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“I can really enjoy things now,” says Keira Knightley with a smile as we record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. The British actress is only 33, but she has been an A-list star for 15 years now, ever since she burst onto the scene in Bend It Like Beckham, The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Love, Actually — all within one year. However, as the two-time acting Oscar nominee (Pride & Prejudice and The Imitation Game) and two-time star of a best picture Oscar nominee (Atonement and The Imitation Game) discusses more candidly than ever before, many of those years were deeply painful for her, and it has been a long journey for her to get to where she is today. Knightley, who is back in awards contention this year for Wash Westmoreland‘s Colette, a film about the creative and sexual awakening of the trailblazing French author of the same name, continues, “I look back and I just sort of want to give myself a hug and be like, ‘Oh, you’re doing alright, you’ll be alright.’ You know?”
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LISTEN: You can hear the full interview below.
Click here to access our past episodes, including conversations with Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, Justin Timberlake, Gal Gadot, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Warren Beatty, Barbra Streisand, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Kate Winslet, Aaron Sorkin, Carol Burnett, Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ryan Murphy, Natalie Portman, Jimmy Kimmel, Nicole Kidman, Chadwick Boseman, Reese Witherspoon, Ricky Gervais, Amy Schumer, Eddie Murphy, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Emma Stone, Jerry Seinfeld, Emilia Clarke, J.J. Abrams, Kris Jenner, Jimmy Fallon, Rachel Brosnahan, Michael Moore, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Margot Robbie, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lady Gaga, Bill Maher, Jennifer Lopez, Tom Hanks, Judi Dench & Aziz Ansari.
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Knightley, born and raised in a suburb of London, is the daughter of two left-leaning artists (her mother is a writer and her father is an actor). A precocious youngster who overcame dyslexia and always loved to perform, she declared her desire for an agent like her parents’ at age three — and got one by six, leading to small parts in TV dramas throughout her childhood. Her first substantial part, in the 1998 TV miniseries Coming Home, convinced her she had chosen the right career path. The opportunity to play Natalie Portman‘s double in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace introduced her to the big time. She left school at 17 to star in the 2002 TV miniseries Doctor Zhivago, never to return. And then, not long after that, she was invited to audition for Gurinder Chadha‘s Bend It Like Beckham (2002), which proved an indie breakout and started her on the path to stardom, followed quickly by the initial big-budget Pirates film and Richard Curtis‘ directorial debut Love, Actually.
“That run of films was completely insane,” Knightley acknowledges, while also noting that most reviews referred to her looks, but questioned her acting chops, which rocked her self-confidence. “It’s amazing looking back at it from the outside — you’re like, ‘Woah, that was hit after hit after hit!’ But, from the inside, all you’re hearing is the criticism, really. And, also, I was aware that I didn’t know what I was doing, you know? I didn’t know my trade, I didn’t know my craft. I knew that there was something that worked sometimes, but I didn’t know how to capture that.” She next appeared in several other genre movies — among them, 2004’s King Arthur (reuniting with Pirates producer Jerry Bruckheimer) and 2005’s The Jacket (her first time performing with American accent) and Domino (she loved doing action sequences). But, she emphasizes, “I literally felt like I was worthless.”
Compounding the problem was Knightley’s growing celebrity, which resulted in as many as 20 paparazzi following — and baiting — her wherever she went. “It was big money to get pictures of women falling apart,” she explains, “because you [consumers] wanted them to be sexy, but you wanted to punish them for that sexuality,” adding, “If you [female stars] weren’t breaking down in front of them, then it was worth their while to make you break down in front of them.” She continues, “So suddenly there was a level of violence, it felt, in the air, that is not a thing that anybody would react to well… I think I’ve always had a ‘fuck-you button,’ and it was so obvious that they wanted me to fall, and I had such, like, a ‘I’m not gonna give you what you want.’ So there was a sense of battle every day leaving the house.”
Knightley’s tormentors made it difficult for her to enjoy even her greatest successes. At 19, after her dad, the actor, took her through the basics of Stanislavsky — the only acting lesson she had ever had — she starred in Joe Wright‘s directorial debut Pride & Prejudice (2005), garnering rave reviews and newfound respect, and becoming the third-youngest best actress Oscar nominee (now the fifth-youngest) in history. “It was still very confusing,” she says, “because you’re getting all these nominations for all of these things, but press-wise, when I’m going into interviews, people are still saying, ‘Everybody thinks you’re shit,’ or focusing on your looks, or focusing on what’s wrong with you. And, again, I was 19 [actually 20 when nominated] — you can only hear the negative stuff.” She adds, “I felt pretty much like actually I didn’t exist and I was this weird creature with this weird face that people seemed to respond to in quite an extreme way, and I couldn’t quite figure any of it out.”
Despite Knightley’s personal turmoil — “For five years I’d been battling,” she says, adding, “I think I was the female version of an angry young man” — her work was never less than stellar. She reunited with Wright on Atonement (2007) and teamed up with Saul Dibb on The Duchess (2008), two more acclaimed period piece dramas. But, she says of the making of the latter, “That’s when I felt I was sinking… my crash came just after that.” The Duchess was in the can when Atonement began making its way through awards season. She recounts, “I hadn’t been out of the house for three months when the BAFTA nomination [for her performance in Atonement] happened, and I remember having conversations with my agent and going, ‘I can’t get there,’ and everyone going, ‘If you don’t get to the BAFTAs, the heat on you is going to be ten times more.’ So I actually did hypnotherapy so that I could stand on the red carpet at the BAFTAs and not have a panic attack.” When she didn’t get an Oscar nomination, she adds, members of her team called her up to congratulate her since she wouldn’t have to go through the stress of another red carpet. “And that was literally the moment that I sprinted and went,” she says.
Knightley elaborates: “I did have a mental breakdown at 22, so I did take a year off there and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of all of that stuff. I went deep into therapy and all of that, and she [the therapist] said, ‘It’s amazing — I normally come in here and have people that think people are talking about them and they think that they’re being followed, but actually they’re not. You’re the first person that actually that is happening to!'” After spending what Knightley calls “one of the most important years of my life” on the road, the actress returned to work — as she puts it, “I felt better — I felt really good — and suddenly didn’t care [about the views of others].” Her return began with the 2010 film Last Night, followed by her West End debut in a production of The Misanthrope (through which she realized she had long been battling — and learned to overcome — stage fright). And then began a streak of remarkable screen performances that extends through the present.
This run has included Never Let Me Go (2010), a film about clones which reunited her with her Pride & Prejudice costar and close friend Carey Mulligan; David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method (2011), in which, as a hysterical mental patient who came between Jung and Freud, she gave her “most physical” performance (“I wanted to fuck up that [her own] face”); a stylized version of Anna Karenina (2012), marking her third collaboration with Wright; John Carney‘s Begin Again (2013), a rare contemporary and upbeat entry on her filmography (and also “the first time I hadn’t gotten on with a director… one of the most difficult experiences that I’ve had making a film”); The Imitation Game (2013), a film distributed by Harvey Weinstein (“I’d heard that he was an asshole and that he was a bully and that he screamed a lot and liked phoning people up in the middle of the night, so I always made sure that my phone was off and I never had a meeting alone with him — I knew about that. But fuck no I didn’t know that he was raping people — I mean, Jesus Christ'”). That same year, she married the musician James Righton, and, in 2015, they became the parents of a baby girl.
Now comes Colette, a period piece costume drama, like so many of the films in which Knightley has shined, but this one shot over just seven weeks in sweltering heat and calling on the actress to draw upon everything she has learned up to this point. Now, more than ever, she was ready to play a woman who faced abuse but who, through talent and will-power, overcame it and got the last laugh. Indeed, most reviews of the film — which had its world premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival, screened again at September’s Toronto International Film Festival and began rolling out in the U.S. on Sept. 21 — find it to be very good, and her performance the best thing about it. It’s a nice moment for Knightley, coming through the storm. “I think the main thing that I’m very proud of myself for,” she says, “is I learned my trade. I did it very publicly, but I have learned my trade, and technically, whatever you need me to do, I can deliver it. I want to get better and I’m not saying that there’s not a ways to go — I want to keep learning and keep pushing myself — but I’m in a good place where I feel pretty confident about what I can do.”
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