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Keira Knightley: It's taken a long time for me to actually enjoy life as an actor

Hollywood star Keira Knightley explains how she has finally learned to relax after changing the type of roles she'll take

By Kaleem Aftab

Keira Knightley's life has played out in front of the public for well over a decade. As a teenager in the limelight, she came across, perhaps unsurprisingly, as awkward. Then she was perceived as stand-offish as she dated the British actor Rupert Friend and spurned the media, perhaps unsurprisingly given that every night she would return home and find paparazzi on her doorstep. Now, at 29, Knightley appears more comfortable, both in her performances and in herself. Her marriage to the Klaxons guitarist James Righton has seen the paparazzi drift away: domestic bliss and avoiding the party circuit just don't sell very well.

She says that marriage hasn't changed her relationship much: "Is there a difference between being boyfriend and girlfriend and marriage? No." Pragmatic about love, she says: "The romance, companionship and great sex, these are the things that we are sold. The negative side is not looked at enough, love as jealousy, neurosis, as pain, it's all a massive part of what that emotion is."

This month she will star in two films, Say When and The Imitation Game. Say When (a title changed for British audiences from Laggies - the Orange County, California, slang term for those lagging behind in life) sees Knightley play Megan, an aimless 28-year-old who lives in Seattle, has no career path, and feels pressure to marry her boyfriend because that's what all of her friends are doing. She couldn't be more unlike Knightley, so the actress had to look to her own peer group for inspiration: "I definitely based her on a couple of mates of mine who were having that kind of floating-can't-decide-what-to-do. That's actually a thing right now where jobs are meant to be vocational, and it puts a hell of a pressure on people. You don't just have to earn a living, you have to enjoy what you do. I liked that side of her."

For a long time Knightley didn't enjoy what she did very much. When I first interviewed her in 2012, for Anna Karenina, she said: "You're never going to make something that everybody loves, and if you're someone like me who is always looking for an A* at school, it's like the dangling carrot in front of you that you are never going to get. I think that I'm going to be incredibly proud of myself when I've given up trying to get the A* and just enjoy it. I think the problem in acting is that even if you win an Oscar, there is always going to be someone who hates that performance and if you read that, then there goes the A*."

Two years on, she seems far more at ease with herself. Playing someone who doesn't want to fit into boxes and conform is a pleasure for her. "I don't think I ever was a teenager ..." she admits. "I was always quite embarrassed by it."

Knightley has now discovered the type of jobs she likes to do - and they're not blockbusters. Rather they are roles that allow her to get on with acting, not cutting her performances around special effects or heavily stylised set-pieces. "It's really difficult to piece them all together and keep that level of emotion when you're doing it 15 times because the focus is going through one part of a mirror and another," she argues.

Say When is a departure for her. "It is the first romantic comedy proper. It's a funny genre because it's one that I haven't really connected with. I think it's because we have been in a period where there are so many perfectly polished, plastic cut-outs of people. When you go back to When Harry Met Sally, that era, they weren't perfect. They're more like characters that are having problems."

The Imitation Game sees her play cryptanalyst Joan Clarke, who worked at Bletchley Park as part of the team trying to crack the Enigma code. "It's so much fun isn't it?" beams Knightley. It is. This is the family-friendly version of the story, Turing's homosexuality is not shown, and much is made of Clarke's battle with her own family over going out to work and the reasons why she may have wanted to marry Turing, even after she knew him to be gay. "There have been quite a few liberties taken, it's a drama not a documentary. Joan Clarke died in the Nineties, and quite a bit of her story has been altered somewhat from the truth."

Knightley will make her Broadway debut in October next year in an adaptation of Emile Zola's story about an adulterous woman, Thérèse Raquin. She has appeared in London's West End twice. Her debut in 2009 saw her play a film star in Martin Crimp's freely updated version of Molière's Le Misanthrope. More than £1m-worth of tickets were sold in four days after her casting was announced.

Her turn in The Children's Hour was less warmly received but these stage performances seem to give her the confidence to have a career on her own terms. "I love the stage," she says. Hardly a revelation coming from the daughter of playwright Sharman Macdonald and actor Will Knightley. She also has a small role in Everest, about a 1996 expedition that goes horribly wrong. She pays the pregnant wife of one of the climbers and worked on the film for five days: "It's the conversation that they had which was recorded when Rob Hall, who died up on the mountain that day, was actually talking to his wife in New Zealand. So the story is about that conversation. I did meet her, because I felt like that would help me. And her being on the set to see the film that was being made about her deceased husband, was quite extraordinary."

  • Say When is in cinemas now. The Imitation Game is released next Friday, November 14

Keira's choice roles

2002 Bend It Like Beckham - Keira's breakthrough role was in the football-themed film, which did well at the box office and provided a springboard to further roles

2003-2007 Pirates of the Caribbean - Keira showed her tough gal credentials alongside co-stars Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp in the swashbuckling series of films

2005 Pride & Prejudice - her refined good looks were just perfect for the part of Elizabeth Bennet in this adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel

2007 Atonement - earned a BAFTA nomination and renewed acclaim for her talents in this intense and moving tale of a wartime love affair

2011 A Dangerous Method - starred as Sabina Spielrein, one of the first female psychoanalysts, in this story about the turbulent relationship between the founding fathers of modern psychiatry, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud

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