Keira Knightley was. What a difference one breakout hit and one monster summer blockbuster can make. In Bend it Like Beckham, Knightley played Jules, a soccer player who befriended a young Indian girl named Jeff (Parminder Nagra) and convinced her that she could overcome her family’s restrictions and join the team. Beckham hit U.S. theaters in early 2003 and was soon followed by the runaway success of Pirates of the Caribbean, in which Knightley starred opposite Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. She capped a banner year in one of the shorts featured in the romantic comedy Love Actually.A year and a half ago, few people knew who
While all this was going down, Ms. Knightley says she was mostly oblivious, faraway atop a mountain, playing Guinevere in the historical legend of King Arthur. Now, as Arthur is about to hit screens, another potential summer blockbuster, she is officially a Hollywood star.
Knightley’s next project will be the drama The Jacket, followed by a new version of Pride and Prejudice. Those two films will likely be followed by a return to the land of ships and swashbuckling in two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
We were lucky enough to talk with the British beauty at the St. Regis hotel last week. And yes, guys, she looks just as good in person.
During the course of talking with the cast and crew associated with King Arthur, a lot has been made of Keira Knightley’s toughness, that she may have trained the hardest of anybody for the role. Knightley acknowledges the intense preparation: “Yeah, you scared? I just really enjoyed it. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to learn all those ridiculous skills like sword fighting and axe fighting and that kind of thing, so I just made the most of it and had a great time.”
Knightley admits that, despite what you saw in Bend it Like Beckham, she’s not exactly the greatest soccer player in England. Even with all the hard work she endured to prepare for that film, it was nothing compared to Arthur. “The thing about Bend it Like Beckham, which we did do about 20 weeks training, soccer training for that. I was still at school when I did it, so I was always playing sport anyway. I don’t train any more. I always love training for films, because you’ve got such a specific goal. As far as training in my own life, I just can’t motivate myself at all. For this, we really had to start from scratch, because I had never trained with my upper body at all, and suddenly, when I accepted the role, they said, ‘You really have to bulk up,’ because otherwise you simply wouldn’t believe that I could fight on equal standing with a man and come out all right. So, I did weight training, they got me a personal trainer straight off, and I did weight training and boxing with him. The weight training was pretty much three to four times a week about two hours a session. And then, on top of that I did archery and then knife fighting, axe fighting, and everything. Nearer the time shooting it, we were doing about seven hours a day of just training. And then on set, we had personal trainers and gyms and all the rest of it, so when we weren’t filming, we were in the gym, so it was very physical.”
As Arthur went into production, Pirates launched Knightley into stardom. Knightley says she was only vaguely aware of all that. “Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t come out until we were well into filming this, and it was very much a protective bubble. When it came out, I was halfway up a mountain just outside Dublin, so I wasn’t really aware of it.” Oblivious to her burgeoning star status, Knightley wasn’t even able to make the ridiculous demands expected of a Hollywood starlet. “I should’ve then, shouldn’t I? [She laughs.] Damn it, I missed an opportunity! It wasn’t until I stopped working about a month ago that I said, ‘Well, that was a bit strange.'”
Telling the tale of Arthur (Clive Owen), Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Guinevere involved taking on a story and characters about which many historians disagree. Director Antoine Fuqua and producer Jerry Bruckheimer even brought historians on board during the production. Through the course of it, Knightley has formed her own opinions: “For me, what we were trying to do, was find the reality behind everything. For Arthur, we’re saying, all right, he’s a Roman general. So, the whole Roman culture goes into his character. For Guinevere, we’re saying she’s a Pict or a Kelt. Now, they were both matriarchal societies, so she would have fought on equal standing with a man, if not been leading the men into battle. She’s living in an occupied nation, so she is, to all intents and purposes, a gorilla fighter. Between me and Antoine, we decided that probably she was somebody of pretty high standing within the community and, therefore, a leader in her own right.”
Legend has it that many of the Pict women took their archery so seriously that they would actually have their left breast removed in order to be a more effective warrior. “I don’t think that’s true, because, there isn’t any problem. The way you do it, even if you’re bigger than me, which isn’t very difficult to imagine, you’re still not going to have problems. So, I think it would be fine. One person said it and then I was talking to an archery historian [and] he said, ‘No, that could be myth.'”
The love story in the film is primarily between Arthur and Guinevere, but there does appear to be more than one not so subtle glance between Guinevere and Lancelot as well. When she gets put into the middle of this situation, they find her in a dungeon, and suddenly, she’s chucked into a group of people who, from probably the beginning of her life, she has been taught to hate and to try to kill. So I think, as a leader, she was trying to manipulate the situation to the best advantage for her. And, if that meant killing them all from the inside, then that’s what she was going to do. If that meant using her feminine wiles to manipulate the boys, then that’s what she’s going to do too. I think what she decides to do is go for Arthur and try and get him. The Lancelot theory is, I kind of thought that she absolutely knows that Arthur is the one to go for if she wants to gain as much as she can, so she’s making a beeline for Arthur. As far as Lancelot goes, they’re very, very similar. They’ve got a very similar temperament. They’re both very hot-headed. It’s almost like the traditional triangle, with Guinevere in the middle and Lancelot and Arthur on the outside. So, I think, naturally, there is a sexual attraction between Guinevere and Lancelot, but this is not a lady that will allow herself to go in that direction, because the other one is better for her.”
Now that the dust has cleared from Pirates and Knightley has returned to America, she is trying not to get caught up in all the hype. “To tell you the truth, how it’s changed is I’ve been working as an actress and I’ve been working a lot, so it’s certainly more than I ever thought I would work. And I do spend most of my time away from home on films in foreign countries, which is great and it’s very nomadic, and it’s sort of the way I like it, really. So, you know, that is definitely weird. Over the last couple of months, there have been more people recognizing me in the streets and things, which takes getting used to. But mostly, it’s just people coming up to you and saying they enjoy the films, and that’s why you make the films, so that’s cool.”
Trying not to sound too creepy, I asked Keira if she’s ever had fans approach her that took things too far. “I don’t have a scary one. Someone came up to me in the airport in Scotland when I went to film something and he went, ‘I’m really sorry. Can I kiss your cheek? I just might not get the opportunity again, so can I kiss your cheek?’ Lucky for that fan, Knightley actually let him. “Yeah, he was being nice.”
Another journalist points out that she might not want that story to get out. Looking at the sea of tape recorders in front of her, she realizes it’s probably too late. “Yeah, right. I know. That was really stupid,” she laughs.
So, after Arthur, what’s up next for Knightley? “I have a film coming out later this year, early next year, called Jacket, which is with Adrien Brody, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kris Kristofferson, which is really exciting. The Jacket is a psychological thriller. They said it’s a thinking man’s thriller, but it’s about a Gulf War veteran who gets put into a mental institute and tortured. He wears a straight jacket. And then I’m just about to go back and start filming Pride and Prejudice.”
Of course, the burning question is whether Knightley is planning to return for more sea-bound pirate adventures. “Yeah, I mean, we all had a fantastic time on the first one, so it would be wicked to do another one. I think we’d all definitely be up for it. I’d like to meet Keith Richards though (who is rumored to be in the sequels). Met Mick Jagger, along the Rolling Stones vibe. That was cool. But nothing… I haven’t heard anything. They’re working on the script.”
King Arthur opens Wednesday, July 7th.