If you'll pardon Keira Knightley for a minute, she needs a smoke. ''It's really rude to do this,'' she says in the middle of an interview on the rooftop of New York's posh Gramercy Park Hotel. ''Would you mind terribly if I just went and got my cigarettes and came straight back?''
With that, she's off for a few minutes to fetch some tobacco and papers. ''Are you smoking again?'' asks her Atonement costar James McAvoy as she returns and starts rolling her own.
''I'm smoking because there were so many f---ing photographers outside,'' she says. ''I thought, F--- it I'll have a cigarette.''
Her lungs won't get a break anytime soon. Neither Knightley nor McAvoy, who also got snapped by the photogs outside the hotel, can expect much privacy during the current Oscar season. Atonement director Joe Wright's heart-tugging, decades-spanning adaptation of Ian McEwan's acclaimed 2002 novel stands to become one of this year's top Academy Award nominees, thanks to its epic story line, lush cinematography, and strong performances from Knightley (as upper-crust Cecilia Tallis) and McAvoy (as servant's son Robbie Turner), both of whom earned Golden Globe nominations for the film. (And see our Oscar predictions, including the nominations we expect for Atonement.)
Of course, it's not the first awards-season tour of duty for either of them. Two years ago, Knightley, 22, became one of the youngest Best Actress nominees ever with her performance in Pride & Prejudice (also directed by Wright), while McAvoy, 28, made the rounds last year as a costar of The Last King of Scotland, for which Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor prize. Over assorted vodka cocktails, the British starlet and her Scottish leading man discussed the politics of Oscar, their fights over the Atonement script, and their doozy of a sex scene.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Since so much of Atonement rides on the chemistry between the two of you, how nervous were you to shoot your big love scene?
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: You have to believe that they will wait for each other for five years based on that one moment. So it had to be erotic, and it had to be passionate enough. We talked about it a lot. Most directors just go, ''Oh, you know what to do. Just get on with it.'' Well, actually, I don't know what to do. This is a relative stranger, and I'm in front of a group of strangers and I don't know what to do. Joe was incredibly precise. He had storyboarded the whole thing: My foot coming out of my shoe, biting my lip at the end, the way my head turns that was all completely him. And during it, because it was so close and it was on a Steadicam, we didn't know what part of the body the shot was on. So Joe literally shouted [directions] out as we were doing it.
How close by was he?
JAMES MCAVOY: Five feet away? Four feet away? At one point, thinking that he was being very funny, he shouted, ''All right, Keira, next I want you to wank him off!'' And nobody laughed.
KNIGHTLEY: No, because we thought that's what he meant! I thought, Wait a minute. And then I heard this little voice go, ''Sorry!''
NEXT PAGE: ''I know that Joe was asked by the studio at some point to take the word out, clearly because they thought that people would get really offended by it. And Joe said the immortal words, ''The c--- stays in the picture!''