Cover story Talked about for her weight rather than her work, Keira Knightley is the beautiful tomboy who loves acting but not the limelight.
The Keira conundrum
Talked about for her weight rather than her work, Keira Knightley is the beautiful tomboy who loves acting but not the limelight. As her latest role is tipped to win her an Oscar, she tells Chrissy Iley about her unease at being one of cinema's biggest names.
Keira Knightley is at a table tucked under the stairs in a corner of her favourite Lebanese restaurant in the West End of London. Her brother, Caleb, discovered it and judging by the amount of free food that is bestowed upon us, she's a regular and valued customer.
Politely she asks me if I know anything about Lebanese food and when I say I don't, she takes the reins and orders for both of us. Chatting while we wait, Knightley is relaxed, composed, thoughtful and funny - and completely unstarry. She says she can't find foundation pale enough for her porcelain complexion so her skin is make-up free and her long, dark hair, with highlights grown out at the end, seems untouched by a hairdresser. In fact she can't understand my fascination with hair and what it reveals about a person. Hers reveals that she has a tremendous lack of all those superficial things that you expect to be essential to leading ladies.
She's wearing a blue and white striped top, which she says has co-ordinated by accident with a blue and white striped canvas bag that once contained an Anya Hindmarch handbag. "I ripped it on something, but the bag that it came in has lasted for ever." @mBody-RR:Sometimes, particularly on red carpets and at press junkets, she is stressed and nervous. She knows it's a conundrum. She loves to act. She loves the intellectual challenge of it, but she doesn't like the challenge of being A Famous Person. She doesn't like to be looked at in that way, and she doesn't like to be forced to reveal things about herself. Yet at the same time she's very vulnerable and open.
She is now 23 but she's never talked about her personal life and vowed that she never would until she was married with children - and she probably won't even then. (She is currently dating Rupert Friend, whom she met on the set of Pride And Prejudice.) After a flurry of back-to-back films - Pirates Of The Caribbean, Atonement, The Edge Of Love, and, most recently, The Duchess - she took several months off to recharge.
"Until this year I have worked pretty constantly and you get to the point where you need to top yourself up," she says. "It's like hitting a wall. You think, 'I can't get beyond this by simply working. I need to step back.' I didn't want to get stuck and stagnant. I wanted to keep moving, but in order to do so, I had to stop for a minute." So she did and she had a perfectly nice time. She did lots of reading, walking and sitting in cafes. She went to "the English countryside and a little bit of France and Germany. You know, just doing normal things."
Did she go shopping? "Not really," she beams. Shopping is so not her. Did she catch up and hang out with friends? "No, I was more on my own. I work in groups of people all the time, so I can comfortably find my own space." Did she go to the gym? "I hadn't worked out for about a year, but a friend bought me a few sessions with a personal trainer for Christmas, so I've kept to it. Before the trainer I had lost weight. If anything, I lost muscle, so I looked scrawny. I work out once a week, but I need a drill sergeant standing over me to make me do things. I don't know if it changed anything, but it did make me feel good."
This is the only allusion she makes to her weight. Her thinness has been a source of speculation for some time, and many unkind column inches have been devoted to her "waiflike" appearance. Last year, she successfully sued a British newspaper over allegations that she is anorexic. "Someone saying you have a mental illness is obviously rather difficult to take," she said later. "I am skinny. I've always been skinny."
This attention, this obsessive scrutiny of her private life, her every move, the paparazzi click-click-clicking away at her is something she will never get used to. It's a weird contradiction. The nature of acting means that to be a success you have to be on show, and yet Knightley absolutely shuns the public eye. She's easily embarrassed and quite shy. She is an actress because she loves to act. She loves working with actors of flair and with words of calibre. It is everything that comes with her fame that she finds so difficult.
Far from being waiflike, on screen she is robust and charismatic. In her latest film, The Duchess, which is already being tipped to win her an Oscar, Knightley is compelling as Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, an 18th-century political hostess and direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. The most fascinating thing about Georgiana is that her husband the Duke (played by Ralph Fiennes) took her best friend as his mistress. Feeling she deserved the same freedom, Georgiana took Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, as a lover. In retaliation, her husband forced her to abandon Grey by threatening that she would never see her children again.
"It's an extraordinary life," says Knightley. "The film focuses on the dynamics of the marriage, personal as opposed to political, but you have it set in a political background. Georgiana was influential yet she didn't have the vote. That was another interesting facet. And she was something of a fashion icon." But the husband going off with the best friend - was she a woman not to be messed with or was she really messed up?
"Both. In those days divorce would not have been an option. She would have been ostracised by society. I was drawn to telling the story of a woman completely caught in a situation she cannot get out of and desperately trying to manipulate it to her advantage. She wants the same rights as her husband, but gets slapped in the face. Part of the problem is she's not very discreet about it. And then she's given the ultimatum: lose her children or keep her lover."
Knightley does not particularly identify with Georgiana and dismisses the inevitable comparisons that are drawn between Princess Diana and her wayward ancestor, although in an interview earlier this year, she talked of her interest in the difference between a public facade and the inner turmoil it can hide. "The way you can have extremely strong people who actually in private are completely breaking down. Everyone does it - presents a front that is actually... No one can ever know what's going on emotionally inside."
She was drawn to the part simply because it was an extremely good role: "It's very difficult to find good female roles and getting the opportunity to play a lead like this is obviously interesting. Georgiana wants to be this incredibly important person. She wants to be married to an important person - like a rock star in his day. And for some reason these two people just don't connect. Even when they almost connect, they just miss each other, yet they have to stay married."
When I ask whether she has ever been in a relationship like that, where you realise you just don't connect with someone, but find it hard to let go, she is tantalisingly elusive. "But that is what acting is about. You can imagine it very easily, being in love with a fantasy and then all of a sudden you get there and the reality is very, very different," she says hinting at everything, giving away nothing.
But can she imagine herself in the sort of love triangle that Georgiana found herself in? "Imagine it, yes, because that's my job. But yes, I can. Sometimes with relationships, people have no choice but to live in certain situations which maybe you or I would walk away from. You know, it was a different time and she really did have no choice. But I do think sometimes women use weapons like manipulation even today, even within friendships. So I found that a fascinating aspect; the relationship between these two friends - the wife and the mistress. It's a very female thing where you can be one thing to one person and something completely different to another. That's a form of emotional manipulation."
We have a long discussion about whether we are different friends for different people, and I say that I am quite clearly counsellor-friend to some women and party-girlfriend to others. Knightley is much truer to herself, and says she makes an effort not to do that, but adds, "Maybe I don't have enough friends to be all these different people to all of them." She dips into the chilli sauce which is really, really hot. "I'm a chilli freak," she smiles.
The tomboy side of her that we saw in Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates Of The Caribbean, is there in real life. She may look stunning on a red carpet, but she's actually not very girlie. She says she finds it impossible to walk in high heels ("I don't know how women do it") and doesn't know what moisturiser she uses. When pressed for a name of product, she recalls, "I used Dr Hauschka once."
She likes Coco Mademoiselle, the scent that she promotes for Chanel, because "it's fresh and clean. I need something clean, I don't shower enough," she declares, somewhat surprisingly. Give her an opportunity to put herself down and be hard on herself, she will. She returns to our earlier conversation. "I don't think I'm very good at figuring out female friendships. I think they are quite tricky to navigate. They're just never as simple. I have a lot of friends who are guys and I find that manipulation and jealousy don't come into it as much. Whereas those things between women can happen really easily."
This interests me because jealousy of Keira Knightley has been rather a theme of 2008. Her fame, her looks and her success seem to enrage the writers of some newspaper columns, published under headlines such as "Is This The Most Loathed Woman In The World?". That the majority of these pieces are written by women would seem to bear out her experience of female relationships, because women were jealous of her before she became a success.
"I don't think jealousy is focused on me now because 'I'm-a-famous-actress' type of thing. All the things I've been talking about happened when I was a teenager, before I was successful. Jealousy between women is one of the themes of The Duchess, so it's something I've been thinking about recently - about why women are so competitive with one another." Sometimes Knightley seems so in command. She fills the screen as Georgiana. But sitting chatting to her there are obvious vulnerabilities and insecurities. Because she is still so young, it's easy to forget that she is a seasoned pro. She made her first TV appearance (as an unnamed "Little Girl") in a BBC play in 1993, and had her first significant role at the age of 10 in an adaptation of Joanna Trollope's A Village Affair. A steady stream of work in productions as varied as The Bill and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace followed until she caught public attention in 2002 with Bend It Like Beckham.
She is often described as being wooden, although her performance in Pride And Prejudice started to lay that to rest. The British media have been so preoccupied with how much she eats that they haven't how noticed how Hollywood has taken her to its heart. And why not? She can do arty (Atonement), she can do blockbuster (Pirates Of The Caribbean) and she looks a picture in a corset.
She may have been brought up in the business (her father, Will Knightley, is an actor and her mother, Sharman Macdonald, is a playwright who wrote the screenplay for The Edge Of Love), but criticism still wounds her. She has said that she has given up reading about herself: she couldn't believe in the good things because she didn't want to believe in the bad. When I ask whether over the years her skin has become thicker or thinner, she ponders the question. "I go through periods of thinking about this. I think I developed a really, really thick skin to the point where it was detrimental to my work because you are running away.
"It is really vicious and difficult [to read those things about yourself], especially if you are a teenager, which I was for some of the most vicious part of it. I think there's a point where you realise you can either fall apart or pretend to be oblivious to it. But then everything got better again and now I'm at a good level, in between the two. If I said I got to a point where nothing hurts..."
She tries to finish the sentence. I tell her I wouldn't believe her. "Yes, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and all that, and I hope I am. I've only ever caught the absolutely worst things that have been written about me. I've never seen anything good." I wonder why that is. I tell her that she's developed a signature style for the red carpet, that it's very wood nymph, the beautiful blue dress she wore for the world premiere of The Duchess in September being a case in point.
"My style changed because I didn't have any style," is her response. I tell her that what hasn't changed is her inability to take a compliment. Tell her she looks lovely and she squirms as if I have squirted lemon juice in her eyes. She calms down and says, "Do you think that? That I've looked good at these things? I've never felt comfortable on the red carpet. Part of it was I just didn't know what I was meant to look like. As far as expensive stuff goes, I'm not good at shopping. I'm better at cheap stuff, I'm good at American Apparel."
I wonder if her insecurity is terminal and that maybe that is quite refreshing. Anyway, she says, she is not at her most insecure. "At this particular time I probably am more comfortable. I don't believe anybody who says they don't have any insecurities and moments of feeling completely miserable about themselves. I don't think it does anybody any good to pretend those moments don't exist. But just now I'm having a lovely time. I don't think life would be so interesting if there weren't ups and downs and I've definitely had my fair share of them. You could sit there the whole time and say I'm really lucky, everybody loves me, but I don't know if that's human nature."
There's a darkness to her which makes you like her because it seems real and not phony - and it's a darkness that we can all have. We pour several cups of mint tea as we go on drinking into the afternoon. Keira Knightley is not only interesting, she's interested. Her curiosity might be the key to her acting. But it also makes for a very fun afternoon. The Duchess opens in cinemas on Dec 11.