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Period films appeal to the often uneasy Knightley

| Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012, 8:51 p.m.
Actress Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright on the set of  the film, 'Anna Karenina.' (AP Photo/Focus Features)
Actress Keira Knightley and director Joe Wright on the set of the film, 'Anna Karenina.' (AP Photo/Focus Features)

After her first star turn in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Keira Knightley had more than a dozen photographers camped outside her London flat every day, poking their camera lenses into her windows.

So she became a shut-in.

“The price of images for girls going out and falling out of clubs or having any kind of mental breakdown or crashing a car was so massive,” said the actress, now 27. “So, I was like, ‘I am not going to help you. I am literally going to stay in my house, and I am not going to go out.' ”

The paparazzi began hounding her nearly a decade ago, after Knightley took on the high-profile role of Orlando Bloom's love interest in the big-budget movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Playing the female lead in the first three films catapulted her to global recognition but didn't exactly show off her acting chops. That came with 2005's “Pride & Prejudice,” where her role as Elizabeth Bennet in the adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel earned her an Oscar nomination for lead actress.

Knightley returns to the kind of movie for which she has been most celebrated — a period drama — in “Anna Karenina.” The movie marks her third collaboration with filmmaker Joe Wright, who directed her in “Pride & Prejudice” and 2007's “Atonement,” another sweeping romance, set in the 1930s.

After constantly being staked out by hordes of photographers, Knightley nearly abandoned the world of corsets and ball gowns altogether. She said her early 20s were particularly difficult: She didn't get “drunk with mates” or go to music festivals and “jump around” — “exactly what you should be doing at that age.”

She questioned her career, and even took a year off from acting just to avoid press tours.

“I just couldn't figure it out. Everything just freaked me out,” Knightley said earlier this week. “I took everything far too seriously. And then on my 25th birthday, I literally had a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, it's OK. I'm all right now. It's all right being me.' ”

Part of that realization included embracing her own taste in material — even if that led to her being pigeonholed in Hollywood.

“She has no consideration of ‘do I want to differentiate my body of work?' ” said filmmaker Massy Tadjedin, who has known Knightley since she was 18 and has worked with her twice. “That's what preserves her affection for the process, because she genuinely loves acting. But she doesn't necessarily love everything that comes with it.”

Outfitted in an expensive-looking dress she said was lent to her, Knightley readily acknowledged that she thinks she's “been labeled a period actress for years. I've had to let go and say, ‘Well, I just like them. I find them more interesting.' ”

As a young girl struggling with dyslexia, Knightley listened to a handful of books on tape, many of which were historic literary works from authors such as Austen and Charles Dickens. The appeal of the stories lay in hearing about fantastic worlds foreign to her, though the draw to period dramas has shifted as she's aged.

“It's not that I think, ‘Oh, those dresses are pretty and that must have been romantic,' because I don't think not having medicine and electricity and no flushing toilets is that romantic,” she said. “It's that the more interesting female roles are usually offered in period films. In modern films, often females are either hyper, hyper, hyper-sexualized, or projecting a kind of femininity that I do not recognize at all.”

In the latest screen adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's classic 1870s tale, Knightley plays an Anna Karenina who is arguably more unlikable than she is sympathetic. After she cheats on her devoted-but-stoic husband Karenin (Jude Law), Anna struggles with whether to abandon her marriage and her child to be with her younger lover, Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

But Knightley isn't “trying to be liked all the time,” says Wright. “It's an age-old issue for stars — are they trying to only play roles which are kind of lovable so the audience will therefore love them? But for Keira, it's not about a popularity contest.”

Presented with the notion that moviegoers might associate Knightley with her character's more unseemly attributes, the actress was perplexed.

“Likable is such a calm emotion,” she said. “I really don't worry about an audience liking me or not.”

Amy Kaufman is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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