She’s one of the most significant actresses of her generation, but motherhood might be Keira Knightley’s biggest challenge yet
Away from the spotlight, last year was a very big one for Keira Knightley. She recently became a mother to daughter Edie, an experience she has since described as being “f***ing extraordinary”, her film career has gone from strength to strength, and off the back of her Oscar-nominated performance in The Imitation Game, she is set to make her Broadway debut in a revival of Thérèse Raquin. She is understandably delighted with recent events, but humbly so, in that coy manner for which she is known. The girl who once played Sabé, the decoy queen to Natalie Portman’s Padmé Almidala in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, has grown up.
It is over a decade since Bend it like Beckham was released, and Knightley is finally being recognised for her excellent acting ability. From her role as Elizabeth Swann in The Pirates of the Caribbean series, which made her name global, to other flicks such as Love Actually in 2003, Pride and Prejudice in 2005, Atonement in 2007 and The Duchess in 2008. Her most recent release is biographical disaster drama Everest, in which she plays a small but key role as the pregnant wife of one of the guides who died on the tragic expedition.
Based on the true story of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster – in which eight people lost their lives after the mountain was engulfed by an unremitting blizzard – the film makes for a nail-biting drama and a heart-breaking finale. In the film, Knightley is Jan Hall, the wife of Rob Hall, a dedicated mountaineer who lost his life when he refused to abandon a fellow climber on the descent. Having met eachother on an Everest climb in 1990, Jan Hall was an equally experienced climber to her husband. Tragically, two months prior to losing Rob, Jan gave birth to their daughter Sarah. One particularly poignant scene shows a distressed Knightley talking over satellite phone to her onscreen husband as he struggles to battle the mountain’s blizzard.
I read several books about the climb and its impact on the survivors and it’s one of those terribly tragic stories which also says a great deal about the human spirit,”
I wanted to experience going on stage, performing live and being part of that world in every sense,” she says. “I was very attracted to the idea of being a part of this play, that is based on the novel by Emile Zola, which is a magnificent work.”
Explains Knightley, while we discussed how she prepared for the role. She also spent time with the real Jan Hall to ensure she told their story as acurately as possible: “Jan has climbed Everest seven times since and she’s such a wonderfully open and strong woman.”
Though most of the action in Everest takes place during the climb, the contrast between the men on the mountain and the quiet anxiety of Knightley’s portrayal of Jan Hall is what brings the reality of such a tragedy home. “Rob and Jan lived a very intense relationship and their love story is so beautiful and inspiring,” she says. “Those conversations they had are some of the most fundamental and dramatic scenes in the movie and it was such an important experience for me to be able to do them.”
While the story of Everest, and the role Knightley played, is truly sad, in real life she couldn’t be in a happier place. She married Klaxons musician James Righton in 2013, and claims it has settled her and given her unrivaled confidence in who she is and what she wants from life. A change from the deep anxiety she suffered from during her rise to fame in her twenties. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “It was hard for me to understand and make sense of everything that was going on. I lived for some years in between London, where I still live, and Los Angeles. During that time my life changed completely. It became a nightmare to even take a walk. People were screaming my name and I was constantly followed by photographers everywhere I went. Now I know how to handle those situations and I feel much more at ease with myself. It’s one of the positive sides of growing older and maturing in life.”
When we spoke, Knightley was living in New York with her husband and daughter while rehearsing for her first Broadway show, Thérèse Raquin, and she was adamant that London was still her home. She was in fact born in Teddington, Richmond upon Thames, to an actor-turned-playwright mother and an actor father. The legacy and close connection to the theatre set her on this path from the tender age of six, when she first signed with an agent.
After a small role in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, it was her part in the 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham that really grabbed the film industry and the public’s attention. Very soon she was lauded as the new ‘It Girl’ of Hollywood, and conseqentually film offers began pouring in, from Jane Austen’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, a performance which earned her first Academy Award nomination; to machine-gun-toting bounty hunter Domino Harvey in Domino. Despite her burgeoning acting career, Knightley has a reputation for shying away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. When she was dating Pride and Prejudice co-star Rupert Friend from 2005 to 2010, the pair were often photographed around London shielding themselves from the flash of the paparazzi camera.
Rarely seen on set without a book in her hands, Knightley is an avid reader and has a slew of authors who she follows “with a passion.” She also starts every day by reading a newspaper to make sure she is up to date on current affairs. Knightley has also become a fashion icon. She’s graced the cover of many magazines and is the face of Chanel’s fragrance, Mademoiselle. One of the most recent adverts sees Knightley zoom around Paris on a motorcycle in a beige Chanel jumpsuit.
She has jumped from the rigs of pirate ships and hunted dangerous criminals, but Keira Knightley is as human as the rest of us. As she prepares to grace Broadway in her inaugural performances, she is filled with nerves.