Keira Knightley slips into her local coffee shop in the Maida Vale section of London wearing a black jersey dress, black clogs and an African beaded necklace. Her eyes are dark and smoky, and the whole look says disheveled Bohemian chic. "A newspaper here voted me one of the scruffiest people in Britain," Knightley says after ordering a croissant. "I'm quite proud of that. It's completely true. Most of my stuff is still packed in suitcases because I'm in between shoots right now, and everything is so crushed I can't wear any of it. I'm not one of these people who says, 'Oh no, I can't wear that because I wore it yesterday.' If it doesn't smell, it's fine." Her croissant arrives, and she tears into it.
Knightley, 20, grew up in the suburbs of London, and it's no wonder she had dreams of performing: Her father, an actor, and her mother, a playwright, were both already well-established. At the age of 3, little Keira demanded an agent, and at 6 she got one, but success took time. American audiences didn't come to know Knightley until, after a string of mostly forgettable TV roles in England and Europe, she played a tomboy soccer phenom in the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham. She followed that with Pirates of the Caribbean, Love Actually and The Jacket and will next be seen in Domino, in theaters this month, and Pride and Prejudice, which will be released next month.
So who is Keira Knightley? Forget the formalities that the English seem to like so much. To get this girl talking, we decided there was nothing better than a friendly (American) game of word association. We put a bunch of folded words and phrases into a hat: These are the words she drew.
Leading Men: "On-screen these days, you rarely see a big, strong man ‑- you see slender, androgynous-looking boys. I've worked with very few people whom I feel small against. The most manly thing ever is a guy who can cry, who's in touch with himself. I could never have an affair with any of my leading men, though. They always turn into brothers. I'm a classic turn-them-into-brothers kind of girl."
Fear: "Oh, God ‑- I fear everything. New characters, new parts, first days of filming and premieres always terrify the life out of me. And horses. Small things terrify me: If I go out, I never know what to say. I always feel self-conscious. I'm shit at socializing, and also dealing with crowds. I don't like to stand around and pretend I'm a lady."
Insecurity: "Look that up in the dictionary: 'For insecurity, see Keira Knightley.' Constant insecurity. I have insecurities about the way I look, the way I act, not being a good friend...like when I'm away and don't keep in touch. I'm not good with phones, and I don't have email ‑- I can't use a computer ‑- so not being in touch is completely my fault. I woke up one morning recently and realized I hadn't spoken to my best friend for a month and a half. She had split up with her previous boyfriend and already gotten another one, and I didn't know about any of it."
Childhood: "Dollhouses were a big thing in my childhood. I was always making up stories, playing with them for hours. I guess that's why I'm an actress: I never stopped wanting to play. I even had a Pride and Prejudice dollhouse that had little porcelain girls living in it, and that was my favorite. The one scruffy girl was sometimes Jo from Little Women and sometimes Lizzie Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, depending on my mood."
School: "School was interesting because I always wanted to act, but if my grades dropped, I wasn't allowed to. It was hard to focus on being there. It was hard to make the effort to fit in. I mean, in many ways I did fit in ‑- I had a great group of friends, and I'm still friends with a lot of them now, but part of me didn't fit in. I had dyslexia, but by the time I was in secondary school, it was pretty much a thing of the past."
Triumph: "Triumph was getting a good grade in math, because I always found it so hard. A good grade in English or spelling was a huge triumph. You can never measure your triumphs against anybody else's ‑- they've got to be personal ones. And triumph can be simple, like the bloody good roast potatoes I made the other night when my friends came over. My biggest triumph yet was getting my part in The Jacket, because the director originally said he didn't want me."
Love: "It's nice to feel wanted, like you're being chased. It's hard to have a relationship when I'm working so much, though. But then you have to think, What is actually important in life? Is career your only thing? If it is, then it's easy, but if it isn't, that's sad, because there's going to come a day when you're left lonely. It's a difficult compromise. I think you've got to strive for balance. It's the striving that counts. If you're someone like me, who has always been very driven, to suddenly step back and decide, 'Well, love is the only thing,' then you need to build up your relationships."
Outrage: "Rudeness outrages me, professionally and personally. Things on a bigger scale going on in the world also constantly outrage me ‑- turn on the news to see. But small things outrage me, too, like seeing a group of kids picking on one kid. I'm constantly outraged and constantly doing very little about it, which is actually an outrage in itself."
Life goals: "Happiness is my life goal. 'Keep on learning' is a good goal. Never get stagnant."
Frustration: "Fear frustrates me, and it also drives me. More than anything, I get frustrated with myself."
Body love/hate: "I like so many other people's bodies. I like legs ‑- I don't like my legs. I hate my legs. I like my stomach, but it's really annoying because apparently, now, you're not allowed to show your stomach, because it's considered vulgar and fashion magazines say you can't anymore. But I don't have any tits, so I can't show cleavage. Maybe I'm body dysmorphic. What am I going to show? The only part I really like is my stomach."
Exercise: "The only thing I do is sit in front of the TV and do tons of situps. It's easy for me. I'm supposed to do squats, but I don't like those. I don't like running, either. I tried yoga for the first time when I was doing Pirates, but I got quite frustrated with it because of all that breathing. It stresses me out; it doesn't relax me."
Food: "I'm a big foodie. In my family life, all good things revolve around the dinner table. My mum's cooking is great. We have big dinners, and big everything. There's nothing like a really good chip [French fry], a really crunchy, good chip. And I love pasta. I make Bolognese with tons and tons of Parmesan cheese. The other night, a friend was teaching me how to make an eggplant bake. I brought it out of the oven in this beautiful bowl ‑- and dropped it. It smashed all over the kitchen, and I burst into tears! But 10 minutes later we were laughing about it. I mean, if I were Nigella Lawson, I would have licked it off the floor very seductively as opposed to bursting into tears."