When it came to casting Queen Padme and her handmaiden doubles in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the filmmakers did almost too good a job. When George Lucas chanced upon two teen actresses of astonishing resemblance – Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley – to play Padme and Sabé in The Phantom Menace, he left them with a lasting association.
To this day, Knightley and Portman – who individually went on to spectacular Hollywood careers – are often listed among uncanny celebrity doppelgangers. Behind the scenes on The Phantom Menace, the crew and even the girls’ own mothers had a hard time telling Knightley and Portman, respectively aged 12 and 16 during the shoot, apart.
Born in Jerusalem in 1981, and subsequently raised in Washington, DC and New York, Natalie Portman found one of her earliest gigs in the off-Broadway show Ruthless! (1992), in which she and Britney Spears were the understudies for the show’s star Laura Bell Bundy.
Portman soon progressed to movies including Léon: The Professional (1994) and Heat (1995), but she became world-famous in 1997 when she was cast as Queen Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequel films – a choice that came as a surprise to the young actress.
“I definitely didn’t actively pursue this role at all,” Portman has since noted, “but I just met with the casting director like on any other film and just talked to her, and then I met George [Lucas] and talked to him, and I got the part. I hadn’t seen the films until it was offered to me, so I really wasn’t aware of what Star Wars was at all.”
Many of Portman’s scenes were shot in Algeria, where she was teamed up with an army of on-screen body doubles. Among them was Keira Knightley, an English actor four years Portman’s junior. Knightley would play Sabé, one of Padmé’s favourite decoys, with Portman’s voice ultimately dubbed over Knightley’s dialogue.
With the ornate costumes and dramatic makeup, combined with their close facial similarities, Knightley and Portman were constantly mixed up during filming. Knightley has since described the confusing experience: “I didn’t know what I was doing because it was so secret I didn’t have a script. I saw the film when I was 13 and I still didn’t know what was going on.”
In a 2020 interview, Knightley forgot whether she played Padme or Sabé – but she wasn’t the only one who confused the two. “Our mums did actually confuse us on set,” Knightley later revealed in an interview with The Telegraph.
Knightley’s mother, the playwright Sharman Macdonald, was far from a typical stage mom. She herself quit acting in the 80s due to paralysing stage fright and has since typically shied away from interviews, though she has said she has no regrets about her daughter’s career choices: “Of course there are downsides, but you don’t know that when you go into it.”
For Portman, the major upset of Star Wars was not the filming experience, but the negative public reception – and the sexualisation of young stars like herself and Knightley early in their careers, at which time they would constantly be sent up for the same parts.
As a teenager, Knightley was keenly aware of how similar she looked to other young stars including Portman. Aged 18, she commented to SPIN: “There are lots of brown-eyed, brown-haired actresses, three of whom I run into at every audition, since we’re always up for the same roles.”
However, as an adult, Knightley benefits from one difference from her peers: her height. At 1.7m, she is 10 centimetres taller than Portman. However, fans to this day confuse Knightley with Portman, who recovered from the Star Wars prequels backlash to star in V for Vendetta (2005), Black Swan (2010) and the biographical drama Jackie (2016).
“Natalie Portman I get [confused with still] a lot, and I get chased through airports,” Knightley noted in 2014. “I feel quite sorry for her because she must get chased a lot because it’s happened like five times where someone’s been like, Natalie! Natalie! Natalie!’ And I’ll sign and take a picture as Natalie.”
Knightley, who became one of the highest-earning British actresses thanks to her role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in the 00s, has also referred to her other Hollywood doppelgangers, including Anne Hathaway.
Portman is also happy to make light of her shared features with other stars. In 2020, she took part in the Dolly Parton Challenge on social media, in which she playfully acknowledged her resemblance to Knightley, Giada De Laurentiis, Emily Ratajkowski and Millie Bobby Brown.