Keira Knightley was born on the 26th of March 1985 , in Teddington, south-west London. Her father is stage actor Will Knightley, who’d make the occasional foray into television, such as starring as ‘Mr Glegg’ in the BBC’s 1997 production of ‘The Mill On The Floss’. Her Ayrshire-born mother, Sharman MacDonald, had also been a stage and TV actress, she then took up playwriting, and has even had a BBC documentary made about her called ‘Mindscape’. She also has a brother, Caleb, who teaches underprivileged child music.
As a child, Keira saw that her mother and father received calls from their agents, and quickly demanded that she wanted an agent as well, of course she was politely refused, but Keira was insistent, and when she was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of six, her mother made her a deal, if she studied her maths and English for one hour everyday during the summer holidays, she would get her an agent.
To Sharman’s surprise, the child complied and then forced her mother to keep to the bargain. And At age 7, Keira filmed her TV debut, ‘Royal Celebration’, concerning the complicated lives and loves in a London square at the time of Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana Spencer and featuring the likes of Kenneth Cranham, Minnie Driver and Rupert Graves.
Fearing their daughter would begin to neglect her schoolwork – a potential disaster for a dyslexic – Keira’s parents told her she could only pursue her new career during the summer holidays. So, throughout the mid-Nineties, she did just that. 1994 brought a minor role in Joanna Trollope’s controversial drama ‘A Village Affair’, featuring a lesbian relationship between Sophie Ward and Kerry Fox. Yet again Keira found herself amidst a heavy-duty cast, including Claire Bloom and Jeremy Northam.
1995 brought ‘Innocent Lies’, set in 1938, where an aristocratic family in a small seaside town are suspected of complicity in a murder. Joanna Lumley played the Nazi-supporting matriarch, while daughter Gabrielle Anwar and son Stephen Dorff hid some terrible secret – Keira playing the young Anwar in flashback.
The next year saw another period drama in E. Nesbit’s ‘Treasure Seekers’ where a poor widowered inventor worked on a breakthrough in refrigeration while his five kids tried to help – Keira playing The Princess, a neat presaging of what was soon to come.
Meanwhile, Keira’s education continued at Teddington School , a classy and well-funded establishment thats’ grounds extended to the banks of the Thames , where it had its own slipway for launching boats. With 10 science laboratories, a TV studio and a Music and Drama block it offered great opportunities. Through her early teens Keira would make the most of her spare time, too, attending drama workshops at the nearby Heatham House youth club. This was an extremely forward-looking club, established some 50 years before, where artists, musicians, dramatists and youth workers would teach kids such fun subjects as photography, football, DJ-ing, breakdancing, skateboarding and acting. This was where Keira would gain most of her early acting experience.
Keira did not equate acting with fame or big bucks. Due to her parents’ efforts and lifestyle, she saw it simply as a job that needed to be learned.
While still at Teddington School , Keira received a most extraordinary offer – to play a handmaiden of Natalie Portman ‘s, Queen Amidala, in the forthcoming ‘The Phantom Menace’, part one of the Star Wars saga and perhaps the most hotly anticipated movie in history. In fact, as the plot required her to dress as Portman and thus act as a decoy, she would, to all intents and purposes, be appearing AS Queen Amidala. Trouble was, with George Lucas keeping his cards so close to his chest, this plot-twist, and thus Keira’s presence in the movie, was kept absolutely secret. She was, therefore, perhaps the only actress ever to not have her career boosted by a prime role in one of the biggest hits ever.
As said, fame was not really the point for Keira, and her next role was a satisfying one. It came at a good time, too. Upset at school due to a constant breaking up with friends mostly caused by her work, things had got so bad that a week before her 13th birthday her mother had allowed her to have her belly-button pierced – just to cheer her up. What cheered her more, though, was a part in Alan Bleasdale’s adaptation of ‘Oliver Twist’, a work that courageously stretched beyond Dickens’ work to enrich the characters and story. Here Keira played the young aunt of Oliver who, along with kindly executor Mr Brownlow, tries to protect the boy from his homicidal half-brother and, of course, the manipulative Fagin.
Now the offers of work were coming in thick and fast. 2001 saw her star in the Disney-backed TV production ‘Princess Of Thieves’ where she played Gwynn, daughter of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, who, despite her father’s promise to her dying mother, has secretly become an adept at archery and horse-riding. This proves helpful when Robin is imprisoned by the Sheriff of Nottingham (Malcolm McDowell) and attempts are made to assassinate Philip, the rightful heir to the throne. Only Gwynn and her dopey sidekick Froderick (who loves her on the quiet) stand between England and disaster.
It was an endearing romp and her first starring role . It also introduced her to actor Del Synnott who played Froderick and would go on to star in the TV series ‘Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels’ and play D.S Carter in ‘Murphy’s Law’. The couple would still be seeing each other when Keira struck gold in 2003.
Immediately after ‘Princess Of Thieves’ came another venture onto the big screen with the Brit horror flick ‘The Hole’. Here, alongside Thora Birch, Keira played one of four public schoolkids who are trapped for 2 weeks in a deep cavity originally intended as a bomb shelter. Keira’s character, Frankie, is blonde, charismatic and bitchy, going topless in her more lusty moments (a tad dodgy this as Keira was only just 16 when the movie was released). And all ends bloodily as The Hole reveals itself to be a cross between ‘The Breakfast Club’ and ‘Lord Of The Flies’, the excellent Embeth Davidtz playing the psychologist who must unravel the truth behind the unholy mess. Though not a hit itself, the movie would bring Keira to the attention of the makers of both ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’.
Naturally, her education had to continue and, after filming the short ‘Deflation’ (directed by Roger Ashton-Griffiths). Knightley sat for her GCSEs while in the middle of shooting ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, even during her busy schedule she still mangaed to achieve 6 A-grades . Soon the schedule would be too much to bear. Having started her A-levels at her local Esher College , where she studied Art, English Literature, History and Classical Civilisations, she dropped out during the first year, in order to take on Gillies MacKinnon’s Pure and the major miniseries ‘Dr Zhivago’.
First though came ‘Bend It Like Beckham’. In which a young Asian girl dreams of playing football for England but is dissuaded by her disapproving parents. That is, until she’s spotted playing in the park by Keira, a star of semi-pro girls’ team the Hounslow Harriers. So she joins up and begins to live her dream, though there’s trouble when both she and Keira fall for coach Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.
The movie was a real charmer and a major British success. Keira stood out as the tomboy Juliette Paxton, both in the scenes with her mother Juliet Stevenson, who attempts to make her wear a Wonderbra, and in the action sequences. For these she’d trained hard, at points with Simon Clifford, a coach of some renown who’d worked with Manchester United and with a young Michael Owen. Indeed, Clifford claimed that Knightley had picked up some aspects of the game quicker than Owen had (though of course she lacked his searing pace and unscrupulous penalty-winning techniques). The performance would win her the Best Newcomer Award from the London Critics Circle in 2003.
But 2002 wasn’t finished yet. After joining Synnott (who’d also appeared with her in Deflation) with a brief role in the silly comedy ‘Thunderpants’, where a grossly flatulent schoolboy is hired by NASA, she moved on to ‘Pure’. This saw Molly Parker as a young mother trying to bring up a 10-year-old boy while struggling with heroin addiction on an east London council estate. He’s befriended by Keira, the worldly-wise waitress at the local café who understands his situation but cannot prevent her own slide into addiction and prostitution. Depressing stuff, but well played.
It was time for yet another period drama, this time a “sexed-up” remake of David Lean’s ‘Dr Zhivago’. Here Keira took on the role of Lara Antipova, a brave move considering she had to follow the character from the age of 16 to 32, as well as match the original enigmatic performance of Julie Christie. Not easy, given that, amidst the turbulence of the Russian revolution, she must represent Russia itself as she’s abused and pursued by a series of men, including Hans Matheson’s ‘Zhivago’ and Sam Neill ‘s ‘Komarovsky’. For the second time Keira engaged in on-screen steaminess (the part had actually been turned down by singer Andrea Corr due to the excessive nudity), stating categorically that it was all part of the job.
Heavily advertised, ‘Dr Zhivago’ was Knightley’s breakthrough in the UK . And she enjoyed the experience throughout. Filming for three months in Slovakia and Prague, she’d had her own flat for the first time and, being as the flat was in the red light area, was pleasantly intrigued by the sleazy freedom of the dirty video shop on the corner, the prostitute who worked the turf outside her window, and the constant sex in the nearby bushes. You don’t get that in Richmond .
She followed ‘Dr Zhivago’ with three shorts. The first, ‘The Seasons Alter’, was an interpretation of Titania’s famous “weather” speech in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ with Keira delivering an extract alongside Cherie Lunghi’s Titania and Lloyd Owen’s Oberon. Then there’d be ‘New Year’s Eve’, about a posh party where a fellow chats up Keira, thinking she’s a respectable seventeen, only for trouble to brew when it’s revealed that she’s dangerously younger. Then there was the animated Gaijin, where she performed several roles, one being a British student who, unable to make friends in Tokyo , tries to program her robot to play Japanese music, only for the robot to cause more problems.
Now came Keira’s big year. In 2003’s ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl’ she played Elizabeth Swann, daughter of British governor Jonathan Pryce, who’s kidnapped by Geoffrey Rush , an undead buccaneer needing her blood to find redemption. Pursued by her wannabe lover Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp ‘s camp and hilarious Jack Sparrow, she remained feisty to the last, even when walking the plank.
Despite fears that the movie would follow Cutthroat Island down to Davy Jones’ Locker, it performed exceptionally well, quickly rising over the $200 million mark in the US . At the same time, ‘Bend It Like Beckham’, taking advantage of Keira’s newfound kudos, had its release widened from 119 veues to 990, its take instantly rising to $28.3 million (not bad on a budget of $4.5 million) with plenty more to come. Keira, who’d turned 18 just after the Pirates shoot ended, was now A-list and a bona fide cover girl. After all, as critic AA Gill had put it, “the camera just licks Keira’s face like an enraptured dog”. Plans would immediately be put in place for Pirates 2.
After Pirates would come ‘Love, Actually’, which intertwined ten tales of love, featuring such luminaries as Hugh Grant , Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, and Alan Rickman . Knightley claimed to have been continuously star-struck on-set and, for once acting her age, said she was less impressed by the major league thespians Rickman and Leeson than by former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon. There’d be further exposure when she became the new face of both luxury goods firm Asprey and the British Dyslexia Association.
After this, it was off to Ireland to play Guinevere opposite Clive Owen ‘s titular regent in ‘King Arthur’, like Pirates a Jerry Bruckheimer production. This would claim to be more of a historical document than another stab at the Arthurian myth, with Arthur as a Roman general at the time of the Empire’s downfall. Well, Hollywood knows best. Keira’s Guinevere would be a member of British royalty, a woad-smeared warrior princess who joins forces with Arthur against the invading Saxon hordes.
It is an extraordinary success story. This dyslexic kid with no formal training had suddenly conquered Hollywood . And, with the films she has in production, it seems she’ll be at the top for some considerable time to come.