Keira Knightley: 'Sometimes I just sit on the bathroom floor and burst into tears'

She's beautiful, in demand and, thanks to those Chanel ads and a blockbuster or two, richer than she cares to tell. But as Geoffrey Macnab discovers, being Keira Knightley isn't as easy it looks.

Geoffrey Macnab
Saturday 07 January 2012 01:00 GMT

It's a cold winter morning and Keira Knightley is sitting alone in the library of a central London hotel. She is close to the end of shooting her new film Anna Karenina, in which she stars opposite Aaron Johnson's Vronsky and Jude Law's Karenin. No, she confides, she hasn't shot the suicide sequence in the train station yet. That is a treat waiting in store for the final day of filming, just before Christmas.

Knightley is a disconcerting interviewee. She is very pretty in a sylph-like way. Still only 26, she is friendly, articulate and seemingly unguarded, but quickly makes it clear that there are certain no-go areas where interviewers are forbidden to tread. Miss Jean Brodie-like, she tells you primly that she does not want to discuss her beauty routine or her love life. She doesn't enjoy reading such tittle-tattle herself and insists that she doesn't "owe the public" details of who her boyfriend is. However, ask her anything related to her work and she will answer completely frankly. For the first few minutes of the interview, her arms are folded and her body language is defensive. Once she is in her stride, she relaxes.

She doesn't have the usual phalanx of publicists and hangers-on who make interviews with some celebrities such a trial. Instead, Knightley gives the impression that she is far too sensible and self-deprecating to take the business of being a big-name movie star too seriously. The way she tells it, she's just a hard-working actress from Teddington who got lucky. "If you're offered the work, you should take it," is her mantra. She seems suspicious of her own glamour and is still fatalistic about her future prospects. "Within the profession I am in, there is no guarantee of anything," she warns. "You can make three wrong choices and all of a sudden, the parts dry up."

Given her Oscar and Bafta nominations and reportedly vast earnings (another subject she is very coy on), there are no prospects of her striking out any time soon.

On the one hand, Knightley has learnt to be thick-skinned. On the other, she says that, as an actress, she needs to be "emotionally available". That is why she is such a strange mix of spontaneity and reticence. She claims that there have been "many occasions" when "I just sit on the bathroom floor and burst into tears" as a result of something that may have been written or said about her. "Then, there are other days when you go, OK, it just doesn't matter. That's fine. I think it depends on the day of the week really."

On the day I meet her, the Leveson inquiry is in full flow with its never-ending revelations about phone tapping and Stasi-like surveillance of celebrities. Knightley claims she has been too busy making Anna Karenina to follow it closely. None the less, her opinions are categorical. "I think everybody has the right to a private life," she declares. "The line is actually quite clear. When you do interviews like this, you present a piece of work, talk about it and hope that maybe the journalist is interested by it in the same way that you were interested by it and maybe the public will be interested, too."

Has her own phone been hacked? "I haven't asked. I would be very surprised if I hadn't been... but, yes, I think lines were completely and utterly exploded."

It's clear that she'd much rather discuss Tolstoy than Milly Dowler. She's a big fan of War and Peace and used to love Anna Karenina, too, but is beginning to suspect that the Russian novelist had a hidden agenda when it came to his adulterous heroine. "I read the book when I was about 16 and absolutely loved it and thought it was so romantic," Knightley reflects on Anna Karenina. "But I then re-read it to do this [film]... it's interesting coming back to a book when you've read it as a younger person and then seeing it through very different eyes, because I never thought that Tolstoy hated her [Anna Karenina]. And you really think, 'My God, he hates her!'."

Whatever challenges playing Anna Karenina presents, the role is a breeze by comparison with Knightley's other recent part in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a forgotten pioneer in the history of psychoanalysis but one who knew both Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. At the very start of the film, we see Sabina being carried (kicking and screaming) into the asylum where she becomes one of Jung's patients – and eventually his assistant and then his lover. She is a masochist who derives sexual excitement from being whipped (a legacy of her troubled relationship with her father). "Has a hysterical fit. Is ravaged by tics," was one of the first lines of description of Sabina. Bend It Like Beckham or The Pirates of the Caribbean this isn't.

Yes, Knightley did have qualms about the bizarre moment in which Sabina is spanked naked by Michael Fassbender's very detached and severe-looking Jung as she watches her own reflection in the mirror. When Cronenberg first offered her the role, she turned it down "because of those scenes". She knew that she'd be asked endless questions about the nudity and that the images would soon find their way on to the internet. Cronenberg immediately offered to take out the scenes. However, she decided finally that it was "important to see that shocking, brutal thing that was happening within herself... what she [Sabina] wants, what has torn her apart. You do need that visualised."

To prepare for such a gruelling role, Knightley met both Freudian and Jungian analysts and, for good measure, steeped herself in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, too. She had Spielrein's diary translated and paid special attention to a passage in which the former hysteric described herself as being "like a dog or a demon". Then, to round off the preparation, she studied Francis Bacon's paintings, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, and listened to Stravinsky's The Firebird.

What's impressive about Knightley soldiering through that reading list is that she was dyslexic and still doesn't find it especially easy to read. She was six at the time her condition was noticed. "I tricked them," Knightley remembers of hoodwinking her teachers and parents when she was growing up in Teddington. "I would memorise when people read books to me and then I'd pretend to read back to them. They didn't figure it out for quite a while."

Through constant tutoring and the intervention of her parents, she was able to overcome the condition. "I am a slow reader. I always loved words, which is a strange thing given that I couldn't actually read them. By the time I was 11, they deemed me to have got over it sufficiently." She still can't sight-read, though. "If you gave me something and said, 'Read it out loud', there is something that happens that I can't really do that."

Few profiles of Knightley fail to mention that, at the age of three, she asked for her own agent. How on earth would a three-year-old know what an agent was? "My mum [Sharman Macdonald] is a writer and my dad [Will Knightley] is an actor and they [agents] were always phoning the house and I answered the phone," Knightley explains. "I don't think I knew what an agent was but I knew they both had one and it was quite exciting when they phoned up."

Like most theatrical families, her parents had some tricky moments when the work would run dry. They were broke and living on a diet of lentils, bread and tomatoes when Keira was conceived. (Her father challenged her mother to sell a script or a play before she had a second child. It was at that point Sharman Macdonald wrote her first – and wildly successful – play, When I Was a Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout.)

Always mindful of the family finances, Knightley talks about her constant desire as a kid to be "useful financially" and "to be not dependent on people... I've always wanted to work". She was six when her parents finally relented and allowed her to sign up with a children's agency. "I wasn't allowed to do commercials. I wasn't allowed to do TV series. I wasn't allowed to do soaps or basically anything that would mean I missed too much school." Her acting was confined to one or two jobs a year in the summer holidays. On the advice of her head teacher, her parents "dangled" the prospect of an acting career in front of her to push her to overcome the dyslexia. "The head teacher told them (my parents), 'Get her to do it but tell her she is not allowed to do it unless the grades go up'. That was the first thing. If I dropped a grade, I wasn't allowed to go up for auditions. It was that that led to the getting over (of the dyslexia) and starting to read and working very hard."

School was the local mixed comprehensive. She didn't boast about her burgeoning acting career. "It was kept very separate. I never said I was going for an audition. It was always I had a dentist's appointment."

She paints a surprisingly grim picture of her early years as a film actress. Her mother had led the traditional stage actor's life: living in digs, working in rep and performing around the country. Whereas Knightley found herself far more isolated. "Film is a much lonelier process than theatre. You really don't have any rehearsal time in film. You don't shape it together... with theatre, there is a complete kind of family atmosphere. The sociable side of this business is the theatrical side, it really isn't the film side."

Having seen her parents struggle, Knightley took a very pragmatic approach to her craft. "Having parents within the industry, I sort of understood that just because something is offered one day, doesn't mean it is going to be offered the next." She had originally planned to go to university or drama school but after her breakthrough with Bend it Like Beckham, new roles kept coming – and she kept taking them. "There was a moment when I thought, should I step back and go to university or drama school? Possibly, that would have been a good thing to do but, equally, I thought that if it's happening now, I've just got to jump on if I want to be an actress."

Has she enjoyed the decade or so since Bend it Like Beckham (2002), which has seen her rise from child actress into the most highly paid British movie star? She strikes an ambivalent note. "Like anything, it has been up and down. I've had some extraordinary experiences, not all of them happy and quite a lot lonely. In the last half of this decade, it has been incredibly creatively fulfilling. But the blame is never on anybody else other than yourself if it isn't [enjoyable]. You have to find ways of working."

With no drama school or rep background to draw on, Knightley had to teach herself how to act. She has learnt on the job. Now, she is clearly more confident in her own ability than she was at the age of 16. Her stints in theatre – in London stage productions of Molière's The Misanthrope and Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour – have helped. The "loneliness" that she refers to several times in the course of the interview is no longer such a factor.

Directors like Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) and Gillies MacKinnon (who directed her as the young drug addict in Pure) speak of her "vitality and confidence" and of her obvious "star" quality. However, she claims to be paralysed by shyness. "That didn't help." In interviews and auditions, she may have appeared confident and precocious. "But it's a completely different thing when you go into a party in a roomful of people. I've always found that difficult. I don't any more but I did when I was younger. The idea of going downstairs at the end of the night when people are going to meet in the bar – I just couldn't do it."

As for the fame, that wasn't easy either. Five years ago, when the fever for Pirates of the Caribbean was at its peak, she couldn't walk in the streets without being recognised. That doesn't seem such a problem today. As she takes more roles in independent and art-house films, the public interest in her has diminished slightly. She doesn't enjoy parties. "I am crap at parties. I tend to sit in the corner. I'll sit in the corner and find one person to talk to or I'll go on the dance floor and get quite drunk. But I am not good at that whole..." her voice tapers off. When she was Oscar-nominated for Pride and Prejudice, she did the round of the parties with her brother and parents in tow. "We all stood in a corner, saying 'Oh, this is weird!'."

She tries not to read reviews. "If you read a good one, you'll keep going till you find a bad one and then you'll keep going till you find the worst one possible – and that's the one that will stick with you."

If her private life is off-limits – she dated actor Rupert Friend for five years and is currently seeing the Klaxons' James Righton – so are questions about money. Roles in Jerry Bruckheimer movies combined with her parallel career as the face of Chanel have earnt her millions. She is very guarded about how she spends her earnings, saying only that she has "a very, very nice flat; that's about it".

Back to what we are allowed to discuss: in playing Anna Karenina, she is following in the steps of two of cinema's greats – Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh. Will she match up? Knightley parries the question, suggesting that the "beauty shots" are as much the responsibility of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey as they are dependent on her own looks. "He knows how to shoot me."

As for the rest, that (Knightley claims) is simply a matter of "a lot of lighting and a hell of a lot of make-up!".

'A Dangerous Method' is released on 10 February

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