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Keira Knightley, currently working in film after film, has been obsessed with Pride and Prejudice since she was seven, but afraid of going for the role of Elizabeth, especially when she learnt that director Joe Wright didn’t want her, as she tells Helen Barlow.

When Keira Knightly bowls into our interview room at the Dorchester Hotel on swanky Park Lane to talk about her tomboyish turn as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, she is nothing as you’d expect. Yes she’s young but not silly, yes she’s chirpy but not giggly. Most impressive is that after starring roles in Pirates of the Caribbean and King Arthur, and experiencing all the media attention that came with it, she remains natural and unafraid to be herself. Gangly, flat-chested and naturally skinny, she seems oddly uncomfortable in her low cut flowing black dress and gold accessories.

We don’t look like the tomboy today, I suggest. “We don’t, we’re trying to be the lady--it won’t last very long,” she says in her self-deprecating way, scrunching up her face as she does throughout our interview.

“The truth of the matter is I’ve got builders in my flat and I’ve only got three dresses to wear that aren’t completely covered in dust. So I’ve got to be a lady, which is quite good.”

After viewing the film, there’s no doubting that Knightley is perfect casting for the film’s younger take on the Pride and Prejudice story, which, as director Joe Wright points out, is how Jane Austen wrote it. Yet initially Wright was not interested in casting Knightley, because with her fresh-faced beauty, those fleshy red lips, rosy cheeks and classic high cheek bones, is just too beautiful.

“I thought Lizzie should be slightly plainer, that Darcy is attracted to the liveliness of her mind and not her physical beauty,” explains the hip-looking thirtysomething director. “But when I went to Montreal to meet Keira the day after her nineteenth birthday, she bounded in and I suddenly I realized that she was a tomboy. It seemed that she’d always been put in these pretty dresses and told to look pretty and suddenly there was this quite angular, feisty girl who couldn’t shut up. She just talked and talked and talked and talked and talked and suddenly I realized this was the key to Lizzie, that this could work.”

To her credit, Knightley remembers it differently. Even on their first meeting in Montreal where she was filming The Jacket, Wright had not been impressed.

“I was dubious about the entire thing because I knew he didn’t want me,” she admits. “I felt that after The Jacket, where I’d had John Maybury turning around and saying, ‘I don’t think you can act and I don’t want you,’ I just wanted to work with somebody who immediately goes, ‘Great, be in my film’. Our meeting wasn’t great at all and I knew I hadn’t got the part. Joe was so jetlagged and I’d been very much forced into it and I was so frightened of going for it anyway. But when I met him again in London and he realized that I am a complete tomboy and scruffy and not what he’d imagined, he offered me the part.”

"the realization of a life-long dream"

It might seem like a relatively minor role for the actress--who stars in Tony Scott’s hard-edged high octane Domino and who has two Pirates sequels on the way. Yet to play Elizabeth Bennet is actually the realization of a life-long dream. In fact it was a blessing in disguise when the movie she was to do, Tulip Fever, Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel where she was to appear alongside Jude Law, fell apart and she suddenly became available.

“I’ve been obsessed by Pride and Prejudice since I was seven when my mum got me a tape of the book and I used to listen to it on a loop,” she says without taking a breath. “Then I got two dolls houses: the small one was called Longbourn [the Bennet family home] and the big one which my mum still has is called Pemberley [Mr Darcy’s palatial estate] and I had all the characters from the book. When the TV version [starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth] came out when I was nine I watched it solidly for two years, and I was obsessed again. The TV version was such a hit and I thought there’s no way I can do it because nobody will buy me as Elizabeth Bennet. But luckily my agent and family forced into going to meet Joe Wright and I’m very glad that I did.”

What turned Elizabeth Bennett into a kind of role model for the young Keira, is that the character has flaws. “Everyone can relate to her. She is funny, she’s witty, she’s intelligent, she’s everything everyone wants to be and then she’s really annoying sometimes too. She makes complete mistakes, she’s incredibly vulnerable and I suspect that she’s not as confident as she seems.”

This of course is not the image that we have of the average picture-perfect movie star. Yet this is very much the way Knightley sees herself. She denies her own beauty and holds up Sienna Miller as her idea of perfection.

“She looks f..king great, you see her wearing anything and she’s amazing.”

Hasn’t Miller a more conventional look though? “She’s only got a conventional look because everybody’s copied her, you know. I’m trying to; I just completely fail. I’m a 20-year old girl, and every 20-year-old girl wants to be Sienna Miller,” she insists.

But you must earn more money than her?

“I have no idea.”

You’re in bigger movies.

“Yes that’s true, but I think some people can just do it and some people just don’t and she can just do it.”

When Knightley explains that in order to look pretty she uses “a very, very good make-up artist and stylist”, I suggest she is being too humble.

“I go to the gym twice a week and I drink a lot of water. Is that humble enough? Will that do?”

One of the things that has kept Knightley so real is that she grew up with dyslexia—hence the oral version of Austen’s novel. As with Tom Cruise, it has only served to make her acting drive stronger. That she should choose the profession is no coincidence as her father is the actor Will Knightley, while her mother, the Scottish actor turned playwright Sharman Macdonald, had a hit with her 80s play, When I Was A Girl I Used To Scream And Shout. Keira first wanted to act at the age of three and has had an agent since she was six.

She will not discuss the break-up of her relationship with her model boyfriend, Jamie Dornan, whom she met in 1993, and who recently caught the acting bug, making his screen debut in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. And no she’s never even met Kaz James, the rocker with whom she has been linked. She does however admit that being away from friends and family for up to ten months a year is hard.

"It’s always difficult to remember what’s important when you’re on a film set"

“It’s always difficult to remember what’s important when you’re on a film set and you’re away from the people you love. What you have to remember is that they’re what’s important at the end of the day. One day there will come a point when I won’t be able to travel that much. But at this particular moment in time I’m very focused on what I do, and I don’t want to have any regrets when and if I do ever settle down.”

In terms of the movies, she says it helps when they are fun and the people are amenable. While the young actress well and truly bonded with the mostly female cast (including Rosamund Pike and Brenda Blethyn) on Pride and Prejudice, her current commitment to shooting the second and third Pirates sequels in the Bahamas has been made easier by the presence of Johnny Depp.

“The thing about a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean is you expect the special effects to be the star of the film--but Johnny Depp is the biggest special effect of all. Being there and seeing that is so inspiring, because in a funny way on action movies you are very much a pawn, you get moved around, this explosion happens and then you move on. But he’s transcended that and brought it back to what it’s about for all of us, which is about the story and about the craft and about creating the characters. He’s extraordinary. He talks to everyone and is great to everyone. He’s just one of those people you want to be around.”

I ask her which of her male co-stars she would like to be marooned with on a desert island: Depp, Orlando Bloom, Jonathon Rhys Meyers (from her breakthrough movie, Bend It Like Beckham) or Matthew MacFadyen, who plays Mr Darcy.

“Ohh can I have all of them?” she coos. “Mr Darcy is the most romantic figure in English literature, because he’s so brooding and Matthew is perfect to play him. Today in films generally the guys are quite androgynous, but Matthew, he’s a BIG guy and he’s intensely vulnerable at the same time, and there is nothing more romantic than that.”

What she gets up to with Mickey Rourke in Domino remains to be seen. But the film, where she plays a bounty hunter who goes head to head with the Mafia and FBI in order to hunt down outlaws, looks like more of an excuse to create a new female action hero, than to tell the actual story of bounty hunter, Domino Harvey, the recently deceased daughter of actor Lawrence Harvey.

“I’d love to say I was a friend of Domino’s, but I wasn’t,” she says. “I met her a couple of times and she was an absolutely amazing woman. What I have to stress about the film is that it’s fiction. It’s a violent action heist movie, as well as a black comedy and people will be very offended by it, but it’s rather funny. It’s nice to have a piece that is actually quite frivolous and fun, to just say, ‘Hey Domino, this is for you and to at least mark an extraordinary woman having been here. Her death is tragic; there’s no other word for it. But it hasn’t changed the film because the film is pure fiction.”

In Domino, Knightley is doing a kind of modern version of her kick-ass Guinevere in King Arthur. Instead of rustic battle gear she is now dressed in army fatigues and wields a gun. Certainly it’s a far cry from Victorian England.

"The whole point of being an actress is changing as much as possible"

“I don’t only want to do costume dramas, I’d get very bored. I don’t only want to only do modern day pieces. I’d get very bored. The whole point of being an actress is changing as much as possible and that means time, that means character, that means size and place. That means absolutely everything. My aim is to keep interested, because if you’re not interested you can’t give a good performance.”

Knightley has done just that in her two upcoming films, breathing new life into Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice, and she has undergone an astounding transformation in Domino. These might just be the two films to quieten the naysayers regarding her talent. And many of us happen to think, that in an era when pre-fab American blondes are the fashion in Hollywood, she has a rare natural beauty and acting style that is only starting to be tapped.

Published October 20, 2005

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Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice


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