“The whole period between 19 and 23 is a big blur” – Keira Knightley
You think you know what you’ll get when you meet Keira Knightley. After all, we’ve watched her grow up in front of our eyes, as she marked her teenage years with one movie hit after another; Bend it Like Beckham at 16, Pirates of the Caribbean and Love Actually at 17 and Pride and Prejudice aged 19. I was fully prepared for a quintessentially British, plummy-voiced actress, whose perceived ambition and determination has made her a Hollywood A-Lister. So it was enlightening to hear her answer when I ask if global stardom had always been the plan, and she replies, “F*ck, no!”
The juxtaposition between what I’m expecting from this vision in an aquamarine taffeta dress (“it’s not mine”), and what I get, is refreshing in the extreme, and may go some way to explain her success as an actor.
For someone who’s never had ‘drive’, Keira hasn’t done too badly for herself. “I’m very much of the type that lets life happen to me, rather than plan ahead,” she admits. “And that has been the case for my entire adult life, professionally and personally. I don’t like thinking about or planning films in advance, I don’t like booking myself up and knowing where I’m going to be. The idea of having a plan makes me feel quite anxious and very claustrophobic.” In spite of this, having demanded her parents get her an agent, Keira has been acting since she was six years old – and for the most part, it’s made her happy.
But what she hadn’t anticipated was the meteoric rise to fame that her early success brought about.
LIFE THROUGH A LENS
“I was at a time in my life when I was still becoming,” she explains. “Like most young people, I hadn’t quite found who I was or what I was about. My body was changing, and I didn’t even know how I felt about myself and what I looked like. Yet all of a sudden, people were being very vocal with their views on me as a young woman and as an actress. I lost confidence in myself because I was made to feel that I didn’t deserve to be doing what I was doing.”
Having been immersed in such intense circumstances, where the media were following her every move, Keira admits she found it very difficult to cope. “Looking back, that whole period between 19 and 23 is a big blur. I don’t remember it in a linear way because I think my coping mechanisms were kicking in and shutting a lot of it out.”
But Keira’s autopilot could only take her so far before the situation became untenable. “My world crashed when I was 22,” she says. “Everything stopped working and I felt as if I was broken into tiny pieces; as if my brain was literally shattered.”
In the midst of a mental breakdown and unable to work, Keira remembers taking flight in the middle of the night to get away. “I just took a year out, travelling around,” she says. “There was a very big question mark over whether I was ever going to go back to work, but I’ve always loved acting; it’s just everything else that comes with it that I was struggling with.”
In order to be able to return to the spotlight, Keira underwent therapy, and something her therapist said made Keira stop and think: “She said, ‘a lot of people come to see me because they think people are talking about them and following them, and they’re not. But with you, they are talking about you and they are following you, so you’re reacting to something that is very real and very difficult to deal with.’ Hearing her say that really helped me.”
But there was still a long way to go and by the time Keira was nominated for a BAFTA for Atonement in 2008, she hadn’t left the house for three months. “There was no way
I was going to be able to get on the red carpet without having a f*cking panic attack,” she remembers. “So I had hypnotherapy and it worked. Thankfully, I haven’t had that feeling for a long time.”
HER NEXT CHAPTER
The challenges she faces now are brought about by being a mother to a toddler, rather than being chased by the paparazzi. “There’s nothing sexy about trying to control a three-year-old,” she laughs. “So I’m pretty much left alone now.” Although that isn’t to say that motherhood is any less demanding. “I don’t think we give women enough credit for the physical and emotional marathon they go through when becoming a mother,” she says. “I come from a place of amazing privilege. I have an incredible support system; I’ve been unbelievably lucky in my career; I can afford good childcare, and yet I still find it really f*cking difficult. It’s OK to say that. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my kid, it’s just me admitting that the sleep deprivation, the hormonal changes, the shift in relationship with my partner, are all things that make me feel as if I’m failing on a daily basis. I have to remind myself that I haven’t failed, I’m just doing what I can do, but it’s not easy.”
The thought of being a slave to routine when her daughter starts school next year sends Keira into a tailspin, so she’s over- compensating by working extra hard now. Her new film, Colette, is the true story of a trailblazing French author of the late 1800s. “Colette pushed the boundaries in every respect,” says Keira. “Gender politics, sexual awakening, and feminism are all topics that are raised, and as an actor with a public platform, I feel I have a responsibility to help create a world that is more equal. We live in a male- dominated society and it can only be helpful to talk about a woman’s whole experience, as opposed to the very fine line of femininity that we normally see in our culture.”
A PLACE OF STRENGTH
Thankfully, now, when Keira is on a film set, she feels she can go toe-to-toe with the best of them. “I have a sense of self now that I didn’t have when I was younger,” she says. “I’ve found my place in the world and carved out the person I’m comfortable being, so I’m pretty confident that I can give anyone a f*cking good run for their money.”
Though saying that, she’s aware that another wave can come crashing down on her at any time. “Nobody can predict how they’re going to react to life, but the positive that came from my breakdown is that I was able to come out the other side. I know that just because today feels like a mountain, it doesn’t mean that tomorrow will. My mother used to say to me when I was little, ‘There are two options in life: you can either sink or swim.’ Sinking isn’t a remote possibility, so I’m just going to keep swimming.”
Keira’s new film, Colette, is in cinemas nationwide on January 11