Dan Steinberg, Associated Press
Keira Knightley

At only 22, Keira Knightley seems to exist in two different spheres of show business.

There's the high-powered beauty who stars in the blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and lands on the cover of Vanity Fair. Then there is the art-house star who gives nuanced performances in such films as "Silk" and her Oscar-nominated turn in "Pride & Prejudice."

She is in latter mode for "Atonement," in which she reunites with "Pride" director Joe Wright for a compelling love story set against a World War II background.

Chatty and cheerful, the actress — and former sexiest woman in the world, according to the edition of the mag FHM — called from the "very posh" hotel Claridge's in London to discuss the new film.

Question: Is it exciting when you have a new film opening?

Answer: Yeah, it is. It's been amazingly well received in Britain, and it had a great reception at the Toronto Film Festival. I'm interested to see how Americans take to it.

Q: Do we tend to view films differently from the British?

A: Well, judging by the questions journalists have asked me today ... American journalists are constantly asking about the sex scene. European journalists are asking about technical things and the Dunkirk sequence. So, there you go.

Q: That's funny.

A: The fascinating thing about "Atonement" to me is that everyone comes out of it thinking different things. Different people find different things important about the movie. Guilt, regret, war — everybody comes out with something different. It speaks to many different kinds of people.

Q: What do you want people to take out of it?

A: I don't want to dictate. I think it's completely wonderful that people are totally taking different things from it. I've had friends go to it, and they say completely opposite things about the film, and that's terrific.

Q: Initially in the film, your character is rather unlikable.

A: At the beginning of the film, Cecilia is a very brittle kind of character. She is totally on edge. What I found fascinating is we all have days when we come across like that. We're being horrible to people for some reason, but we can't stop ourselves.

Q: Yes, you grow to like her as the film progresses.

A: For me, I loved how fallible she was. She's this woman from an incredibly privileged background, yet she's completely and utterly directionless. She knows that she should be going forward, and she can't. She's bubbling with conflicting emotions and anger, but she's a very 1930s' kind of person. It was a time of extraordinary emotional repression, that stiff-upper-lip kind of thing. But she gets redeemed by love, and I thought the journey of the character was fascinating.

Q: Your chemistry with James McAvoy was very intense.

A: Yeah, he's wonderful. I didn't know him very well, but we worked very well together and I've worked with his wife (actress Anne-Marie Duff). Chemistry is always a funny thing. Sometimes you get along great, but it doesn't translate to the screen. Other times you don't get along, and it's fine on screen. But I totally love James. He's a sensational actor and a lovely guy.

Q: Can you think of an example where you had great chemistry off-screen and it didn't translate?

A: Not one that I'm going to share with you! Thank you very much, but no.

Q: This is your second film with Joe Wright after "Pride & Prejudice." You must have good chemistry with him.

A: He's a friend and an incredible talent. He's so passionate and obsessed by the films he makes, it enthuses and inspires everyone around him. As far as chemistry goes, it's very rare to find an actor you have good chemistry with. Well, it's even more rare to find a director. I just totally love him.

Q: John Maybury directed you in "The Jacket" and you've reunited for "The Edge of Love."

A: I had an amazing time on "The Jacket," and this film is totally different. John was one of the first people who really believed in me. He talked Joe into having me for "Pride & Prejudice," so he's very important to me.

Q: "The Jacket" was such an underrated film.

A: I love that film. It's wonderful and really interesting and totally weird and just didn't happen. It's been a big success on DVD, though, so it's incredibly good as an actor to know that films just don't end at the cinema. They've got this life afterward.

Q: Your career is interesting, because you move between very serious-minded films and big Hollywood epics. Do you have a master plan for your career?

A: I'd love to have a master plan for my career. What's exciting about this business is the change. The only way to describe it is that in any creative medium you have to be selfish about what interests you. All my fans may like me to do one thing, but I can only do what interests me at the time. The opportunity to do films like "Pirates," which are action-packed and fun, then to do something like "Atonement," which is a very grown-up film, is immense.

Q: Does anyone ever tell you, "Yes, but think of the money you could make if you did this type of movie?"

A: I don't think anyone would ever say that to me. (laughing) I've got fabulous agents. We're very close, and they know I'll only work the way I want to work. Otherwise, I won't work.