Keira Knightley: Hungry for success

The tabloids fret she's too skinny. The critics worry her acting lacks weight. But nothing will stop her

If it is true that you can never be too rich or too thin then I guess Keira Knightley wants for nothing. Certainly, the most substantial thing about her at the moment is her bank balance

Her appearance at the London premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest caused an outbreak of tut-tuttery over her waif-like appearance. Anorexia is an addiction, promoted by the media, and those in its thrall, like all addicts, are often in denial. Thus when Keira Knightley responds to questions over her appearance by admitting there is anorexia in her family (her grandmother and great-grandmother were sufferers) but that she is not a victim of it, thank you very much, there is a moment of doubt.

"Whatever people say about my weight they are all wrong," she riposted at the Pirates premiere. "Hollywood is all about the way you look and I don't think that's a healthy thing for anyone. But if you're strong and comfortable with yourself then you're going to be fine."

Clearly, Knightley's current status has been assisted by her looks - she has the kind of face that the camera caresses and cannot drag itself away from. Yet in her debut movie, The Hole, as a 16-year-old schoolgirl trapped in a bunker with three friends, she had a youthful bonniness about her. She had a figure. She had, let's be candid - breasts. Fast forward to Bend it Like Beckham and we see again a good healthy specimen of a young athletic girl. Now, she has a lean and hungry look.

To compare this lack of physical substance with lack of talent - as some critics have done - is somewhat churlish. She wafts very prettily through Pride & Prejudice without making undue waves as Elizabeth Bennet, opting for the kind of two-pronged performance that is either petulant or simpering. There is little about her that is robust, as her woeful performance in Domino proved, yet she has a personal relationship with the screen that will not be denied.

When she was compared with the young Julie Christie in her remake of Doctor Zhivago, the comparison was more apt than we might have imagined. Christie was no great actress, but she became an icon of British cinema and got better with each role. Knightley's luck is to be able to learn in the field and earn pots of money while doing so.

She combines the waif-like innocence of pre-trial Winona Ryder with the ersatz London street swagger of a slumming posh girl. This worked at its best in the enormously attractive Bend it Like Beckham, but looks less convincing as her choices add up. She cannot convey the natural spiky intelligence of Rachel Weisz nor can one see her evolving into a cartoon dominatrix like Kate Beckinsale. So what can she do?

Well, she can sell a movie now. Such is the ascent of her star that there is a sufficient fan base out there to make her a marquee name. It' s a very long time since a British actress occupied that position.

Keira Knightley was born in Richmond in 1985. The second child of actor Will Knightley and actress/playwright Sharman Macdonald, she was probably genetically destined for the profession. As a child, she used to scream and shout that she needed representation, demanding an agent from the age of three. Three years later, she had one.

She made her television debut at seven as a young girl in Royal Celebration - a romantic drama set at the time of the Charles and Diana marriage. "My mother says I was born 45," she said in a recent interview, and her attitude to her career has shown an unusual degree of maturity in one so young.

While at Teddington School it was discovered that she suffered from dyslexia, and, although not a registered sufferer, she had to apply herself more than her classmates to reading and writing, ultimately overcoming the condition by her early teens.

Although she spent much of her early years shuttling between television studios and school, she achieved six A grades in her GCSEs. By the end of 1999 she had appeared in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace - playing Natalie Portman's handmaiden and decoy doppelgänger - and had had her bellybutton pierced, a decoration encouraged by her mother, to cheer her up at school.

Aiming to maintain her education and her career simultaneously, she attended Esher College for her A-levels. In her first year she was offered a key role in Nick Hamm's teen horror movie, The Hole, the TV- series remake of Doctor Zhivago and Gilles Mackinnon's Pure, in which she played a 16-year-old junkie.

"Nobody knew who she was then," recalls Mackinnon, "because Bend it Like Beckham hadn't come out. But I had a feeling that this girl was going to be a star. It must be quite difficult to be propelled so far so fast. She was very quiet and self-contained. Her elder brother was fed up because she was allowed to have a television in her room and he wasn't."

Something had to give, and Knightley dropped out of college in the first year to concentrate on her career. There are few signs so far that she is the worse for it.

If Bend it Like Beckham put her in the back of the net in the UK, it was the unexpected success of Pirates of the Caribbean that made Hollywood executives sit up. Bend it Like Beckham was even given an additional boost in the US after Pirates came out, promoted purely on Knightley's presence, which quadrupled the profits of Gurinder Chadha's movie.

It was not long before the peripheral benefits of youthful stardom started to bear fruit: a contract to promote royal jewellers Asprey was followed by her selection as the face of Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle, following the departure of Kate Moss from the campaign.

The anorexia question aside, scandal and bad publicity have so far given her a wide berth. When Knightley's former boyfriend Del Synnott (whom she had met while filming Princess of Thieves for Disney) took an overdose, allegedly as a result of hearing that she was dating Irish model Jamie Dornan, she remained utterly discreet. Her current escort is Rupert Friend, who starred with her in Pride & Prejudice as Mr Wickham.

For a 21-year-old who is expected to have banked £50m by 2020, Knightley remains supernaturally grounded. "I think there is a disarming normality in her behaviour," says Nick Hamm, who directed her in The Hole. "Good people always succeed and she is a good person. She is not malicious, not spiteful, although other people are jealous of her. To be blunt about it, from the first she was a movie star."

Jonathan Pryce, who plays her father in Pirates, says: "It is very difficult for someone so young to live in the public eye. But she handles her life well. People in her position are often seduced by the fame and attention and the stupidity that can surround them. But she works hard, she is grounded and delightful. I am very proud of my surrogate daughter and luckily I approve of her boyfriend as well."

If the "sexiest tomboy beanpole on the planet", as FHM calls her, can remain "strong" and "comfortable" with herself, there is every reason to believe that she will still have a career at 45, whatever age she was born.

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