Keira comes out of shadows for new role

By James Mottram

Since Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightley has done smaller, darker films but she's ready to go big again.

Keira Knightley.
Keira Knightley.

Since she last played Elizabeth Swann, her character in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise that propelled her to global fame, it's been a curious few years for British actress Keira Knightley. It's been a time for risk-taking, you might say, from squaring up to Steve Carell in the muted comedy Seeking a Friend for the End of the World to playing the hysteria-suffering patient Sabina Spielrein in David Cronenberg's edgy Jung-Freud drama A Dangerous Method.

What there hasn't been, quite deliberately, is a really big film. "Those big blockbusters come with a lot of baggage," says Knightley, warily, when we meet.

Her hair pulled back into a pony-tail, revealing cheekbones that explain just why Chanel pays her to be the face of a perfume, she explains further. "Having to do lots of interviews like this all around the world, you're signing up for a lot of that."

Endless promotion is one thing, but in the four years between 2003's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and her Swann-song, Knightley became a British paparazzi fixation.

"It did make certain things very difficult. [When] you've got 20 guys outside your house and they're shouting 'whore' at you every single day, you don't want to leave the house."

Keira Knightley dives back into "popcorn'' as Cathy Muller with Kenneth Branagh.
Keira Knightley dives back into "popcorn'' as Cathy Muller with Kenneth Branagh.

The daughter of Scottish playwright Sharman Macdonald and English actor Will Knightley, it's doubtful anything her parents could say would've prepared her - not least when it came to acres of coverage devoted to whether or not she had anorexia. "It was very, very tough. I don't think I dealt with it very well." Little wonder the actress felt more comfortable away from blockbuster movies and the heat they can bring.

"I did actively avoid it," she says with a nod. "But I just got to the end of last year and said, I will do something different this year."

Still, it must be with some trepidation that the 28-year-old Knightley is approaching her first major Hollywood movie in over six years. The film is Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, a reboot of the CIA analyst character from the novels of Tom Clancy. Previously played on screen by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, now it's Star Trek star Chris Pine playing Ryan in a story that shows how he first went into the field.

A lone female voice in a testosterone-fuelled cast, she plays Jack's sweetheart Cathy, a doctor. So why take on a blockbuster now? "Box office," she quips, although given how Hollywood loves to calculate an actor's worth by the dollars they rake in there's probably some truth to this.

Knightley composes herself. "No, just to do different things really," she says. "I've been doing over the last five years an awful lot of very dark pieces of work."

She cites 2012's Anna Karenina, her third film with Joe Wright, in which she played Tolstoy's suicidal heroine. "[I wanted to] get to do something that was lighter. Jack Ryan is popcorn, a piece of pure entertainment ... I thought, I haven't done a piece of pure entertainment for at least six, seven years."

While she's not performing the sort of gun-toting action she managed in Tony Scott's bounty-hunter thriller Domino, Knightley's Cathy isn't simply there for eye-candy. "She's definitely the MacGuffin," she says, referring to the classic Hitchcock device that helps drive the plot along.

Yet there was another reason why she took on Shadow Recruit. Its director is Kenneth Branagh, who previously proved capable of handling a blockbuster when he delivered 2011's Thor.

"I've always thought that Keira is a terrific actress," says Branagh who also stars in the film as a Russian villain. "Most people wouldn't see it as a problem but the challenge for her is that she is extremely beautiful. I think some people can't see beyond that but I've always felt that she has a very intelligent, witty quality in her work."

Calling him a massive influence, Knightley was a huge fan of Branagh's work, particularly his 1993 adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. She says it's one of the films that inspired her to get into acting.

Knightley still hasn't managed any Shakespeare on screen, although there have been more than enough period pieces in her career, from Doctor Zhivago to The Duchess, via an Oscar-nominated turn as Elizabeth Bennet in Wright's 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

She's just completed The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch, about Enigma code-cracker Alan Turing, and this week she'll be at the Sundance Film Festival promoting her contemporary US indie Laggies.

Married last May to musician James Righton, and turning 30 next year, Knightley seems more at ease than she used to be. "I think when I was much younger, a lot of it was about trying to prove that I was better than everybody thought that I was, and I had a right to be there. I think as you get older, I can't do anything about people's opinions of me," she says. "It's just one of those things. I can't control what people think."

- Independent

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