Keira Knightley In Conversation | BAFTA New York
In conversation with Keira Knightley
Keira Knightley and I are sitting in a café talking about our Uber ratings. When you order an Uber cab, the driver gives you a score out of five stars at the end of a journey. The lower the rating, the less likely you are to get picked up. "How do you find out your rating?" Knightley asks, midway through a croissant and a cup of English Breakfast tea. You can follow a link on the app, I say. She visibly shudders. "I don't want it," she says, shaking her head. "I don't want to know." I tell her that the last time I checked, mine was lower than I thought in spite of the fact that I'm always scrupulously polite. I think, I say, it's because... "You don't chat?" Exactly. "No, I don't talk," agrees Knightley. "So I must have a shit Uber rating." She pauses. "I think I'm OK with that."
You can understand why. Keira Knightley is 31. For half of her life, she has been in the public eye. She had an agent at the age of six and won her breakout leading role inBend It Like Beckhamat 16. Since then, she has become one of the most famous women on the planet.
Her film career has been varied and stellar, running the gamut of genres. She has starred in period drama (Pride & Prejudice), action (Domino), independent films (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), rom-coms (Love Actually), big-budget blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean) and high-brow literary adaptations (Atonement). She is about to appear alongside Will Smith and Helen Mirren inCollateral Beauty, the story of an advertising executive whose colleagues devise a plan to help him through the aftermath of a personal tragedy.
On stage, too, Knightley is an arresting presence. When she appeared inThe Children's Hourby Lillian Hellman in the West End five years ago, critics hailed her performance as "excellent" and "deeply affecting". And earlier this year she was on the Broadway stage playing the title role inThérèse Raquin, Emile Zola's tale of murder and adultery, delivering a performance that was hailed as "compelling and articulate".
In person, she is engaging, smart and funny company. She turns up to our interview on time, without fanfare, wearing a denim jumpsuit and a leather jacket, and is immediately warm and friendly.
No publicist sits in, which is almost unheard of for a star of Knightley's calibre. She is extremely nice, swears more than you might think and – yes – she is unfathomably, effortlessly beautiful.
So it's strange that, over the years, Knightley has attracted a disproportionate amount of vitriol. She has been accused of everything from pouting inappropriately on-screen to being too thin. She successfully sued theDaily Mailover allegations she had an eating disorder in 2007 – and, for the record, she doesn't look remotely anorexic.
Although a Labour supporter, she welcomes the fact that we have a female prime minister
The last time I interviewed her, six years ago, Knightley told me strangers used to fling insults at her and seemed inexplicably angry to find her in normal settings, like a pub or the supermarket. Over time, she's had to develop a protective layer against other people's opinions – and that includes being fine with not knowing what Uber drivers might think of her. "Yesterday I had two really lovely people come up to me in the street and just say how much they like my work, which almost never happens," Knightley says. The angry ones "are very odd... It feels like you're not meant to be walking down the street doing your shopping. Or they just hate your work, in which case they say, 'I hate your work.' Or they hate your face, in which case they say, 'I hate your face.' But [it's] more like a kind of jokey, 'Oh God, I've always hated you!' Or, 'I've always found your face so annoying!' I've had that quite a few times. Like, 'Oh, sorry! Sorry about that.' Yeah. So there's still a couple of those. But not as much as it was."
A lot has happened to Knightley in the years since we last met. She married her long-term partner, the Klaxons keyboardist James Righton, in the South of France in 2013, and they now have a 19-month-old daughter, Edie. Becoming a mother has made Knightley feel "properly grown-up... for me that was my moment of going, 'Whoa, I've got to keep something alive and I can barely do that for myself and how the hell am I going to do that for you?'"
She seems centred and happy, despite the sleep deprivation. Righton is "incredibly supportive"; the kind of man who goes on holiday and strikes up conversations with waiters, "and then you'll get some amazing recommendation for somewhere that is not touristy and off the beaten track... He's good at doing that. And that's a great skill."
He sounds nice, I say. "He's so nice," she says, smiling. "God, the next thing is we're going to be divorcing and it all will have gone wrong because now I've put it down in print."
That's the other thing people don't realise about Knightley: she's funny and has a horror of taking herself too seriously. Throughout our conversation, she refers to Edie simply as "the kid", as if not wanting to make too much of it all. The kid is "like a ballistic missile. She's at about a million miles an hour from the second she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep. She doesn't want you to help her to do anything. Even though she can still do very little. I mean, I take her swimming and she doesn't want me to hold her in the pool. I'm like, 'You can't swim, you will drown', and she goes crazy because I'm holding her."
Can Knightley see any of her own characteristics in her? "Yes, I remember the outrage that I wasn't allowed to work [as a child]... I didn't like feeling somebody was helping me. I wanted to be helpful, I wanted to be part of everything."
It's part of the Knightley myth that when she was growing up in Teddington, south-west London, she asked her parents, the playwright Sharman Macdonald and the actor Will Knightley, for an agent at the age of three. She grimaces at the memory. "I don't know if it'll be an agent, but I'm pretty sure that Edie will feel like that."
Is Knightley still so ambitious? "I'm very ambitious and totally ambivalent at exactly the same time," she says. "I do periods where I work a lot and then... it has to go to absolute nothingness."
Edie is a bit of a tomboy: if she's in a playground she will gravitate towards the boys rather than the girls. Knightley, too, remembers clambering around in her friend Charlie's treehouse and making mud pies. From the age of three until she was 14, she refused to wear skirts.
These days, Knightley is routinely pictured in designer clothes on the red carpet and stares out at us from glossy advertisements for perfume and jewellery. Is it strange to look back on her youthful disdain for dressing up? "Yeah. I feel like they're two very different people. And I quite like that. I like creating a character because that's where I feel comfortable."
It's why she prefers not to wear make-up on her days off and tends to dress down if she has a choice. "It feels like I can separate it all out a bit better."
Has her relationship with her body changed since having a baby? "It's a different body, as it should be, because it's done an extraordinary thing... I thought I was going to go, 'God, I've got to get back into shape.' I actually went completely the opposite. I went, 'Fuck that, I'm not putting that pressure on myself in any way.' So it's taken me a long time to get back into my jeans. I'm nearly there. Not quite there, but nearly there... The pressure put on women, particularly in certain magazines – you know, 'How did she get her body back?' – I think that's just revolting. I think, personally, the whole way that we're viewing women and the way that we build them up and pick them apart is really frightening. Particularly now, being the mother of a girl, and you think, 'How do you navigate that?' And I don't have the answer."
It's clear, talking to Knightley, that she is very much a woman's woman. Although a Labour supporter, she welcomes the fact that we have a female prime minister because, "I think the feminist movement needs symbols, and I think that's an important symbol. I'm not a Tory... but as a symbol, female leadership is always important."
By the same token, she thinks female celebrities should be honest about Photoshopping, and is appalled by the "huge" gender pay gap in the film industry. She claims to know of several young male actors who are just breaking through and who, despite their relative inexperience, will be paid "much, much more than I would".
Has she ever experienced overt sexism? "Yeah. 'At the moment we're not financing female-driven films' is said a lot." But what really makes her angry about the disparity between the sexes is what happens after you have a child. "One of the things that is so shocking in this country is that childcare is unbelievably expensive. It should be, it's an amazing thing if you're good at it. It's incredibly difficult, it should be well paid. But there is no option for a woman to go back to work unless she's being paid really, really well and can afford full-time care before [her child can] get into nursery. I think I've become unbelievably aware of that and of how lucky I've been to be able to afford really good childcare, because otherwise it would be at least four years out of my career. I wouldn't be able to get back to where I had been if I'd taken four years out. I think that's the same for most women. And I think that's really hard. I also think..." She breaks off. "Sorry, this is me sounding off."
I think the feminist movement needs symbols...female leadership is always important
No, no, I say, it's refreshing to talk to an A-list actor who isn't afraid of having an opinion. She nods, and then carries on. "I also think paternity leave should be the same as maternity leave. It's shocking. Because you need that option. And actually, when you're thinking about an employer looking at a man and a woman, and they're looking at the woman thinking, 'Well, at some point, you could take nine months or however long off, and the guy doesn't have to.' Don't tell me that that doesn't come into it! You need to be a family unit, not just have the guy there for two weeks and then go back to work and the mother left desperately trying to figure it out. I think it's archaic that there aren't better options."
She comes to a halt and leans back against the banquette, seeming almost surprised to have voiced her opinion so forcefully. Knightley left school at 16 to act. When I ask her about this, she says she still feels "the need to compensate" for her lack of further education. After an hour in her company, I don't think she does. I don't think she needs to compensate for anything. And if I were rating her, I would categorically give her five stars.
Knightley was styled by Leith Clark and shot by Alexi Lubomirski. This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
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