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Tough enough

Keira Knightley has overcome childhood challenges -- including dyslexia -- to become an actress. Yet the 20-year-old says she can't be a role model.

NEW YORK -- Keira Knightley smiles like an angel and curses like a sailor.

She guiltily confesses to spending a fortune on an Armani jacket, then proudly stretches out an armful of colored bangles she purchased from a street vendor for $5 each.

Knightley is a bundle of insecurities and contradictions, but why wouldn't she be? She's 20 and, despite living in the public eye, says she's in no hurry to grow up.

''It's weird," says Knightley, who stars as Elizabeth Bennet in ''Pride and Prejudice," which opens Friday. ''I have people telling me I'm a role model. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life. Don't turn a 20-year-old into a role model because we're going to make mistakes. How could you not? You'd be a freak if you didn't."

If Knightley is flawed, as she claims, it's difficult to figure out exactly how. Sure, she's dyslexic, which made reading a tremendous challenge for her when she was growing up, but, as it turns out, she says, the struggle made her tougher and taught her how far tenacity could take her.

At the age of 3 she asked for an agent, because her mother, a playwright, and her father, an actor, each had representation. ''They had agents calling the house all the time and I thought it was unfair that I didn't have one," Knightley says.

After she was diagnosed with dyslexia at 6 1/2, her mother told her she could acquire an agent if she read each day of her summer vacation.

''And then it was 'OK, if you keep up your grades and improve your grades, you're allowed to act during summer holidays, but if you drop your grades you're not allowed to act and go up for parts,' " she says.

With her lifelong dream of acting dangling before her, Knightley was unstoppable.

''I was so single-minded about acting," Knightley says. ''I drove myself into the ground trying to get over dyslexia and when I finished school I had the top grades."

By the time she was 15 the job offers were coming in regularly and she left school to pursue acting. Two years later, she starred with Parminder Nagra in ''Bend It Like Beckham" and her movie career got its kickoff.

''Do I regret having left school at that point? Of course," Knightley says. ''One thing I regret is not having that friendship group that you build up at university. Because it means you're kind of out on your own and you haven't gone through that growing-up process with people around you. But equally, I think I would have regretted it a hell of a lot more if I hadn't gone with what my dream had been for so damned long. I had to try my luck. But I do sometimes feel really stupid for not having gotten that higher education."

It's amazing Knightley has time to second-guess herself, given her schedule. She's currently filming back-to-back sequels to ''Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," in which she starred in 2003. This year, in addition to starring in ''Pride and Prejudice," she appeared opposite Adrian Brody in ''The Jacket," directed by John Maybury, and with Mickey Rourke in ''Domino," directed by Tony Scott.

Knightley says she was disappointed that ''The Jacket" was not a success. ''It's a really good movie and it just didn't capture people's imaginations," she says. ''You never know what people are going to go for and what they aren't. It's an unforeseeable thing. I don't even know what my next movie after 'Pirates' is going to be."

In addition to her occasional frustration with filmgoers and critics, Knightley has also found some other aspects of fame to be unsettling.

''When I'm in Britain -- where the paparazzi are 10 times worse than they are here -- sometimes I think, 'It's not worth it,' " she says. ''I love what I do, but feeling like I'm living in a fishbowl isn't doing it for me. So you've got to know what your limits are and when to walk away. It would be a hard decision to make, but if it went too far, I'd have to because I couldn't take it."

But before she walks away from the limelight, Knightley says she wants to try her hand at the theater, if for no other reason than to prove that she can do it.

''It terrifies me, especially if you get really bad reviews and you know it's bad and you have to keep doing it every single night," Knightley says. ''Yes, the prospect is terrifying, but it absolutely has to be done."

If Knightley is prone to take inventory of her fears and worries, she also says she does not lose sight of the fact that fame has allowed her to live in a style that didn't seem possible when she was growing up.

''Because I come from a family where they're all self-employed, there was a lot of grafting and dodging and weaving," she says. ''You never knew where your next job would come from. It could be a day away. It could be a month away. From a very young age, I always wanted to chip in. I wanted to help, I didn't want to be a burden -- not that I ever was."

Of course, with her rising success, Knightley has gained perspective on the power and limitations of money.

''You need people who love you and who you love. And this is why you actually work, because when Christmas comes you can have a damned great time and don't have to worry about things," she says. ''You work because you can make people happy. And you need to know people are there, not because of what you do, but because they're your people."

Without her people -- her family and a few close friends -- Knightley says she'd be lost. Despite the frenetic pace of her work days, she says, the quiet downtime can be painful.

''I don't go to parties, it scares me," she says. ''I get really, really self-conscious at these socializing events. I don't know what to do with my knees and I don't know who to talk to and I don't know what to talk to them about."

So when she's not working and on the road, there's not much for Knightley to do but think.

''I'm 20 and I've been pretty much traveling for the last four years and it gets really lonely," Knightley says. ''You know, you come to these beautiful hotels and you're too scared to leave them so you sit there ordering room service and watching television and saying, 'This is awful.' I don't know what I'm hiding from -- I honestly don't know."

Visits from her mother or talks with close friends are the only things that can pull her out of her funk, Knightley says. And now she has a new group of friends she can rely on to tell her the truth and make her laugh. According to Knightley and ''Pride and Prejudice" director Joe Wright, the women who played the Bennet sisters bonded like college roommates.

''Keira was extraordinary," Wright says during a telephone interview from Boston. ''She's one of the most focused and detail-oriented actors I've ever worked with. And she was a leader on the set. Two of the younger sisters had never acted before -- they looked to Keira for leadership and Keira looked out for them and made sure they were OK."

Uh-oh. Sounds dangerously close to being a role model.

Judy Abel can be reached at Jabel1000@aol.com.

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