The Stunning Transformation Of Keira Knightley

One of the most recognizable actors of her generation, Keira Knightley has been captivating audiences for decades. She's starred in some of the biggest films of the 21st century, including the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, holiday film "Love Actually," and what is arguably the best screen adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" to date. The British star is noted not just for her talent but for her beauty, coming out on the top of FHM's 100 Sexiest Women in the World poll in 2006, according to the Evening Standard.

While Knightley came to prominence in the 2000s, her career actually dates back to the '90s with her first role in a 1993 episode of the TV show "Screen One." She has changed a lot over her decades-long career, evolving from a starlet into an international icon all while keeping firmly grounded in spite of her fame. Today, Knightley is still taking the acting industry by storm and is also a wife and mother; here's a closer look at how she's transformed over the years.

She knew she wanted an agent at the age of 3

Some people struggle for years to figure out what they want to do with their lives, while others are blessed to know exactly what they want to do from a young age. Knightley falls into the latter category. During early childhood, as a 3-year-old, she told her parents that she wanted to have an agent of her very own. Her mother, Sharman Macdonald, is an actress and writer, and her dad, Will Knightley, is an actor, so she knew her career would have something to do with the creative field. Knightley explained to the Independent that agents "were always phoning the house and I answered the phone ... and it was quite exciting when they phoned up."

Knightley wasn't allowed to get an agent until she was 7 years old, but she found early success in small roles and was just 8 years old when she landed her first TV gig. Following her role as Angela in an episode of "Screen One," she landed other small appearances in shows and films over the next few years, including "The Bill," "Innocent Lies," and "The Treasure Seekers."

She was diagnosed with dyslexia as a kid

While Knightley started acting as a kid, school was always her top priority. Her parents made sure that acting didn't take over her life; Knightley told the Independent that she wasn't allowed to take on "anything that would mean I missed too much school," which limited her to small jobs over her summer breaks.

Not being allowed to act as often served two purposes. It allowed her to have a normal childhood, but it also gave her an incentive to manage her dyslexia, which she was diagnosed with as a child. "The head teacher [of my school] told them [my parents], 'Get her to do [acting] but tell her she is not allowed to do it unless the grades go up,'" she explained, adding that if her grades suffered her parents wouldn't let her audition for roles. "It was that that led to the getting over [of the dyslexia] and starting to read and working very hard," she said.

She was a tomboy growing up

Today, Knightley is a glamorous movie star whose beauty and grace have made her well-known all over the world, but before she was an A-lister she was just your average tomboy. In an interview with The Guardian, she opened up about her tween years, which were highlighted by refusing to wear skirts, demanding that her school let girls play football (to which the school eventually gave in), and idolizing Al Pacino who she watched repeatedly in "The Godfather." 

Knightley explained that her tomboy behavior was about more than just rejecting gender norms. It was also about defying the limitations placed on women in show business, something she became aware of from an early age. "The great parts are the guys' parts," she said. "You don't want to be the pretty girl in the corner or the mum being lovable and supportive. Of course, when you grow up you are, but you still want to have the adventures."

She was cast in Star Wars: Episode I

After years of small appearances in shows and films, Knightley landed a major motion picture with 1999's "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace" playing the handmaiden Sabé at 12 years old.

It may have been a major role for Knightley, but she didn't seem to have had the best time on set. According to Games Radar, in an interview with Total Film, she revealed that she doesn't remember much about her role in the film, apart from having to wear an uncomfortable headdress and not having a lot to do as a background character. She even nodded off at one point, saying, "I couldn't keep my eyes open."

In an interview with Coming Soon (via Inside Magic) Knightley admitted that she didn't remember her character's name, thinking she had portrayed Padme. "Do you know, I saw the film once when ... I think I was 12 when I did it, and I saw it the year after, and I've never seen it again," she said.

Bend It Like Beckham was her big break

While Knightley did rack up a few more acting credits in her early teens after starring in "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace," notably as Rose Fleming in the 1999 miniseries adaptation of "Oliver Twist," it wasn't until 2002's "Bend It Like Beckham" that she truly established herself as a contender in the acting game. The indie film — about a young Indian British teenager who defies her parents and joins a semi-pro soccer team — is still a fan favorite today, holding an exceptional Tomatometer score and brought in $76 million, according to Elle.

In the movie, Knightley played Jules, the best friend and teammate of protagonist Jess Bhamra. While it was her first major role, her performance was panned by critics. Rolling Stone, however, noted that she was "a real hottie." Knightley wasn't hurt by the criticism, telling Radio Times that it was well deserved. "I didn't go to drama school, so I didn't get the training," she said, according to The Guardian. "It was difficult to get over that: 'What am I doing? I'm pretending that I can do this and everybody's telling me I can't."

Pirates of the Caribbean made her a household name

"Bend It Like Beckham" made Knightley a known star, but it was her role as Elizabeth Swann in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise that quickly made her a household name. In 2003, she joined the franchise for its first film, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," and also voiced the narrator in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" video game that same year.

The film was a major win for Knightley's career, but she had no idea how successful it would become when she was first cast in it. Richard Curtis, who directed Knightley in "Love Actually" (also released in 2003) recalled in the Radio Times that Knightley told him during filming that her next project was "some pirate thing — probably a disaster," something we know now couldn't have been further from the truth.

Becoming a household name at 18 was a mixed bag for Knightley, who struggled with the pressure of being so well known. However, she said she wouldn't change anything, telling Variety, "I'm unbelievably lucky now, and my career is in a place where I really enjoy it, and I have a level of fame that's much less intense. I can deal with it now, and that's great. But at the time, it was not so great, and took many years of therapy to figure it out."

Knightley went on to reprise the role of Elizabeth Swann in three more "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. 

Being nominated for an Oscar proved her talent to the world

In spite of her early success, Knightley wasn't always taken seriously at the start of her acting career. She had several roles under her belt by the time she reached her teens, but many people thought that she was just a beautiful woman who had lucked into her career. Even worse, the negativity led to Knightley doubting her own talent. "For ages and ages, everybody was going, 'Oh, she's just a pretty face. She absolutely can't act,'" she told Elle. "And I was always going, 'Well, maybe they're right; I don't know.'"

Her starring role as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 film adaptation of "Pride & Prejudice" soon changed all that. Knightley was nominated for an Oscar for the role, which led to more respect for her talent. She also truly enjoyed bringing the iconic literary figure to life, telling Pop Entertainment that she identified with her "really flawed" and "very human" character.

Because of her fame, she was forced to grow up fast

Being catapulted to fame at such a young age meant that Knightley didn't get to be a regular teenager. She told Elle that her parents were happy for her success, but also concerned about what she lost by becoming so well-known while so young. "My dad always says, 'I really wish this had happened way later so you could go and be f****** nuts and nobody would care, and you could grow up,'" she said, explaining that the media judged her more harshly because of her age.

"I'm not an extrovert, so I found that level of scrutiny and that level of fame really hard," she later admitted to Variety. "It was an age where you are becoming, you haven't become, and you need to make mistakes. It's a very precarious age, particularly for women. You're in some ways still a child."

In an interview with Elle UK, she said she has no regrets about her career but also couldn't deny the impact such early fame had on her life. "Teenage years should be done privately," she admitted.

Rumors of an eating disorder followed her for years

Knightley's slim frame has led to much speculation over how she stays so thin. As she grew more famous, rumors began to fly that she was living with an eating disorder. The gossip was so widespread that she sued the Daily Mail for libel in 2006 after the tabloid ran a story of a teenager whose anorexia led to her death and also included a picture of Knightley in a bikini. According to The Guardian, the headline read "If pictures like this one of Keira carried a health warning, my darling daughter might have lived." Knightley was awarded £3,000 in damages, with the sum donated to charity.

Knightley has been adamant that she is just naturally thin, telling the press that, while her grandmother and great-grandmother had eating disorders and she takes the illness seriously, her physique is just how she is built. "I'm not saying there aren't people in the film industry that suffer from it, because I am sure that there are. But I'm quite sure I don't have it," she told People, according to HuffPost.

In her early 20s, she took a break for her mental health

The media scrutiny and her growing fame took a toll on Knightley's mental health and nearly led to her early retirement. Speaking on The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast, Knightley said she had "a mental breakdown" at 22. She said she didn't leave her house for several months at one point, and eventually needed to take a year off of acting to focus on her mental health and go to therapy after being diagnosed with PTSD.

She returned to acting after addressing her mental health, but it was a close call. Knightley told Vogue that she came nearly quit her career altogether. "I wasn't enjoying what I was doing and I felt terribly guilty about that," she said according to Metro. "I remember hating the idea that I was in a privileged position and couldn't see the point of any of it."

She married James Righton

After getting treatment for her mental health and returning to work, Knightley's professional and personal life both thrived. She landed a string of major roles including parts in the films "Never Let Me Go," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," and "Anna Karenina." She also fell in love. Knightley married musician James Righton in 2013 after two years of dating, tying the knot in a quiet ceremony at the age of 28, per Vogue UK.

Knightley takes a pragmatic view of marriage, telling Glamour that her attitude reflects her parents', joking that "they only [got married] to get a mortgage." She explained that she accepted her now-husband's proposal because "it seemed like a fun thing to do."

Her reasons for marrying Righton might have been practical — "supposing something happens to your other half and you can't get into the hospital without that legal paper?" she asked Glamour — but the two still seem happily in love and have been together now more than a decade. In an interview with Glamour UK she said, "You only get to choose one member of your family and I made a good choice. So well done, me!"

Motherhood has been a new — but rewarding — challenge

Despite her fame, Knightley leads a more relaxed life these days. She became a mom in 2015 and now shares two kids, daughters Edie and Delilah, with her husband. Her career hasn't slowed down, either. She's starred in a string of films including "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms," "Berlin, I Love You," "The Aftermath," and "Silent Night" since becoming a mom. In a 2019 interview with Balance, she said motherhood has even helped her dodge the paparazzi, joking, "There's nothing sexy about trying to control a 3-year-old. So I'm pretty much left alone now."

Of course, there are new challenges, now. Juggling a successful film career with her home life is no easy feat; Knightley told Hello Giggles that having to leave her kids for work means that "the guilt is absolutely constant." That being said, she's tired of the double standard, asking why it's only working women who are asked how they find a way to balance their careers with parenthood. "Why do we not expect a working man to be looking after their children as much as their partner is?" she demanded. "Why do we assume that they don't feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children as well?"

There's a good reason she's not afraid of aging

Growing older is something that scares a lot of us, but it can be especially frightening for women in Hollywood who battle ageism in the sexist industry. Knightley isn't worried about getting older, though. She told the Daily Mail that she hopes to age gracefully. "I walk down the street and I see women with amazing gray hair and the lines on their face and I think it's the story of their life and I love it and I feel empowered by it and that's what I want to be when I grow up," she said.

That's not to say that she doesn't feel the rush of panic when she finds a gray hair, but that has more to do with the fact that getting older and becoming a different version of yourself can be daunting, even if you're happy with your appearance. "You think you know what your body is and what your face is, then suddenly it changes," she explained.

Overall, everything has moved on the bright side as Knightley's grown older. She's become more secure in who she is as an actress, and has learned how to handle her fame. She told Glamour UK that things started to get "better and better" in her mid-20s, adding, "Maybe you stop caring as much about where you should be going and what other people think — which is all the s*** that makes you very unhappy early on."

We can't wait to see how Knightley's career keeps evolving!