Keira Knightley plays a queen who fights like a king

Movies: on screen, DVD/ Video

July 08, 2004|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It's good to be the queen.

Or to be King Arthur's queen, Guinevere, at least, right?

Well, maybe it's just good to be a blue-painted warrior princess who runs around beating up boys all day.

Whatever, Keira Knightley is clearly having a blast.

And why shouldn't she? The 19-year-old English actress became her country's hottest export last year with attention-getting roles in the soccer saga Bend It Like Beckham, the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and the all-star romantic roundelay Love, Actually.

Now she's back as a sword-fighting, arrow-slinging, guerrilla grrl Guinevere in King Arthur, a film that tries to trace what became the legend of Camelot to its possible real origins. In this speculative but fantasy-free version, which opened yesterday, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a British Roman who can't wait to get off the godforsaken island and back to the Eternal City; the Knights of the Round Table are Sarmatian horse soldiers from the Black Sea steppes; and Merlin and Guinevere are called Woads, probably an amalgam of Picts and Celts and other longtime enemies of the empire.

But when a merciless army of German Saxons lands to the north of Hadrian's Wall, the factions that had been squabbling for nearly half a millennium must unite against the common threat. And Guinevere gets to do some serious damage.

"Loved it!" the perpetually chirpy Knightley chirped when asked about all the fighting in the movie. "I did three months' training before we started. That consisted of a lot of weight lifting for me, to try and just bulk me out. Then I also did horse riding - even though I never got to ride a horse in the film - sword fighting, ax fighting, knife fighting, archery and boxing classes. So it was pretty athletic.

"It's not every day you get to learn all those ridiculous skills," says the tall and lissome actress, who admits that when she's not training for a movie nothing can coax her to go to the gym.

"The Picts and the Celts were matriarchal societies. So women were absolutely leaders and warriors on equal standing with the men. So my character had to be totally like that with all the guys, and I wanted to make absolutely sure that she looked like she'd been fighting like that since she was tiny.

"It was a bit like being an 11-year-old in the playground," she says. "So I suppose I did love it; maybe a bit too much, but nobody got hurt, so it was fine."

Knightley is trying, there, to get her head around the suggestion that she might have blown off some personal anger and resentment in the movie fights. She can't, though, probably because she has very little to be angry about.

Well, yes, there was her mother's, playwright Sharman MacDonald's, refusal to get little Keira an acting agent when she first requested one at the age of 3 (her dad is actor Will Knightley). Three years later, though, when it was discovered that Keira had dyslexia, a deal was struck.

"That year, she said to me, `If you work all through the summer holidays, come to me with a book in your hands and a smile on your face, then I'll get you an agent at the end of it,'" Keira recalls. "And I did, and she did."

She started acting professionally within a few years. And there were some notable roles - Lara in a television Doctor Zhivago, Queen Amidala's body double in Star Wars: Episode I - before Knightley's big year hit.

But even sudden fame has been pretty smooth sailing.

"It's very flattering," she says of the attention. "For that month, absolutely. And it'll be somebody else next month, which is cool. This is a profession where you get blown up and blown down in a second. You've just got to enjoy it for what it is and move on when it goes. Yeah, it's lovely, but it is a puff of smoke and that's OK."

Obviously, Knightley has that rare star ability to not take stardom too seriously. But don't think she's not serious about her job.

"Keira is a throwback, I think. She's such a lady to be so young," says King Arthur director Antoine Fuqua. "I'd be cracking jokes with her one minute, then she gets on the screen and this focused woman comes out of her."

Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who plays Lancelot (and is part of a triangle completely different from the legend's standard romantic one with Arthur and Guinevere), was equally amazed by the way Knightley comported herself on the movie's Irish locations last summer.

"What I was impressed with was that Keira was this young girl with the world at her feet last summer, and it didn't faze her at all," Gruffudd says. "I'm just sort of envious of her."

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