At 18, Keira Knightley was swashbuckling on the high seas with Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, an adventure she repeated in two sequels. She then fought very different fights alongside Mickey Rourke in Domino and Clive Owen in King Arthur, and indulged in serious S&M with Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method.
On screen, Knightley is not to be messed with. Off screen she commands respect, too, after translating her early success into an enduring career that also boasts complex character roles in films including Atonement, Anna Karenina and most recently as the confidante to Benedict Cumberbatch’s haunted computer genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game.
She followed her Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress for that role with an Oscar nomination this year. It was the 29-year-old’s second-ever Oscar nomination, after her best actress nomination for Pride & Prejudice in 2006. Now, she gears up to tackle Everest with co-stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Jason Clarke.
You’ve been at the top of your game for well over a decade and are one of the best-paid actresses in Hollywood. How have you managed it?
I tend to get back up quite quickly after I’ve been knocked down, and I try forge ahead as much as possible. I must admit, I can easily be one of those actors who almost seems like they’ve got a frontal lobotomy and doesn’t do anything. But then I get terrified by my own laziness, and that pushes me to be proactive. But why have I lasted in this business? I’m surprised myself. I’m incredibly lucky. There are a lot of people who have a couple of films and don’t get any more offers.
You’ve been nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress in The Imitation Game. When you’re making a film like that, do you spend time thinking about whether you’ll win an award?
Quite a few times I’ve played parts where people have gone ‘Oh my God, this has got to get nominations.’ And it hasn’t. You do go, ‘Oh f–k.’ But you can’t aim to make an award-winning film. You can aim to make the best film you can possibly make. If you get a nomination for something, it’s f–king excellent, and fun and brilliant. But really what matters is that people find the work interesting. You can’t ask for more than that.
You got your first part in a blockbuster at the age of 18 in Pirates of the Caribbean. Did it bother you that some people attributed that more to your looks than your acting chops?
At least they weren’t saying I was the ugliest woman in the world. Look, it’s an image-based industry and I know that my looks were partly responsible for my getting the part. But there were a lot of pretty girls up for it, so there must have been something else as well. Looks fade. They fade! If that was all I had to offer, I’d have something to be very worried about.
Were there downsides to becoming famous so early?
For me it meant a lack of experimentation. I couldn’t take all the drugs I wanted to take. That’s a good quote, isn’t it? When I was 18, I had men following me around with cameras, while the media commented on everything I did. So I didn’t have that carefree time of getting drunk and falling over a lot.
So without booze and drugs, did you take up healthier habits instead?
I go through phases. There are six months where I get a personal trainer and go to the gym. And then I go, “God, that’s boring. I can’t be bothered to do that.” So I enter six months of vegetation, and after that I’ll do some exercise again. Other than that, I did go hiking in the Himalayas, but physically that wasn’t actually very impressive.
Last year you posed topless for Interview magazine and banned any retouching on the pictures, saying you don’t agree the practice should be commonplace. Do you have a penchant for bold statements?
It’s not the first time I’ve appeared naked in a publication. Perhaps I won’t want to do it in five years, but my mum said, ‘When I’m a grandmother, I want my nipples tattooed blue, so I can show everyone I’ve led a life.’ And for me that’s my nipples being tattooed blue, as it were. I will show them to my grandchildren with pride.
Do you care what other people think?
If you don’t, you’d be a psychopath. On the other hand, I know some people find what I have to offer attractive and some people find it disgusting. That’s just the way it is.
If all did fail, would you start a music career with your indie rocker husband?
No, Jesus Christ. It would be the worst idea. He and his band work very well together, so I’ll let them get on with it. I hate singing in front of an audience. It’s scary as shit, because you don’t want to look stupid in front of other people.