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Keira Knightley – Dual Identities

Updated: May 7, 2023

Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice.”



by Brad Balfour

Though she could easily coast on her adorable smile and refined good looks, twenty-year-old British actress Keira Knightley likes challenges. Within the space of a few days she had to shift from playing the brainy yet biting heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in the 18th century period drama Pride and Prejudice to the close-cropped gun toting bounty hunter Domino Harvey.

And within a matter of months, she will be finishing the two sequels to Pirates of the Caribbean. But right now, she is happily focused on preparing for Oscar night as a Best Actress nominee.

Did you see something of Elizabeth Bennet in yourself?

Yeah, It’s impossible not to and it’s partly because she’s a character that – I’m making a huge generalization here – I’m assuming every woman wants to be, which is this incredibly passionate, clever, witty, intelligent, just amazing being, but also sometimes, that she is so annoying you want to kick her up the ass and tell her to sort it out. So, she’s really flawed, and you can imagine her going into a room and being slightly nervous about it and thinking, “Oh, I feel really stupid right now,” and that’s a very human characteristic. So, when people read the book, and hopefully, when they see the film, they will see aspects of themselves in that character. Which is what’s so brilliant about Jane Austen, that you see yourself in all her characters. Strong women.

In a way, that’s what connects this character to that of Domino Harvey. Did this precede your work in Domino?

Yeah, I finished this and then had four days and went on to Domino.

What helped you make that transition?

I cut my hair off. It was weird, because I was on the last third of Pride and Prejudice, [director] Tony Scott started calling, trying to talk about Domino. Domino has a crazy script anyway, so it’s difficult at the best of times to get your head into that, but even more difficult when your head is so far into Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth Bennet, it’s impossible, so I couldn’t talk to him, and I was getting so freaked out, that I wouldn’t be able to make the transition in time. I literally – we worked six days a week on this, so on one weekend that I had, and the one day I had back in London, I was walking on the road, and there was a hair dresser that was open, and I walked in, and I cut my hair off. I went to the guy, I had a picture and I said I want this, and he went no you don’t. I went no, no, I want this one. No, no, no, you really don’t. I said just cut my hair off! And he cut it all off. I needed to look in the mirror and not see Elizabeth Bennet, because that’s what was doing it, my hair did, and so I had to cut it off. That was helpful. It was incredibly stupid, and putting a ridiculous pressure on myself, to do them that close together. But you live and learn, you know. And actually, it was quite exciting as well, I’m sure I’ll probably do it again, I’m saying I’ll never do it again, but I think I probably will. And it kind of helped, with Domino, because slightly the feel of that movie is flying by the seat of your pants, and I felt like I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice.”

It looked strenuous with the fights and all.

There were moments when we were doing scenes from Pride and Prejudice and I was off in my entire Lizzie Bennet thing, while trying to do the nun chucks, on the corner of the set. And I think there was time Roman, the director of photography on Pride, he was sitting there about 6:30 in the morning, just before we had to go to set, and eating his breakfast, and he suddenly looked out the window and saw me doing kickboxing with a trainer that they’d got coming down [laughs], so it was kind of interesting. Kung Fu Lizzie Bennet, it’s great.

There was some talk of Domino being gay, though that’s not in the film. That was rumored to be the case with Bend It Like Beckham [Knightley’s breakout film].

When did that happen with Bend it Like Beckham?

Originally it included a love story between the two girls.

I never read that version. You can only do the piece that’s put in front of you. [For example], there’s no point in going, “Oh but you left out Mr. Wickham” or “Oh, but she has a relationship with a woman.” If you’ve seen Domino, there’s not really much room for anything else in it. It’s a pretty full piece, so it’s great. I know very little about Domino Harvey’s actual life, I’m afraid I just went like, “This is the script we’re doing, and this is the character on the page, this is what I’m going to play.” I didn’t look into anything else, I just went, this is a new character, I’m making it up from scratch, that’s fine, so I didn’t focus on that; you’d have to ask somebody who knew her about any of that. It sounds like you could make a million different stories out of her life, and how fantastic. What’s great is that I’ve got a film that marks an amazing woman, because God, she was amazing. I only met her a couple of times, but I could tell that. But any story or film you do, and there’s always going to be a million things left out. My mom’s a writer, and reading some of her stuff, and then seeing what she has to cut out of it, is heartbreaking sometimes, because there are so many fantastic scenes and so many storylines, that just have to get chopped away. That’s the nature of the beast.

On the spectrum between Lizzie and Domino, where do you fall?

A little bit of both [laughs]. You know, I’m nothing like any of them and a bit like all of them. You bring yourself to every role, it doesn’t matter who it is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a mass murderer – you can bring something to it. So, a little bit of everything, I’ll say.

Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice.”

Since you are quite familiar with your Pirates of the Caribbean character Elizabeth Swann was it easy to resume playing her? No, it was very weird. The whole point for me is to change as much as possible. If I’ve done one movie, I like to move on. So, it was really strange to go back to a part, and I’ve never had to do that before – that whole kind of continuity of the character thing – and I am also my biggest critic. You take my worst review that I’ve ever had and times it by ten, and that’s where I put myself. And it’s a fault; it’s a huge fault. I hate the performances. So, I change absolutely everything, and when you’ve got to go back, and kind of keep something the same that you don’t like, and you want to change, kind of makes it a little bit weird. Saying that, it’s quite nice, because then you go okay, I really didn’t like that, so I can kind of change that now, that’s quite good. Saying that, it’s a character, I love that character, I really do, I do think she’s quite different, because she’s not your average heroine, she’s not just the girl in the movie, she actually has a bit of bite to her, and I think that’s fantastic, and that’s fun, for me that’s fun. So, it’s a beautiful group of people, literally it’s a beautiful group of people [laughs]. And it’s a lovely the group to work with.

Do you curtsy more?

[laughs] Yes, I always curtsy.

What did you take away from the film – any expressions or such?

No, I’m weird. I mean, she’s the sort of person that comes up with all these put downs, and I always think, “Oh I should have said that, you know.” She’s a person that can actually come up with it really quickly, so I think she’s still the person I want to be, but I’ll never get there, I’m just not clever enough.

Do you like being girly?

I love costume dramas, I do. I absolutely adore them and love going to see them. I can’t wait for Memoirs of a Geisha. It looks beautiful. I love performing in them because, in a funny way, you feel more free, because okay, you know about the period, you can read the books, you can see the paintings, but you’ve never actually going to know what it was like, you’re never going to be there, so there’s always room for… You can stretch those boundaries a bit. You do something that’s modern day, and you go, but that wouldn’t happen, I know what it’s like living today, you know what society is.

Did you take anything home?

I got my stripe-y stockings. Which were my big thing, I so wanted stripes for Elizabeth, I was really like obsessed about stripes, and Joe [Wright, the director] was like, well we can’t have every single one of your dresses striped, but I will give you stripe-y stockings. So, all my stockings in the film were striped, so I got those. And I got them – what else did I get? I got the boots, Lizzie always wears boots, a green kind of boots, and I got those.

Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice.”

What did you do to prepare for this role?

I read the book a lot. I’ve been obsessed by the book since I was about seven, I had all the Austen series on book tape, and I used to listen to it. And then I was obsessed with the BBC version when I was about eleven, or maybe ten. Then I read the book finally when I was about fourteen and got obsessed again. Then when I was offered the role, I read it, and was terrified of doing it, because I’d been really obsessed with the BBC one. I thought “I’m just going to do an absolute copy of Jennifer Ehle’s performance and that would be awful.” She was fantastic, but it would be awful if I tried to copy her. It was actually my mom who said., “You know what? If you read the book, you’ll see yourself as Elizabeth Bennet, because everybody does, and therefore you won’t be able to do a copy of anyone else’s performance.”

She was absolutely right, and I think that’s one of the reasons that the book has lasted as long as it has, because if you’re a woman and you love it, you read it, and say, “Yeah, that’s me.” So that was good, just reading the book and making notes. I was so terrified before I started, that I learned the entire script – my part and everybody else’s by heart, before I started, which was quite helpful, for everything you do, and quite helpful for this one. And we were really lucky, because we had historians come and give us lectures, and had etiquette lessons and all that stuff, and it was good, because I think doing a piece like this, you have to learn the rules to be able to know how to break them. So, it was good to be clear about what the rules were.

What are some things you’ve picked up from some of the actors you’ve worked with?

I’d watch Johnny [Depp], I’d go right, “You’re a genius, a legend, I’m going to understand how that works, and I’m going to be better,” and you watch it and you have no fucking idea how that happens, I don’t know what they’re doing, I don’t know where it comes from.

So, I haven’t been able to steal anything. What I’ve learned, what’s been fantastic, and mostly from- actually from working with everyone, but with Donald Sutherland and Judi Dench, living legends, it was amazing. They were both really nervous when they started, and both so excited by it. And they were both sitting there, and were watching Carey Mulligan and Talulah Riley, who’s first job it was, playing two of my sisters, and they were going “God, that’s amazing,” and excited about how good they were.

Keira Knightley in “Pride & Prejudice.”

For people who’ve made hundreds of films, to still be that excited, and that nervous, and you’re kind of going “No, you know what you’re doing, you know you’re amazing,” is brilliant.

As a 20-year-old actress, you go “Yeah, they’re sitting there, still learning, nothing’s ever good enough, they’re still hungry for it,” and you think “that’s brilliant.”

It’s the same with Johnny Depp, you watch him playing Jack Sparrow, and he’s loving it, and he’s loving being in that world, still excited by it, and sometimes he goes, “Oh was that all right, was that okay?” And you say, “You’re Johnny Depp man, you know that’s okay!” You know that’s okay! But he doesn’t, he’s still going Gore [Verbinski, Pirates director], “Help.” That’s amazing, it’s cool. It’s a privilege to see the human side of it; it’s really exciting.

How do you balance your personal and professional life?

I haven’t found a balance yet. I’ve been working too much. Yeah, one weekend I worked 32 hours straight, the weekend before I worked 32 hours straight. I will have a day off in approximately – ooh, a month? So, yeah, I’m working. I’ve always thought, “You work to live, you don’t live to work.” I’m definitely living to work, so I think I might have to address that.

Copyright ©2006 All rights reserved. Posted: March 3, 2006.

Photo Credits:#1 © 2005 Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#2 © 2005 Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#3 © 2005 Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#4 © 2005 Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.#5 © 2005 Alex Bailey. Courtesy of Focus Features. All rights reserved.


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