Keira Knightley
Photo by Mark Mann

Keira Knightley: “It’s the joy of growing up”

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Short Profile

Name: Keira Christina Knightley
DOB: 26 March 1985
Place of birth: Teddington, England, United Kingdom
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Knightley, you were only 17 when you starred in Bend It Like Beckham and Pirates of the Caribbean. How do you look back on that version of yourself?

She did all right! (Laughs) I mean yes, it was a tricky time and it was probably amplified by celebrity but I think many people, and especially many women have a tricky time at the end of their teenage years and beginning of their twenties. I think it was amplified, obviously because I was as famous as I was at that point. But I survived up to this point — touch wood! But that girl can’t have been that bad.

Did you ever feel the weight of fame as a teenaged celebrity?

I think the early part of my career, it was certainly quite a harsh experience in every different which way. I don’t think that people would have had a more positive opinion of me had I spoken my mind or had I not spoken my mind, you know? There’s literally nothing I could have said or done to have changed what that was going to be like at that particular time. I think in a funny kind of way, you remain yourself in the middle of things and what you learn as you grow up is you can only be yourself. People are either going to like you or they’re not going to like you.

“I learned you can say nothing, you can be perfectly smiling, wearing a perfectly nice dress at the opening of a charity and people can still despise you for it.”

There’s absolutely no real way to please everyone.

Exactly. You’re on to a losing one if that’s what you’re trying to do because it is impossible so you might as well say, “Fuck ‘em!” But I think particularly through that period I learned you can say nothing, you can be perfectly smiling, wearing a perfectly nice dress at the opening of a charity or something and people can still despise you for it. Or you can wear the same dress and you can speak and people might despise you for it — or they might actually appreciate it. Ultimately, you don’t really have any control over how it’s taken. You can only be yourself in the center of that.

Is that something you’ve had to learn over the years, or were you always aware of the double standard?

It’s the joy of growing up.

Would you say you’re enjoying your success more these days?

Well, I would say without a shadow of a doubt that I’m enjoying the work more now. I’ve never had an acting class. My plan was to go to drama school and I suddenly got all these jobs. I never went to drama school, I’ve never had a teacher. I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had my instincts, I knew sometimes I was good, I knew sometimes I was bad — I had no idea why. I think it did make me feel very insecure. Would I have felt less insecure being that famous but having had that background? I think I would have been treated slightly differently if I’d come straight out of a reputable drama school or if I’d come out of university.

And what about now?

Well, I’m now in my thirties and I do know my job, I do know my craft. So, of course, I’ve got a handle on it. You need me to cry? I can cry. You need me to laugh? I can laugh. You need me to do all those things? I’ve got all that. Of course, you have more fun once you’ve got a handle on that.

You recently said you’re finding it easier to cry on command these days now that you’re an exhausted mother.

(Laughs) I was just being facetious! Was it a little bit easier because the emotions are close to the surface when you’re unbelievably tired? Maybe, but that’s also what I do for my living. That said, for most jobs, becoming a mother does make it more difficult… Parenthood is life changing. Full stop. I think that the way that you act and the way that you play a role always changes because your point of view as a person changes as you age. I don’t think that somebody who hadn’t experienced parenthood would have difficulty in playing the role of a parent.

“I don’t use exactly my personal stuff to act from because then every word is fake. If it’s not her saying it, it’s me saying it and it just doesn’t work for me.”

So you don’t use your own personal experience when you’re playing a role?

I don’t use my direct experience, no. It’s not like, “My grandmother died so therefore I understand about grief,” or, “I have a child and therefore I understand.” It helps to have empathy with the character that you’re playing, and what I try to do is be in the shoes of the character… But I honestly don’t know if I could do it through my own experience. I don’t use exactly my personal stuff to act from because then every word is fake. If it’s not her saying it, it’s me saying it and it just doesn’t work for me.

Maybe it’s more of a cliché.

Yeah, they always think that that’s how you do it. I have never found anybody that can make that work. But maybe there are! That said, as an actor, your job is to try and be able to work in different ways because it’s the director that sets how you work. You have to be able to shift, and I’ve found directors that I haven’t been able to do that with.

Because they were too technically strict?

Actually, I’ve worked with some very strict, very technical people and I’ve really enjoyed working with them. I think the tricky thing about it is it’s the alchemy of any relationship. It’s how you get on with that person. I love directors that have that emotional vocabulary because actually, a lot don’t have that. A lot of other directors can’t describe what they mean from an internal point so it becomes quite difficult to try and analyze. I like when a director can describe what he wants from the inside — which is how every actor works.