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.