heard some Insatiable stuff, so we’re going to hook up on some tracks. I think it’s something I’m going to move forward with and become an international rock’n’roll star. I think that’s a given. It’s a big surprise, but I can share it with you guys. I’m doing a thing called Maroon 6 now.

Was it easy for you to go back to that experience of being a struggling artist?

Ruffalo: It wasn’t my favorite place to be, so it wasn’t that easy to go back to it.

Corden: Mark really committed to the alcoholism aspect of the film. My favorite aspect of shooting this film was I was in a play at the time on Broadway [“One Man, Two Guvnors”], so I would shoot in the afternoon and then get in a car and be whisked across town and do the play. And then, quite often, go back after the play and shoot quite a lot of the montage stuff.

And there was a great time when we were on the subway, shooting this, like, montage thing. We didn't have any lines. We were just doing the music and Mark said, "Man, you must be exhausted from just doing the play. You must really need a drink."

And he was holding this Starbucks cup and I said, “Yeah, I could really use one.” And he just passed me this Starbucks cup and it was a vodka tonic. And he said to his assistant, “Can we get James a coffee, please?” And I really thought, “Well, this is the greatest moment of my life. I'm drinking booze with Mark Ruffalo, watching him film on a subway.”

Carney: And a little anecdote to that, the first AD [assistant director] comes up to me on the film set and says, “By the way, you should know Mark and James are both drinking alcohol. They think you don’t know, but you do know.”

Levine: This character was in the midst of becoming successful. It was a very specific time. When it happened to me, I was probably tempted by some of the same things that he was. Granted, my story is very different than his, but it was very easy to tap into what it was like to experience all of these things that we never expected to experience.

When you commit to being a musician, I don’t think you’re really sure or care about when you’re going to pay the bills. I don’t think you care about that as much as you care about playing music. So this guy was just overwhelmed, and so was I, so that was easy.

I believe that has something to do with why John called me, because very few people get to experience those things, and I think he thought I would be able to articulate it on camera. I think I did a good job with it. Like I said, it was all him telling me what to do the entire time.

Did you say “yes” right away when John Carney asked you to be in “Begin Again”?

Levine: Yes. I said, “F*ck, yes!”

Adam, now that you’ve got a taste for the acting bug, where do you want to take your acting career?

Levine: I have no idea. All I know it was really fun. It was a dream experience. This sounds really kiss assy, but I love these guys — all of them. They were so nice. I had no scenes with Mark. And the first day I got there to try clothes on for the film, he was so welcoming and warm and sweet. John and Keira made it easy.

It was one of those things where I don’t think it can get better than this. I might not make another movie, actually. There’s no way it can surpass this, in terms of how much fun I had. It was a blast. I hope there’s more.

Carney: It stops being fun after the first time.

Adam, can you talk some more about how you related to the Dave character?

Levine: I wanted to treat this guy like he was a totally different person, even though it was impossible, because I literally don’t know how to act, so I was like, “OK, some of me is coming out here. It’s not f*cking impossible for that not to happen.”

There was a very specific point in my life that I can talk about all day in referring to this character where I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve made it!” There were 50 of those moments, fortunately, in my career.

There was a time in the early 2000s when someone told me our album had went platinum. And I said, “What? Are you kidding me?” That was when I partied too hard and did a lot of stupid things, and that was part of who Dave was. He was that guy.

Are there any pop-culture references that you used to shape the characters “Begin Again”?

Carney: I had a really good conversation early on in this process with Mark years ago. He was shooting somewhere, and I was in Ireland, and I couldn’t believe they got me [his] phone number, and we had this discussion about this character. And we ended up talking a lot about 1970s movies and films we sort of loved.

We talked about [Alan J.] Pakula and “The French Connection” and Gene Hackman to weirdly find this A&R man and what this vibe might be like with this guy, and a bunch of late ‘60s/early ‘70s films, in terms of reference. There was a bit of a Peter Falk about this A&R man, I’ve got to say.

Knightley: It [the Gretta character] wasn’t based on anything for me. We just worked it from a character point of view that this is somebody who didn’t like performing, so that instantly meant it didn’t have to have that razzmatazz kind of quality to it.

This was somebody who really liked being in the background, so it was more about thinking about that as a character, and finding what would work from there. So it was very much from a character point of view. It wasn’t really based on anybody.

Ruffalo: I did kind of like the “A Star Is Born” relationship that he has with her. It’s not sexualized. It’s more of someone who wants to see a talent and wants to develop it. And then, I do a fair amount of daydreaming about these people. If [Dan was inspired by] any music person, it would be Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

Levine: It’s so f*cking funny that you said that! The second I saw you, you just exuded this guy. I thought, “That’s Wayne Coyne!” You hair looked like him. You sounded like him. Wow, I’m so glad you said that!

Ruffalo: I really love [Wayne Coyne]. I think he’s really gifted. He feels like the real deal, as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense at my homage to him, but I’m a big fan of his. That was probably the only music person who [inspired the Dan character]. And then there was a little Dylan, pointy-boot, Beatle boot type, with the jeans and glasses, but that was pretty much it.

Carney: You get one thing as an actor, any sort of prop or clothes or anything that gives you the guy or girl. I felt that with the glasses with you, Mark.

Ruffalo: That and the smokes. I knew an old Jewish songwriter who was a manager. He was a dear friend of mine who passed away a few years ago when he was in his 70s. He was in the music scene, and a lot of that [Dan] character’s qualities, especially, the Nat Sherman cigarettes were his. But that gruff quality, that was a throwback quality that I got. His name was Leonard Bleicher. He was a really interesting character.

A lot of “Begin Again” is about the fear of “selling out.” To the actors, do you ever have moment where you feel you have to “sell out” by doing a big, mainstream film in order to make smaller, independent films?

Knightley: I like the differences. I don’t dislike big blockbusters. In fact, I like them very much. Sometimes, that’s exactly what’s called for on a day when it’s raining and I want to sit and I want to have popcorn and I want to get lost in it. So, I sort of think about that when I’m making them as well. I like the differences.

I did “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” because I wanted a pure piece of popcorn. I had come from “Anna Karenina,” which was incredibly stylized and trying something in a new way and was very, very dark. And what I wanted after that was something absolutely different.

And the same thing with this film [“Begin Again”]. I wanted to it to be really low-budget and really “hit the ground running” and keep going and work as fast as possible. I wanted that kind of speed. I’ve been incredibly privileged to get the opportunity to do both. I certainly don’t sneer at big-budget things, and I don’t sneer at small-budget things. It’s about the opportunity to do all different styles.

Corden: Most things aren’t very good. That’s nothing to do with scale or size or any of those things. Most things aren’t that great. No one tries to set out to make something bad. Sometimes, they just are. The trick is to operate in that 10 percent, whether it be something of a huge budget or small budget — that goes for music, television, theater, art, everything.

You just want to operate in the 10 percent that’s there and acknowledge that sometimes you’ll miss the mark and sometimes you’ll make mistakes. But those are the only things that teach you to try and operate in that place where you can make something that’s really good.

I love watching things that people say is trash, and I love things that are different from that. I don’t think it’s a question of selling out or not selling out. At the core of that, it’s about making something that is good.

There’s no better representative of that than this film, where a group of actors get on board with a director they love because they see something that they love and it means something to them. And they go, “Yeah, I’m in for this journey with you, whatever it is, wherever we go. I’m in, and I’ll do my absolute, best to make sure that it sits within that 10 percent.”

Levine: I’ve thought about it, and I formulated a good response to this question. There’s a great scene in the movie where [Dan and Gretta] talk about how cultivated images are and how it’s not what people think. In music, people spend a lot of time figuring out who they are and presenting that to the world in a very calculated way.

I think in order to understand what selling out is you first have to define what it means to sell out. To do something that you don’t want to do because you might be able to gain something financially for it and not behind something that you end up doing for some other reason is probably what I call “selling out” — not feeling good about doing something that might help you get ahead.

Doing something that you love regardless when it’s a blockbuster movie or you’re writing a pop song or trying shamelessly to succeed in something is not selling out. I think that’s actually fine, and I would encourage that all the time. Selling out really comes when you sacrifice your own personal credibility in order to have success on a larger scale. That is selling out. Doing something that makes you feel gross and benefiting from it.

It’s very clear-cut, but people do have a very hard time defining it. They kind of throw a lot of things out there and say, “Oh this is a giant movie so that means this person sold out” or “This is a huge record that’s very popular.”

I always hated that growing up. When my favorite bands became successful I thought, “Good for them! That’s f*cking amazing. Congratulations! I still love you.”

I didn’t get that selfish possessive bullsh*t attitude like, “They were mine and now they’re everyone else’s, and I don’t like them anymore.” That’s a horrible way to operate!

They get to pay the bills and have an amazing life. That’s great. And they’re a great band. F*ck yeah! So that’s how I feel about that.

Ruffalo: I got into acting because I wanted to act and I love acting. That’s my true north: to be creative and to be challenged in what I love to do. And sometimes, that takes me into a big-budget movie. Sometimes that takes me into a small-budget movie, but I’m doing essentially the same thing in each one of those. And in every one of those, I’m stretching in a way that I hadn’t. That’s my aim.

I come from the theater. And in the theater, you’re never pegged for one thing. You could do comedy in one season. You could be the romantic lead in the next season. You could do a period piece in then next season. No one ever says to you, “This is what you have to do” or “This is what we expect of you.”

And so, that work is what I know what to bring to my film work as well. So it just takes you on this wild ride. The day that I decide to do something just purely for monetary gain or the idea of, “This is going to get me what I need to do to get to the next thing or to set me up financially in a way that I could do this next thing” is, I think, incredibly cynical and will only lead to your downfall in some way or another. It hurts your creative self. And so, the idea of selling is a projection that people create about people that is more of a reflection of who they are than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.

Carney: I’m going to remake “Singin’ in the Rain” tomorrow.

Corden: I slept with John to be in the film. I did feel it was selling out at time, but I’d do it again.

How did you relate to the romantic heartbreak aspect of “Begin Again”?

Knightley: I think that’s what I liked about the film. You can take it out of the music industry, and essentially what it’s about is people falling down in life and trying to pick themselves back up. And whether that’s romantically or in a career, I think you can’t be an adult and not have felt that in whatever extreme way.

So obviously, I completely understood where [Gretta] was coming from — not the actual scenario, but the feeling of thinking you know exactly what’s going on and who you are and where you’re going, and suddenly finding you have absolutely no idea where you are and where you’re going or what’s going on. I don’t think you can be an adult and not have experienced that.

John, how did you film that Times Square scene in “Begin Again” where you went out there early in the morning without a permit to film there?

Carney: That was the one true maverick crazy John Cassavetes madness of this movie, where we did not get permits and did not get clearance, even from our first AD. I had written ridiculously, “They go to Times Square and walk around.”

It’s like that great old line that producers used to hate in old movies: “The fleets meet.” The three words that would terrorize producers.

And when people read the script [with the Times Square scene], they were like, “Ha! Yeah, that’s going to happen.” I said, “No, it’s going to happen as long as we don’t tell anybody.” We didn’t want to close [Times Square] down because it would look ridiculous. And we didn’t want extras pretending that they’re looking up at signs.

Levine: There was a scene where we shot where we were walking up into the apartment together where some girls asked me for my autograph. And then, we shot the scene where it was happening. There was no difference between reality and the shot.

Carney: Life imitating art.

Levine: There was zero protection of anybody. It was great because we were really immersed in all of it at all times. It felt real because it literally was shooting off of the street. It was amazing.

Carney: I’m still surprised we actually got away with it in New York. There were times when we were asking the paparazzi for a take with out the [sound of camera] shutters.

Corden: Sorry, man. They just follow me everywhere.

Carney: We had to take James’ names off of the call sheet.

Corden: It was a struggle.

Is there a song or album or artist who really saved you during a rough time in your life?

Ruffalo: Elliott Smith — and then he killed himself. The “Either/Or” album. That’s such a great album.

Does your growing success in recent years scare you?

Ruffalo: No, I’m on my knees in gratitude. It rarely happens, and I know it will never happen quite like this again. I’m really making a conscious effort to enjoy it and really be present for it and not sh*t on it too much.

Where are you in the process of filming “Avengers: Age of Ultron”?

Ruffalo: I’m still shooting it.

How is the Hulk different in the movie?

Ruffalo: There’s a lot more to it that we’re able to do because the technology has advanced since the last time. We get to do a lot more with the character of the Hulk and the performance of the character that wasn’t available to us the last time.

How much motion-capture are you doing for the Hulk in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”?

Ruffalo: I do all the performance stuff and set the physicalization. There’s another guy, a bigger version of me, whom I work with. He has the musculature that the Hulk has, so they use him too. All of the performance, all the facial-capture stuff is me.

Is Hulk getting along better with Thor?

Ruffalo: I love him. I have a “smash ‘em up” with somebody else. A serious one.

How have your kids been reacting to you as the Hulk?

Ruffalo: [“The Avengers”] and “Now You See Me” are the only two movies they’re legally allowed to watch, but they love it. My little 6-year-old walks around and flexes the muscles and says, “I’m baby Hulk!”

John, since “Once” was adapted into a Tony-winning musical, how do you feel about a stage adaptation of “Begin Again”? Would you want it to be the original title of “Can a Song Save Your Life”?

Carney: That’s a good question. “Can a Song Save Your Life?” would actually be a nice title for a play, but I would be very open if it happened.

Would you want to be involved in writing the book for “Begin Again” if it’s adapted in to stage production?

Carney: Yeah, maybe on this one. I did think about doing that for [the stage musical] “Once,” but I didn’t write it in the end because I wanted to go on and make [“Begin Again”].

Why was the title of the movie changed? Was it because “Begin Again” fits better on a marquee?

Carney: No, it wasn’t that. It was that big question mark [in the original title]. It seemed like there were going to be a ton of answers. “Can a Song Save Your Life?” was more about art and what its place is in the world. Is it there to save us from the brink?

How did The Weinstein Company co-chairman Harvey Weinstein feel about the title change?

Carney: Yeah, he was open to it. We all wanted a title that would explain the film well and accurately, and represent what the themes in the film were. We’re all happy with it.

For more info: "Begin Again" website

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