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Possessed of a willowy physicality that belied her formidable inner strength, British actress Keira Knightley rose to international prominence after starring in an independent film and a big-budget action-adventure movie, but it was her nuanced work in both period pieces and contemporary dramas that placed her at the top of the list of film's most talented young stars. Having begun her professional career by the age of seven, Knightley was already a veteran by the time she landed a cameo as Natalie Portman's double in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace" (1999). It was, however, the one-two punch of the soccer-themed comedy-drama "Bend It Like Beckham" (2002) followed by the swashbuckling juggernaut "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" (2003) and its two sequels that truly cemented Knightley as an international star. Refusing to be pigeonholed, she continually broadened her range as an actress with lauded work in such films as "Pride and Prejudice" (2005), "Atonement" (2007), "Never Let Me Go" (2010) and "A Dangerous Method" (2011). Far more than a delicate, pretty face, Knightley never failed to challenge both herself and the audience with riveting performances in some of the most thought-provoking films of the day.
Born Keira Christina Knightley in Teddington, Middlesex, in England on March 26, 1985, Knightley came from an entertainment family. Her father, Will Knightley, was a television and stage actor; her mother Sharman MacDonald was an actress, playwright, and novelist. Plagued by dyslexia as a child, Knightley worked hard to achieve good grades so that she could convince her parents to allow her to pursue acting, which was her main goal from a very early age - enough that she asked for an agent at the age of three. By the age of seven, she had made her television debut with a bit part in "Royal Celebration" (1993), and over the next few years appeared in several noteworthy English television movies, including the noteworthy "Coming Home" (1998), an adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher's novel about two English families caught up in World War II, starring Peter O'Toole and Joanna Lumley. In 1998, her resemblance to actress Natalie Portman earned her the role of Sabe, the handmaiden double to Queen Amidala, in "Star Wars: Episode One The Phantom Menace." In an amusing bit of ballyhoo, director George Lucas did not reveal that Knightley was doubling for Portman in certain scenes until after the film was released. Additionally, the two actresses looked so much alike when in the Japanese-inspired makeup, that their own mothers could not tell them apart.
Knightley returned to more English television productions until 2001, when she earned a substantial role in the UK theatrical feature, "The Hole" (2001), a psychological thriller co-starring American actress Thora Birch. The film, which had a direct-to-video release in the States, featured a brief topless scene from the 15-year-old Knightley. That same year, she also made her debut as a lead actress in the Walt Disney TV movie "Princess of Thieves," playing the teenage daughter of Robin Hood. During this time, Knightley was also studying in school, and while finishing her exams in 2001, filmed "Bend It Like Beckham," a charming comedy-romance about an Indian girl (Parminder Nagra) whose love for soccer clashes with her family's traditional beliefs. Knightley played Nagra's friend, who struggles with her own family issues, including her mother (Juliet Stevenson) wanting her to act more feminine. The two girls' issues struck a chord with world audiences and critics took notice of Knightley's ability to play drama and comedy, as well as act believably physical in the sporting scenes. Knightley, however, continued to pursue her college studies and take the occasional role in UK features like "Pure" (2002), about drug addicts in a star-crossed romance.
Knightley's collegiate life came to an end soon afterwards when a conversation with television producer Andy Harries convinced her to take up acting full time. Her first job out of the box offered a distinct challenge: a television adaptation of "Doctor Zhivago" (2002), for which she would play Lara, a role made iconic by Julie Christie in the 1965 film version. She followed this with a small and somewhat underwhelming role in the portmanteau feature, "Love, Actually" (2003), in which she played a young bride-to-be whose best man has fallen for her. Packed with star power including Laura Linney, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, and Alan Rickman, the film did well in the United States and furthered Knightley's ascending star.
However, it was her next project that cemented her celebrity status. Initially viewed as a risky venture - it was, after all, based on a Disney World ride, and the first movie about pirates in decades - the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" turned out to be one of the biggest blockbusters in years. And while Johnny Depp's turn as the addled Captain Jack Sparrow attracted the lion's share of the critical response, audiences and filmmakers alike did not fail to notice Knightley's ability to play determined, romantic, coltish and delicate in the middle of a special effects orgy. Bruckheimer himself signed her up for two more films, as well as another action-oriented historical feature, a radical re-interpretation of the Arthurian legend called "King Arthur" (2004) for which she played Guinevere as a sword-swinging Celtic warrior. Despite Knightley's buzz, the film did not fare well at the box office; Knightley was both amused and horrified to discover that her image in the promotional art had been enhanced considerable in the bust.
Her next two features in America were not hits either; "The Jacket" (2004) was a muddled science fiction thriller with Adrien Brody that showed her knack with an American accent, and "Domino" (2005), based loosely on the life of Domino Harvey, the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and a professional bounty hunter, was a typically overblown mess from Tony Scott that found Knightley looking extremely uncomfortable while wielding high-powered weaponry. A proposed adaptation of Deborah Moggach's novel "Tulip Fever" was shut down due to the closure of British tax loopholes for filmmakers, so she returned to more genteel settings with "Pride and Prejudice" (2005), a spot-on adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Her turn as the free-thinking Elizabeth Bennett, who seeks to determine her own life path, earned her a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination.
During this incredibly busy period - which also found Knightley serving as the face of numerous companies, including Ausprey jewelers and Chanel perfume - she found her life under scrutiny by the world press, which determined that her slender frame was the result of anorexia. Knightley took umbrage at the accusation, though also noting that her own grandmother had suffered from it. Her romantic life also made the world papers; among her gentlemen friends during this period were Irish fashion model Jamie Dornan and actor Rupert Friend, whom she met on the set of "Pride and Prejudice."
In 2005, Knightley returned to the "Pirates" franchise for "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which scored even higher numbers at the box office, though critics gave the film a solid drubbing for its convoluted plot. The film was shot back to back with a second sequel, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (2007), which was the proposed end of the series, though most in the industry felt that such a money-making engine could not be shut down so easily. Knightley spent most of 2006 filming several future projects, including "The Best Time of Their Lives," about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, from a script by her mother. She also earned top marks as "Sexiest Woman" or similar accolades from various "lads" magazines like FHM and Maxim, and attracted considerable attention for posing nude with Scarlett Johansson and the ubiquitous Tom Ford on the cover of Vanity Fair.
Despite her popularity in Hollywood, Knightley retained a home in London and made no bones about her interest in remaining a U.K. citizen and resident, while continuing to do business Stateside. Her next few projects remained outside the studio system, allowing Knightley to further broaden her résumé. She starred in the adaptation of Alessandro Baricco's period novel, "Silk" (2007), playing the loving and doting wife of a silkworm merchant (Michael Pitt), who falls in love with a concubine (Sei Ashina) while on business in Japan. Following "Silk," Knightley portrayed the sister of a fledgling writer whose life is irrevocably changed when her lover is accused of a crime he did not commit in "Atonement" (2007). The visually spectacular romantic-drama became one of the more highly acclaimed films of the year, garnering dozens of nominations, including several for Knightley's performance.
The following year, Knightley headlined as "The Duchess" (2008) opposite Ralph Fiennes in a sumptuously filmed biopic that, while met with mixed reviews on the whole, earned Knightley high marks for her performance as the iconic 18th Century English aristocrat. On stage, she was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award for her supporting role in the Comedy Theatre of London's mounting of Molière's comedy of manners, "The Misanthrope" during its 2009-2010 season. Knightly next co-starred with Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield in director Mark Romanek's adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel "Never Let Me Go" (2010), a dystopian, futuristic drama about three boarding school youths who find a measure of peace during their brief lives, even in the face of a dismal fate that awaits them. She followed with an intense performance as a patient who comes between the father of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and his young protégée, Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), in director David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" (2011). Following a co-starring role opposite Steve Carell in the quirky apocalyptic comedy-drama "Seeking A Friend for the End of the World" (2012), Knightley reteamed with "Atonement" director Joe Wright for an imaginative take on the classic "Anna Karenina" (2012). A musical drama written and directed by John Carney, "Begin Again" (2013) was followed by the female lead opposite Chris Pine in the thriller "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" (2013). Knightley again attracted Oscar buzz for her role in "The Imitation Game" (2014), a docudrama about the troubled life of computer pioneer Alan Turing.
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