Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elle April 05 - Keira Knightley

Semi-shorn head or no, Keira Knightley's breathtaking beauty wowed the assembled ELLE crew during her cover shoot at an equally awe-inspiring eighteenth century Parisian townhouse…as did the fact that the rail-thin 20-year-old inhaled her spaghetti carbonara, proscuitto, and macaroons lunch without a hint of starlet self-consciousness. Knightley's infectious enthusiasm may be the product of true love—her model boyfriend was by her side for the duration of the shoot. But, despite the almost unbearable equation of their combined attractiveness, Knightley proved she was still a posh punk at heart, leaving the shoot not with an awards-show ready frock but a skull belt buckle, custom-made for her by underground-cool label Streets Ahead.

Imperious, impetuous, unfussy Keira Knightley is a throwback to acting's bohemian aristocracy—with the occasional old English oath thrown in.

The famously lovely Keira Knightley has come to the Sundance Film Festival to promote her latest movie, the arty thriller The Jacket. Although she has made her name with epic Hollywood fare such as Pirates of the Caribbean and King Arthur, somehow her fawnlike features, high, flutey voice, and crisp British diction seem a little out of place in the faux-Wild West commercial hurly-burly of Sundance. But not even her brutal commute from London to Park City, Utah—a roughly 12-hour trip that deposited her in front of a (fake) roaring fire at the Lodges at Deer Valley unfed, unshowered, and unprimped—fazes her. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Have you been waiting for a long time?” she greets me, as if the delayed flight is somehow her fault. Knightley, 20, grew up in suburban London with her actor dad and playwright mum, both of whom taught her that show business is a business like any other. She has been working in movies since she was a child. Still, I'm taken aback by Knightley's jocular British good manners. “There's just no point in behaving like a shit when you're up,” she explains in that very proper voice, “because you are going to come down. There are so many people in the world desperate to be doing what I'm doing, I would feel like an absolute cow if I took the piss out of it.” (God bless England!)

In accordance with Hollywood's sped-up intimacy clock, when we meet the next day in a Park City restaurant, Knightley and I are old mates. We dive into a dissection of her day's look. She's wearing Sundance-casual jeans, cowboyish gray leather boots, and a pale brown wool turtleneck sweater. “Topshop, 12 pounds—not bad!” she exclaims proudly. I inquire as to the make. Knightley obligingly leans forward, and I root around the back of her neck for a label.

“No label.”


“You know,” I say, “you look like one of Robin Hood's Merry Men.” At close range, Knightley has a kind of rustic beauty—something about the plump lips and the tawny complexion that she attributes to her black Scot heritage on her mother's side, a touch of the Spanish Armada in the Celtic gene pool.

“I was going for chic.”

“How about Peter Pan? You've got the right haircut.”

“Peter Pan! Jesus!”

Ah, the hair. That's a story in itself. At 16, costarring in Bend It Like Beckham, the 2002 feel-good soccer movie that put her on the map, Knightley had short blond tresses—fetching, but severe enough to make a teaser lesbian subplot halfway believable. Then came Pirates and the expert hair extensions that transformed her into the properly femme object of Orlando Bloom's (chaste) desire. Now she's gone sporty again, this time courtesy of Americanized Brit director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide). He snapped up Knightley after she finished The Jacket and was filming her next project, the upcoming Pride and Prejudice. He cast her in the title role of his new film, Domino, loosely based on the real-life story of Domino Harvey, the daughter of British actor Laurence Harvey who became one of the premier Southern California bounty hunters in the '90s. (“A bit of a head f--k, jumping from century to century,” Knightley says.) When Scott met Knightley in England, he brought photographs of professional strippers to help her prepare for the felon-enticing lap dancing scene that was to come. “She turned up in her boyfriend's jeans with, I think, his boxers on underneath,” Scott says. “There's something very sexy about that, and I realized that's the way I should be going. So her lap dance is very tough.” When Knightley arrived in L.A. to begin shooting last fall, Scott took charge of her hair to establish a rapport with his leading lady and to find the butch inside the English rose. “I kept cutting, although I didn't have the courage to give her a crew cut,” he says.

Scott's artistry aside, something about Knightley—other than the obvious beauty and the unexpected haircut—commands attention, however she softens herself with girlish laughter and creamy British charm. “You've got this 'born to play Joan of Arc' attitude about you,” I say. “The pure ardent spirit with a cause, a sword, a true love.”

“Yeah,” she says. “When I'm acting, I slip into this strident 'Follow me, I know what I'm doing' thing, which is funny because that's not who I am.” Maybe not with her girlfriends in London, but that seems a fair characterization of the bold way in which she ventured beyond big-budget popcorn movies to make the risky indie film that is her Sundance debut. Two summers ago, Knightley was in the middle of the King Arthur shoot, playing a Guinevere who is a sort of pagan Joan of Arc (minus the virginity; she jumps Clive Owen's Arthurian bones at the first opportunity). On location in Ireland, she chanced upon the genre-defying Jacket script (“It's a subversive psychological romantic thriller—that pretty much covers all the bases, doesn't it?”) and set her mind on traveling to London to persuade the director, British avant-gardist John Maybury, to cast her in the female lead.

“I ate something off the night before,” she says, “and at four o'clock in the morning I was puking, and I hadn't had time for a proper shower. I arrived at the lunch meeting with John and the producers, and they were eating fish. I was green. After lunch I talked with John and he said something along the lines of 'There's been a lot of hype about you, but I don't want you in my movie and I don't think you can act.' I thought, Why did I not projectile-vomit all over you when you were eating your fish, you f--ker! But I actually thought it was refreshing to have an honest conversation. So I went, 'That's fine. You don't think I can act and I'm not 100 percent sure myself, but I'd definitely like to give it a go.'”

Brashness of this sort, at least from the mouths of angelic-looking teenage girls, tends to go down well with men in the arts. Maybury tells me he agreed to meet with Knightley only because The Jacket's producers were desperate for a bankable star but that she'd won him over even before she read for the part with the line “If I don't do this film, I'll be acting in corsets for the next 20 years.” (The director stayed smitten—“And I'm a fag,” he says, “so it's not a sexual thing.”) On the evidence of The Jacket, Knightley is a promising if not yet polished dramatic actress, and she possesses a movie star radiance that defies coaching—prompting even an experimentalist like Maybury to resort to that oldest of Hollywood saws, “The camera loves her.” Nowhere was that love affair more intimately displayed than in the sex scene with costar Adrien Brody, a pairing the director says must constitute “the skinniest couple in screen history, all elbows and rib cages.”

Knightley wasn't exactly a stranger to baring her flesh on camera (see 2001's Brit teen screamer The Hole or the 2002 miniseries Doctor Zhivago), “but nothing quite as full on as this,” she says. Brody came to her rescue. “I was in my trailer doing sit-ups—It's going to be fine, it's going to be fine—and he appeared at the door with brandy and vodka. It helped, but doing these scenes feels completely unreal. You get on with someone and all of a sudden you're naked and away at it. What? Have a vodka!” Having played to highly grown-up tastes in her recent movie projects, Knightley is now heading to the Bahamas for some crafty family fun: two simultaneously shot sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. She is thrilled to be reunited with her old Pirates crew—Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, and Co.—with the possible addition of the ultimate ringer, Rolling Stone Keith Richards.

The first time around must have been something of a coming-of-age experience for the then-17-year-old actress, whom I happen to know had a boyfriend in tow for at least part of that shoot. Most anything will pop out of Knightley's mouth on the subject of her adventures in movies, but she is remarkably circumspect about her personal life, which, given the rabid nature of the British tabloid press, is not surprising. “Keira, did you have a boyfriend on set?” I ask. “I have no idea,” she replies quickly. Then, “Possibly.” Then, “Yes.” “Is he the same boyfriend whose name I dare not speak [model Jamie Dornan], who is with you at Sundance and who looks like a young version of soccer star David Beckham, down to the aggressively short haircut?” “No, a different guy. I probably shouldn't have said that. Probably stupid of me.”

I enlist Knightley in a game that will appeal, I hope, to her giddiest self. In reality, one night near the end of the Pirates shoot, she almost went down with the ship when the inflatable ferry craft she was in struck a reef. Pitching her voice up in the piccolo range she says, “I went very, very English: It's going to be absolutely fine, a jolly adventure.” Some sharp-eyed French hoteliers eventually rowed to her aid, but her return to safety was effected only after a 20-minute walk over partially submerged coral. Well, suppose on that fateful night she had been rescued not by a bunch of Frenchmen but by a lone hero with whom she was fated to spend the rest of her life on a deserted tropical island. Orlando Bloom? “Hmm, he's a fit young lad, so we'd have lots of fish and a shelter and fresh water, because he's good like that. And he's a bit of a clown and he's always moving. He's like a one-man boy band—a sweetheart.” And romantically? “I can't imagine that part, but I'm sure we'd have a lovely time.” Clive Owen? “It would be marvelous. He's a very practical, strong, manly type, and we'd have that shelter up in no time.” Johnny Depp? “Still can't imagine the romance, and I don't know how either of us would manage to build a shelter, but I'm sure we'd come up with something.” Perhaps a personal assistant would wash ashore. “You never know. But we'd have a laugh, and as long as Johnny could make a guitar we'd have a lot of music. Johnny's fab, just fab. He can talk about any writer or any painter, and it's lovely to know that one of the most intelligent men I've ever met is a school dropout.” (Like Knightley herself, who left school at 16 to make movies, intending to return but never doing so.) How about Thora Birch, Knightley's costar in The Hole? “Thora…I think we'd have a giggle.” A meaningful lesbian relationship? “I doubt it, but never say never.” Your current boyfriend? “I am so not answering that!” Keith Richards? “Wow! That would be mental! I have no idea. That would be hallucinating!”

We've left the island and are on a more sensible conversational tack when we notice Maybury shuffling toward us. In Park City, he's been playing the role of the aging enfant terrible to the hilt, a vodka-and-Red Bull in a media china shop. “Such a child!” Knightley cries out in mock disgust.

“No, I'm a 46-year-old man,” he replies with a wounded dignity peculiar to the inebriated. “Oh, this is an interview…. Well, she's the most important actress of her generation. And she hasn't really started yet. My film is the first little tippy-toe. She's going places that will blow people away—despite the fact that she keeps doing costume dramas.”

“Oh, f--k off!”

“I'm going to make a porn film with you and your boyfriend because you are the most beautiful couple ever.”

Maybury toddles off and Knightley whispers in my direction, “He's really fabulous. He knows such a lot about art.”

Not for the first time in history, a comely young woman finds herself playing muse to a besotted middle-aged man. In this case, Maybury's prodding of Knightley to investigate the dark places in her psyche is probably useful to her. “He wanted to bring that out in me,” Knightley says, “and I suppose no one else really had. That's part of the reason he encouraged me to spend time on my own. My God, you can get very depressed in foreign hotel rooms. But it was fascinating to explore that.”

As for what Tony Scott had in mind for her, I almost shudder to think. For the lap dancing scene in Domino, he collected 15 of the hardest gang members in L.A. and packed them into a 12' x 10' room, stripped to the waist and armed to the teeth. “I love mixing that beautiful English face in among this violent insanity,” he says. Costar and fellow bounty hunter Mickey Rourke was even more taken with Knightley's pluck during the rough stuff. “We have a scene where I push her in the chest,” he says, “and I thought, If she's gonna turn into fluff, it'll be here. But she stood right there and didn't give an inch.”

Knightley admits to having mixed feelings about film violence but says, “I've never had a problem with nudity or sex.” Her only regret about Domino: “I had to use an ass double. They brought in bum doubles and these women stripped in front of me, and there comes a point when you say, 'Those bottoms should be exposed and this one shouldn't be.'”

On this note we end our interviews. “Please talk to me at the [Jacket] party,” Knightley says. “No one ever talks to me.” At about 1 a.m. that night I do catch up with her. She's in no danger of being ignored, sounding giddy with party energy and drink on a Sundance-induced nervous jag. “Tonight I have been congratulated on my performance in the Pearl Room,” she tells me breathlessly over the din of the party band. Come again? “I think it's a strip club in the area, and apparently I'm a dancer there. This guy said my dancing was excellent!” Before Knightley passes completely into some new dimension of celebrity ubiquity, I take my leave and thank her for our Sundance get-together, which was, in truth, lovely. “Well, the same,” she says. “And if I was a wanker, I apologize!”