25 JULY 2003
KEIRA KNIGHTLEY - NOT JUST A POUTY FACE
After her revealing turn in the steamy television remake of 'Dr Zhivago', Keira Knightley is now showing she can hold her own in a big-screen blockbuster.
There are lots of intriguing facts about Keira Knightley. Perhaps one of the most intriguing is how she came to have her belly-button pierced. 'It was my mother's idea, and it was paid for entirely by my child benefit money,' the actress explains. 'I was about a week away from my 13th birthday, and having a really bad time at school, breaking up with friends and having to make new ones, and my mum suddenly decided I needed something cool to cheer me up. Everything would have been absolutely fine if I hadn't been about to do a TV production of Oliver Twist. I had to wear this really tight corset and it kept rubbing, which absolutely killed.
'My mum always wanted it to be my little secret,' she says, lifting up her T-shirt to show me, a very aesthetic sight indeed set against the backdrop of such a trim, tanned tummy, 'but it's become a bit of a trademark. Apparently Richard Curtis fell in love with it when he saw Bend It Like Beckham. That's how I got to be in his film Love Actually. I went into the audition and he said, "I want that belly-button piercing in my film!" '
We are sitting in a little coffee shop in the middle of Richmond, not far from the three-bedroom terrace house in Teddington where Knightley - who first came to our attention as Lara in last year's steamy television production of Dr Zhivago - has lived with her elder brother Caleb and her parents since she was a little girl. In the flesh Knightley, now 18, is just as unfairly beautiful as she is on screen, with those limpid, slanting eyes, those knife-edge cheekbones, and that almost irritatingly perfect upper lip. But as is the way with unfairly beautiful people, particularly if they are British, she knows how to play it down. Today she is dressed in Seven jeans and scuffed, cream cowboy boots; the only starry indicator is a very expensive-looking silver bracelet watch on her wrist ('Dior gave it to me as a present for coming to one of their shows, but I didn't end up going because I missed the plane').
Somehow I had expected her to be blonde. In fact, her hair is a dull, espresso brown - 'I think this is my natural colour. I'm not quite sure any more' - pulled back into a haphazard, rather unflattering ponytail. On her olive-skinned chin she is rather sweetly sporting the beginnings of a spot. Obviously nobody in this crowded, brightly lit cafe has the remotest idea who she is; she could be one of a million west London teenagers having a wander round the sales before going up to uni.
That is all likely to change with the release of her latest film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a $150-million Jerry Bruckheimer production also starring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush and Orlando Bloom, and, so the Hollywood on-dit goes, destined to be just as much of a smash hit as any other Bruckheimer extravaganza, Con Air, Armageddon and The Rock included.
Knightley plays Elizabeth Swann, the ballsy, pirate-obsessed daughter of the governor of a Caribbean island (Jonathan Pryce) who gets kidnapped and then caught up in a rescue mission to reverse a deadly ancient curse. Directed by Gore Verbinski, it's a rollicking good romp, full of brilliantly scary effects and, for a Hollywood blockbuster, really quite funny. Knightley is absolutely luminous, but it is Depp as the camp, swaggering pirate Jack Sparrow (a character he based partly on the cartoon character Pepe Le Pew, partly on Keith Richards), who steals the show.
'Oooh, Johnny,' Knightley purrs. 'What an incredibly talented actor. And what a beautiful face. When I walked on to the set that first day it was pretty terrifying. I remember going, "Omigod, there's Johnny Depp hanging out over there, there's Geoffrey Rush, my biggest hero of all time, and here I am, this teenager from London, having my cleavage painted in by my very own body make-up artist and doing this full-on Jerry Bruckheimer movie. What's happening here?" '
Not that that was quite the impression she made on set, of course. 'Keira just steps into the ring and attacks,' a rather awed Depp has said. 'Her work is right on the money, totally professional. She's amazing. I was very impressed.'
Gore Verbinski is equally impressed: 'There is always something going on behind those wonderful brown eyes - the camera sees it.'
'Well, I suppose the amazing thing was just how quickly it all became normal,' Knightley allows in her very slight Estuary accent. 'Johnny and I instantly connected - partly because we both dropped out of school at 15, I think, partly because he's got such a fantastically British sense of humour. Orlando I knew from before through auditioning in London. Nobody, but nobody - and I promise you this - had an ego, and we all instantly became mates. By the end of the first week it really did feel like another day at the office.'
But then Knightley has never been the breathless ingenue. The youngest child of the actor Will Knightley (Mr Glegg in the 1997 BBC production of The Mill on the Floss) and the award-winning Scottish playwright Sharman MacDonald, she was never going to be an accountant or a doctor as it was pretty much acknowledged from day one.
She was just three when she asked for an agent - 'My parents both had one, so why couldn't I?' - and seven when they finally acquiesced. But because she had been diagnosed by her primary school as having dyslexia her mother made it a condition that Keira come to her every morning of her summer holidays, with book in hand and 'a smile on my face', prepared for at least an hour of reading and maths. 'I don't think she thought I'd follow through, but I did,' Knightley says. Apparently she didn't think Keira would get any work immediately either, but she did - that year, in fact, when she was still only seven, in a film called Royal Celebration starring Minnie Driver and Rupert Graves.
While Knightley attended the local comprehensive she continued to get work - 'usually parts that involved me running into the picture saying "Mummy" and "Daddy" a lot and then running out of it again'. But her first brush with the big time came when she was 14 and landed a part in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace as Sabe, Natalie Portman's double. What brought her to the attention of Gurinder Chadha, the director of Bend It Like Beckham, and ultimately the makers of Zhivago, was her performance in Nick Hamm's cult horror flick The Hole, in which, as an archetypal blonde bitch, she was the perfect foil for the dark and dysfunctional Thora Birch.
Andy Harries, controller of Granada Drama and Film and executive producer of Dr Zhivago, remembers seeing Knightley straight after the The Hole opened in the spring of 2001. 'It was premiere season,' he says. 'Suddenly Keira and Thora Birch stalked in, all dolled up in heels and make-up, and although Keira was only 16 at the time, the effect was stunning. As we were chatting I thought, "I wonder if she could be Lara?" Clearly she was perfect for the first half, but for the second half - after having to trek through the Urals, go through a war, have a kid - could she handle that? In the end, after seeing countless actresses far older and more experienced than her, we took the plunge. I'm glad we did. I think deep down we all knew she was going to be a big star.'
One has to take one's hat off to Knightley, accepting a role which would inevitably invite comparisons with Julie Christie's unimpeachable performance almost 40 years earlier. But if she was the sort of person who crumpled at such criticism she probably wouldn't have got the part in the first place. 'I think it deserves to find a new audience,' is how she cleverly put it at the time. Which sounds to my mind, even though I've only just met her, very Keira indeed. Nobody could ever call this doe-eyed beauty steely exactly, but she's certainly focused. 'She's not by any means the fragile little flower you might think her to be,' Harries agrees. 'She's very bright and she's quite a little toughie underneath it all. She's also very adult for her age.'
'I suppose it's a case of, if you're treated like an adult then you'll behave like one,' is Knightley's own assessment. She says she has gained tremendous strength and confidence over the years from her parents, particularly her mother. 'Yeah, my mum's very good at getting me out there,' she giggles. 'Like there was this vintage Valentino top I borrowed for the Pirates premiere in LA, and I wasn't quite sure whether to wear it or not because it was completely see-through, but my mum was, "Go on, go on, what's the matter with you? You've got to wear it, it looks fantastic!" And she was right. If I wasn't going to do it when I was 18, when was I going to do it?'
Refreshingly, Knightley does not care a jot about all the fuss that was made over Zhivago's somewhat explicit love scenes. 'Did I get my tits out with Sam [Neill]?' she wonders with what sounds like genuine absent-mindedness. 'Yes, I think I did, but then when you think about it, what is so offensive about a naked body anyway? People go topless, don't they?'
The only thing she does seem vaguely twitchy about is her love life. When I ask about an actor from Teddington she is rumoured to be seeing, 'a lovely, older man with a cockney accent' as one male actor friend later reveals, she instantly clams up. 'Look,' she says, taking a few seconds before formulating as non-committal a response as possible, 'I have no boyfriend to mention. I hate to use my age, but I am only 18 and I think as far as boyfriends go it's wrong to discuss anybody as though they are the one. I'm having fun and moving around a bit, if you know what I mean.'
It's a sensible reaction for someone about to be catapulted into the surreality of Hollywood stardom, but then Knightley has always had a frighteningly sensible head on her shoulders. She has never done drugs, she rarely, rarely drinks - 'I did for my 18th birthday and I'll tell you, never, ever again' - and although university was never really on the agenda, she still deeply regrets not finishing her A-levels. 'I think it was the Sun who said I couldn't read or write,' she says defensively.
'I mean, OK, my spelling is atrocious, but do they know I did my GCSEs in the middle of filming Bend It Like Beckham and got six As?'
For the moment, though, there is no question of fitting schoolwork into her schedule. In three or four days' time she flies out to Dublin to start filming King Arthur - another Bruckheimer extravaganza in which she plays Guinevere. There are rumours, too, that she has just been hired by Asprey, the Bond Street jeweller, as its billboard girl, allegedly earning £2 million for her services.
I cannot get her to confirm any of this, though, except to say she'd never say no. 'Are you joking? For the fuck-off money? Of course I'd do a campaign, as long as the lines weren't blurred. I don't ever want to be known as a model/actress.'
And there's the rub. Is she forever destined to play beautiful? Wouldn't she love, at some point to play plain? 'Of course,' she says, fiddling with her straggly fringe, 'but I think I'd have to fight for those roles big time right now. At the moment I'm very much a face that pouts a bit, and it's not doing me badly. In fact, up until now everything's been pretty golden for me, but I'm very aware of how things can go sour. Hopefully that's going to keep me in good stead.'
'Pirates of the Caribbean' opens on August 8