Strangely, until quite recently, Knightley was in almost the opposite position—that of a sexy, beautiful movie star who, despite having worked steadily since she was seven, was widely underestimated as an actress. Just a few years ago, for instance, even with the success of 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham and 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean behind her, she had trouble convincing director John Maybury to let her audition for the lead in the 2005 thriller The Jacket. “He said to me very plainly, ‘I don’t think you can act. I don’t want you in this film,’” remembers Knightley. (She eventually got the role and held her own against costars Adrien Brody and Jennifer Jason Leigh.)
The actress found herself in the same situation the following year, when director Joe Wright got it in his head that she was too pretty to play Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice. “Funnily enough, he had the same reservations about her that I had initially,” says Maybury, who has since wrapped a second film with Knightley, The Edge of Love, written by her mother, Sharman Macdonald, and due out later this year. “I told him, director to director, that he’d be insane not to have her.” Knightley, of course, received a best actress Oscar nomination for the role, and Wright went on to cast her in his next film, Atonement.
Knightley insists that she never took the directors’ doubts about her personally. “I was already so aware that that was how everybody felt,” she says. “I think if you’re actually honest about it, then we can have a discussion, and I can actually do something. But if nothing is said, you’re going to go away with the same opinion, and I’m going to go away feeling s--- about myself.”
It’s a remarkably evolved attitude for someone so young, but having worked as an actress for a decade and a half, Knightley has developed showbiz survival tactics well beyond her years. Those who know her remark that she somehow skipped over the entitled-starlet phase entirely, to the point that even the most devoted tabloid reader would have a hard time coming up with a single diva moment or drunken scene reported in the gossip rags. “Her parents [Sharman Macdonald, an actress-turned-playwright, and Will Knightley, an actor] raised her with her roots in the earth,” says Gore Verbinksi, who directed her in all three Pirates films. “She doesn’t get caught up in all the hype. Even at 17 she was remarkably stable and confident.”
“From a very young age I realized that you didn’t get parts if you acted like a child,” says Knightley. “So even at seven I remember picking a way to behave, a way that worked. Though in my personal life I don’t think I’m particularly mature. I don’t particularly want to be mature!” Until recently, for example, her London apartment looked more like a college dorm than a movie star’s abode. “It always looked very transient,” she says. “We were sitting on folding chairs.”