Keira Knightley- Vogue 05/06
Grand Bahama Island is a curious hybrid of pastel-painted toy-town architecture, great wastes of mangrove forests, and highways with romantic names like Doubloon Road, Spanish Main Drive, and Midshipman Road. These conjure a piratical past that comes disquietingly to life when the tattered skull-and-crossbone standards of old galleons can be glimpsed through those banyans. In fact, these are the props for the continuing saga of Pirates of the Caribbean—now filming parts II and III—and the broken masts belong to The Black Pearl, The Empress, and The Flying Dutchman, hulking ships out of fairy tales conceived by a febrile team of Disney "imaginers".
On a balmy March morning, Keira Knightley, the 21-year-old heroine of these swashbuckling romps, is recovering from the movie wrap party the night before, which she describes as "a thank-you to the island for putting up with us all this time!" and during which she made "a rousing, Joan of Arc-esque speech" that she was delighted to observe brought tears to the eyes of at least one hardened crewman. However, Knightley "bailed early"; the shooting schedule has been a grueling one. The episodic Pirates movies have now been in production for more than a year—long enough for Knightley to have laid down roots in a charming lilac-and-ocher shack with a deep-aqua veranda that commands dramatic views across the peroxide sand to the bright-blue Caribbean.
When Knightley first came to look at the cottage, a storm had washed up so much detritus on the beach that "it sort of looked like Dunkirk," but this was soon swept along and Knightley decided to stay, to be awed by the constantly changing seascape. "I've never lived by water before, and what's beautiful is that it's kind of terribly dramatic," she says. Before Hurricane Wilma hit in October 2005, Knightley remembers, "the water was glass—like a millpond. It was the most amazing calm-before-the-storm kind of stillness."
Inside the cottage, a cozy, feminine disorder prevails. The coffee table spills with dog-eared copies of Pablo Neruda and the glossy London style magazine Dazed & Confused. The sound track of In the Mood for Love plays as Knightley washes mugs in which to serve coffee. Her hair is messy and sun-bleached; her bare feet are dusted with sand. She is wearing a turquoise bikini under a pretty pale-blue butterfly-print dress. She has tied a ribbon of old golden lace at the waist and wears simple gold hoops in her ears. She can't remember who made the dress, so she yanks at the nape of her neck to find the label; it's by Laura Lees—or, as Knightley puts it, "I think it's called 'Sale at Selfridges'!"
In her island closet, Jimmy Choo strappy silver movie-star high heels lie tumbled among the beach sandals, and a brace of sparkling beaded flapper dresses by Matthew Williamson (" 'cause he's a friend") hangs alongside the exquisitely made pale-pink corset from the first Pirates movie, created by the distinguished costume designer Penny Rose. "After wearing it so much, I wanted to burn it!" says Knightley. ("I gave her an eighteen-inch waist, and there isn't a woman in the world that isn't delighted about that!" laughs Rose, who notes that Knightley is dressed as a boy in subsequent episodes. "She definitely perks up when I stop squeezing her into taffeta!") Knightley cites Katharine Hepburn as a role model, and there is something of the legendary actress in the way she wears her luminous beauty so lightly. "She doesn't vamp at being a sex goddess," says Vera Wang, who dressed her for the Academy Awards this year. "What makes her so attractive and appealing is the tomboyish aspect to her. To be so beautiful and yet be so unaware of it I find incredibly modern."
"At school I was a grunger—I think I still am," says Knightley. "I can't be that bothered, although I can look at clothes and go, 'Yes, I completely see how that's a piece of art.' Matthew Williamson's are fairy tale-esque; they're like dreams. But I find something beautiful in men's suits. I like to see structure. I like when it's quite clean. I suppose I do like that fifties look."
Knightley laughs off the suggestion that she might be a fashion influence. "Sienna Miller really did pioneer a style, which was quite extraordinary," she says. "I can't see myself ever pioneering a style, partly because I want to be different people every day and never want to be myself. So I don't think I would ever have a style to copy. I would love to be—not to be a style icon, just to be able to say, 'Yes, this is my style, and this is who I am.'"
But if Knightley shies from the fledgling fashion-icon role that her increasingly high-profile appearances have foisted on her, she cannot escape the thick-lipped, wide-eyed beauty that draws all eyes. She might have told The New York Times, with characteristic English self-effacement, that "when I smile at certain angles, I can look like I've got a broken nose like a boxer," and she might lament her spotty forehead, but as the acerbic A. A. Gill noted, the camera reacts to her face like "a besotted puppy" who "just licks her all over in an ecstasy of devotion." In Pride & Prejudice, director of photography Roman Osin filled the screen with her compelling features—the animated mouth set in perpetual motion between a pout and simper and the all-knowing sloe eyes twinkling with silent amusement—but it isn't just cameramen who love her looks. Global cosmetic brands are fighting over her image, and the rumor is that Chanel has been hotly pursuing her to embody Coco Mademoiselle (a fragrance that she happens to wear), to follow in the footsteps of Vanessa Paradis and Kate Moss.
When she is not traveling for movie projects, Knightley, who was brought up in the leafy suburbs of southwest London, now lives north of Hyde Park in a sun-filled Georgian apartment that she bought two years ago and furnished with cool modern pieces. She shops for clothes at the sales and at Topshop; for vintage finds she trawls Portobello Road.
Knightley does dress up, however, for a night at the fin de siècle Grill Room of the Café Royal (the onetime haunt of Oscar Wilde), where London's young fashion students, actors, and socialites strike a pose and dance the night away to big-band sounds. Here Knightley dresses "as my grandmother, basically, in a very, very tight pencil skirt, a DKNY polka-dot secretary shirt, and my hair back-combed into a beehive." Her vintage-maven flatmate provides the accessories, and "we've got a friend who's a makeup artist, and she does the red lipstick." Knightley cuts a dramatic figure on the handkerchief-size dance floor but sheepishly explains that "there's one guy who can really dance—and he just whirls me around. I don't even know his name!"
For Knightley, this "is always what I want clubbing to be; I want it to be that glamorous, and usually it never is. It's always quite sordid, and I don't want that—it doesn't fit in with my story. It's always got to have a story behind it."
Knightley's "stories" affect her red-carpet appearances, too. She concedes that the only time she went "as herself" was for a London screening of The Jacket, for which she was unprepared. "I wore my Chloé top or something and some jeans and my own necklaces, but I won't go to anything bigger as me. Never. No! I'd rather keep some protection up, don't you think?"
Knightley's fashion role-playing has paid off in unexpected ways. For Elton John's 2003 Academy Awards party, Penny Rose found her a Michael Kors dress to wear, "a beautiful river-green, Guinevere-inspired dress." Knightley bumped into Antoine Fuqua, the director of King Arthur. "I had already been to the audition but absolutely hadn't got it," she says. "I got offered it very soon after. That's why it's important to go as characters to these things; it's all in a dress!" The maverick director John Maybury, who cast her in the futuristic thriller The Jacket, "wanted me to turn into Edie Sedgwick," she remembers. "He was convinced that I should cut my hair off and dye it gray—I did cut my hair but didn't go as far as dyeing it. But Ciao! Manhattan was kind of a huge inspiration for The Jacket."
Lately, Knightley has been channeling Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot. "Not that anyone would know or be able to tell or anything like that," she says. "It's just in my head—and a bit of a wiggle!" A vintage, second-skin Hervé Léger dress and a Roland Mouret added to the illusion, "because I certainly don't have the assets!" For the first Pirates movie, the makeup department took 45 minutes to paint on Knightley's buxom cleavage, so her new tomboy persona in parts II and III has come as some relief—although this time, she laughs, "they just love to tan me up, which is hilarious. I look like an Oompa Loompa!"
Working with photographers Mert and Marcus on a campaign for Asprey "was the start of the Brigitte Bardot thing," explains Knightley. "It's all about the transformation. I had really short hair, and they put this amazing Bardot wig on me and then asked, 'Do you mind being naked and we will just drape things over you?' But I went, 'Yes, absolutely, why not?'"
Knightley's propensity to remove her clothing began at the tender age of seventeen—with the steamy love scenes shot for British television's epic retelling of Doctor Zhivago, in which she bravely took on the role of Lara that Julie Christie had made her own in David Lean's 1965 version. It has continued to her notorious Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair Hollywood-issue cover this March, produced by and featuring Tom Ford, on which she and Scarlett Johansson posed naked. The guileless Knightley, however, has a giddy English naïveté about American puritanism. "The thing about taking my clothes off," she notes wryly, "is that I think people will start paying me to keep them on soon!"
Knightley is engaged by the transformative power of costume, too. On Pride & Prejudice, costume designer Jacqueline Durran helped create her character. "We had an obsession with Lizzy Bennet and stripes," she notes, "but they were always scruffy stripes. There's something terribly honest about a stripe; it's not frivolous." For Vogue's shoot, fashion director Tonne Goodman referenced the exquisite Marie Laforêt in René Clément's 1960 Plein Soleil (Purple Noon), who famously wears a polka-dot bikini as she cavorts with Alain Delon on his boat in the Mediterranean. And when hairdresser Jimmy Paul scissored Knightley's hair—newly relieved of its Pirates extensions—into a breezy Christopher Robin-length bob, Goodman sensed the birth of a New Age Jean Seberg.
"If I've got a character, I am all right," explains Knightley. "It's not like I would be dressed in gowns walking down the street. You get other people to do your hair and makeup, it's a dress and jewelry that you don't own, and it's a character like any other, I suppose. If I look at it like that, then I don't get quite as nervous about it, 'cause then it's not me."
Knightley, who began acting at seven, has astutely juggled projects of artistic integrity with commercial blockbusters (Pirates has so far raked in more than $650 million at the global box office). When she began shooting the first Pirates movie, Knightley was just seventeen. If she felt any trepidation about working with Johnny Depp, it was soon replaced by awe at the nuances and refinements that he daily brought to his screen characterization. (Depp "is such a nice bloke," she has said, "and a fucking genius.") Knightley has fond memories, too, of the Pride & Prejudice set—with its similarly youthful cast and a London director who "gets terribly passionate and cries when you do a good take!" Knightley claims that she had "always kept to myself on film sets." For her, "this was the first time that friendship and work coexisted. It was a very special experience. We're all still very close and there's a big family vibe about it."
Before being cast by Maybury in The Jacket, she had admired the director's Love Is the Devil, about the tortured final years of artist Francis Bacon. She also thought highly of Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright's rollicking historical romp for the BBC, Charles II: The Power & the Passion. However, as the actress is the first to admit, neither had initially wanted her for their movies, and they told her so. Knightley insisted on reading for Maybury and completely won him over. Wright, too, now has nothing but praise for her talents. While being honored at this year's BAFTA ceremony, the director credited her for bringing "so much life and love to this film."
Knightley's breathless performance garnered her a Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards, an honor that brought a whole new set of phobias into her life. "First days on set are nerve-racking," says Knightley, "especially if you are working with people you really respect, and in the last couple of years I really have. But the most nervous I get is on the red carpet—it's the most terrifying thing in the world. Well, obviously not the most terrifying thing—but it terrifies me. I was watching Rebecca the other day and realized that I always feel a bit like Joan Fontaine walking into Rebecca's house—there's an R on everything, and she looks at the clothes and feels that's how she should be. I always think that I should be acting in a certain way. I always feel clumsy and think that I am not looking right, and I just don't know what to do with myself. I freeze up. I stand there a bit like a lemon. And I get really cold or really sweaty palms as well—it's really embarrassing. I know, I'm sorry; I can't even get the temperature of my hands right!"
To calm her Oscar-night nerves, Knightley decided to channel the notorious and vain Parisienne adventuress Virginie Gautreau, subject of John Singer Sargent's portrait Madame X, a painting that caused a scandal in the Paris Salon of 1884 for the sitter's brazen attitude, her plunging black dress—and especially its jeweled strap, slipping off the shoulder in a gesture of shocking abandon. "The Vera Wang dress wasn't the one I thought I was going to wear," says Knightley, "but it was the first one I tried on and I just loved it and that was it. It was so over-the-top that you felt you could never wear it for anything but the Oscars. I was trying to go subtle, but it's the Oscars—why would you try and go subtle?"
"Keira wanted to be sophisticated; she didn't want anything too girly," says Wang. "She wanted to be glamorous in her own youthful, quirky way." Taking her inspiration from a thirties Vionnet gown, Wang wanted to create "a deconstructed dress—very raw and random, as young as I could make a ball gown." ("It was great apart from the fact that I couldn't really sit down or stand up!" laughs Knightley.)
Having established that this was The Dress, Knightley decided that "rocking it up was the way to go!," so her stylist, Rachel Zoe, helped her accessorize with Brian Atwood heels and a Roger Vivier evening purse. (Her minaudière contained "Wet wipes just in case I dropped anything down myself, and tit tape—-because I had a tit drama at a New York premiere [of Pride & Prejudice] and I didn't want to repeat that! Insoles for my shoes . . . and some lipstick. Oh, and my passport because you can't get into the Oscars without having photo I.D.!") The pièce de résistance, however, was a vintage sixties necklace of cabochon rubies, emeralds, and sapphires, commissioned by the shah of Iran, which Bulgari had acquired for their archives. While the necklace was "just so attractive," she says, it was also "so tight that when I took it off it looked like someone had been trying to garrote me! I had a horrible ring around my neck!"
At the ceremony, she was seated between Jack Nicholson ("one of my favorite actors of all time") and her brother, Caleb. "I really hope they don't call out my name," she remembers thinking, "because I don't have a speech prepared and I'd end up looking a complete twit! So it was a relief when they called Reese. It's the reaction shot that's funny, because you've literally got a cameraman in your face, so laughing seemed the best option. It was a really weird, weird, weird moment!"
After the siren call of Pirates, Knightley feels that she "would love to do some theater—that's what I grew up with." (Her father is actor Will Knightley.) "I'll never think I'm a real actress until I've been on the stage. So I shall have to do it. It will scare the shit out of me as well, and I always think that is a good idea! What I love about acting is moving on quite quickly," she adds. "It's ships passing in the night, this profession, which is kind of romantic. I became an actress to change as much as possible, and that's what makes it fun."