Keira Knightley’s life has played out in front of the public for well over a decade.
As a teenager in the limelight, she came across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as awkward. Then she was perceived as stand-offish as she dated the British actor Rupert Friend and spurned the media, perhaps unsurprisingly given that every night she would return home and find paparazzi on her doorstep. Now, at 29, Knightley appears more comfortable, both in her performances and in herself. Her marriage to the Klaxons guitarist James Righton has seen the paparazzi drift away: domestic bliss and avoiding the party circuit just don’t sell very well.
She says that marriage hasn’t changed her relationship much: “Is there a difference between being boyfriend and girlfriend and marriage? No.” Pragmatic about love, she says: “The romance, companionship and great sex, these are the things that we are sold. The negative side is not looked at enough, love as jealousy, neurosis, as pain, it’s all a massive part of what that emotion is.”
This month she will star in two films, Say When and The Imitation Game. Say When (a title changed for British audiences from Laggies – the Orange County, California, slang term for those lagging behind in life) sees Knightley play Megan, an aimless 28-year-old who lives in Seattle, has no career path, and feels pressure to marry her boyfriend because that’s what all of her friends are doing. She couldn’t be more unlike Knightley, so the actress had to look to her own peer group for inspiration: “I definitely based her on a couple of mates of mine who were having that kind of floating-can’t-decide-what-to-do. That’s actually a thing right now where jobs are meant to be vocational, and it puts a hell of a pressure on people. You don’t just have to earn a living, you have to enjoy what you do. I liked that side of her.”
For a long time Knightley didn’t enjoy what she did very much. When I first interviewed her in 2012, for Anna Karenina, she said: “You’re never going to make something that everybody loves, and if you’re someone like me who is always looking for an A* at school, it’s like the dangling carrot in front of you that you are never going to get. I think that I’m going to be incredibly proud of myself when I’ve given up trying to get the A* and just enjoy it. I think the problem in acting is that even if you win an Oscar, there is always going to be someone who hates that performance and if you read that, then there goes the A*.”
Two years on, she seems far more at ease with herself. Playing someone who doesn’t want to fit into boxes and conform is a pleasure for her. “I don’t think I ever was a teenager...” she admits. “I was always quite embarrassed by it.”
Knightley has now discovered the type of jobs she likes to do – and they’re not blockbusters. Rather they are roles that allow her to get on with acting, not cutting her performances around special effects or heavily stylised set-pieces. “It’s really difficult to piece them all together and keep that level of emotion when you’re doing it 15 times because the focus is going through one part of a mirror and another,” she argues.
Keira Knightley on screen and on stage
Keira Knightley on screen and on stage
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Keira Knightley in ‘Anna Karenina’
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Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in 'Anna Karenina'
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Knightley in ‘Anna Karenina’
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Keira Knightley in 'Bend It Like Beckham'
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Keira Knightley as a child actor in 'The Bill' in 1995
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Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss will star in a revival of Lillian Hellman's 1934 play 'The Children's Hour'
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Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
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Chloë Grace Moretz and Keira Knightley in ‘Laggies’
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Keira Knightley and Kenneth Branagh in ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’
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Eye spy: Chris Pine and Keira Knightley in 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
Larry Horricks/ Paramount
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Keira Knightley in 'Imitation Game'
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Imitation Game/downloaded from Papicselect
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Keira Knightley, Matthew Beard, Matthew Goode, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Allen Leech in 'Imitation Game'
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Keira Knightley in the lightweight ‘Begin Again’
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In a minor key: Keira in 'Begin Again'
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Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden in Joe Wright's 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
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Drive, she said: Keira Knightley and Steve Carell hit the road with a cute dog in tow in 'Seeking a Friend for the End of the World'
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Thrilling: Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis on stage at The Misanthrope
AFP / GETTY IMAGES
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Keira Knightley and James McAvoy starred in a film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement
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Keira Knightley as 'The Duchess'
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Keira Knightley and Matthew Rhys starred in the recent film adaption of Dylan Thomas' romantic life 'The Edge of Love'
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Kiera Knightley in Pride and Prejudice
Photo from the book Movie Photos ©2005 Focus Features – photo: Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLLP
Say When is a departure for her. “It is the first romantic comedy proper. It’s a funny genre because it’s one that I haven’t really connected with. I think it’s because we have been in a period where there are so many perfectly polished, plastic cut-outs of people. When you go back to When Harry Met Sally, that era, they weren’t perfect. They’re more like characters that are having problems.”
The Imitation Game sees her play cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, who worked at Bletchley Park as part of the team trying to crack the Enigma code. “It’s so much fun isn’t it?” beams Knightley. It is. This is the family-friendly version of the story, Turing’s homosexuality is not shown, and much is made of Clarke’s battle with her own family over going out to work and the reasons why she may have wanted to marry Turing, even after she knew him to be gay. “There have been quite a few liberties taken, it’s a drama not a documentary. Joan Clarke died in the Nineties, and quite a bit of her story has been altered somewhat from the truth.”
Knightley will make her Broadway debut in October next year in an adaptation of Emile Zola’s story about an adulterous woman, Thérèse Raquin. She has appeared in London’s West End twice. Her debut in 2009 saw her play a film star in Martin Crimp’s freely updated version of Molière’s Le Misanthrope. More than £1m-worth of tickets were sold in four days after her casting was announced. Her turn in The Children’s Hour was less warmly received but these stage performances seem to give her the confidence to have a career on her own terms. “I love the stage,” she says. Hardly a revelation coming from the daughter of playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Will Knightley. Growing up, her love of theatre bled into movies; as a nine-year-old she could quote Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Much Ado About Nothing verbatim.
Knightley also has a small role in Everest, about a 1996 expedition that goes horribly wrong. She pays the pregnant wife of one of the climbers and worked on the film for five days: “It’s the conversation that they had which was recorded when Rob Hall, who died up on the mountain that day, was actually talking to his wife in New Zealand. So the story is about that conversation, that did happen. I did meet her and I did listen to the conversation, because I felt like that would help me. And her being alive, there on the set to see the film that was being made about her deceased husband, was quite extraordinary.”
‘Say When’ is released on 7 November; ‘The Imitation Game’ is released on 14 NovemberReuse content