Keira Knightley for “The Jacket”

In the thick of Sundance, home of skiers and movie lovers, that annual love fest of Indie cinema known as the Sundance Film Festival is in full throttle. It may not exactly be the arena in which one would normally find Keira Knightley, that tall, languid British rose, who has suddenly, almost inexplicably it seems, risen to the top of Hollywood’s A-list.

Perhaps that explains the frenzied scene on top of Park City’s hub of frenzied activity in Main Street where outside one of the area’s more chic eateries, the paparazzi are gathered en masse, crowded around with a vulture-like intensity, ready to pounce upon this tall, British lass, with an all to eager ferocity. Such is the life of a now popular film star, but being leapt upon by photographers and a throng of enthusiastic onlookers, is not something Knightley, at near 20, enjoys, to put it mildly.

Away from the frenzied scene outside, as we chat in a dimly sit section of Main Street’s Chamaya restaurant, Knightley, dressed appropriately for the wintry Park City, is relaxed and in god humour, as she smilingly compares the Paparazzi scene to a classic Hitchcock film. “It was like a scene from The Birds,” she begins, then breaks into a quiet laughter. “It was like at first there were three, there were eight, then there were ten, then there were just millions of them, and it was like ‘oh my God’.”

Knightley, whose exposure to fame has occurred in such a short space of time, says that her exposure to the press is uncomfortable because that is not something she expected from being an actor. “I think it was Tom Hanks who said: ‘I just don’t want to be near you all the time, because if I was completely comfortable being ME all the time then I wouldn’t be an actor since I wouldn’t feel the need to be many other people.’ I guess that’s true,” Knightley concedes, who was at Sundance to promote the sci-fi thriller The Jacket, in which she plays Jackie, a very American, unglamorous role, poles away from the personas she created in Love, Actually or Bend it Like Beckham. “I feel very comfortable playing Jackie where you can explore emotions that normally you’d run away from and because it’s not you that’s exploring them. Suddenly you’re free and you can really look into it, whereas if it was me, I’d turn away from the emotion. As soon as it’s meant to be me, it’s a very scary thing to have people actually looking at you as opposed to looking at your character.”

In the three years since Bend it like Beckham placed Knightley in the centre of an unwanted attention, the young actress has had to learn to deal with the nature of fame and celebrity, all of which seems far removed from her Middlesex background, as Hollywood celebrity rears its ugly head. But Knightley remains philosophical about her sudden road to fame and glory, yet hates the tabloid journalism that is part and parcel of her success. “Without complaining about it, it’s hugely invasive and uncomfortable. I don’t read any magazines or newspapers any more, because I find it really scary and I get really scared when I’m followed by photographers. I have, on many occasions, broken down in tears because I find it terrifying and I don’t know why,” Knightley concedes, adding that once the mystery about you has been eradicated, there is no point in the public seeing you on the screen.

Yet despite the by-product of fame and celebrity, Knightley wouldn’t have it any other way, because acting is what she has always known and loved. The daughter of actor Will Knightley and playwright Sharman Macdonald, it was at the age of three that young Keira requested an agent, so her dutiful parents allowed her to work on productions in her summer holidays. Her first role was at the age of 9, in Moira Armstrong’s A Village Affair (1994). However, Knightley’s first high profile role came in 1999, as Sabe, Decoy Queen to Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). Since then she has completed an impressive array of films including The Hole (2001), but is probably best known for her role of tomboy footballer Jules Paxton in Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002), before cementing her success in Love Actually and Pirates of the Caribbean. Despite her success, Knightley admits to being “desperately insecure” yet despite those insecurities, acting is what she continues to crave, and has no idea what she would do once the acting stops, “and when I do have an idea, I’ll do something else, but at the moment I dropped out of school when I was sixteen, so there’s nothing else that I CAN do. If I knew what I wanted to study I would actually go back to studying, and I’m not going to waste anybody’s time.”

Knightley has no reason to be professionally insecure. After all, here she is at Sundance promoting The Jacket, co-starring Oscar winner Adrien Brody, who plays a military veteran, returning to his native Vermont suffering from bouts of amnesia. When he is accused of murder and lands in an asylum, a well-meaning shrink puts him on a heavy course of experimental drugs, restrains him in a jacket-like device, and locks him away in a body drawer of the basement morgue. The process sends him on a journey into the future, where he can foresee his death (but not who did it or how) in four day’s time. Now the only question that matters is: can the woman he meets in the future, Jackie, save him? It is a character such as this, a downtrodden, impoverished American, which enticed Knightley to shed her glamorous persona, for this less likely character. The actress says it roles like this that make her want to act with increasing passion. “This reminds me of what I love to do, which is to be lost in a character, to create something, be part of that creative process and to be with people who are true artists.”

Knightley pauses, smilingly, then laughs when asked if can relate to Jackie, a woman born in deep poverty to a mother who seems disconnected from her failed existence. “No – oh God I hope we have nothing in common.” Keira’s relationship with her own mother, for instance, is a long way from the mother-daughter relationship explored in The Jacket. “We’re really incredibly close yet really different people,” Knightley says, referring to her mum as “an eternal optimist and absolutely incredible. Both my brother and I who are very close to my mum, always say she’s the youngest of three children and full of energy. The woman never sits down and when she does interviews, she’s out with the journalists all night and they’re both getting pissed together. It’s absolutely extraordinary and she’s totally a free spirit.” Knightley admits that she doesn’t share her mother’s sense of optimism, which is hard to imagine while one is sitting down chatting to her. “I’m not the eternal pessimist, but I’m certainly more pessimistic than she and she says that I’m naturally melancholy which mum says is very tedious.” Knightley adds that she has no idea why she is melancholy, but simply realises, “that I can be a moody cow.”

Yet Keira, who recently bought a flat in London which she rarely sees these days, is at least enjoying early trappings of success, and is more than happy to shirk her melancholy state, for the respite of a character. And while Fate is a theme recurring throughout The Jacket, Knightley says that to some degree, she is a believer in certain aspects of Fate. “In a funny kind of way I think I do. You know, the Celts believe in fate and they also have that huge guilt trip as well, so I think I’ve got both of that going on within me, but I suppose there are parts in me that go, okay if something goes badly or if I didn’t get a part, then I do always say that it was fate.”

And what about the old idea of love at first sight, that also resonates throughout much of her on-screen work, as in The Jacket? “No, I don’t think so,” but adds that as far as men are concerned, the actress is not treated that differently now that she is famous. “Do you know what? I’ve actually had a lot more guy friends than girlfriends. Growing up as a bit of a tom-boy I suppose that’s just the way it’s been and so most of the friends I have at the moment have been the same friends that I’ve had for years and years and years. I’m not terribly sociable. and am in fact pretty extraordinarily UNSOCIABLE, so I don’t meet that many people and when I do I only meet them through the friends I’ve already got.”

Given her professional future, however, Knightley may have little time to hang out with friends of either persuasion. She finished wrapping Pride and Prejudice, but more of interest, is Domino, in which she plays a striper, has a topless scene, but decided she was to shy to show her bum, so ended up with what she laughingly calls “a bum double.” Knightley had to choose the right posterior to of course to her own, justice. “I was standing in an office and women came in and started stripping,” she recalls, trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face.

“Actually – you know what – they have fantastic arses and it’s at those points where you look at their bums and you think you’ve got an alright bum and then you go okay, unless your bum looks like that don’t show it on film. If it looks like that – show it by all means, but I don’t have a bum like that and therefore it will not be shown on film. I didn’t know what to do and you sort of don’t know where to look, but you’ve got to look at their bum and then you sort of think, well should I talk to them, or should I not talk to them?” It all sounds like an odd way to make a living, but Knightley says, it’s part of Hollywood’s dream factory, bums and all. “What it is, is a dream world, and that’s what films are. They’re fantasies, stories, and escapism for people. Now in that particular scene, what they wanted was a perfect image, so in this story, in this fantasy, in this dream, you didn’t need my arse up there, you wanted something perfect up there gyrating around, so let’s get something perfect – you know?”

While her bum may not be shown in that film, her swordplay will be back in Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, but beyond that, she has no idea, if the two films will be shot simultaneously, or even what they’re about. She has yet to read a script, “but all I know is we’re supposed to be filming in March.” Beyond Pirates, Keira isn’t sure what the future brings, but says that at last she knows that that she’s in this game for the long haul. “I’ve just signed on the dotted line for Pirates, but I don’t know what I’m doing afterwards. I know that I’m really proud of the last three films that I did. I don’t know whether people are going to go – oh no you’re a phony, or actually you’re okay, let’s keep going. I don’t think that in this profession, it doesn’t matter how good you are or how good your work is, you never know whether you’re going to carry on working or not, you really don’t. I know I’ve said that till I’m blue in the face, but it’s so true and I think because having been brought up in the theatre background, I’ve seen people who’ve gone two years out of work.”

Yet despite these feelings of insecurity, Knightley continues to remain ensconced in this most desperate of professions, even with paparazzi in hot pursuit, and the nagging worry that it could all end tomorrow, “because getting to a set and creating something is a weirdly powerful, provocative and amazing feeling and I can’t imagine doing anything else and this is the only world that I know. I’ve been brought up in it, I don’t know anything else and I suppose it’s the insecurity of it that, in a strange way, that makes me feel safe.”