Welcome to Career Watch, a vocational checkup of top actors and directors, and those who hope to get there. In this edition, we take on Keira Knightley, who plays with gender identity in the title role of fall hit “Colette,” which is focused on the early career of the flamboyant French literary star.
Bottom Line: Ever since 2002, when Keira Knightley popped at age 17 in TV’s “Dr. Zhivago” and on-screen in Gurinder Chadha’s girl-power soccer movie “Bend it Like Beckham,” the actress has picked her projects well. Still only 33, the screen beauty has earned an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) and is equally capable of carrying bodice-ripping dramas (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina”) and athletic action roles (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, “Domino,” “King Arthur”). Perhaps her most charming performance was in Richard Curtis’ holiday comedy “Love Actually,” juggling expressions of affection from swains Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln.
Although she grew up in London as the child of two actors, Knightley was a tomboy not unlike her soccer player in “Bend It Like Beckham.” “I never felt particularly girly,” she said. “I didn’t wear a skirt until I was 14. I thought I would grow up to be a man. That’s what made sense to me. Little girls were the strongest on the playground and in charge, while men were in charge out there. Clearly I would grow into a guy.”
During her interview with IndieWire at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Knightley wore flats. But like most of her celeb sisters, on the red carpet in front of photographers, she appeared in teetering stilettos. “I look so much better in heels!” she said.
Career Peaks: Three lauded performances for Joe Wright, as Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice,” followed by romantic war drama “Atonement,” and the title role in “Anna Karenina.”
Latest Misfires: David Frankel’s sprawling ensemble “Collateral Beauty” (2013, New Line Cinema) continued star Will Smith’s losing streak, earning miserable reviews (Metascore: 23), which was hardly Knightley’s fault. She was more front and center in Lorene Scafaria’s debut, romantic comedy “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” (2012, Focus Features), co-starring Steve Carell, which earned a 59 Metascore and lost money.
Biggest Problem: Hollywood has long seen Knightley as a gorgeous movie star best suited for corsets and ringlets. But she has grown into more sophisticated roles, from her war-crossed lover in “Atonement” to the complicated psychiatric patient adored by Michael Fassbender in David Cronenberg’s brainy “A Dangerous Method” (2011).
Awards Attention: Knightley broke out in “Pride & Prejudice” as sparkling Elizabeth Bennett, kissing Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) in a raging rainstorm, earning both Globe and Oscar nominations. And who can forget Knightley’s sexy green satin evening gown as she kisses James McAvoy in “Atonement,” which won her BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations. For her supporting role as a math prodigy helping an all-male team crack the Enigma Code in “The Imitation Game,” Knightley scored all three. She’s due for a win.
Latest Contender: Knightley embraced writer-director Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette” script, which follows a smart young beauty from the French countryside to join her adoring new author husband Willy (a charismatic Dominic West) in Paris. She becomes his successful ghost writer and eventually breaks into her own full-blown entity as a gay novelist and traveling performer.
The actress devoured Colette’s Claudine and Cheri novels and adored “Vagabond,” but her touchstone was Judith Thurman’s mammoth biography. “Colette had an amazing life,” Knightley said. “There is enough for a mini-series. Often biopics try to deal with an entire life. I often find them unsatisfying: you feel like you’ve trotted over the course but haven’t explored any one bit. The script was so specific in what it was dealing with — that first marriage.”
The French bisexual celebrity gave Knightley plenty to chew on, from gender identity to avant-garde performance art. “There’s so much,” she said. “Morally, she can get a little ambiguous. She’s not a saint. How nice!”
Colette and Willy were at the center of literary Paris. “He was the life and soul of the party,” said Knightley. “People wanted to be around them, the excitement was huge. She saw big changes in a short amount of time in her life, who she became, as she couldn’t find a way to make her space in the world he is in. She didn’t want to be the little wife standing behind him. She wanted to be the star. They were both fame hungry, and loved being in the center of the room with everyone looking at them. She got out before she would have become a victim.”
Going on tour as a theater performer wasn’t done back then for a woman of her class. “She was out there,” said Knightley. “She discovered who she was and was unafraid to find out and experiment and find a space for herself.” Knightley’s most uncomfortable moment was emerging in Egyptian garb out of a sarcophagus in front of 300 extras. “I’m not a dancer, I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “‘I’m just going to have to big balls to do this.’ So I did it. Ultimately what I do for a living is to bullshit. This was bullshitting with very little rehearsal.”
Robert Viglasky / Bleecker Street
One break for the actress: the costume designer decided to make her seem more coltish by not wearing any corsets. “Colette was very boyish,” said Knightley. “It was difficult to get that boyish quality, a different physicality that sets her aside.”
Knightley is in the running for her third Oscar nomination. She’s competing, in an odd parallel, with Glenn Close in “The Wife,” a drama about a gifted woman writer who hides behind her Nobel Laureate novelist husband (Jonathan Pryce). Both movies ask, ‘Who wrote what?’
Assets: Both intellectual and athletic, Knightley has been a star for over 15 years, partly by making her backstage sweats look easy on-screen. She can do romantic comedy (“Love Actually,” “Laggies”), musicals (“Begin Again”), tragedy (“The Imitation Game,” “Never Let Me Go”), villains (“Domino”), big-budget studio pieces (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Everest,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” “King Arthur”), costume dramas (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina”), and dark horror (“The Hole”).
It’s only getting better, she said. “There’s an appetite right now for good female characters,” she said. “People want to see them. What we can do with that is keep trying to push it and push it and push it. Whoever tries to send me a nice supportive wife, I say ‘no, I’m a nice supportive wife at home; I don’t want to play it at work.'”
She debunks the conventional assumption that women can’t sell films. “They do!” she said. “The numbers are there and always have been. It makes me insane, it is properly false! That’s where you have to go, “Come on! This might not be a Tom Cruise huge blockbuster but it’s going to make money and therefore let’s make it.’ We’re 51 % percent of the world!”‘
When pay parity for women was raised in the media, Knightley realized “I had never asked,” she said. “It’s like, you don’t want to rock the boat and you’re lucky to get whatever bit of pie you get. I did have the conversation [with her reps], and on the last few films I’ve had at least pay parity or a bit more. That’s been great, but I’m sure that wasn’t aways the case. I don’t know the extent, but I wasn’t asking. Why wasn’t I asking?”
While Knightley does the occasional “money part” like “Everest,” in which she plays the pregnant wife of one of the climbers, she generally sticks to more active roles, and has always sought out women directors, from “Beckham” hlemer Chadha and Massy Tadjedin (“Last Night”) to Lynn Shelton (“Laggies”). “I like working with women, ” she said. “We need our stories told through our own eyes. Women are just as good at making films as men are. For every female film director, the pressure is on to stand up. Then you have your entire sex on your shoulders if the film doesn’t do well.”
Personal gossip: Following serious relationships with costars Jamie Dornan and Rupert Friend, Knightley married musician James Righton of Klaxons and gave birth to their first child in 2015. This raised her awareness of inequality in Hollywood. “We lose women from 28 to 40 because the film industry doesn’t allow for realistic childcare,” she said. “That’s exactly the age that most people are coming into their own, when they direct their first or second film. They have to make a choice to have a baby or continue their career. Some will hold tight to their career. That’s a shit choice. As an industry we need to look at how we lose women at that age bracket. It’s an important time to not see the world through their eyes.”
Next up: Picking projects from piles of bad scripts is always “difficult,” she said. “I don’t read every script that’s around. My agents know what my taste is. A lot don’t get through the barrier of agents.”
Her next vehicle is family holiday fantasy “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” (November 2, Disney) set in an intensely stylized version of the period world of the classic ballet. “I’m sort of like a very large cake,” she said.
While Knightley shot James Kent’s “The Aftermath” (March, Fox Searchlight), a World War II romantic triangle drama co-starring Jason Clarke, before “Colette,” it’s still in the editing room. Director Gavin Hood is polishing the sound mix on “Official Secrets,” a true story set in 2003 about a British intelligence scandal co-starring Ralph Fiennes. It’s seeking distribution.
Career Advice: Keep on keeping on with risky, rich, challenging character roles that don’t rely simply on sex appeal. Embrace your strength and charm.