'Begin Again's Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo Aren't Sell-Outs—Or Singers

John Carney, the director of the widely acclaimed musical drama Once, has another movie due in theaters soon, Begin Again, starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley as a washed up music exec and the aspiring songstress who inspires him, respectively. Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, and real-life musicians Adam Levine and CeeLo Green complete the film's impressive cast. At a recent press conference, Knightley and Ruffalo sat down with their director and some castmates to chat about the upcoming film, their singing experience, and why starring in blockbusters doesn't count as selling out.

Ruffalo isn't exactly known for his singing ability. When asked whether or not he has any singing experience, the usually talkative Ruffalo gives a delightfully short answer: "No." He claims he had one song in the film, but "that was cut out of the movie. I was singing in the bathroom. It was supposed to be a Leonard Cohen song." Why did the scene end up on the cutting room floor? Director Carney jokes, "We couldn't get the rights to the song. At least that's what I told Mark."

Knightley has a bit more training, having previously sung onscreen in 2008's The Edge Of Love. But Begin Again was a completely different experience,. "For this, they very kindly got me lessons with a very lovely man called Roger Love," she says. "We sat down and did lots of scales because a lot of the songs... The lyrics weren't written until a couple of days before we got into the studio, so we didn't actually have the songs to figure out until we really got there."

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The stars were asked whether they had any specific real-life inspiration for their roles, but Knightley insists her character, Greta, is entirely original.

It wasn't based on anything for me. We just sort of worked on it from a character point-of-view...This is somebody who doesn't like performing — so that instantly didn't have to have that razzmatazz sort of quality to it. This was somebody who really liked being in the background.

However there was one place that Knightley found inspiration for Greta, Begin Again's costume design.

We had big discussions with Arjun [Bhasin], the costume designer, about how I wanted [Greta] to dress for women and not for men. I wanted the clothes to be something that women would like and get, and men wouldn’t necessarily. So we worked quite hard on that kind of idea: that kind of slightly tomboy, slightly kind of Annie Hall, absolutely not sexualized kind of thing we were going for.

Ruffalo, on the other hand, is very clear about who his character is based on, though he's not sure how the real-life musician will feel about it.

I did want it to feel like a throwback. I like the sort of Star Is Born relationship that he has to her. It’s not sexualized or anything, he's someone who just really sees her talent and wants to develop it. And then I drew a fair amount from just daydreaming about these people and I somehow came to this idea about Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips. I really love him, I think he’s really gifted. He feels like the real deal as far as music goes. I hope he doesn’t take offense to my homage to him, but I’m a big fan of his.

Just for reference, here's Ruffalo...

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...and here's Coyne:

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There's quite a resemblance, no?

The most thought-provoking question came when the actors were asked if they ever contemplated selling out, which is a struggle their Begin Again characters face. The castmembers all looked to Knightley, who was at first flustered to address the issue, but then sums up her thoughts quite eloquently.

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 just want to sit and I want to have popcorn and I want to just kind of get lost in it. So I sort of think about that as far as making them as well. I like the differences. I did Jack Ryan because I wanted a pure piece of popcorn. I’d just come from Anna Karenina where it was just this incredibly stylized sort of trying something in a very new way. Very, very dark. And what I really wanted after that was something absolutely different. And the same thing with this film. I wanted it to be really low-budget and really kind of hit-the-ground-running and keep going and work as fast as possible. I wanted that kind of speed. So I feel incredibly privileged that I get the opportunity to do both.

The question seemed to strike a chord with Ruffalo, and his passion for acting shines through his response.

I got into acting because I want to act. And so that’s my true north: to be creative and to be challenged. 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’s my aim. I come from the theater, and in the theater, you’re never pegged for one thing. 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 ethic is what I’ve tried to bring — not what I’ve tried, just what I know to bring to my film work as well. To decide to do something just purely for monetary gain I think is incredibly cynical, and will only lead to your downfall in some way or another. It hurts your creative self.

Ruffalo then wraps things up with this thought-provoking nugget:

The idea of selling out is such a projection that people create about [artists] that is more of a reflection of who they are, than what is actually happening in front of them with the artist.

Perhaps Begin Again will change the way people think about "selling out." The film opens in theaters on Friday, June 27.