Keira Knightley found the immediate “Pirates of the Caribbean” success to be a curse.
Knightley detailed her skyrocket to fame at age 17 when “Pirates” premiered in 2003 alongside “Love Actually.” The “Boston Strangler” actress admitted that her character Elizabeth Swann was “projected” to be a sexualized object, despite her inherent “tomboyish” attitude alongside co-stars Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.
“She was the object of everybody’s lust,” Knightley told Harper’s Bazaar UK of the role. “Not that she doesn’t have a lot of fight in her. But it was interesting coming from being really tomboyish to getting projected as quite the opposite.”
Knightley continued, “I had quite an entrance into adult life, an extreme landing because of the experience of fame at a very early age. There’s a funny place where women are meant to sit, publicly, and I never felt comfortable with that. It was a big jolt. I was being judged on what I was projecting.”
Knightley instead tried to break out of the sexualized typecasting, resulting in a “very tricky five-year window” between 2003 and 2008 that saw performances in “Pride & Prejudice” and “Atonement” that made her feel “quite powerless” to where her career was heading.
“I felt very constrained. I felt very stuck. So the roles afterwards were about trying to break out of that,” Knightley said of the “Pirates” films, which had sequels in 2006 and 2007. “I didn’t have a sense of how to articulate it. It very much felt like I was caged in a thing I didn’t understand.”
On top of that, the two-time Oscar nominee never felt her performances were “good enough.”
“I was incredibly hard on myself. I was never good enough. I was utterly single-minded. I was so ambitious. I was so driven,” Knightley said. “I was always trying to get better and better and improve, which is an exhausting way to live your life. Exhausting. I am in awe of my 22-year-old self, because I’d like a bit more of her back. And it’s only by not being like that any longer that I realize how extraordinary it was. But it does have a cost: Burnout.”
Knightley took two years off following a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Her return saw her second Academy Award nomination for “The Imitation Game,” with the actress adding, “There was never an ounce of me that wasn’t going to find a way through.”
Knightley previously opened up about her time off, telling The Telegraph in 2019 that she knew she “didn’t want to do big-budget films anymore, because the fame that came with them I just couldn’t handle.” The actress admitted she suffered from a “mental breakdown” due to the overwhelming paparazzi.
“The value of photographs of any famous young women at the time went up if they were of a very negative nature,” Knightley said at the time. “So if you weren’t already having a mental breakdown, they were trying to push you into doing things that kept your value as high as those who were…It did not feel like it would end anywhere well.”