Born March 26, 1985, in Teddington, Middlesex, England; daughter of Will Knightley (an actor) and Sharman Macdonald (a playwright).
Addresses: Agent—PFD, Drury House, 34-43 Russell St., London, England, WC2B 5HA.
Actress in films, including: Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, 1999; Bend It Like Beckham, 2002; Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003; Love Actually, 2003; King Arthur, 2004. Television appearances include: Oliver Twist (British miniseries), 1999; Dr. Zhivago (British miniseries), 2002.
Awards: London Critics Circle award for best newcomer, 2003; best international actress award, Irish Film and Television Festival, 2004; breakthrough award, Hollywood Film Festival, 2004.
When people talk and write about British actress Keira Knightley, they usually start by mentioning her beauty, but Knightley's personality and background add dimension to her appeal and her life story. Her best early roles, in action-adventure and sports films, show off her tough, tomboy side. She comes from a family of dramatists, who have given her a realistic, cautious outlook about the film industry and her own career. As 2004 came to a close, Knightley had just filmed her first serious, dramatic role, a big test of how seriously she will be taken as an actress in the future.
Knightley grew up in suburban London, England, the daughter of actor Will Knightley and playwright Sharman Macdonald. The theater has been in the family's blood for a long time. A great-grandmother was in a dance troupe called the Tiller Girls, and a great-grandfather, after trying to make it as a Shakespearean actor, ended up as a ringmaster for the European version of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Knightley's older brother, Caleb, is also an actor.
"I was born on a bet," Knightley told Vanity Fair's Steven Daly. "My dad said to my mum, 'If you sell a script, we can have another child.' She wrote a play called When I Was A Girl, I Used to Scream and Shout, and she won various awards for it. And I was the child." The play ran for eight years in London.
When Knightley was three years old, she got jealous of the phone calls her father got from his agent, and begged her parents for an agent of her own. They got her one when she was six, as a reward for her hard work trying to overcome dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read. She has been a professional actress since age seven, working in television and commercials, but her parents never enrolled her in any formal acting training. Today, Knightley still brings her mother with her on many of her acting travels. People remark on their closeness and similarities. As a sign of their informal relationship, she calls her mother "Shar."
In 1999, Knightley appeared in her first blockbuster film, though it hardly made her famous, because the role kept her from standing out. In Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, she played a hand-maiden to Natalie Portman's character Queen Amidala. At one point, her character becomes a decoy, standing in for the queen. Though no one would confuse Portman and Knightley today, at age 12, Knightley looked enough like Portman that, with makeup on, even their mothers could not tell them apart.
Stardom came a few years later, after Knightley turned 16 and her parents let her become a full-time actress. She was chosen for a major role in Bend It Like Beckham, a British film released in 2002 about teenage girls on a soccer team. (The movie's title refers to British soccer star David Beckham and his ability to kick a ball so that it curves instead of going in a straight line.)
To look convincing as a soccer player, Knightley trained for about five months. "I was very sporty at school," she told Cosmopolitan's Lesley Goober. "I was captain of the girls' soccer team, but I still had to learn to play for Beckham, because my version of playing soccer was being fast and kicking people in the shins."
Knightley's character, Jules Paxton, becomes good friends with the main character, played by Parminder Nagra, a teen of Indian descent whose traditional parents are not sure they want their daughter playing a sport. Knightley was planning to return to college and work at a skateboard shop after filming the movie. But it became an unlikely hit—the number-one movie in Great Britain, popular and critically acclaimed in the United States.
Moving quickly to a new project while she had Hollywood's attention, Knightley appeared in 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, based on the Disney amusement park ride. Her co-stars were established leading man Johnny Depp and young star Orlando Bloom. (Knightley has often repeated the story of meeting Depp for the first time and being shocked by the gold caps he had had put on his teeth so he could look more pirate-like.) In the movie, Knightley plays Elizabeth Swann, a governor's daughter, snobby and disapproving of Depp's rakish ways, but also falling in love with Bloom's character.
"She took an underwritten, damsel-in-distress character and turns her into a full-blooded, damsel-doing-just-fine-thank-you," Carla Power of Newsweek noted approvingly after the movie came out. In one of Knightley's most talked-about scenes, her character attacks a pirate with a metal pole and quips, "You like pain? Try wearing a corset." Her corset complaints were included in the movie's trailer, and she repeated them off-camera, telling one interviewer that the constricting wardrobe—which helped give her a 19-inch waist—almost made her faint one day.
Moviegoers got another chance to see Knightley in 2003 when she appeared in the Christmastime film Love Actually, with an ensemble cast full of well-known British actors. She played a young bride who discovers that her husband's best friend has a secret crush on her. The role pretty much only called for her to look beautiful and seem sweet, but it got her a lot of attention.
"There are a lot of beautiful girls around the world," Jerry Bruckheimer, producer of Pirates of the Caribbean and her next film, King Arthur, told Vanity Fair's Daly. "But the problem is, they can't turn off who they are when the camera turns on. Keira is very natural in front of the camera—when she becomes the character, you don't see any of the acting wheels turning."
Bruckheimer cast Knightley as Guinevere in his retelling of the King Arthur legend, giving her a chance to play an action heroine. The movie aimed to tell a gritty, authentic version of Arthur's story, so Knightley played a tougher Guinevere than people are used to. "British women used to fight alongside the men, so it is historically accurate," she told Cosmopolitan's Goober. "I got to use swords and knives and axes and garrotes and bows and arrows," she enthused to Vanity Fair's Daly.
Knightley trained four days a week for three months, then almost every day during the five months of filming, to meet the script's physical demands. On a typical day, she lifted weights for an hour and a half or more, then spent three hours boxing or horseback-riding. Director Antoine Fuqua got rid of Knightley's stunt double once he saw she could wield a sword herself. She bragged that she was better at archery than her male co-stars. She kept up with the guys off-camera too, joining them out at the bars and drinking Guinness with them after a day of filming. "I would describe her as the most beautiful tomboy you will ever come across," Ioan Gruffudd, an actor in the film, told People.
Josh Tyrangiel of Time summed up Knightley's acting talents this way: "[She] has a refined look, brisk comic timing and a brawler's instinct for knowing when to shut up and throw a punch." But Knightley expressed skepticism about her accomplishments. Of her King Arthur role, she told Tyrangiel, "I had to work out physically quite a bit, but pretty much it's scream a lot and enjoy being painted blue." About her career, she added, "I don't think I can call myself an actress yet . Until I'm good, I can say I'm trying to be an actor, but I don't think I've completely made it." Newsweek's Power, visiting Knightley while she was filming King Arthur, noticed a video entitled "Acting for Film" in her trailer.
Writers marvel at Knightley's lack of pretension. They note that unlike many of her young acting peers, she does not have a personal assistant. She explained that she needs to learn how to be an adult and take care of herself. Her skepticism about Hollywood also makes an impression. "I love to visit L.A., but I couldn't live there," she told Vanity Fair's Daly. "As an actor you're supposed to be simulating reality, and L.A. is based on unreality. Personally, I don't know how I could 'grow artistically' in a place like that." She seemed very conscious of being judged on her looks in Los Angeles. Cosmopolitan's Goober asked her to name something very British about her. "I haven't had my teeth straightened," she replied. "Aren't British people known for having crooked teeth? It's funny, when I was in L.A., people were like, 'Wow, your teeth aren't actually that bad.'" She stays true to her roots while in California by getting up at 6:30 a.m. to watch her favorite British soccer team, West Ham, at a bar in Santa Monica. One writer noted that even her love for West Ham shows a lack of pretension; she is rooting for her father's favorite team, a working-class team that does not make a lot of money, while most London celebrities root for flashy teams such as Arsenal or Manchester United.
In 2004, Knightley was dating Irish model Jamie Dornan, whom she met during a photo shoot in New York City in August of 2003, the same year a two-year relationship with British actor Del Synnott ended. In April of 2004, Vanity Fair reported that she was still living with her parents, but People reported in July 2004 that she had recently bought a flat in London.
To some, Knightley still has a lot to prove. In England (where she had appeared in two nude scenes, including one in the 2002 miniseries Dr. Zhivago), the famously snarky tabloid press has called her "English Rose," a nickname meant to suggest that she is mostly famous for being a blushing beauty. She has used the term herself, to describe the roles she wants to get away from. "I'd been doing very English Rose, 'I'm pretty' roles," she told Vanity Fair's Daly. Now, she adds, she's trying to avoid "pretty girl in corset gets into trouble" films.
Instead, Knightley spent part of 2004 filming The Jacket, a drama in which she plays the alcoholic American wife of a Gulf War veteran. She says she admired director John Maybury for telling her right away that he was not sure she was right for the role and making her prove herself before she was cast. She is also set to appear in a dramatization of the classic English novel Pride and Prejudice in 2005. Her parents, who sometimes had trouble finding steady work in their famously fickle professions, have taught her to work hard while she is in demand. "My five-year plan is to take every job I can," she told Tyrangiel in Time. "I know for a fact the work is going to dry up, and people will get bored of me. That's not bitterness, just the truth."
Cosmopolitan, August 2004, p. 44.
Elle, August 2003, pp. 130-38.
Entertainment Weekly, June 27/July 4, 2003, p. 56.
Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 2004, p. S8.
Newsweek, December 29, 2003, p. 102.
People, July 19, 2004, pp. 65-66.
Time, July 5, 2004, p. 84.
Vanity Fair, February 2003, p. 111; April 2004, p. 314.
"Keira Knightley," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0461136/ (November 28, 2004).
"Keira Knightley," PFD, http://www.pfd.co.uk/scripts/get.py/actors/?actors20KNIGHTLK (November 28, 2004).