Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley

This article first appeared in the Sunday Independent’s Life Magazine on September 25, 2007

She smiles at everyone and looks even more luminously beautiful than I had expected but, understandably perhaps, Keira Knightley seems slightly tense today. This is, after all, her first formal encounter with ‘the media’ – she can hardly bear to say the phrase – since she settled an action against the Daily Mail (who had written that she was anorexic) for an undisclosed sum, and she appears a little wary. She announces up front that she doesn’t expect any piece about her to reflect what she is really, truly like. There are practised sips of water and strained little pauses between questions as nobody trusts themselves to risk winding her up even more. A security man/bodyguard stands alert in one corner of the room. When his young charge jokes that she might (italics) well (close italics) start taking cocaine, if only to thumb her nose at those who claim she should be a role model, we all laugh a little too hard, grateful for the valve.

Later, alone with her in an immaculately elegant hotel room she seems to relax somewhat. She spreads her slender frame on the couch and coos appreciatively at the freshly cut flowers that sit on the table between us. She pouts ever so slightly as she waits for me to finish speaking. ‘You’re Irish, yes?’, she asks, picking the accent and ignoring the question. She tells me about Saoirse Ronan, her precocious co-star in Atonement, the forthcoming adaptation of the acclaimed Ian McEwan novel. ‘I mean her accent isn’t too far away from yours, but when you hear the accent she has in the film, it’s extraordinary. I was just standing there with my mouth open feeling quite sh*t by comparison. She must be 13 now, but she seems like she’s about 20. It’s hard to remember she’s so young.’

Many people have the same problem with Keira. In person it’s nearly impossible to pick her age – in full make up she could be in her thirties and her cut glass vowels and seem from another era entirely. She’s young all right, sandwiched in between Scarlett Johansson and Lindsay Lohan in the starlet-stakes, but there’s nothing ingénue-like about her at all (as if to underline this fact she tells me at one point – ‘I am my own business’). Already at 22 she seems to have been around forever and talks in terms of long breaks and comebacks. Show business is in her blood: Her parents were both in the theatre, she reportedly had an agent at aged 6 and was already acting in TV roles by the time she hit puberty. At 16 she blew off her A Levels to take the role of Lara in a mini-series adaptation Dr Zhivago, which came shortly before her breakthrough in Bend It Like Beckham. On the back of that success she landed parts in Love Actually and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The performance of her career however came in Pride and Prejudice for which she earned an Oscar nomination and comparisons to the young Audrey Hepburn.

She was a sensation – winning acclaim in equal measure from the editors of lad’s mags, who frequently name her as one of the world’s sexiest women and film critics who noted that she was unafraid to mix less conventional roles, such as her disturbed young woman in the Jacket, in with her blockbuster forays. She was, everyone agreed, The Real Thing.

In the rush to fete her however people forgot she was a fairly vulnerable teenager, something she herself takes some responsibility for. ‘There is a way of tricking people into thinking that you feel comfortable in your skin when really that’s not how you feel. And yeah that was my aim. A lot of people think you’re older, when actually you’re just pretending.’

With her new stardom came a new level of scrutiny. Her weight suddenly became an international issue. Barely a week could pass without another brace of magazine covers with pictures of a supposedly emaciated Knightley. Sienna Miller vouched for the fact that she had personally seen her friend have second helpings of apple crumble but nothing seemed to quell the speculation about Knightley’s physique. And she did herself no favours. Even the famous airbrushed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Vanity Fair cover was curiously unflattering, making her stomach and chest look as though she’d been dreamed up by Lucien Freud rather than Leonardo Da Vinci.

‘I was 17 18 19 and all of that was really at a point where I really could have done without it,’ she remembers of the tabloid obsession with her physique. Now I really am at a point where I really can go ‘f**k it’. Before I thought I was sh*t. And it was partly because every time I opened a paper I was being told I was a sh*t actress. My body was changing, growing in places, not growing in other places and you have people looking at you and going ‘ugh she’s anorexic.’’

In January of this year things came to a head. The Daily Mail alleged that Knightley was indeed anorexic and she decided that she had had enough and sued. The case was settled out of court a few months ago and Keira declared herself happy with the settlement and, while she can’t go into specifics, does sound quietly gleeful about the terms. ‘The article was particularly horrendous,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t have a publicist but I do have an agent and normally she would never tell me about anything like that. She represents a lot of people who are fairly well known and she said that this was pretty much the worst she had ever seen. There have been a lot of untrue things written that I could have sued over but sometimes it’s not worth the stress. But we just decided enough is enough. There is a line. I can take certain untruths – split up, pregnant, married, divorced – but then there comes a point when they go past a point where you go ‘that’s not on.’’

She is more animated now than I’ve seen her all day. This is clearly a sticking point. ‘There has been a lot of talk about my weight. If you watch my films or look at me now you’ll see I am what I am and I always have been. When anorexia or bulimia, which is a psychological disease, is mentioned in connection with me then that’s very serious because I won’t get work if people don’t think I’m capable mentally or physically of working. It was a completely untrue story with no base in fact.’’

Looking at her closely I realise that the magazines that scrutinise her physique are actually unduly harsh. You can tell by looking at her that she’s naturally a lean girl. She has a statuesque frame and surprisingly short, chunky legs. Like Sophie Ellis Bexter, who has a similarly glacial beauty, Keira is a girl with a supermodel torso and million dollar face and, incongruously, your nana’s ankles; the kind you could imagine shuffling along a supermarket aisle at 11am, nylon stockings gathering loosely around them.

People don’t get fat evenly all over their body. I once knew a girl who lived on low fat popcorn and apples because if she put on an ounce of weight her face got chipmunk chubby. In the same way you could imagine any extra weight on Kiera’s body going straight to her hips and legs. Which is maybe why, to retain her superstar proportions, everything else has to remain quite so slim. She doesn’t look remotely gaunt or unhealthy though and I’ve seen models who are far thinner.

She claims to worry more about her skin than her weight. ‘You are made to look your best. I got here an hour before everyone else and they were doing my make up. And then you look and think, ‘she looks good today’. I’ve got alright bone structure and when the spots aren’t coming out I can look OK, but that made up glossy image is not me.

I do have days when I look in the mirror and think I look disgusting. I think everyone does.’

For better or for worse, her looks are always going to be an issue though. Beauty is a prerequisite for a leading lady in Hollywood but it’s hard to take an extremely beautiful face entirely seriously (hence the trend for Oscar winning beauties roughing up the perfect symmetry of their faces for a big role). Joe Wright, her director in Atonement, said he wanted her specifically because he role of an emotionally repressed socialite-turned-nurse in wartime England required more of her than merely looking good. It is perhaps the best performance of Knightley’s career.

Atonement is very much about the class barriers in England during and prior to the First World War. Knightley’s character comes from the a world of drawing rooms, old money and stiff upper lips, something she claims, despite her finishing school accent, to know little about. ‘I went to a comprehensive school actually’, she tells me. So that clipped accent, refined way of speaking was not so prevalent where I grew up. My Dad’s generation were Eastenders and my mother’s were Scottish. So I don’t really fit into that. I don’t know about the upper classes. I shouldn’t imagine talking like that is in my generation of any class. That accent you would almost never hear – maybe occasionally from the older generation – but generally we’re much more emotional now I think.’

Shortly after Atonement wrapped, she was reunited with Wright on the set of the multi-million Euro Chanel ad in which she is starring and he is directing. Filmed in Paris earlier this year it is reported to be even more lavish than Nicole Kidman’s clip for the company. She smiles when asked about it and jumps at the opportunity for a bit of product placement. ‘I’m very into Coco Mademoiselle (italics) naturally (close italics) and the whole Chanel make up range,’ she purrs. In the group interview some wag asks her what convinced her to sign the Chanel contract. ‘Hmm well … I can’t answer it like that can I? Ummm… the artistic challenges?’ She uptones, looking around to see if anyone is buying this, before levelling with us. ‘No, not to be so crass as to talk about anything like money but I suppose there is that as well.’

The ad was yet more grist for the is-she-too-thin mill. Some speculated that Chanel and Wright would have to do a little digital magic on Keira’s body and in the end, according to the star herself, that’s what happened. She later admitted ‘those things weren’t mine… I don’t have any tits so I can’t show any cleavage.’

Her next project is the Edge Of Love which she finished shooting earlier this year. Cillian Murphy stars alongside her and the screenplay was written by her mother, Sharman McDonald, something she describes as ‘quite a risk for me’, while carefully adding, ‘I have huge faith in my mother’s work and it was an amazing experience working on that film.’ Lindsay Lohan, who had allegedly been less than enthusiastic about her role, pulled out of the film before shooting began but Knightley has only kind words for the American tabloid darling. ‘I think she’s a good actress. She’s got great potential. Knowing how I’ve been cast within the media I’m sure there is some truth to it and some bits that they’ve made up.’

She can be mildly imperious but not icy. I see her good-naturedly humour a German journalist who is questioning her in rambling, broken English. ‘Well’, she murmurs, clearly having no idea what he’s on about, ‘that’s a good question but I’m really not sure of the answer.’ She’ll pepper her answers with swear words and seems quite pleased when people laugh at the incongruity of the posh voice and the earthy words. (At one point she utters the phrase ‘f*ck that man, it’s wicked’, which sounds very strange coming out of her mouth.)

She refuses point blank to discuss her personal life but she has been linked with Ulster-born Calvin Klein model Jamie Dornan – one magazine named them ‘the world’s most beautiful couple’ – and is now understood to be seeing English actor Rupert Friend, who co-starred with her in Pride And Prejudice. ‘It is difficult with boyfriends because, yeah, because they do get sucked into the whole press scrutiny as well,’ she begins, before catching herself and remembering her policy. ‘I have a very close circle around me’, is her final word on that score. They rip the pages mentioning her out of newspapers before she gets a chance to see them, something she is grateful for.

Perhaps owing to her family background in show business, she seems to have a better understanding than most of what the job requires. ‘Actresses by their very nature are not very emotionally stable and if they were stable they wouldn’t be very good at their job,’ she tells me. ‘And I do go up and down a lot. And I would say that has both helped and hindered me in my life. I’m far too emotional and yet in some ways not emotional enough. In business it’s not great to be emotional but in my particular business it’s not great not to be.’

The conversation somehow comes around to plastic surgery. ‘It never ceases to amaze me the things people make up about me’, she tells me when I ask her about it. ‘That I’ve had my lips done or whatever they think of next. I mean I’m 22 years old, for God’s sake. I actually think I had a growing pain yesterday’ she laughs, lightening up. ‘My first thought was ‘I’m dying’’. Can you still get growing pains at my age?’

Perhaps though the power of suggestion from various films I had always imagined her living in some grand, country house but she’s at pains to point out that her abode is actually ‘a two bedroom flat. A nice flat, but still just a flat’

‘And yeah’, she adds, ‘I do cook my own dinner.’

She stops short of saying ‘I’m just a normal girl’, but somehow it all comes full circle. It’s clear that the whole arc of any interview, in her mind, is to bring you from your initial bedazzlement from her looks and fame into a place where she can both hold you slightly at arms length and get treated more gently in print. She tries to bridge the divide between you – the ordinary mortal – and her – the beautiful movie star – by referring to, amongst other things, her spots, the ‘bad days’ (looks-wise), the Eastender dad and the ‘normal upbringing’. And of course by swearing like a trooper. It must be tiring to continually have to do that.

She seems resigned to playing these games. ‘I’ve seen this business from the moment I was born so I didn’t come in thinking it would be all fancy cars and castles. It goes up and down. You’re on top and then you can be on the bottom and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. I have a realistic approach to it and that’s because I’ve always seen it for what it is.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 8, 2008.