Dirty Pretty Thing
The Guardian, 30th August 2008
She wanted an agent at three, got one at six and was on telly by the age of 10. Now, as she takes on the role of Princess Diana's ancestor, she is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Just don't ask her how much she earns... Sam Wollaston spars with Keira Knightley
Maybe it's because we normally see her in pretty dresses and bonnets, speaking so exquisitely crisply, that it feels strange, paradoxical even, to be sworn at by Keira Knightley. Like a spurt of Special Brew from a fine Wedgwood teapot. Can she really have just told me to fuck off? When all I asked was who she went on holiday with?
But it's not long before the next one. In the hour I'm in Knightley's company, she tells me to fuck off six times. She uses the c-word, too. Sorry, yes, this is an 18-rated interview and contains strong language from the start - a bit late for that, I know...
Knightley has a new film out, about which more later. We are sitting in a posh London hotel where she drinks green tea, and sits, like a cat, in the middle of an impossibly plumped-up sofa cushion. There is something quite feline about Knightley. When we talk about her work, she purrs. No, not literally - that would be weird - but she speaks easily, and appears content and relaxed. When I attempt to steer the conversation towards her life outside work, the claws come out. In a very good-natured, playful way, it has to be said. At times the interview feels like a sparring match, and she gives as good as she gets, if not better. She's very entertaining company, and it's fun - trying to get under the guard of Keira Knightley.
This will sound like the tragic fantasy of a male journalist who has fallen under the spell of a very pretty young lady and somehow imagines he could be her friend, but although she does speak awful proper, there is something nicely unstarry about her. Perhaps it's being sworn at, but I'm finding it hard to remember that I am talking to the second highest-paid actress in Hollywood last year, although there seems be some debate about exactly how much she made.
"According to Forbes magazine, I earned 32 million last year," she says, though she can't remember if it's dollars or pounds (it's dollars).
Is that not true? "Unfortunately, no."
How much did you earn? "Fuck off."
She says that money is not important beyond being comfortable, that she owns her own flat "somewhere in London", and she mentions a new sofa. When I ask how much the sofa was, I get the inevitable (and probably well-deserved) "fuck off".
She doesn't want to talk about politics much, because she doesn't feel confident talking about it, though when I ask what she votes, she says, "My dad was a founder member of a leftwing theatre company, I went to a comprehensive - what do you think?"
Her father is an actor, her mother is a playwright, and young Keira was brought up in Teddington, west London. How posh does that make her, I wonder. "People from the Guardian and Observer always want to know that, it's weird," she replies. "Why are you so obsessed with poshness? Somebody from the Observer asked me why I don't have a cockney accent, seeing as I went to a comprehensive school."
It seems a reasonable question, so what's the answer? "Not everyone who goes to comprehensive school has a cockney accent. I think I probably did have more of an estuary accent. Coming from Teddington, it's more estuary. Cockney is more east London."
Do an estuary accent then. "No."
American then. "No."
Can she do an Indian accent? "Not today, no. Fuck off."
But she's an actor. "You're an actor, so act [Oi, she's stealing my lines]. Give me a script then."
The new film is called The Duchess, and Knightley is excellent in the lead. It's about a late-18th century "It girl" called Georgiana Spencer, Di's great-great-great-great aunt. There are obvious parallels between their two lives, though Knightley wasn't immediately stuck by them, mainly because, as she says, she was only 11 when Diana died (she's 23 now).
Georgiana marries a cold fish played, also excellently, by Ralph Fiennes, who is really, really horrid to her. It gets more complicated when Georgiana's best friend, Bess, moves in, and they live as a joyless ménage à trois. Georgiana finds some solace in an affair with young politician Charles Grey, but has to stop seeing him in order not to lose contact with her children. It's a story of female repression, but also of female strength and survival. It's also a story about public adoration versus private misery (see what I mean about those parallels?).
Even though Knightley is too young for Diana to have made much of an impact on her life, the difference between a person's public facade and what's going on inside is something that seems to preoccupy her. "The way you can have extremely strong people who actually in private are completely breaking down. Everyone does it - presents a front that is actually... No one can ever know what's going on emotionally inside."
Is there anything of this, of Georgiana, in her? "Am I very lonely, and terribly trapped, and all the rest of it? No, I don't particularly look for characters that are like some kind of biography of myself, no."
It's a role she didn't find easy. "I wasn't particularly confident about it, which I think actually helped - because I don't think that confidence is always a very helpful thing. I really found it very difficult to get a grasp of her."
This lack of confidence is something that seems to lurk beneath the alabaster facade. When I ask if she thinks she'll win an Oscar for this role, as well as saying she doesn't think she will because it's what's known as a "big year" in the business, she also says, "I'd probably shit myself if I had to give a speech."
Is she often unconfident about her parts? "There's always an element of fear that you're not going to be able to make people believe in the fiction, that suddenly you're going to be standing there in your dress and wig, and feel like a complete wanker. Which is not particularly helpful."
It is not surprising that she mentions wigs and dresses, because a role for Knightley generally involves her putting on one, or both, of those. This has happened by accident rather than by design, she says. "I think I've simply read better characters in period pieces than I have in contemporary, which is a pity. I don't know why that is. But I haven't been kind of going, 'I really want to do another period film.' I've just been led by what scripts I've thought were good, and what film-makers I thought were good."
Knightley knew she wanted to act pretty much from the moment she knew anything at all. Famously, she wanted an agent at three, got one at six, and was making TV appearances by the age of 10. Her big breakthrough was the low-budget British film Bend It Like Beckham in 2002, after which she found herself alongside Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp in camp, big-budget action blockbuster Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl. Suddenly, the skinny little girl from Teddington was a major, if unlikely, Hollywood star.
While it may be the Pirates franchise that has brought in those millions (however many there are), Knightley is more serious about acting than to be happy simply being a damsel in distress. She's done the odd thriller and action film, which have slipped by comparatively unnoticed, but it's with country houses and the past that she is most associated - Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, now The Duchess. It's what Britain exports well, she says, and it isn't hard to find modern relevance under a bonnet. "I don't think we've really changed that much in our essence."
I'm wondering if that's it, and whether we've seen the full range yet. "Of?"
You. "As an actress? I hope not. It would be quite sad if I said yes. I've only been making films for the past five years. You change as a person all the time. And so therefore the way you perceive the world and situations, and the way you portray characters, is going to change. I think that's the aim."
Critics of Knightley say she is wooden and expressionless, though they've been less vociferous since Pride & Prejudice and Atonement. But the criticism is not just about her acting - she seems to generate more loathing, almost exclusively from women, than any actor deserves. I've brought along an example, a newspaper column (OK, it's from the Guardian). "Oh great," she says. "You're not actually going to quote me something really shitty that someone's said, are you?" Well, I wouldn't have, but she's been so totally cool, and unfazed, and also to show that I haven't fallen totally under the pretty-lady spell, so yes, I am...
"If you want to befriend a woman, ask her the question, 'What do you think of Keira Knightley?' In the resulting torrent of bile and loathing, you will bond."
"Well, I'm doing a good thing for women all over the country, then," she says. "I think that's a very positive thing."
Why do so many women hate you? "I don't know," she sighs. "Maybe you should ask the woman who wrote it. I think if you put yourself in the public forum, then that's what you put yourself up for, I guess. I don't think I need to read it. I have friends."
Who likes you? "I'm a shit person and no one likes me," she says. "I'm an absolute cunt."
It's quite shocking. Also very funny. Sarcasm is probably the best possible way to respond to what I've just read to her. Again, she wins the point. (And, to be fair, the columnist goes on to admit that Knightley can act. And the real reason that she - and a lot of others - hate her is that she is thin.)
"I think manipulation is something that women do a lot, it's still our number one problem," she says. "You look at those characters [in The Duchess] - Georgiana and Bess - and they're hugely trying to outmanoeuvre each other, but I think it's also possible for intense love affairs to happen between women - not necessarily sexual, but things can obviously take a sexual turn. Women do get obsessed with other women - whether they love them or hate them, and I think that line is very easy to cross."
The anorexia thing is perhaps the only one that does get Knightley's goat, in public, anyway (Lord knows what gets her private goat). Last year she sued the Daily Mail over suggestions that she'd lied about being anorexic. The paper ran a picture of her alongside a story about a girl who died of the disorder. "Someone saying you have a mental illness is obviously rather difficult to take, and particularly when they're blaming you for killing someone," she says. "I am skinny. I've always been skinny."
There is one "exia" she does admit to, however: dyslexia. She was slow to learn to read, got letters and numbers the wrong way round, and was diagnosed when she was six. Through support and tutors, and lots of help from her mum, she largely overcame it, and by the time she went to secondary school she didn't need extra help, or more time in exams or anything like that.
She admits she's still a crap speller, though. So I ask her to spell February. "You can't do that to somebody," she says (and it occurs to me that challenging someone who has just told you they are dyslexic to spell something is perhaps a bit wrong). But she spells it, correctly, though she makes the sounds of the letters rather than saying their names, much as a child would. Licence next. "Are we actually going to do a spelling test?" she asks, then puts her foot down. "I'm not going to."
She regrets not having been to university, has even said she would like to go some time. But that's not really going to happen, is it? It would be a bit hard, for a movie star, freshers' week and all that? "Right now, it would be hard, yes. I could do Open University." She's not sure what she'd study, though - for the time being, she's happy with what she's doing. And at the moment, she says, she's not doing much. There's a possibility of playing Cordelia in a new King Lear film, but she's not sure whether or not that will happen. For the time being she's unemployed.
What does it involve, being an unemployed movie star? What does she do? Well, yesterday she read a book - Emma's War, by Deborah Scroggins, about a woman who goes to Sudan and falls in love with a military leader there. And she watched a lot of The Wire. And in the evening she got an Indian takeaway - chicken tikka jalfrezi and dhingri mutter - peas and mushrooms. Mmmm. Washed down with a bottle of Cobra. While watching more of The Wire, which is "absolutely brilliant".
Alone, were you? "Fuck off," she says.