Ask any sales agent who’s at the top of the list of bankable British talent and you can bet your domestic pre-sale that one name is going to crop up: Keira Knightley, one of the brightest young stars in the cinema firmament and the most exciting young actress to have come out of Blighty in years. She’s only 20, but her startling career, which includes 14 features and a host of British TV work, make her Variety’s U.K. Personality of the Year.
Knightley started acting at age 7 and scored her first hit as a posh schoolgirl in Brit horror pic “The Hole.” Her role as the decoy queen Sabe in “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” gave Knightley a taste for working on Hollywood blockbusters. But it was Gurinder Chadha’s “Bend It Like Beckham” that marked her big break, when she was only 17.
After “Beckham,” she moved on to Gillies MacKinnon’s “Pure,” yet by then Hollywood was already beckoning and she was cast in a co-starring role in Jerry Bruckheimer’s buccaneering bonanza “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
The success of “Pirates” catapulted her into the realms of worldwide celebrity, but Knightley returned to Blighty for a small role in Richard Curtis’ hit romantic comedy “Love, Actually.”
After co-starring in “King Arthur,” another Bruckheimer action adventure, Knightley recognized the need to try out darker and more challenging material in order to prove herself a versatile and accomplished thesp. As a result, she auditioned for John Maybury’s psychological thriller “The Jacket,” and found that her success as a pouting damsel in “Pirates” was actually working against her.
“John Maybury said to me: ‘There’s been a lot of hype around you and I’m not sure whether you can act.’ And I replied, ‘OK, but if I don’t get this part, I’ll be stuck in corsets for the next 20-odd years,” Knightley laughs.
Maybury soon discovered that Knightley was more than just a pretty face, and it wasn’t just that she turned up at the reading with a perfect American accent already prepared for the role. “I guess it helped that I had food poisoning that day and looked really rough,” she winks.
However, Maybury is quick to add, “I was so impressed by her intelligence and I thought, not only is she beautiful, she’s also smart.”
Similarly, “Pride & Prejudice” helmer Joe Wright realized there was more to Knightley than met the eye when he talked to her about the role of Jane Austen’s much-loved heroine Lizzie Bennet. “It had been her 19th birthday the day before and she walked in — this funny, little, angular thing with ripped-up jeans and this attitude that was quite tough. She’s really mouthy and kept on talking and had very strong opinions. I was shocked and my prejudices were immediately exploded,” he recalls.
With “Pride & Prejudice,” Knightley proved she can carry a complex romantic drama and shine even in the presence of a screen legend like Donald Sutherland. Because the story of “Pride & Prejudice” had been a favorite of hers since she was 7, it didn’t even matter that the role involved wearing a corset.
“My aim is, if you can ever have an aim, to change as much as possible. However, if it just happens that the scripts that I like are all period, then that’s what I’m going to do,” says Knightley, who’s currently back in the corset making the second and third installments of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
A change of the extreme kind was asked for when Knightley went from wrapping “Pride & Prejudice” to immersing herself in her first badass part as a bounty hunter in Tony Scott’s ultraviolent “Domino.”
Knightley had four days off between the two productions and admits, “It was the most difficult transition I’ve ever made. But I’ve always been someone who needs a challenge and if someone tells me you can’t do that then that makes me want to do it even more.”
A self-confessed workaholic and perfectionist, Knightley explains her reason for taking on so much work stems from growing up in a showbiz family. “I’m not someone who’s come into the business with any fairy-tale notions,” she says. “I’m the daughter of a theater actor (Will Knightley) and a playwright (Sharman Macdonald) and I know this is a job that blows down even quicker than it blows up. All you can do is ride the wave while it’s there and enjoy it.”
Sure enough, Knightley’s wave might rip and curl, like any other burgeoning career of a 20-year-old thesp, but her unique mix of charisma, beauty, talent and determination hint at a long, exciting ride.