Nobody wants to talk about Keira Knightley’s body

Kevin Maher

Nobody wants to talk about Keira Knightley’s body. Not the flock of assistants, stylists and acquaintances who flit about in her wake as she cruises towards a cordoned press corner of Claridge’s Hotel. Not the feisty PR martinets and film company major-domos who’ve organised the day’s interviews to publicise Knightley’s new film, Atonement. And certainly not the cowed line of TV reporters, queueing up for their five-minute burst of platitudinous bites. No, it seems that the 22-year-old Knightley has spent the last year battling the world’s obsession with her body image, even successfully suing a national newspaper over accusations of anorexia, and so an edict has been issued from the highest echelons of media management stating that nobody, BUT NOBODY, must mention the subject of Knightley’s body. Nobody, that is, except for Knightley herself.

“I mean, I’m an actress and it’s a tool, after all,” she says, launching into a lengthy and nuanced explanation of the Knightley body obsession, while sprawled on a quiet secluded couch, far away from prying ears. “It’s pretty much all I’ve got. I’ve got whatever’s in my head, my face and my voice and then there’s my body, and that’s it. And I do trade on that, of course I do.”

So let’s get this straight from the start – Knightley is not anorexic. She bounds into the room like a lightly primped gazelle, has a handshake like a welder and, later, when reaching backwards across the couch for a misplaced bottle of spring water, her delicate black mini-dress (a chain store purchase, fashion fans) rises to reveal two firm walnut-coloured thighs that would make a sprinter proud. She is quick to laugh, darkly witty, fabulously foul-mouthed, and smart enough to realise that in Atonement, at least, her body’s the thing.

The movie is a stunningly precise adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Second World War-era bestseller, and revolves around the childish misinterpretation of adult sexual relations. The narrative is thus ignited by an early pivotal scene where Knightley’s flapper protagonist, Cecilia Tallis, emerges from the family pond in entirely transparent skin-soaked clothing and stands boldly before her would-be paramour Robbie Turner, played by James McAvoy.

The scene speaks of entropic erotic desire, and it spares Knightley no blushes, by exposing to the audience what McEwan calls, “the triangular darkness her knickers were supposed to conceal”. “There are plenty of actresses, and certainly a lot of American actresses, who wouldn’t have done this part because of that,” she says. “But I was very passionate about it, and had to do it no matter what it demanded.”

Atonement reunites Knightley with her Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright. The pair have become something of a professional double-act, with the latter directing the former for the third time recently, in a decadent Paris-set commercial for Chanel (Knightley has succeeded Kate Moss as the face of the fashion giant’s Coco Mademoiselle fragrance). Knightley admits that she has a bond with Wright that is not unprecedented in movie history – he is the Howard Hawks to her Katharine Hepburn, or at least the Scorsese to her De Niro. “He doesn’t make me feel like I’m a pretty face that’s just, sort of, walked in,” she explains. “He actually goes, ‘All right, f***ing what are you bringing to the table? Let’s talk about this!’ ”

She also says, nonetheless, that despite a mature Oscar-tipped turn in Atonement (following hot on the heels of an Oscar-nominated performance in Pride & Prejudice and the box-office domination of her Pirates of the Caribbean movies), she is still riven with professional anxieties. “I seem to have a homing device in me that leads me to absolutely every bad review that I’ve ever received,” she explains. “If I’m sitting in the hairdresser I’ll pick up the one thing that has horrific stuff about me in it. Which in one sense is incredibly difficult, but in the other constantly makes me go, ‘Get better! Get better! Get better!’”

This is definitive Knightley – a curious cocktail of self-deprecation, confidence, and, get this, confident self-deprecation. When I met her first, three years ago, she spoke almost proudly of how the filmmaker John Maybury, who directed her in the psycho-thriller The Jacket, had greeted her with the gambit, “There’s a lot of hype surrounding you at the moment. I’m not sure I believe any of it, and I don’t think you can act.” Today she says that the words still resonate because her performances since then “haven’t exactly been perfect”. And yet she takes succour from the fact that even her accomplished Pride & Prejudice co-star Donald Sutherland is also hampered by self-doubt. “You can only go, ‘All right, well f*** me. If an actor of that stature is saying that he’s not comfortable with his ability, then what right has any 22-year-old, for f*** sake, got to sit here and go, I’m feeling really good about myself. F*** that, it doesn’t happen.”

Knightley, you see, is in for the long haul. Acting is not just in her blood, it’s deeply implicated in her very being. Her mother, for instance, the Scottish playwright Sharman Macdonald, was, in 1984, extremely strapped for cash and decided famously that she couldn’t afford to conceive second child Keira until she sold a play. And what was the name of the play that we have to thank for your existence? “There’s no need to say it in such a sarcastic tone, for f***’s sake! It was called When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout.” And, considering the circumstances, is there any spooky symbiotic connection between the content of the play and the person you’ve become? “Well, it’s got four-year-olds masturbating on a beach.” Nice.

Knightley grew up in Richmond, West London, enthralled by the creative life of her mother and her theatre actor father Will Knightley. She says that, as legend has it, she demanded the services of an agent when she was 3 and began nabbing bit parts in TV shows such as The Bill from the age of 8. She is open about her childhood and says that, yes, she missed out on a “normal” life. “But then again, if you want to pursue an acting career you have to take the opportunities as they’re offered, which is what I did. So I think I would’ve regretted it a f*** of a lot more if I hadn’t said yes to various things.”

She said yes to playing Lara Antipova in the high-profile TV adaptation of Dr Zhivago, which meant abandoning her A-level study at Esher College in Surrey. Her breakthrough role was as a soccer-crazy tomboy in Bend it Like Beckham and next she was cast, crucially, as Elizabeth Swann in the billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The rest is a cataclysmic roll-call of media hysteria that includes Vanity Fair covers, best dressed lists, most desirable actress awards, most glamorous starlet titles, personal trainers, stylish boyfriends (the fashion model Jamie Dornan was one), telephoto pap shots, and an infamous appearance at the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest premiere in a bronze Gucci dress that, if not exactly making her look anorexic, certainly made her look washed-out enough for the world’s press to round on her viciously under the guise of sympathy and concern, and pillory her cruelly for her alleged stick-insect figure.

Which brings us inevitably back to the body. And though we’d never wade straight into the tabloid fixation with anorexia, there are pertinent issues about her image that need to be addressed, and indeed even arise in Atonement.

“Oh I can’t wait to see how you’re going to connect those two together!” she says, with an imperious chuckle.

Well, surely there’s a fine line between the media’s obsession with her body image and her own manipulation of that image on screen. In Atonement, for instance, in that first scene when she emerges from the (Freudian slip) shower . . .

“It’s a pond, actually. The shower’s in the porno version.” Yes, sorry. I got Atonement mixed up with Debbie Does Dallas for a second there.

“It’s all right. It happens.”

Anyway, that scene is predicated on her ostensible nakedness. And the movie itself is predicated on that scene, so how does she shift focus from her body when it’s so, well, out there.

“I know, you’re absolutely right, and the answer is, ‘Don’t take your clothes off!’ But then if I didn’t there would be a whole area of my job that I couldn’t explore. And I can’t sacrifice my job just because it becomes part of this tabloid b*****ks that I have to put up with. In fact they are two completely separate things. There’s me as Keira, who has to deal with this tabloid s***. And probably, yes, if I didn’t do that [scene] then my life would be a lot easier. But then I can’t NOT do my job just because somebody is trying to sell papers.” She pauses and, looking sullen for the first time, adds, “All I can say is that it’s f***ing horrible.”

It’s also a f***ing double standard (see, it’s catching). No one, for instance, ever decries Jude Law for being too short, or Orlando Bloom for being too thin. Instead, objectified wrath is preserved exclusively for home-grown female performers such as Knightley and Kate Winslet. “Yes. I do think that we live with sexism,” says Knightley. “I think that that’s very obvious. It’s a huge issue and I, er, I’m, ah.” She stops herself with a smile, and decides, perhaps for professional reasons, to hold back. “I’m just not going to go into my usual rant about it.”

For the moment, however, sexist conspiracies and tabloid ambushes aside, Planet Knightley looks quite peachy indeed. She’s just finished work on the Dylan Thomas movie The Edge of Love (written by her mother and co-starring Sienna Miller), and is preparing to star in an 18th-century period piece, The Duchess directed by Saul Dibb (Bullet Boy). She’s still dating her Pride & Prejudice co-star Rupert Friend, but has no plans for anything serious like marriage, kids, and settling down just yet. “And even if I do have kids,” she announces, “I have no plans to give up my career. Although London wouldn’t be the best place to have them, but I’m not thinking about popping them out just now.”

She says that emotionally, she’s content and calm, but is crucially aware that she’s driven by a need to achieve some professional high that might never come. And she’s fine with that. She’s fine with her own negative analysis and constant self-deprecation. “For the day I sit here and go, yeah, I am f***ing brilliant, is the day that I should give it all up.”

Keira Knightley’s road to fame

1985 Born in Teddington, Middlesex, the daughter of an actor and a playwright
1988 Asked her parents to get her an agent, but they resisted for three years
1994 Her first film role, in Moira Armstrong’s A Village Affair
1999 Appeared in her first high-profile role as Sabe in Star Wars Episode I
2001 Began A levels at Esher College, Surrey, but quit when she was offered the role of Lara in Doctor Zhivago
2002 The big time beckons in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham.
2003 First starred as Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy
2003 Began dating the Irish model Jamie Dornan
2005 Nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. Began dating co-star Rupert Friend, having split up with Dornan.


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