She may have stepped back from the relentless glare of superstardom, but the British actress is still high on the A-list and enjoying picking roles that interest her.
Keira Knightley: 'There's nothing I want to do but act'
The music is loud, the vibe is electric and Keira Knightley is sitting on a couch in the VIP section of the Soho House club in Toronto with her boyfriend, James Righton, relaxing after the premiere of her latest film, A Dangerous Method.
An elderly female guest spots her and goes over to compliment her on her new hairdo – a fluffy bob – but is firmly steered away by a bodyguard hired to keep people at a distance.
The incident is certainly not Knightley’s fault and she probably doesn’t even know about it, but it is an indication of how her life has changed in a relatively short time. It doesn’t seem long ago that she was telling me how she went to the shops unrecognised and happily took buses around the west London neighbourhood where she lives.
What a difference seven years, three Pirates of the Caribbean films and one Oscar nomination make.
The bubbly, outgoing teenager who talked freely and openly about her life is now 26 years old and a leading film star, and although she is still a cheerful Londoner with a keen sense of humour who enjoys a joke and a good laugh, the accoutrements of stardom have instilled in her a newfound wariness and aversion to fame.
Knightley is the first to admit she has changed.
“Yes, I was different then to the way I am now, because you change with your experiences,” she says. “It would be sad if you didn’t, but my level of fame is not as big as Brad Pitt’s, thankfully.” She laughs. “At the time of the Pirates movies I had a crazy time where very simple things were very difficult. I had about 20 guys standing on my doorstep, so going to the grocery store became incredibly difficult. I just didn’t go out. When it gets to that point it’s not safe to go out and it just becomes impossible. Since then I’ve been doing different films and life in general has become much easier, so I can walk through the lobby of a hotel now.”
We are talking in a Toronto hotel the day after she had walked the red carpet with her co-stars, Viggo Mortensen and Michael Fassbender, at the premiere of A Dangerous Method, the director David Cronenberg’s story of how both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud fall under the spell of a beautiful but unbalanced Russian patient played by Knightley. Her portrayal of the real-life Sabina Spielrein, who recovered from mental illness to become a leading therapist and an intellectual colleague of Jung and Freud, has won critical praise and is already being talked about as a possible candidate for awards nominations.
Knightley is wearing a black dress by Wren with cream-and-black Chanel shoes and a Chanel necklace that she says is borrowed and has to be returned. As the celebrity face of Chanel’s perfume Coco Mademoiselle, she has the loan of the company jewellery – which is just as well, because, she says, she was left with little of her own after a break-in at her apartment two years ago. “Everything was taken and I kind of freaked out,” she says. “It was horrible so I asked everybody not to give me any jewellery to replace it because it means an awful lot.”
Since bursting onto the public consciousness as the lively and lovely Jules in Bend It Like Beckham, Knightley has proved to be a shrewd manager of her career, establishing herself as a Hollywood A-lister with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and King Arthur. She then switched from big-budget blockbusters to smaller, more intimate fare such as Pride & Prejudice, which earned her an Oscar nomination; Atonement, which brought a Golden Globe nomination; The Duchess, in which she portrayed the Duchess of Cavendish; The Edge of Love, playing Dylan Thomas’s former childhood sweetheart; and, last year, the drama Never Let Go, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.
Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, says of her: “There are lots of beautiful girls in the world but the problem is they can’t turn off who they are when the camera turns on. Keira is very natural in front of the camera – when she becomes the character you don’t see any of the acting wheels turning.”
That is particularly true in A Dangerous Method, in which her character is initially ravaged by facial tics and is prone to hysterical fits before becoming sexually involved with Fassbender’s Jung and giving rein to masochistic tendencies.
“I had no frame of reference for any of the things that she was going through, so it was really sort of starting from scratch,” Knightley says. “I knew nothing about psychoanalysis. I knew vaguely that it was meant to be rooted in sexuality and that it had something to do with your parents, but apart from that I really didn’t know anything else, so it was fascinating looking into it.” She pauses and adds: “And very challenging.”
Although Knightley has been hailed as “the new Elizabeth Taylor,” she has no desire to fit into the Hollywood way of life and is happy in the London flat she bought five years ago, although, she says, “I haven’t done anything with it yet and it needs some help. I’ve got a couple of bits in it from movies I’ve appeared in but most of the stuff comes from eBay or antiques markets. It’s cheap, not expensive and very eclectic.”
Unlike some of her Hollywood counterparts she is not one for multiple boyfriends, and her romantic life has consisted of extended, stable relationships. She has been dating her current boyfriend, 27-year-old Righton, the keyboardist for the rock band Klaxons, since February, but refuses to discuss it.
“It’s far too personal,” she says, deflecting an inquiry with a smile, adding: “It’s important to surround yourself with people you love and love you back. That’s the whole point of life.”
Although international fame came to Knightley at a young age, she was already a seasoned actress who, as a child in a thespian family – her parents are the actor Will Knightley and his actress/playwright wife, Sharman Macdonald – had to overcome dyslexia to achieve her ambition. Born in Teddington, south-west London, she was a precocious 3-year-old when she asked her parents for an agent.
“My mum’s a writer and my dad’s an actor so there were always agents phoning the house so I guess I just wanted one too,” she says with a laugh. Her mother agreed if she would work hard at learning to read.
“I was dyslexic but I had help from some amazing teachers and my mother and father worked tirelessly with me and I had tutors as well, so by the time I was 11 I had kind of overcome it and now it’s not really a problem. I don’t notice it,” Knightley says.
“One of the reasons I overcame it was that acting was a carrot that made me keep on working at it. As an actress, I had to learn lines and I remember when I was 8 going in for an audition and it was the most excruciating experience because I couldn’t read the lines. So I had to learn. It was the driving force.”
It was only as a result of her mother’s professional perseverance that Knightley was brought into the world at all.
“At the time my mum was an actress and my dad was an actor and they weren’t earning very much money and my mum had already had my brother,” she recalls. “They wanted another baby but my dad said she could only have a baby when she sold a script. So she wrote a script called When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, which was her first play that was sold and because of the cheque they got for it, I was born.”
Her first major role came when she was 9 in the romantic feature film A Village Affair, and at 12 she was cast in a television film called Coming Home with Peter O’Toole, Joanna Lumley and Emily Mortimer.
“I got totally, completely and utterly hooked,” she says. “I just thought, ‘Right, there’s nothing else that I want to do but act.’?”
She appeared in a succession of film and television roles before being cast at the age of 14 as the decoy queen Sabe alongside Natalie Portman in Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Then came her career-making turn as the football-mad Jules in Bend It Like Beckham, followed quickly by the female lead in the Pirates of the Caribbean films and international stardom.
Like her fellow British actress Kate Winslet, Knightley’s weight has come in for unwanted attention. Some commentators have speculated that her slim frame could be evidence that she may be suffering from an eating disorder, something that she finds intensely annoying.
“I can’t win either way and I’m not going to try,” she says. “I have been on the screen since I was a little girl and you can pretty much see exactly what my body type is if you want to really look. Obviously, I am what I am and I can’t be anything that I’m not. I am not anorexic, I have never been anorexic and I do not have any eating disorder.”
Knightley is preparing for her next role, once again as a Russian, in Anna Karenina, which will reunite her for the third time with the director Joe Wright, who guided her in Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. The playwright Tom Stoppard has adapted the screenplay and the cast includes Jude Law, Aaron Johnson, Andrea Riseborough and Olivia Williams.
Tolstoy’s Anna is a role that again takes Knightley into the realm of psychoanalysis, and she says: “I’m looking at it from a psychological point of view and I’m speaking to an analyst about it. Hopefully Anna is nothing like Sabina. I’ve been reading and re-reading the book and it’s wonderful but we’re all very aware that it’s an incredibly difficult part and an incredibly difficult piece and very often it hasn’t worked. But we have a brilliant team and a great group of actors and we’re gong to do our best.”
It would be difficult to imagine anything further removed from the special-effects-and stunt-filled swashbuckling derring-do of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
“What’s wonderful about the Pirates films is that they were like a glass of champagne: they were pure entertainment and everybody needs escapism, but I wanted something different,” Knightley says. “I wanted to be able to explore emotions in smaller projects in intimate settings that I could really explore and get under the skin of people.
“That’s not to say I that I won’t suddenly read a script for a big Hollywood blockbuster and go ‘Oooh, that might be good.’ But I haven’t yet.”
The three key roles
ELIZABETH SWANN Knightley stamped herself as the new “It” girl in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl in 2003, and reprised her role as the proper lady turned courageous pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in 2006 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End in 2007.
ELIZABETH BENNET The actress won rave reviews – and Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Actress – for her role in Pride & Prejudice in 2005. “The beauty of Elizabeth is that every woman who ever reads the book seems to recognise herself, with all her faults,” she told Variety. “If you give an actress who is even remotely good the chance to play a fantastic character like that, they are going to revel in it.”
CECILIA TALLIS Knightley told WildAboutMovies.com that she had watched films from the 1930s and 1940s to help her achieve the “naturalism” her role required in Atonement, the highly praised 2007 British romance war suspense film.
The Knightley file
BORN March 26, 1985, Richmond upon Thames, London
SCHOOLING Stanley Junior School, Teddington; Esher College, Thames Ditton, Elmbridge, UK
FIRST JOB A television commercial at the age of 6
READING Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig
LISTENING TO Klaxons, Jack White
MOST DIFFICULT ACCOMPLISHMENT Overcoming dyslexia
BIG BREAK Playing Jules in Bend It Like Beckham
CAN’T STAND Stalkers
CHARITY WORK Amnesty International, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Trust, Women’s Aid
A Dangerous Method is showing at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on October 17 at the Abu Dhabi Theater. See www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae
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