People In Film | Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley | Making History Modern

In casting the lead for ANNA KARENINA, Joe Wright naturally thought of his colleague and friend Keira Knightley. In 2005, Knightley appeared in the classic role of Elizabeth Bennet in Wright’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE. And in 2007 the filmmaker and actress teamed up again for ATONEMENT. Says Wright, “We’ve grown up in our movie work together, really. She works so hard, with such attention to detail. Keira is an incredibly strong woman, and utterly fearless – qualities that I wanted to play up in this movie.” Like with the other Knightley/Wright films, ANNA KARENINA brings to the screen a literary masterpiece from the past. For Knightley, “I’ve always loved history –– reading about it, playing it out on-screen –– because I feel it takes me out of the present; I fall into a fantasy, which I love doing.” But unlike those other works, ANNA KARENINA pushed the conventions of period filmmaking in bold and unexpected ways. Knightley came right on board with Wright’s vision: “This approach was such a very different concept for this piece, not doing a safe adaptation – and I was so excited.” Knightley added, “Not having to be strictly in the one time period was liberating.” Working outside the lines and straying from her safe zone has been characteristic of Knightley’s work since the start. In ANNA KARENINA, Knightley plays a woman driven by passion to make choices that will change her life forever, in a way that feels both classic and contemporary. For Knightley, “The story is one we understand today because people still want something they cannot have, still come up against social blocks and rules, and still have trouble communicating emotions to each other.” And clearly her modern sensibility works. Esquire magazine writes, “In Knightley, we finally have an Anna Karenina for our times.”

Keira Knightley | Acting as the Cure

Born in 1985, Keira Knightley was raised around actors and theater. Her father, Will Knightley, was a stage and television actor and her mother, Sharman Macdonald, had worked as an actress before making a name for herself as a prolific playwright and screenwriter. Knightley highlighted the benefits of her childhood to Collider: “I very definitely grew up around stories, art and people that really believed that they could make a difference through their art form, which is a very exciting thing to see, as a child.” But while engaged in drama, art and acting, she also suffered from dyslexia, a condition that made school and schoolwork a nightmare for Knightley as a young woman. Knightley remembered, “My headmaster, at the time, said to my parents, ‘You need to find a carrot to dangle in front of her to make her work harder,’ and the carrot they found was an agent and the promise that I could go for auditions if I kept my grades up.” In many ways, the cure worked too well. By the age of six, Knightley had an agent, and at seven, she appeared in the TV drama Royal Celebration. At nine, she was cast in the very sophisticated TV movie A Village Affair, in which she played the daughter of a housewife who takes up with another woman.

Keira Knightley | Athletic Acting

Through her teens, Knightley proved to be a budding actress with amazing athleticism and action star potential. In 2001, she appeared as Robin Hood’s horse-riding, arrow-shooting daughter in Disney’s Princess of Thieves. The next year, Knightley was cast as the star player for a semi-pro women’s soccer team in Gurinder Chadha’s crowd-pleasing sports film, Bend It Like Beckham, a role that gained her and her fellow teammates international acclaim. In her USA Today review, Claudia Puig stressed the “startlingly accomplished performances of a young and largely unknown cast” in the film. Even more action –– and attention –– arrived the next year when Knightley was cast in the swashbuckling role of Orlando Bloom’s love interest in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Knightley, just 19 when the film was shot, radiates a mature fire through her fresh, patrician beauty.” The film was so popular that Disney rushed forwarded with several more – the 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and the 2007 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End –– and Knightley stepped up to do more stunts and action, to a large degree due to her own desires. As Knightley told Close-up Film, “On the first one they kept asking what I wanted for my character and I kept on saying ‘I want a sword.’ And I never got one so in this one they gave me two, so I am very lucky.”

Keira Knightley | The Wright Choice

Keira Knightley in PRIDE & PREJUDICE

While Knightley continued to appear in period adventures (like the 2004 medieval piece King Arthur) and literary adaptations (like the 1999 TV miniseries Oliver Twist or the 2002 TV remake of Doctor Zhivago), her sense and sensibility changed drastically in 2004 when Joe Wright cast her as one of literature’s great heroines, Elizabeth Bennet, in his adaptation of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE. While categorically a period piece, Wright’s original direction and Knightley’s fresh approach to the character brought Austen’s masterpiece to life for a new generation. As Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman noted, “Keira Knightley, in a witty, vibrant, altogether superb performance, plays Lizzie's sparky, questing nature as a matter of the deepest personal sacrifice.” Quite rightly, she was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance. She also cemented a relationship with director Joe Wright, with whom she would work with again on another stunning period drama, 2007’s ATONEMENT, Wright’s take on Ian McEwan’s celebrated novel of war, romance and remembrance. As the emotionally complex heroine Cecilia Tallis, Knightley -- as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers aptly notes -- “blends beauty and gravity to stunning effect.” In a Cinema Blend interview, she championed her relationship with Joe Wright, saying, “We have really good creative chemistry for some reason, I don’t know why. We speak the same language. I think very often acting is all about emotions. I think everybody intrinsically has the same emotions but we describe them differently. Sometimes on set that can feel literally like a language barrier. With Joe, we describe emotions the same. We kind of had our own language, and I understood what he wanted.” 

Keira Knightley | Mixing it Up with Others

Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go

In the last decade, Knightley continued to show a knack for bringing glamour and smarts to historical dramas, like François Girard 2007 multilayered historical piece, Silk, and Saul Dibb’s sumptuous 2008 drama, The Duchess. In 2008, she also played Vera Phillips, a torch singer who carries the torch for Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, in John Maybury’s The Edge of Love (from a screenplay penned by Knightley’s mother, Sharman Macdonald). Interestingly, Knightley first read her mother’s script when she was doing her first film with Maybury, The Jacket. “I thought it was a really beautiful story,” Knightley told Digital Spy. “You very rarely see films that really study friendship and rivalry and the complexities of a group of friends and how they can implode and how they manipulate each other.” In recent films, Knightley has worked adeptly in ensemble dramas. In Mark Romanek’s lush adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, she shines as the third leg of a complex romantic triangle with Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Steven Rea underlined how “Knightley, dark-haired and deliberate, brings nuance and humor” to the role of Ruth. In Massy Tadjedin’s Last Night, Knightley was part of a quartet (including Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes, Guillaume Canet) composed of two couples teetering on the brink of adultery. And more recently she became the central part of a historical triangle in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method that focuses on the relationship between Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and the hysteric-turned-psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (Knightley). In this cerebral drama, as Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum points out, “Knightley pours herself into the role with ballsy abandon, whether in the throes of hysterical tics, in sexual ecstasy, or merely conversing in Sabina's complicated Russian-German accent.”

Keira Knightley | Mixing Comedy with Depth

Recently Knightley has proven to be most funny and beautiful. In Lorene Scafaria’s apocalyptic comedy SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, Knightley plays Penny, an impulsive young woman who befriends her upstairs neighbor Dodge (Steve Carell) as a huge asteroid hurtling towards Earth portends the end of the world as we know it. The filmmakers relished the chance to show off Knightley’s lighter side in this film. Producer Steve Golin enthuses, “Keira is a lot of fun to watch as Penny. She is well known for making movies set in different time periods, so playing a funny modern girl –– in sneakers! –– is a fresh turn for her.” Writer/director Scafaria agrees, noting that Knightley is “so damn funny” in the film. At the same time, Knightley fills out her character, making her both real and funny. Producer Mark Roybal points out, “There’s a profound depth Keira brings to Penny even when her character’s behavior is whimsical, spontaneous, or flighty. There’s a light in her eyes that reflects her inner light, which is why Penny is Dodge’s beacon.” This connection was not missed on critics. USA Today commended both Knightley and Carell: “If the performances of Steve Carell and Keira Knightley weren't so superb, director Lorene Scafaria's wryly funny screenplay might not have been enough to captivate audiences. But with their combined efforts, the tale of two ordinary people thrust into an extraordinary situation is wonderfully poetic, though still grounded in reality.”


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