But that changed at the beginning of last year, when Knightley took six months off between projects—the first proper break she’d had in five years. “It got to the point where you just get tired, and then you start to forget what you love about what you do,” she says. “I wanted to be able to say to my friends, ‘Yes, I will be there for your birthday.’ I was having that discombobulated feeling of being homesick but not knowing what I was homesick for.”
What she did during that half year off, she says, was “all the normal stuff: going to farmers’ markets, cooking, reading books.” And her most gratifying accomplishment was purchasing a sofa—“a big, huge, f----off thing that you sink into and never want to get out of. I never realized what a difference a couch could make!”
As stable as she might be, growing up in the spotlight has not been without its moments. The reed-thin Knightley has been widely criticized for her weight, with one British newspaper going so far as to run a photo of the actress in a bikini alongside an article about a teenager who’d died of anorexia. The headline was a quote from the girl’s mother: “If pictures like this one of Keira carried a health warning, my darling daughter might have lived.” Knightley, who has widely denied having an eating disorder and who, in person, looks the picture of health, sued the paper for libel and won.
“It’s like having piles of s--- put on your head,” Knightley says of the things written about her in years past, which, in addition to accusations of anorexia, included stories about her breaking the heart of her ex-boyfriend, model Jamie Dornan. “As a teenager you put enough on yourself. You’re a spotty emotional wreck whose body is changing, and you’re just not equipped to deal with that sort of thing.” The experience has left her cautious, to the point where she won’t even admit to her current relationship with Pride & Prejudice costar Rupert Friend—with whom she is often spotted around London—saying things to reporters like “I have no idea who that person is” when his name is brought up.
But these days the public seems less interested in her weight and her relationships than in her Oscar chances—though that kind of attention can also be tricky. When a movie has been hyped as aggressively as Atonement, with full-page “For Your Consideration” ads in Variety day after day, there is an enormous amount of expectation involved. (A week after this interview, the film was nominated for seven Golden Globes, with both Knightley and McAvoy singled out for acting.) When the topic of Oscar expectations arises, Knightley offers the usual demurrals. “If the film gets awards or anything, great, but if it doesn’t, it certainly doesn’t devalue the project,” she says. But she does admit that part of what made her last go-round on the award-show circuit so enjoyable was the fact that people had low expectations for Pride & Prejudice. “It was great fun, and it was partly great fun because I was absolutely certain that I wasn’t going to win, so it was just sort of going along for a jolly.”