Keira Knightley hates karaoke. She describes her relationship with singing as the occasional tune in the shower. Yet in an early scene in her new movie she’s apprehensively clutching a guitar on a small stage, singing an original song over the hum of a New York bar.
It’s a sweet moment that launches the trajectory of the romantic comedy/drama “Begin Again.” Knightley plays Gretta, a shy singer-songwriter who performs with the coaxing of her costar Mark Ruffalo, who plays a down-on-his-luck record producer.
Music is the driving force in the film, the second feature from John Carney whose 2006 film “Once” was a phenomenon, becoming an Oscar-winning indie hit and Tony-award winning Broadway musical. Unlike the stars of “Once,” who were real-life singer-performers, Knightley’s musical talents were limited at best.
“I don’t listen to a lot of music, and I think that’s one of the reasons that I kind of wanted to do the film was because I was like, ‘Oh, this would be fun,’” Knightley said in an interview before the movie’s limited release on Friday. “This is a challenge, it’s completely different for me.”
Carney knew that turning Knightley into a plausible singer was a key to the movie’s success. And he knew just the person to make it happen: Roger Love.
A prominent Hollywood vocal coach for decades, Love coaches singers and speakers on how to use their voice as an instrument as well as non-singing actors taking on musical roles.
“It’s a misconception that just because you’re a good actor that you could be a good singer,” Love, 55, said, his voice moving up and down as if his words came from the keys of the piano in the corner of his Hollywood Boulevard studio.
Before filming began on “Begin Again,” Carney sent Love a track of Knightley singing, asking if he could “work with this.”
“I was very sort of [skeptical] not because of Keira’s voice, but the last musical film that I made was with Glen Hansard [the star of “Once” and singer in the band the Swell Season], who has an incredible voice,” Carney said. “I think just my lack of experience gave me the fright in a way, and Roger was great to have around because he was so sort of calming and convincing in terms of ‘Don’t worry, I’ve heard this, I can totally work with her voice and get the emotion out of her.’ And he did.”
Love worked with Knightley both over Skype — Love in Hollywood, Knightley in London — and in the recording studio in New York to teach her vocal techniques before filming. Love and Carney agreed that Gretta, a songwriter not seeking the spotlight, wouldn’t possess more than a “sweet voice” and they shaped Knightley’s performance to fit the character.
Knightley’s thin singing voice contrasts sharply with that of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, who plays her ex-boyfriend-turned-music-superstar in the film and transforms the songs Gretta pens into radio hits. Her meek voice manages to just barely float on key, a light sound but heavy with personal meaning for her character.
“She’s not Aretha Franklin in this film, she’s a singer-songwriter,” Love said. “So it wasn’t about how can I make her sound better than any current singer out there, it was about how to deliver the singing she needed that would go with the acting, which would go with the character, which would go in the movie, which would make it real.
“I felt that she really portrayed what it sounds like to be a singer-songwriter, not somebody who was seeking the spotlight of ‘I’m the greatest performance singer in the world,’” he said.
Love preaches the gospel of singing, claiming with fervor that his mission in life is to “teach the world to sing.”
He first learned vocal technique by working as a teenager with famed Hollywood vocal coach Seth Riggs. Love became Riggs’ junior partner and later broke off to start his own studio, drawing his own set of top music clients.
Love says he sets himself apart from other vocal coaches by teaching three parts of the human voice, recognizing that there’s a “middle voice” between the chest voice and head voice that bridges the two to create a greater range. But more than technique, Love tries to build a relationship of trust with his clients.
With Knightley, Love says, confidence was key.
“I don’t know what kind of voice I have, I don’t know how to use it or anything like that, and he was just completely great and kind of always going, ‘This is going to be easy. This is going to be brilliant,’” Knightley said.
It’s not the first time Love provided the reassurance an actor needs to succeed in an on-screen singing role. He worked with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix to prepare them for “Walk the Line,” with Witherspoon’s performance as June Carter earning her a 2006 Oscar for lead actress.
Love said Witherspoon called him three weeks before recording for the film began. The actress, insecure about her voice, considered not doing the film at all, he said. Love worked with Witherspoon to expand her range for the role and at her urging, Phoenix worked with Love too and went on to snag an Oscar nomination.
“Joaquin had never sung,” Love recalled. “I mean, I don’t think he even sang ‘Happy Birthday’ at a birthday party. Ever. I was so proud of Joaquin because he started from scratch and to see how far someone could come in such a short period of time.”
It’s that kind of transformation that keeps Love working. He kept up an “Oscar streak” by coaching Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell for 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” for which Bridges won the lead actor Oscar. Music director T Bone Burnett served as the common thread on both films as well.
“Roger was recommended to me by T Bone Burnett, and he was so helpful with giving me exercises that strengthened my voice,” Bridges, who went on to record his own album after “Crazy Heart,” said via email. “He also helped me in the middle of shooting when my voice broke down.”
When coaching actors for a role, Love works with the film’s production team to help develop the right voice for a specific character. For Witherspoon in “Walk the Line,” she needed a deeper sound. Bridges in “Crazy Heart” had to take on the powerful sound of a country superstar.
His next film project is teaching singing to 10-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”) for her lead role in the new film version of the musical “Annie,” which comes out during the holidays.
Love understands that even for actors, singing in public is scary.
“Just because they’re used to having cameras in their faces doesn’t mean they can open their mouths and sing or that they’ve had any experience with that,” Love noted. “Most of them are terrified to death to all of a sudden sing.”