Keira Knightley Speaks Out About Her Mental Breakdown and the “Violence” of Early-2000s Paparazzi

“There was a sense of battle every day, leaving the house,” the 33-year-old actor says in a new interview.

Keira Knightley
Juergen Teller

As much as tabloids of any era have made a trade of dragging women through hell, this was perhaps especially true of the mid-aughts, which saw the 2004 release of Lindsay Lohan’s “Rumors,” the 2007 breakdown of Britney Spears, and the ongoing exploits and subsequent breakup of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The actor Keira Knightley, whose celebrity was on the rise thanks to a spate of films including Pirates of the Caribbean, Bend It Like Beckham, Love, Actually, and, eventually, Atonement, also frequently found herself in their crosshairs.

Knightley opened up about the “mental breakdown” precipitated by her early success in a new interview on The Hollywood Reporter’s “Awards Chatter” podcast. Though she delivered excellent performances across a variety of genres, her confidence was shaken because reviews tended to focus on her looks, and, as she put it, “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 said. “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 though she felt “worthless,” she said, she was also regularly followed by hordes of paparazzi—as many as 20, per the new interview—whose business was documenting “women falling apart,” she said. “It was big business.”

Tabloid readers and consumers of pop culture “wanted them to be sexy, but you wanted to punish them for that sexuality,” Knightley explained. The money really lay in documenting the ugliness, for the paparazzi, so if their targets weren’t already “breaking down in front of them,” the photographers would frequently push them to the precipice of breakdown.

“Suddenly, there was a level of violence, it felt, in the air,” the actor said.

She pushed back—“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, an ‘I’m not gonna give you what you want.’ So there was a sense of battle every day, leaving the house,” she explained. (She also described herself as “the female version of an angry young man.”) In order to attend the BAFTAs for Atonement, for which she was nominated for best lead actress, she had to undergo hypnotherapy “so that I could stand on the red carpet,” she said, “and not have a panic attack.”

Knightley was not nominated for an Academy Award for that film, and while that particular news might have been met with disappointment by many, Knightley says her team actually congratulated her, because it meant she wouldn’t have to walk another red carpet for the film.

By 22, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the pressure of her career and the attending press coverage. She took a year off, but, as evidenced in her Sundance-premiering latest effort, Colette, that hasn’t slowed her down. “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,” she said. “I’m in a good place, where I feel pretty confident about what I can do.”